By: Sarah Wikenczy
Living in a monochromatic lackluster urban environment of Jerusalem filled with cars, people and a tension so thick it is palpable, we have a rather constant yearning for the next escape. Little did we know when we planned our trip to Crete, what an elixir it would turn out to be for this family. From mountains to gorges and beaches to ancient ports that dot the island, Crete offers something for everyone whether you are a hiker, rock climber, swimmer, history buff, wine connoisseur or foodie. You can experience it all on this island.
Where To Go in Crete with Kids
We flew into Heraklion (Iraklio) and rented a car to take us to our first pit stop some 45kms south and a world away. A small village called Zaros in the slopes of Mount Psilortis, the highest mountain in Crete. The drive was easy enough following the car rental map and thankfully all signs are transliterated. However, we did experience an initial hiccup locating the right highway exit and an added detour when finding the final road to our destination washed away from recent rains.
The drive was a bit longer than expected but we didn’t mind much since we were soaking in the abundance of green everywhere and watching the snow-capped mountains shift with each turn in the road which made for some unexpected and lovely scenery along small windy roads.
Elonas Traditional Cottages in Zaros
There are a number of small inns around Zaros but we opted for Eleonas traditional cottages in the slope rising beyond the village. Eleonas is a terrific find for families and the owner is on site making you feel right at home. The cottages are designed to cater to different sized families and as we are three we had a smaller room with one large and small bed, a fireplace and large Jacuzzi tub which came in handy on chilly evenings. The cottages are scattered about the property and there is a shared pool which looked lovely but a bit too cool in the season for us.
In addition, there are many amenities on site for an active family. For those with toddlers in tow, there is a small contained playground just outside the restaurant and café area as well as an indoor playroom upstairs from the restaurant. For the slightly older lot, there is a kid-sized football (soccer) pitch, a trampoline and best of all (at least for this family) mountain bikes (and helmets) to accommodate all family sizes and needs! There is a family farm on site too if one is interested one morning to go feed the animals including rabbits, turkey, goats, chickens and birds.
Exploring around Zaros
When you are ready to venture out, the owner has designed a very detailed practical map that helps you plan your stay. The map is really quite extraordinary because on one side it highlights day trips to four different parts of the island with suggested spots to visit. On the other is a detailed local map of trails to hike or bike in the mountains. No other research required. The owner provides very helpful inputs on the suggested itineraries to help determine which are appropriate for biking to which areas are currently unsafe because trails are washed away. Additionally, he has placed colored stakes along the trails so that you can find your way.
With that map in hand we were off each morning after a delicious breakfast for a long hike returning in time for a relaxing lunch and small rest before heading off again on a late afternoon bike ride sampling another route in the mountains. Each trail was different from the next but all equally beautiful. The scenery ranged from olive groves to open vistas to lakes and rock filled river beds. Ancient monasteries along the way serve as points of reference on a given trail and there are lots and lots of goats with whom you share the trails. The evenings came to an end with a delicious dinner made up of local seasonal ingredients topped off with a dessert and a shot of local raki on the house which we soon learned is the tradition in all Cretan restaurants. Needless to say, sleep came easily after days like this.
One rainy morning, we decided to have a drive and visit the southern part of the island where we stopped at Matala beach for lunch. As we sat under the covered balcony waiting for the rain to pass and observing the coast, we noted the perfectly aligned caves surrounding part of the beach. According to our waiter, the caves were ancient tombs but people later used them as shelter to stay at the beach. Apparently, the beach was discovered as a holiday destination in the 60s when discovered by Joni Mitchell, Dylan and the likes who camped out in the caves. One can only imagine the scene back then. After lunch, the rains let up and we decided to hike the Agiofarago gorge from the hill top down to the sea, a pleasant hike and in the warmer season ideal for a swim. There were a number of rock climbers there as well making use of the jagged but straight ascents up.
After four excellent days with Eleonas as our base, we headed to the northwest side of Crete for a beach excursion in the few remaining days near the ancient Venetian port of Chania. As we left Zaros, we traveled through the small mountain roads of Mount Psiloritis admiring what we thought would be the end of our hilly vistas only to discover as we began the drive across the coastal highway, that there was an even larger mountain range called the Lefka Ori (the White Mountains) on the other side of the island. Yet another unexpected and incredible backdrop as we drove along.
In Chania, we decided on a small boutique hotel called Ammos about 5km outside the main port area right on the beach. The selling point in advance was the heated pool and that the particular beach area was in a sheltered bay which provided for calm and warmer waters, a good combination for children swimming. However, the rains returned on our arrival coupled with unusual high winds, so we never ventured into the sea or the pool but it looked awfully nice.
The hotel was a small series of white washed buildings trimmed in sea blue nestled in a little neighbourhood of residences, small hotels and guest houses. The owners of this hotel have not missed a detail around the property. Everything there is well thought out and it shows. A very cozy, welcoming and also child friendly find. On the property there is a play center with a child minder on site every day during dedicated hours. The main lobby area is adjacent to the dining area creating a big comfy hang out spot where one can have a drink and snack before dinner enjoying a game or reading through the suggested nearby activities.
We managed a couple more hikes nearby including a breathtaking hike to an ancient chapel ensconced in a mountain side overlooking the sea on a peninsula northeast of Chania port. However, we spent most of our remaining few days in the port of Chania due to the inclement weather. The old Venetian port is intriguing with its rich sordid history. There are a gamut of restaurants, hotels and shops along the old cobblestone paths and it makes for a pleasant place to stroll and enjoy the atmosphere. On our itinerary was Elafonissi beach on the southwest side of the island and the Samaria Gorge directly south from Chania port. Unfortunately the wind storms prevented the beach visit and the rains had washed away the roads near the gorge preventing any hikes. Next time.
The Best Part
The beautiful scenery 365 degrees regardless of where you position yourself on the island. The combination of snow-capped mountains, green hillsides, rocky terrains and beaches creates infinite opportunities for outdoor adventure.
The delicious Cretan meals. Every morning started with the thickest creamiest yogurt drizzled with the local honey or fresh strawberries that left me wondering how I will ever eat regular yogurt again. Lunches and dinners of local fare including delectable lamb, goat and fish especially the smoked trout from the mountain lakes. Also, not to be missed is pairing these meals with the local Cretan wine.
The warm atmosphere and friendly people. When one reads the history of the island and the recurrent theme of conquer and occupy, it is amazing how welcoming the Cretans are to their visitors.
3 Things you should definitely do in Crete
1. Rent a car, stay at least a week and plan an itinerary that includes a couple different pit stops on the island. While often nice to stay in one spot on short holidays especially with children, Crete is not the spot to do it. There is too much beauty and it shouldn’t be missed.
2. Stay for at least a week, there is so much to see and do!
3. Visit more than one place. From mountains to gorges and beaches to ancient ports that dot the island, Crete offers something for everyone
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About the Author
Sarah Wikenczy works for international organisations focusing on women’s rights in conflict-affected countries. Over the past 25 years she has lived in the US, Saudi Arabia, Kenya and India with stints in Guam, Guantanamo and Egypt. Sarah, with her husband and son, currently reside in Jerusalem. In between work days, Sarah is always happily planning the next family adventure and now seems to have an enthusiastic assistant in her son who has a knack for finding the best car rental deals.