The Greek Cyclades – Exploring Central Crete

After 2 weeks, we were nearing the end of our first ever trip to Greece. Wanting to see as much as possible of this beautiful and history-filled country, we’d certainly packed a lot in. Starting in the Sporades Islands where we’d made flying visits to both Skiathos and Skopelos, we’d then spent 3 days exploring the fascinating city of Athens, sailed to the Saronic Islands and then moved on to the Cyclades making stops on Naxos, Iraklia, Koufonissi and Santorini.

Aposelimi Dam

Now on our final island destination, Crete – the largest of the Greek Islands – we had already made trips out to Chania and Rethymnom in the West and to Agios Nikolaus, Elounda and Spinalonga Island to the East of our base in the city of Heraklion. Today, we would be heading inland to Crete’s Lassithi Plateau.

Another escorted tour but this time with a difference – instead of boarding a huge coach, we would be travelling in a small group on a Jeep Safari with Crete’s Safari Club company.

Ancient Aquaduct

Meeting our guide outside our city apartments, we were once again driven out to the resorts to the east of us stopping to pick up two couples staying in the pretty resort of Analipsi. We’d be just a small group of 6 as another couple had cancelled last minute and with room in the jeep already quite sparse, we were quite glad about this!

Our guide outlined the day explaining that we’d regularly swap seats between the front and back of the jeep throughout the day to make it fair before we began our adventure.

After stopping at a viewpoint overlooking Aposelimi Dam and watching huge vultures circling overhead, we began to make our ascent upwards.

Views over Crete

Pulling over again, our guide pointed out the remnants of an ancient Roman aquaduct before we continued our climb to the traditional village of Kastamonitsa. Here, we learnt how laundry would have been done in ancient times before visiting a local cafe to sample olive oil and raki – a rather potent alcoholic beverage.

Above, the view as we made our way up the mountain, and below, visiting a goat farm

Despite it being way too early in the morning and despite not really being much of a drinker, I felt obliged to knock back the shot to accept the host’s hospitality but one was definitely enough!!

Back in the land rover and now sat up the back after a seat switch, we continued our climb driving up narrow roads with a sheer drop on the one side. This made for some spectacular views.

Our destination, at the top of the mountain, was an alpine goat farm and as we parked up and jumped out of the jeep, we were met by some friendly goats wanting to say hello! As well as greeting the goats, we learnt a bit about the farm and after seeing some of the home-made wheels of cheese produced on the farm, we got to sample some. We were even offered some more raki to wash it down with which, this time, I politely declined!

Leaving the farm, we continued along some of the ancient Minoan Trail and began our descent back down the mountain, stopping again to take in the views and get some photos.

Reaching the Lassithi Plateau, our next stop was at Vidiani Monastery where we had a bit of time to visit the 19th century church. Next up was our lunch stop and we were taken to a local restaurant where a buffet style lunch was served giving us time to chat with the rest of the group and swap stories of our time in Greece and on the island of Crete so far.

After lunch, we made our way to one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Lassithi Plateau, the Cave of Diktaion Andron, also referred to as the Psychro Cave or Cave of Zeus as legend has it that this was the cave where Zeus, the king of the ancient Greek gods, was born.

Above, views over Lassithi Plateau from the entrance to the Cave of Zeus, and below, inside the cave.

After hearing the rather grisly story of his birth, we were dropped in the car park for the cave from where we had to climb a steep, uneven path to the cave’s entrance. After paying a small entrance fee, we headed down the steps into the dark cave, following a well lit path to look around before walking back downhill to our awaiting guide and land rover.

Birds in the fields of the Lassithi Plateau

The day now almost at an end, we drove through the Lassithi Plateau past farms and fields and even some old Greek windmills before reaching our final stop of the day in the town of Krasi.

Here, as well as finding yet another ancient laundry, we saw the oldest Plain Tree on the island, thought to have stood there for almost 2500 years.

Another ancient laundry

After taking photos with and of the tree, it was back into the land rover one last time as we were taken back to our various resorts.

The day had been really fun and it was interesting to see another side of Crete away from it’s resorts and Venetian port cities and towns.

Once back in Heraklion, we made our now daily trek into the main town finding a local restaurant to have dinner at followed by an ice cream and a wander down to the sea front as the sun started to set.

The following day, we would be flying out of Crete – and Greece – and returning to the UK but as our flights weren’t until late evening, we had the day free to explore more in the local area.

Above, and below, visiting the Archaeological site of the Palace of Knossos

We began our day with a walk to the local bus station where we caught the bus out to the Palace of Knossos. After reading advice on line, we had pre-booked tickets into the site and after seeing the huge line at the entrance, were glad we had. The Palace of Knossos is famous for it’s links to Greek mythology as beneath it, is where the labyrinth containing the Minotaur is said to have been.

The site was discovered in the late 19th century and excavated in the early 20th century. Unlike other archaeological sites we’d seen while in Greece, parts of the palace had been restored to show what they could have looked like in ancient Minoan times. We actually felt this took away from the site a bit although at the same time, it was interesting to see how it would have been. We were surprised at how busy the site was and it reminded us of our visit to the Acropolis in Athens a week or so before.

Despite booking an early timeslot, we had to queue to see some of the indoor areas and often had long waits to get the front of a viewing platform to see some of the ruins which spoilt our visit a bit. A late afternoon or early evening visit might have been a quieter time to go if we had had the time to fit it in then.

Artefacts at Heraklion Archaeological Museum

We had booked a combo ticket for the Palace of Knossos which also included entrance to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum so after leaving the Palace of Knossos, we caught the bus back into Heraklion city. The museum contains many of the artefacts found during excavations of the Palace of Knossos and gives a bit more background to the site so it’s definitely worth visiting both.

There were also plenty of other relics from archaeological sites around Crete including some from the Cave of Zeus we had visited the previous day.

Above, and below, exploring Heraklion

We still had some time left before needing to make our way to the airport that evening so following our visit to the museum, we spent some time walking through the streets of Heraklion city, stopping for some lunch at one of the many cafes tucked away down its backstreets, souvenir shopping at its markets and admiring its fountains and churches.

Above, Rocca a Mare Fortress, and below, wandering along the Venetian harbour of Heraklion

Our stay in Heraklion wouldn’t be complete without a walk to its Venetian Harbour so before making our way to the airport, we battled the howling wind to walk along the sea wall to Rocca a Mare Fortress and back.

Then, it was time to say goodbye to Heraklion, the island of Crete and Greece itself as our summer adventure came to an end. We had packed a lot into our 2-and-a-bit weeks in this amazing country but there is still so much to see and I hope to return one day.

The Greek Cyclades – East Crete and Spinalonga Island

The lake at Agios Nikolaus

We were coming to an end of our 2-and-a-bit weeks exploring Greece. But after island hopping in the Sporades, visiting archaeological sites aplenty in Athens, a day in the Saronic Gulf, enjoying the beautiful islands of Naxos, Iraklia and Koufonissi, hiking around Santorini and a day spent on the West coast of Crete, we still had much to pack in.

With a few more nights left on our final destination, the largest of the Greek islands, Crete, we would today be heading to the east of the island on another organised excursion on which we would eventually get the chance to explore the former leper colony of Spinalonga Island.

The town’s seafront

Our island base in the city of Heraklion was the first pick up of the day for the trip meaning a rather early start followed by a long morning sat on board the coach as we picked up passengers from the many popular coastal resorts east of us – multiple stops at hotels in the resorts of Gouves, Analipsi, Heronissos and, of course, Malia.

Having never been to Crete before, this did at least give me chance to size up the different towns and resorts and see which I might consider should I return to Crete for a more relaxing break one day!

Pick ups done and our tour guide for the day on board the coach, we finally got on our way towards out first stop of the day, the picturesque town of Agios Nikolaus. Along the way our guide explained that the coastal town’s main attraction was its lake which is now joined to the sea via a canal and that the bridge spanning the canal is the most photographed place in town.

The bridge across the canal connecting the lake to the sea

Having not had anything except a small bowl of cereal for breakfast hours and hours ago, we were rather hungry by the time we arrived so after being dropped by the small port, we spent the first part of our free time in the town looking for a cafe or bakery to grab a pastry or sweet snack from.

Mission accomplished, we made our way to the pretty lake where we sat eating our pastries before walking back towards the seafront.

The canal connecting the lake to the sea

After walking along the seafront, we returned to the port and taking photos with the canal bridge before wandering through the town eventually finding ourselves at a small but popular pebbly cove.

Then, taking photos with a couple of unusual sculptures which our tour guide had pointed out to us on the way in, we made our way back to the coach.

Above, and below, in the town of Elounda

Next up was the town of Elounda from where we would later be taking the boat to Spinalonga Island. First though, some free time to get some lunch. We chose a small cafe overlooking the front offering reasonably priced sandwiches and toasties and opted to sit inside to take advantage of some aircon for a bit.

After lunch, we had a quick walk around town before meeting back up with our guide and the rest of the group in time to make our boat’s departure time.

It was a short trip across the sea to Spinalonga Island, our guide giving us some background information along the way and I was surprised to learn just how recently it had been an active leper colony – the last inhabitant not leaving the island until 1962.

After docking at the island, we joined the short queue to buy entrance tickets and, at the advice of our guide, made our way around in a clockwise direction. While there were some information boards along the way round, we felt there could have been more along with a suggested route as there were a few paths leading off the main one up to view points and other buildings along the way.

On Spinalonga Island

We chose to stay on the main path to ensure we’d complete the full loop in the hour time frame we had before needing to be back on the boat but as this turned out to be more than enough time, we then used our tickets to re-enter and take some of the paths to see other parts of the island.

It was definitely an interesting place to visit and a bit different from the ancient archaeological sites we’d mainly seen on our trip to Greece.

On our way back to Elounda, our boat docked out at sea for anyone who wanted to do a spot of open sea swimming. Luckily, I’d remembered my swim suit so took a quick dip to cool off.

Once back in Elounda, we were given a bit of time to get any refreshments we needed for the trip back then it was back on the coach to once again drive through the various resorts dropping off passengers until we finally reached Heraklion again.

We spent the evening again wandering up into town for dinner followed by a walk along the main shopping street looking for souvenirs and an ice cream from one of the many delicious-looking dessert stores in town.

Tomorrow would be our last full day of our holiday and we had yet another excursion planned, this time into the centre of the island on a jeep safari and then with late flights home meaning we’ had most of the following day to spend have most of the day to spare, we planned to spend the following day in Heraklion and the surrounding area exploring a bit more.

The Greek Cyclades – West Crete

It had been a busy (almost) two weeks travelling through Greece, starting with a couple of nights in the Sporades followed by a city break in Athens, a day sailing between three of the Saronic Islands, beginning our visit to the Cyclades with some time in Naxos, Iraklia and Koufonissi and then onto Santorini. Now, after yet a rather chaotic ferry experience, we were heading to our final island base, the largest of the Cyclades – Crete.

Arriving into the port of Heraklion quite a few hours later than planned due to ferry delays, we made the short walk to our city apartment block which would be our island base for the next 4 nights. With darkness already descending outside, we walked into the town centre to grab something to eat from a Greek fast food-style restaurant before returning for a quiet night in.

Wanting to see as much of Crete as possible, we had chosen Heraklion due to its central position on the north coast of Crete and had made plans to take excursions to different parts of the island from here over the next few days.

Fountain in the main square of Chania

First up was a trip to West Crete. We were met by a company representative at a pick up point close to our accommodation the next morning and driven to a main road where we joined a coach load of people already on board.

The old Mosque in Chania

Being the most westerly pick up point that day meant we were last on – the positive of that being we hadn’t had to get up too early and hadn’t spent hours sat on board making stop after stop picking up more passengers, the negative that it was a full coach and the last few seats were at opposite ends of the bus from each other.

Taking the last seat in the middle of the very back seat between two sets of strangers wasn’t ideal, especially as it seemed they’d been some of the first to board and had therefore been up since the early hours. Unable to keep there eyes open, I found my shoulders regularly becoming cushions for them to rest upon!

Walking along the sea front in Chania

It was still a couple of hours drive from Heraklion to our first stop in the city of Chania. The journey was broken up with a convenience stop at a roadside cafe and our guide kept us entertained with an informative commentary as we travelled.

Once in Chania, we were given a decent amount of free time to explore although it was lunch time and when we factored in finding somewhere to eat, this did drain into our time to explore quite a bit.

Above, and below, views strolling along the sea wall in Chania

From the coach park, we made our way through the pretty narrow streets at the back of the town and then out to the main square where a former Mosque (now used as an exhibition space) stood right on the water’s edge. We made our way around the sea wall out towards Chania lighthouse in the distance, from where there were impressive views of Chania’s beautiful Venetian harbour.

Back on the main seafront in Chnaia

This turned out to be a longer walk than we’d anticipated forcing us to turn back just before reaching the lighthouse itself and make our way back to the seafront. Lined with shops an restaurants, the promenade was bustling with seas of tourists enjoying the sunshine and pretty views.

We chose one of the many restaurant cafes to sit out at and ordered some toasties and drinks and then it was time to walk back towards the Venetian fortress which was our maker for finding the coach again.

Above, and below, Lake Kournas

An hour later we reached the second stop of the day, Lake Kournas. For those who could hold out for food, our guide had recommended eating here at one of the restaurants with a rooftop patio overlooking the lake but apart from hunger, we had had another reason for wanting to eat in Chania – we wanted to hire a pedalo during our free time at the lake!!

Strolling along the shore at Lake Kournas

This was a really pretty spot with the bright blue water of the lake surrounded by mountains.

Not wanting to hire the boats for the full hour being advertised, we took our guide’s advice to haggle with the vendors for a deal on a shorter amount of time and we soon found ourselves clambering into a pedal-powered boat and setting off for the middle of the lake.

As well as being a lot of fun, this was a great way to get some beautiful views of the lakeshore.

Once back on dry land, we wandered along the shore, looked in some of the souvenir stores and grabbed an ice cream from one of the cafes before it was time to board the coach again.

The Venetian Port of Rethymnom

It was just half an hour to our final stop of the day, another town with a Venetian port, Rethymnom. Here, we again wandered through pretty back streets past shops, restaurants and cafes and out onto the seafront with its Venetian-style harbour.

Whether it was because it was early evening – and therefore quieter – or not, but I liked Rethymnom more than Chania as it felt less touristy. We spent the last few minutes enjoying the atmosphere around the pretty harbour before boarding the coach one last time.

Above, and below, enjoying the views in Rethymnom

As we were last pick up that day, we were first drop off at the end. Instead of being dropped back in Heraklion itself, we once again found ourselves at the side of a busy main road where we were met by a driver to take us back into town.

The day had finished slightly earlier than we’d expected giving us plenty of time to walk up to the main square in Heraklion where we found an Italian restaurant for a pizza dinner before returning to our apartment.

The next day, we would be heading east on the island of Crete and this time, being first pick up of the day, it’d be an early start…

A summer island-hopping adventure in Greece

My ‘big’ summer trip this year was supposed to be stateside to finally tick my final state of Hawaii off but it was something that needed to be planned and booked well in advance and when that point in time came, things were still very uncertain in the World as the pandemic continued to rumble on. Hawaii seemed a very big gamble when coming all the way from the UK – long haul flights, internal flights, car hire on multiple islands, hotels and condos all to book and while we could have gone through a specialist such as Trailfinders or Flight Centre to organise it all for us as a package giving us a bit more peace of mind should we have to cancel, we weren’t sure we’d get exactly what we wanted this way being so used to planning everything just how we liked it independently. It was a lot of money to lose should it all go wrong again.

Evening by Skiathos marina
Visiting Lalaria Beach on Skiathos

So we begrudgingly made the decision to put off the trip another year and swapped Hawaiian island-hopping for Greek island-hopping. We knew we wanted to get out of the UK this summer as much as we’d enjoyed our UK National Park trips of the last two summers and Europe felt less of a risk than the US, somewhere we could easily return from mid-trip if needed, somewhere we didn’t need to test to enter even at our point of booking quite early into the year.

Wanting to island hop meant we still couldn’t book as a package trip. With flying in and out of different islands, we’d even need to book our main flights as separate bookings as the (mainly) package holiday carriers that flew there didn’t allow for open jaw bookings but we decided to go for it and hope for the best.

Having never been to Greece before, it was hard to know where to start. Who knew there were so many islands to choose from?! My friend who had been many years ago suggested Santorini and with this being an island in the Cyclades, we decided to concentrate on this area. After some googling, we saw lots of suggestions of mixing Santorini with a less ‘touristy’, more traditional island. Milos, Paros, Naxos and a few other islands I’d never heard of before all came up as recommended in various searches and we eventually settled on the much-praised Naxos island.

Historic Athens

With those two islands only taking up a week of our 2-3 weeks available, my friends suggested looking into going to the ‘Mamma Mia’ island. She was a big fan of the film and wanted to visit some of the locations if we could. A bit more research lead us to find out this was filmed in Skopelos, one of the Sporades Islands and not really anywhere near the Cyclades! However, the neighbouring Sporades island of Skiathos was somewhere you could fly to directly from the UK and from here it was possible to do a ‘Mamma Mia’ boat trip to Skopelos. To get to the Cyclades from here, we’d have to fly via Athens and as neither of us had visited Greece’s capital city before, it seemed silly not to add a stop here into the mix!

Our trip was finally coming together – we’d fly to Skiathos for a few nights, fly to Athens and spend a few days there and then on to Naxos and Santorini by either plane or ferry – whichever worked out cheapest/least time-consuming.

Sunset on Naxos

With a few days still to fill, we looked at adding one more island. Wanting somewhere with plenty to do and some history behind it, I suggested the largest of the Greek islands, Crete. Being the most southerly of the Cyclades, it fitted perfectly into our into our itinerary as our last stop and with it being a popular package holiday destination from the UK, there was plenty of direct flights back to regional airports in the UK available, even one direct to Norwich, the closest airport to my friend!


Researching what we wanted to do at each of our stops, we carefully worked out how much time we’d need at each destination settling on a 2 night stop in Skiathos (just enough time to use our full day there on the Mamma Mia tour), 4 nights in Athens, 3 in Naxos, 3 in Santorini and 4 nights in Crete – a 16 night stay in total. After booking our main flights, we debated internal flights over ferries deciding by the time we added in time to get to the airport, checking in, collecting luggage after landing etc etc, a 4 hour ferry ride would be just as quick as a flight. For the most part, the ferries were cheaper too especially as we didn’t have to pay to take our luggage on board and it seemed like a more authentic option if we were island-hopping!

So, other than Skiathos-Athens where a flight was really the only viable option, we opted for ferries between the islands.

Chania, Crete

Accommodation-wise, we tried to stick with budget options, mainly using guesthouses or, with Athens, hotels in less touristy and therefore cheaper areas. Other than that, free cancellation was our non-negotiable and where possible, we tried to get some kind of breakfast included. Santorini was the main challenge here with many places being either already booked up for the summer or super expensive meaning we had to go above our £100 per night budget despite staying a 15 minute walk out of Fira town centre but we did at least have a hotel with a pool for that and we managed to save elsewhere.

Goats in Crete

Flights, ferries and accommodation sorted, we moved on to activities. With it being the height of summer, we knew Greece would be busy and wanted to save time by pre-booking tickets to museums and archaeological sites allowing us to skip the lines. We both decided that driving Greece would not be something we’d be confident with, especially with the language barrier, so instead we booked some organised tours on the various islands so we could still see as much of them as possible making sure, like we had with our hotel choices, that everything was cancellable until the last minute just in case.

Spinalonga Island

In the run up to our trip, we began to wonder if we’d done the right thing booking such a short stay in Skiathos, mainly because of the airport disruption with airline delays and cancellations constantly in the news. Our flight already arrived relatively late into Skiathos, just after 7pm, and with just one full day there followed by a very early morning flight out to Athens the following day, any delays or worse, cancellations, would make our stay there pointless and possibly have a knock on effect on our transfer to Athens from there.

As it turned out, we were worrying over nothing. Flying out of the relatively small and quiet East Midlands Airport and with Jet2, possibly the least disrupted UK airlines this summer, was a good decision. Everything ran smoothly with our departure and before we knew it, we were arriving into Skiathos ready to begin our summer island-hopping adventure in Greece!