The Lesser-Known Side of Crete, Greece’s Largest Island
When Marianna Leivaditaki offered to cook me fish soup, I knew it would be good. Marianna is head chef at Morito, the Greco-Moorish mezze bar in London that is one of my favorite restaurants. But I didn’t expect to be eating her silky, briny broth for breakfast in northwestern Crete on a green bay wedged between granite cliffs. We had never met before she picked me up earlier that morning in her brother Antonis’s motorboat. I squeezed on board beside Antonis’s young son, Orpheus, whose blond curls floated in the breeze. We glided past the craggy shoreline, pocked with caves and coves, until we found the perfect spot. Antonis tipped a mighty fish he’d caught a few hours earlier onto a cracked white stone. Marianna roughly chopped potatoes and tomatoes into a saucepan and tucked the fish on top. She scraped some salt from the rocks, tossed it in, and covered the contents with water and glugs of peppery olive oil, then lit a gas canister and left the soup to bubble vigorously under the sun.
Hanging herbs and produce :Tom Parker
The seaside restaurant Thalassino Ageri, in Chania’s Tabakaria district:Tom Parker
“Cretan food is so simple,” she told me. “There are no recipes or rules, apart from family traditions. What’s important is to know exactly where your ingredients come from.” Marianna grew up gutting fish and waiting tables at her family’s taverna outside Chania, the surprisingly metropolitan capital of western Crete. Her father, a fisherman, taught her how to make kakavia, a fortifying soup eaten after a long night at work. While we waited for it to cook, Antonis and Orpheus pried sea urchins and limpets from the rocks. Knee-deep in the water, we slurped them from their shells to whet our appetite. “What I love most about Crete is that you might be here, in an empty bay, feasting on urchins,” Marianna said. “Then, half an hour later, you’re up in the mountains in a different world, with guys in black shirts and big mustaches talking about hunting and eating game.”
Crete is a vast island of contrasts and contradictions, with a 650-mile coastline that rears up to misty summits more than 8,000 feet high. The kindness of strangers is what unifies and defines the island for me. I’ve been coming here since the early 1990s, but I’ll be honest: At first it didn’t rock my boat. The soulless resorts concentrated on the northeast coast, slapdash cities, and boring motorways were nothing like the Greek islands of my imagination. The corkscrew roads twisting through the highlands made me queasy; driving two hours to find an empty bay felt like too much effort. But that effort brought rich rewards: hospitable locals, incredible food, powerful landscapes, magnificent beaches for every mood. Slowly, stealthily, Crete got under my skin. Our relationship deepens every time I return, and yet the island still feels unknowable, infinite, mysterious.
Chania’s old Venetian harbor-Photo:Tom Parker
Crete was only united with mainland Greece in 1913—after a bitter and bloody independence struggle—and Cretans often refer to their homeland as a continent. Divided by the snow-flecked White Mountains, the Chania prefecture, which covers the western quarter, is a different destination at every turn. The legacy of Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman rule ripples through the fortified city of Chania, but there’s a contemporary edge to this spirited town of merchants and students. Over the past decade, a new generation of ambitious islanders have returned to their roots after studying and working abroad to refresh tired family businesses, renovate historic properties, and set up sustainably minded ventures. Ceramic artist Alexandra Manousakis left a marketing career in Manhattan to take over Manousakis Winery with her Swedish-Iranian sommelier husband, Afshin Molavi, who co-owns the phenomenally popular Salis restaurant on the harbor front. Stylish environmentalist Danai Kindeli returned from Madrid to help her uncle Manolis run Metohi Kindelis, a 400-year-old organic farm and guesthouse. And curator Sofia Mavroudis and artist Antonis Houladakis have built two raw-concrete cabins in the middle of his family’s ancestral olive groves that offer a refreshingly modern immersion into the wilderness.
Beyond the urban chatter of Chania, hillside villages, pink sands, and stands of silver olive trees give way to sudden ravines and soaring peaks. In his novel Zorba the Greek, Cretan literary giant Nikos Kazantzakis compared the countryside to “good prose, carefully ordered. It said what it had to say with a manly austerity. But between the severe lines one could discern an unexpected sensitiveness and tenderness; in the sheltered hollows the lemon and orange trees perfumed the air, and from the vastness of the sea emanated an inexhaustible poetry.”
Danai Kindeli, owner of the organic farm and hotel Metohi Kindelis-Photo:Tom Parker
Gathered sea urchins-Photo:Tom Parker
This chafing of rugged machismo and soulful sensibility is embodied in Kazantzakis’s antihero—an archetypal Cretan, with a defiant, devil-may-care attitude and an insatiable appetite for life. In many ways, the landscapes and people of western Crete are just as Kazantzakis described them: immense, intense, exhilarating. But you need on-the-ground intel to cut through the noise. My go-to is Nikos Tsepetis, the owner of Ammos, a feel-good hotel on Chania’s sandy fringes filled with contemporary art and design. An irreverent perfectionist, he embodies a generosity of spirit that is as essential to the local identity as olive oil and tsikoudia, a fiery eau-de-vie-like brandy locals down at every opportunity. You don’t say no to a Cretan, and you definitely don’t say no to Nikos. When he tells you a place is worth visiting, you don’t ask any questions. You just hop in the car and go.
On this trip, Nikos dispatched me to Polirinia, an ancient citadel, surrounded by silent valleys and ridges, that has collapsed into the earth. His friend Manousos Chalkiadakis, a ceramic artist with wise hands and gentle eyes, cooked me the most delicious take on eggs and potatoes at his 17th-century home (the secret: Fry both in olive oil). We hiked from Meskla to Zourva, through a miniature canyon and forests vibrating with birdsong—far less strenuous than the famous Samaria gorge, with not a soul in sight. At Kedrodasos—less crowded than the shallow lagoons of Balos and Elafonisi—I floated in the fluorescent sea and snoozed in the shade of a twisted juniper tree. “If California were an island, it would be Crete,” Nikos declared as we shared battered and fried zucchini, blush-pink tarama, and a little too much rosé on the seaside terrace at Ammos. “Both have sprawling, imperfect cities, a beautiful coastline, amazing food, and great hikes. And you need a car to explore the mountains, which is where you’ll find the soul.”
The Lefka Ori, or White Mountains, of western Crete, named for the color of the limestone that forms them -Photo:Tom Parker
In these highlands, road signs are pockmarked with bullets, and heavily armed statues of revolutionary heroes dominate village squares where whiskery men in black monitor passing vehicles with a flick of their cigarette or a flip of their worry beads. The toughest natives are from Sfakia, a hardscrabble mass of peaks cracked by deep gorges that lead to electric-blue bays. Until the islanders laid the hairpin roads, stone by stubborn stone, this isolated region was a perfect refuge for bandits, rustlers, and resistance fighters. All of the independence struggles began here.
“The locals always had an enemy, whether they were Venetians, Turks, Germans, or Greek royalty. If there was nobody else to fight, they turned on each other,” confided Maria Mylonaki, the supremely competent founder of Crete travel specialist Diktynna, as we drove deeper into the White Mountains. Vendettas are still rampant in this unforgiving terrain. An argument over a goat bell was enough to spark a bloody feud in Aradena in the 1950s. After seven people were killed, the remaining residents fled. The village is a beautiful, melancholy relic teetering above the forbidding gorge. Disembodied saints stare from the faded frescoes of the 14th-century church.
Renata Leitão and Alexis Aplada, owners of the Chania bistro Ginger Concept:Tom Parker
A lush corner in Chania
In this lonely wilderness you feel the visceral pulse of nature—rasping cicadas, circling eagles, chanting bees. But the only human presence was a pair of tiny figures walking along the rocky bed of the gorge below. Several hours later, I feasted on slow-roasted lamb, freshly churned goat cheese, and puffy little doughnuts drenched in thyme honey at Chrisostomos, a heavenly taverna on a headland jutting into the Libyan Sea. Gazing at the horizon, I recalled the narrator’s words in Zorba the Greek: “I’m all right here. May this minute last for years.”
Where to stay
Like jazz improv, the elements of this seaside hotel come together in wonderfully clashing harmony: uplifting interiors, great food, punchy cocktails—and good-natured staffers who don’t flinch when a toddler smears tomato sauce on one of the designer chairs—all delivered with a dash of humor and genuine Cretan hospitality. Rooms from about $150; ammoshotel.com
A guest room at Metohi Kindelis-Photo:Tom Parker
Stories of Venetian dukes and Ottoman pashas rustle in the avocado and mango trees of this magni-ficent 17th-century estate on the outskirts of Chania. Behind the rose-pink walls there’s an organic farm, a family home, and three self-contained guesthouses. Each has a private pool, a garden, and a dining terrace for sampling homegrown produce and delicacies that are replenished daily—figs, persimmons, lychees, and strawberries; nutty graviera cheese; and smoky heather honey. Guesthouses from about $235 for up to four; metohi-kindelis.gr
Cabanon Concrete Retreat
Two tiny cabins with glass façades peep out of a silver haze of olive groves. Midcentury furniture, raw-concrete walls, and a modular, minimal living space with maximum comfort pay homage to Le Corbusier’s ideal of Mediterranean balance. It’s a proper immersion in nature for those with a sharp eye for modern design. Cabins from about $110 for two;cabanonconcreteretreat.com
The best tables in Chania
Nektarios Chalakatevakis and his wife, Sofia, run the best taverna in town. Order fish and chips, Cretan-style: whole grilled cod, french fries crisped up in olive oil, and the colorful house salad. Set in a residential neighborhood, the restaurant is where the locals eat—for a fraction of what you’d pay on the waterfront. Dinner for two, about $50
Mezze at the harbor-front restaurant Salis-Photo:Tom Parker
This harbor-side restaurant pulls off a tricky balancing act, combining a distinct sense of place with an of-the-moment vibe. Sommelier turned chef Afshin Molavi’s seasonal menu offers reimagined Greek standards (taramosalata blended with avocado and topped with bottarga crumbs) and avant-garde flourishes (tuna belly with burnt-grape molasses and pickled watermelon rind). An exceptional wine list invites slow drinking alongside the parade of sharing plates. Dinner for two, about $55; salischania.com
For brunch, an early evening spritz, or a relaxed dinner date, this Bali-inspired bistro on a pedestrian alley in the Splantzia quarter hits the mark. There’s nothing traditional about the pick-and-mix menu (tuna tartare, chicken and mozzarella coxinha croquettes, burrata with toasted almonds and asparagus) or the interior (rattan armchairs, retro tiles, Amazonian headdresses). Be careful with your cocktail consumption or you’ll leave with a Ghanaian basket full of caftans from the on-site store. Renata Leitão, the glamorous Brazilian owner, is also behind Just Brazil, the best boutique in town. Dinner for two, about $60
Fresh seafood and pasta are prepared with finesse at this smart new restaurant, which is helping lead the revival of Tabakaria, a district of crumbling leather tanneries on the outskirts of town. Dinner for two, about $70
A winding drive up to the high-altitude hamlet of Zourva, in the foothills of the White Mountains, leads to this lovely lunch spot with panoramic views. It serves hearty hunter’s fare: braised goat, fried eggs in a puddle of staka (clarified sheep’s-milk butter), and marathopita, a wild-fennel pie that’s more like an anise-flavored pancake—a perfect foil for ice-cold shots of tsikoudia. Lunch for two, about $25
At this flower-filled shack wedged into the walls of ancient Polirinia, up in the olive-green hills of Kissamos, Vasiliki Sfakianaki and her daughter turn out humble classics while the sheep-rearing patriarch, Yannis, delivers a running commentary on Greek politics. Try dakos (grated tomato, capers, olives, and a fluffy cloud of goat cheese piled onto brittle barley rusk), boureki (a baked stack of minty zucchini, potatoes, and cheese), and stamnagathi, bitter greens dressed in bright olive oil. Simple but sublime. Dinner for two, about $30
Crete’s first eco-lodge has been around since 1994, long before “farm to fork” became a popular expression. Everything served at this mountain retreat (once seasonal lodging for chestnut farmers) is organic, with familiar ingredients providing surprisingly sophisticated flavors: There’s beef brisket in a Greek-coffee crust, squash blossoms filled with bulgur and cheese, and snails with vinegar, rosemary, and bee pollen. For dessert, order the satisfyingly sticky goat’s-milk ice cream. Dinner for two, about $45
Kostas Boundourakis’s kafenion in the scrappy village of Maza, in the White Mountains, is one of those insider secrets you can hardly bear to share. There’s no menu, just a few dishes of the day to be savored beneath the sprawling bougainvillea. In the evening, Kostas grills pork chops on a barbecue in the square, fragrant smoke wafting over the 13th-century chapel of Saint Nicholas. Always, always get the Greek salad. Prices vary
Accessible only by boat or by foot, this taverna (also known by the name Dialiskari) sits on a thatched terrace above a turquoise cove. Waiters bring dish after delicious dish: lamb that falls off the bone, roast potatoes, and eggplant with a feta crust, all slow-cooked in a wood-fired oven. Finish with sfakiani pita, bubbly dough stuffed with cheese and drizzled with honey. Dinner for two, about $35