Chania and the North-West

Crete

Crete's capital until Heraklion took over in 1971, Chania bears both the scars and trophies of centuries of growth and occupation. The Venetians had the strongest and most appealing influence on the town, leaving their distinct architectural stamp on the picturesque harbour and the narrow back streets, but evidence also remains of the Ottoman era, with an imposing dome still adorning the harbour front. Today, Chania is a vibrant city with a fascinating blend of simplicity and sophistication, both a working town and commercial centre for the local agricultural communities and a magnet for summer visitors, drawn here by the town's architectural appeal, distinct sense of history and the beautiful backdrop of the White Mountains. Chania's shops and markets range from simple old-style Greek emporiums to smart international designer shops and from tacky tourist kiosks to stylish art galleries. Eateries too cover the entire spectrum, from simple gyros shops and fish tavernas favoured by local workers, to classy restaurants created in semi-restored buildings, offering dinner by candlelight under a canopy of stars. At night the town offers diversions for all tastes from frenetic music bars and clubs to mellow jazz bars or Cretan cafés with impromptu traditional dancing.

Whilst there is a perfectly adequate town beach, the majority of tourists stay alongside the beaches of the Gulf of Chania just west of the town. Although some of the resorts along the coastal strip are quite built up, there are still some wonderful beaches hidden from the road and fringed by woodland.

For those wishing to be close to Chania but in a more rural setting, the rugged Akrotiri Peninsula to the north-east of the town is a favourite area. Here, many of the city's wealthier residents have chosen to build their own homes along the rocky coastline, broken up by sandy coves and beaches. In the northeast corner, the seaside village of Stavros nestles in the shadow of Zorba's Mountain, made famous as the most memorable of the locations from 'Zorba the Greek'. Here the almost circular bay forms a shallow sand-fringed lagoon, an ideal place for children to splash happily, and the handful of tavernas make an excellent lunch stop. The peninsula's lanes form a criss-cross network leading to other sandy beaches such as Kalathas, with its sunbeds, watersports and beach bar, well-sheltered Tersanas, Agios Onoufrios with its colourful fishing boats, tiny Loutraki and Marathi, a regular anchorage for boats cruising Souda Bay. In addition the Akrotiri is home to such diversities as the local airport, a small university campus and two fine, historic monasteries the 17th century Agia Triada and the smaller and older monastery of Gouverneto.

On the eastern side of the wide sweep of Souda Bay and below the evocative peaks of the White Mountains is the rural utopia of the Apokoronas. Walking here is a pure pleasure, especially in the early spring when the profusion of flowers transforms the landscape into a rainbow-coloured sea. Small villages abound and Douliana and Kefalas with their beautifully restored houses are typical examples. Given the setting and the unhurried pace of life in the area it is small wonder that visitors of all nationalities have chosen this area to build their own holiday homes. Beach lovers will enjoy the nearby classic seaside village of Almerida, with its waterside tavernas, shops and small watersports school, the secluded beach at Kera and the small town of Kalives which has its own lengthy beach. Other attractions in the Apokoronas region include the most famous archaeological site in western Crete, Aptera, whose recently excavated new finds have confirmed its importance through many civilisations, and Lake Kournas, the island's only freshwater lake, which now has a number of tavernas on its shore and pedaloes for rent, but which remains a delightful spot for an early morning or evening stroll around its perimeter to spot the wildlife.

To the west of Chania, beyond the better known resorts, the most north westerly town on the island is known as both Kastelli and Kissamou, and is truly Cretan in atmosphere and appearance. Whitewashed houses with flower-filled gardens sit in the higgledy-piggledy back streets and small shops and cafés line the narrow main street where the locals stock up on their provisions and catch up with the gossip. Down on the paved waterfront small tavernas serve freshly caught fish and seafront bars dispense drinks to both tourists and locals. There is a good sandy beach on the western side of the town, ideal for whiling away lazy days without venturing far from base. Slightly further west, the harbour, now the departure point for sailings to Kythira and the Peleponnese and excursions to Gramvoussa Island, was in ancient times the port for Polyrhinia, an important Dorian hillside town which prospered beyond Roman times.

The far west of the island has much to be explored with numerous historic villages and the spectacular wide sands and excavations of the ancient city at Falassarna, not to mention the almost tropical lagoon at Elafonissi. East of Kastelli the coastal plain extends towards the Rhodopou peninsula with a wealth of quieter beaches backed by agricultural hamlets such as Spilia, with its religiously famous cave. At the foot of the peninsula Kolimbari is an archetypical seaside village, with its own 17th century monastery and a row of appealing fish tavernas ideal for a waterside lunch.

Chania's Venetian harbour front

Chania's Venetian harbour front

Chania's Venetian harbour front Agious Onoufrios beach, Akrotiri peninsula Agia Triada monastery, Akrotiri peninsula Kastelli Souvenir shopping in Chania Stravros beach and Zorba's mountain Tersanas beach Chania's covered market Elafonissi, North-West Coast Chania harbour

Accommodation in Chania and the North-West:

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