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The beaches are beautiful on Greece’s largest island, but the birthplace of Zeus has plenty to tempt visitors away from those golden sands. Crete’s off-the-beaten-track sights, split into four very different regions, are best explored via exhilarating four-wheel drive safaris into remote mountain villages, or boat trips to tiny, shell-strewn islands. With many well-organised museums and more than a dozen world class archaeological sites, there are also innumerable ways to get to grips with the local history and culture, whilst a plethora of food-themed tours and activities offer a taste-packed insight into the celebrated Cretan diet.

Linger on The Island

A traditional wooden fishing boat whisks you over (sometimes choppy) waves from Elounda’s pretty harbour to visit Spinalonga, a barren atoll in sheltered Mirabello Bay where Greece’s lepers were kept in quarantine until 1957. You can easily spend an hour exploring the Venetian forts, tunnel and stone buildings of this island which was the setting for Victoria Hislop’s poignant novel ‘The Island’. A recommended company to go with is Elounda Boat Cooperative, who can be found in Elounda harbour (00 30 69743 85854). 

Insider tip: It’s well worth hiring one of the personable professional guides who’ll be waiting as you get off the boat: they know fascinating anecdotes about life on this island, which was already a place of exile during the Ottoman occupation.

Contact: 00 30 28410 22462
Opening times: Daily, 8am-6pm (Apr 1st-Oct 31st)
Price: £

The arid inlet of Spinalonga morphed from Venetian fortress to leper colony, and is now an important link to Crete’s fascinating history CREDIT: MILANGONDA

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Hike through Death Valley

Leave your vehicle in the cryptically signposted ‘Dead’s Gorge’ car park beneath the bustling mountain village of Zakros village, then hike down to Kato Zakros between towering, cave-pocked cliff faces where the Minoans once buried their dead. The trail winds down, over worn pebbles and stony outcroppings hung with pungent oregano, to the remote resorts’ 16th-century BC Minoan Palace.

Insider tip: Hike early and plan to spend the day in this gloriously pretty (and gorgeously isolated) cove. There’s a sprinkling of taverns lining the waterfront.

Contact: 00 30 28430 26897
Opening times: Daily, 8am-7.45pm in summer (varies in winter)
Price: £

Kato Zakros
The Kato Zakros site was the final resting place of ancient Minoans CREDIT: PANOSKARAPANAGIOTIS

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Forage for your supper

Get off the beaten track and learn about the Cretan diet on a foraging expedition with biologist Dr Haris Saslis of Forage Crete. Leaping from crag to crag, personable Haris imparts anecdotes about mountain goats, local flora – and London’s Kew Gardens where he used to work – whilst guiding participants to harvest edible wild green xorta (green leaves).

Insider tip: Don’t eat too much beforehand – after the foraging expedition participants cook their own surprisingly filling lunch so leave space for the flaky filo pastry pies stuffed with dock leaves and steamed wild asparagus drizzled with olive oil.

Contact: 00 30 6953 084307;
Opening times: Dates vary. Phone in advance to book
Price: £££

Foraging in Crete
Jump from crag to crag to forage for tasty Cretan ingredients and use them to make your own lunch CREDIT: GRAHAM HODGETTS

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Meet the Minoans

If you only visit one museum, it has to be Heraklion’s archaeological museum, which houses the worlds best collection of artefacts hailing from Crete’s mysterious Minoan civilisation. It’s well presented with detailed labels in English: look out for the famous dolphin frescoes, the minutely detailed gold bee pendant from Malia, and the yet-to-be-deciphered Phaistos disc.

Insider tip: For better value, combine this visit with Knossos Palace and buy one ticket which gives entry to both. The amount of breathtaking artefacts on show here is astounding – plan to spend at least two hours.

Contact: 00 30 28102 79000;
Opening times: Sun-Tues, 9am-4pm; Mon, 10am-5pm
Price: ££

Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Over 5,500 years of Cretan history can be found in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum

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Set out on safari

Heading for the hills on a safari adventure is a great way to explore corners of Crete where only goats get to roam. The Minoan trail winds through high flung villages to Zeus’s cave (with stops for raki tasting en route), whilst the Preveli route thunders between Spili’s picturesque lion head fountains and shops, to Preveli’s palm tree-lined beach.

Insider tip: Bring binoculars to spot the wildlife that haunt these remoter regions: impressive griffon vultures (their wingspan is over two metres) hang above the crags of Patsos Gorge and deer-like Kri Kri goats hide out near Samaria’s gorge.

Contact: 00 30 2897 032666;
Opening times: 9am-9pm
Price: £££

Zeus' cave
If you trek the Minoan trail you’ll be able to see Zeus’ cave up-close (and stop for a sip of anise-flavoured raki, too) CREDIT: ABBPHOTO

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Meet and eat with locals

Cretan food specialties abound, but it can be tough to seek them out without insider help. Local born guides with Crete Urban Adventures lead gourmet walking tours through Heraklion’s busy backstreets and herb-and leather-scented bazaars to visit the city’s oldest custard pie bougatsa shop, meet the man behind Heraklion’s best tripe restaurant, and plenty more (expect lots of mezes en route).

Insider tip: Wear flat shoes – the city’s cobbled, potholed streets are merciless on heels –and make sure to ask to see the statue (and hear the tale) of Crete’s star-crossed lovers from the celebrated 17th-century poem Erotokritos.

Opening times: times vary; see website
Price: ££

Crete Urban Adventures lead gourmet walking tours through Heraklion’s busy backstreets
Crete Urban Adventures lead gourmet walking tours through Heraklion’s busy backstreets

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Hang out on high with windmills

For high-flung thrills, hire a car or buggy and drive the winding roads to the windmill-studded Lasithi plateau. Once upon a time there were thousands of these iron towers with white cloth sails. Many were abandoned with the advent of motor pumps, but it’s still possible to see dozens of them pumping water into stone wells when it’s windy.

Insider tips: Spend the day here when temperatures roast on the coast: do like the locals and spend an afternoon with raki and mezes in one of the village kafenions (cafés), then barter in the shops for hand-woven textiles (shopkeepers are very persistent).

Opening times: Daily
Price: Free

Lasithi plateau
If it’s getting too warm on the coast then come inland to the pretty Lasithi plateau, where many windmills still work CREDIT: TADEJ ZUPANCIC

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Explore Europe’s longest gorge

You’ll need to be fairly fit to make the five-hour hike through the 16 kilometre-long (10 miles) Samaria Gorge, but it’s worth it for the chance to spot feral kri kri goats and soaring griffon vultures. Enjoy the viewing platform before the trail plunges into the rubble-strewn gorge, which narrows to three metres at the claustrophobic cleft known as sideresportes (‘iron gates’).

Insider tip: An easier alternative is to take a boat from Hora Sfakion to Agia Roumeli and hike through the bottom end of the gorge. Alternatively, spend the night in Agia Roumeli and explore this stunning gorge in the cool of morning. Accommodation in Agia Roumeli is fairly basic but Artemis Studios is one of the best and closest to the gorge.

Contact: 00 30 2821045570;
Opening times: Daily,7am-4pm (closed from Oct 15-May 1)
Price: £

Samaria Gorge
It may not be the easiest walk but tackling the Samaria Gorge is certainly worth it CREDIT: STANCIUC

Voayge to Golden Island

A boat sails once a day to visit the pristine, sea daffodil-studded dunes, gold sand beaches, ancient salt pans and Minoan remains on eastern Crete’s Natura 2000-protected Chrissi Island. Apart from dozens of parasols dotting the shell-strewn beach, shade is provided by a small forest of juniper trees – some are more than 300 years old.

Useful tip: Umbrellas, food, water and even souvenirs are for sale/rent on the island, but they’re expensive so it’s a good idea to bring your own – even the showers are charged for. At the height of summer beaches are crowded – especially at weekends.

Contact: 00 30 28420 20008;
Opening times: May-Oct, departure times vary (phone to check)
Price: ££

Chrissi Island
Escape to an even more tranquil part of Crete by taking a boat across to Chrissi Island CREDIT: FILIPPOBACCI/FILIPPOBACCI

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Visit the seat of Cretan Revolution

A potent symbol of resistance for Cretans, Arkadi is an incense-scented haven of peace. This 17th-century monastery, hidden behind high stone walls, has a large courtyard surrounded by monachal cells and an elegant 16th-century church. Most moving is the old gunpowder magazine where local families fleeing Ottoman troops in 1866 blew themselves up, rather than surrender.

Useful tip: The monks are generally willing to show visitors around, and on special feast days they’ll even share a tumbler of raki. Make sure to see the ossuary across from the monastery where some of the victims’ skulls are conserved behind glass.

Contact: 00 30 2831 083135;
Opening times: Apr-May and Sept-Oct, 9am-7pm; June-Aug, 9am-8pm; Nov-Mar, 9am-4pm
Price: £

Arkadi monastery
Discover a place perfumed with incense and a peaceful symbol of Cretan resistance at the Arkadi monastery CREDIT: CHARALAMBOS ANDRONOS