Visitors to Greece's largest island generally head for Chania and Heraklion, but if you cross over to east Crete you'll find fabulous scenery, deserted beaches – and property that sells for pennies.
If you hanker to get away from it all, whilst glorying in near-deserted, yet picture postcard perfect beaches, fascinating sites and sights, you can’t do better than East Crete. Even during August's frenetic hustle, this side of the island steers clear of bustle.
I first discovered this part of the island in 2007. I was looking for a place with plenty of sunshine, great beaches and quality food; somewhere with a low crime rate, where I could buy a small house and live quite cheaply.
I had Crete in the back of my mind since coming here in the eighties. I had fond memories of chatting with the local shopkeepers who, with that incredible Cretan hospitality, didn’t seem too bothered about selling anything. Instead they summoned me to sit down – ‘ela cathiste!’ – and made me drink bucket-loads of their strong black elliniki coffee. ‘Apo pou esai?’ they’d ask – ‘where are you from?’ – and they genuinely seemed interested in the answer, which for someone hailing from London seemed wonderfully odd.
So in 2007 I set off to spend several months property hunting on Crete.
Greeks themselves call Crete the megalo nisi – the big island because, although it's only 260 kms long and about 60 kms wide at its widest point, it’s an island of amazing contrasts.
During the first month of my stay I discovered the western part of the island. Here I wandered amongst dense chestnut groves in the mountains near Elos, swam from the desert island beach and protected coral reefs of Elafonissi, sipped ouzo at Stavros the beach resort where Zorba the Greek was filmed and shopped for silver in labyrinth of cobbled backstreets of Chania. But then the tourists began to arrive and once you’ve got used to having all Crete to yourself, you really begrudge sharing it with anyone else.
And then there was something else: I had this fantasy of owning a little white house with blue shutters a lemon tree and a small sunlit courtyard, but everything ‘Id seen on this side of the island was way over my budget.
Doing some research on internet I saw that houses in the east of the island were incredibly cheap – complete renovations from 10-15,000 euros, beachside apartment from 60,000 and land overlooking the sea from 40,000, so I made an appointment to view some properties near Sitia.
From Heraklion to Aghios Nikolaos the road towards the east of the island is frenetically busy, but after the tiny seaside resort of Pacha Ammos you really seem to cross a frontier and enter another world.
Seeing a sign for Mochlos, I followed a winding road down through olive groves to a beautiful unspoilt fishing village with a line of tavernas. I felt like I’d traveled back a couple of decades to the Crete I’d known in the eighties. It was late June, yet the only sounds were the peaceful lap of water and the happy chatter of a dozen people swimming from the beach or exploring the island opposite, dotted with the ruins of what was once an important centre of Minoan civilization.
I had lunch in one of the tavernas and instead of the usual moussakas and pizzas, there were coqli (snails) in a sapid garlic sauce and horta wild greens picked from the mountains and dressed with lemon juice and Sitia Extra Virgin olive oil (which, I discovered later, is consistently classed amongst the best in the world).
The best news, however, was when I received the bill. Not only did I pay half the price I’d paid for meals elsewhere, I was also served a complimentary tumbler of tsikoudia, the local 40-percent-plus proof equivalent of grappa made in local stills, to wash it down.
From Mochlos the road winds on almost without traffic to Sitia. Although the airport is not yet open to international flights, planes fly from Sitia to Athens and you can catch ferries to Rhodes, and other islands from here.
Crowned by a Venetian fortress this city of some 10,000 inhabitants overlooks a wide sandy bay from which Minoan ships once left – loaded down with ceramics and silver and other goods – to trade with Egypt and the Orient just across the way.
Behind the harbour, wide flights of steps, worn away from the centuries-old passage of feet and hooves, climb steeply to the Kazarma fortress.
Constantly distracted by a warren of streets en route, packed with traditional kafenions and shops selling brass tacks and soft mithyzra cheese by the kilo, I climbed to the top of town. From here there is an incredible panorama: to the left a vast expanse of – almost transparent- turquoise sea dotted with four deserted islands, which are home to the rare species of Eleonora falcon, and opposite a line of steep mountains topped with tiny white villages.
I stayed for a few days in Sitia – I visited the archeological museum which has a fascinating collection of finds from all the Minoan sites that are concentrated in this part of the island, and I enjoyed a leisurely session tasting the local wine at the Sitia Union winery – and then I headed east to Palaikastro.
With its spotlessly clean sand and pebble beaches, and sea that’s so clear that you can see sea urchins on the bottom, the Sitia region of Crete has more Blue Flag beaches than anywhere else on the island.
After stopping off at the 16th century Toplou monastery with its stunning collection of ancient icons, I spent a lazy afternoon on the best beach of the lot: the exotic cove of Vai where all those Bounty bar ads were filmed back in the 1990’s.
From Vai a narrow road leads, through mountains covered with the strong smelling wild sage, to Zakros a friendly little town with plenty of tavernas and a couple of small hotels, which is also the start of the 8km long Gorge of the Dead. If you’re an energetic walker you can follow this narrow chasm littered with Minoan tombs to the pretty fishing village of Kato Zakros, where the Minoan palace, alongside Knossos, is one of the most important Minoan sites on Crete.
Over the next few weeks I discovered more wonderful places including the regions main tourist resort Makrigialos, with its pretty seafront promenade and good value tavernas, and Xerocambos with its swathe of golden beaches dotted with rare Pancratium lilies. I found great places for hiking and cycling; I took a kayak tour of the coast and visited remote monasteries and fascinating folklore museums; I took a Cretan cookery course and learnt how to scuba dive.
And guess what? I even bought my house with blue shutters and an orange tree in a tiny mountain village called Armeni , where my neighbours, who are all in their hale and hearty eighties are living proof that the Cretan diet really works.
Twenty years ago Heidi Fuller-Love was a London comedy club owner with a theatre degree from Goldsmith's College, then she moved to France to open her own hotel and started writing about her adopted country's cuisine and culture for various Francophile magazines. Today she lives between France, Spain and Greece, travels for six months of the year and is a highly successful travel and food writer whose features, and photographs regularly appear in magazines and newspapers worldwide ranging from The Guardian and The LA Times, to Thomas Cook Travel magazine and Asian Geographic.
Why not join Heidi for a series of travel and freelance writing workshops in stunning sunny Greece in October 2012 and summer 2013. Read more
She will be teaching on the islands of Paxos and Lefkas, and in the Peloponnese.
All blog images above copyright Heidi Fuller-Love