Say “Greece” to the travelling LGBT community and chances are most of them will think of Mykonos or Lesvos (aka Lesbos), but Crete — birthplace of Zeus, home to the Minoan civilization and the largest of the Greek islands — has much to offer the gay and lesbian traveller. Whether one’s interest is archaeology, lazing on the beach or seeing the sights, Crete impresses the visitor with its sheer size and variety of landscapes.
To put Crete in perspective: Mykonos, at approximately 100 square kilometres, is about 50 percent bigger than Manhattan; Lesvos, at 1,630 square kilometres, is about half the size of Rhode Island. Crete, at more than 8,000 square kilometres, is 80 times bigger than Mykonos and bigger than the state of Delaware, but without so many people: its population is slightly more than 600,000 people, although it has several million olive trees and there are quite a few goats.
What should be clear from this is that Crete is a big island and you are not going to see it all in one day. Indeed, I have lived here for 10 years and came to Crete on holiday six times in the three years before that and I still haven’t seen everything.
So what is there on Crete for the LGBT tourist?
If you are cruising the Greek islands, it is more than likely that your cruise ship will have a one-day stop at Heraklion, which doesn’t give you a lot of time, so your best bet is to take whatever the cruise line is offering in the way of excursions and visit the Minoan archaeological site at Knossos and the newly refurbished museum in Heraklion itself. You can also take a tour around Heraklion, which, to put it bluntly, is not the most exciting of cities, mainly because much of it is new, but there are interesting places to visit, such as the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis (author of Zorba the Greek). If you have time to wander around, there are one or two architectural gems hidden in the back streets. Or you can find a café and sit and watch the world go by. Greeks take forever to drink coffee, so no one will disturb you if you linger over just one for an hour or two!
Many arrive on Crete as part of their “island hopping” tour of Greece, often after spending some time on Mykonos and Santorini. For many, Crete is an afterthought, and they allow only three or four days to see all of it without realizing how big the island is.
The north coast of Crete is the most populated, with the area east of Heraklion to Malia arguably the most densely populated and cosmopolitan part of the island. This gives the area a very touristy feel, particularly around Hersonissos (don’t be confused by its various spellings), but this also means that it is the centre for LGBT nightlife and accommodation.
In Hersonissos, Home Hotel, though not specifically gay, is gay-run and very friendly, with more than 20 rooms, a pool and bar.
Home Hotel is aligned to the independent traveller; that is, visitors who have organized their flights and hotel accommodations separately, which the internet makes it so easy to do these days. But many arrive in Crete on package deals, which include flights, accommodation and sometimes an all-inclusive prepaid package of meals and drinks. These can be somewhat limiting if you want to explore Crete and are more suitable for those who want a beach/bar/bed–type holiday without any other activity than lazing by the pool or on the beach and spending the evenings clubbing.
In Hersonissos, you’ll find the dedicated gay bar Roze Maandag, which opened a couple of years ago in the centre of Port Hersonissos. For those staying in Heraklion there is La Brasserie, which bills itself as a gay bar but has a tendency to be more gay-friendly than gay.
While Hersonissos itself can be busy and crowded, just up the hill to the south are the villages of Koutouloufari, Old Hersonissos and Piscopiano, which many visitors find by accident. But they are worth visiting, as they have more of a “Greek village feel”; here you can find more traditional family-run tavernas. The pace in the villages is slower, and the drinks and food tend to be slightly cheaper than in Port Hersonissos.
The main advantage of Hersonissos and the surrounding area, apart from the gay nightlife and the world-renowned Sarandari nudist beach, is its central location, approximately midway along the north coast. For those interested in day trips, both Vai beach, on the eastern coast, and Balos, on the northwestern tip, are easily accessed from Hersonissos, although I usually recommend that visitors take the organized coach trip to Balos. (As an aside, if you tell some of the locals in Hersonissos that you have been to Balos, they will ask you what it is like because they have never been there!). It is also an easy drive down to the south-coast village of Matala or Kommos beach, which also has a popular nudist section.
It is also easy to get to the central wine-growing region. Greek wine has progressed far beyond the Domestica and Bulls Blood that was common in the 1960s and ’70s, and Crete produces some excellent reds and whites, as well as its own version of retsina, which goes so well with most Cretan food.
As one would expect, Crete has lots of Greek tavernas. Many of these serve traditional Cretan dishes, but don’t be surprised if you cannot get hummus or halloumi cheese, neither of which are Greek. What you will get are some very fresh fruit and vegetables, as much of what we eat on Crete is grown on Crete. If you are travelling around, you will soon realize that most of the island is one huge farm! Quite often the tomatoes, peppers, onions and lettuce in that salad you had for lunch were grown just down the road, possibly by the tavern owner himself, and were still in the field that morning.
Add in potatoes, cabbages, broccoli, carrots, beans of various types, artichokes and a certain amount of meat, and there is not a lot that we don’t produce — or export to mainland Greece and the other islands. If you get the fast ferry from Heraklion to Santorini, it is not unusual to see boxes of produce being offloaded at Santorini along with the passengers.
The ubiquitous goats that fall off the mountains in front of you when you are driving provide milk for a variety of Cretan PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) cheeses, and the olive trees you see everywhere provide some of the best olive oil in the world (as well as firewood). But it’s unlikely that you’ll see anyone picking olives while you are here because we do that during the winter, and before you ask, all the olive oil is first press, cold press, extra virgin (whatever the buzz words are these day), and quite a lot of it is organic, too.
Such is the reputation of Cretan food and wines that I get regular visitors from France who go home loaded with bottles of wine and pieces of cheese in their suitcases. There are few visitors who leave without at least a jar of Cretan honey.
So what about the rest of Crete?
Because of its size, Crete is ideal for a “two centre” holiday, if you have the time. And you will find gay-run accommodation, usually of the bed-and-breakfast variety, in other parts of the island, including the village of Plakias. If you cannot find anything described as gay-friendly, don’t worry too much. Greeks, and Cretans in particular, are renowned for their hospitality and in general are not interested in what you do in your bedroom, although they are interested in what work you do, whether you own your own home, how much rent you pay, or even how much you earn. And do you know any Greek people where you live? Because maybe they are relations.
An advantage of staying in smaller hotels is that the owners usually have good local knowledge, and their advice can enhance your stay. Some of them will even take guests out for the day, rather like I do at Villa Ralfa. This is not to decry all the large hotels; some of them are very modern and flashy. But no matter how many stars, swimming pools, health spas or restaurants a five-star, all-inclusive resort hotel might have, you will not see a lot of Crete from the inside of it.
If you want part of your Cretan holiday to be quiet, head for the south, in particular the southwest. Its distance from the airports makes it less popular with package tourists because of the long transit times from the airport. You’ll almost certainly want to rent a car; public transport is good, regular and reliable, but you’ll need a vehicle to get to the more remote archaeological sites, as well as the Elafonisi and Balos beaches (both of which are ranked amongst the top beaches in the world on Trip Advisor). A car will also let you be more active, by exploring such beauties of nature as the famous Samariá Gorge; at 20 kilometres it’s the longest in Europe. (You’ll want to make the next day a rest day!) If that sounds a bit daunting, shorter gorges can be found to the east of the island, such as the mysterious Valley of the Dead, a Minoan site near Zakros.
No article on a holiday destination would be complete without a bit about the weather. Crete’s tourism season runs from April through October. Rain rarely falls from the beginning of May until the end of August; the peak season is July and August, when temperatures reach the high 30s Celsius and all you want to do is go to the beach or sit in the shade outside a kafenion with a nice cold beer. The early and late parts of the season are one of the best times to visit, as it is less crowded and the cooler temperatures are more conducive to active pursuits. We do get travellers during the winter, although most tourist hotels and many tavernas are closed. But if you do visit then you will see the mountains wearing a mantle of green, with snow here and there, and the olive groves carpeted with wild flowers. As I write this, it is a beautiful January day: 20 degrees with clear blue skies — but it could just as easily be 5 degrees and raining.
So this is Crete in a rather large nutshell. If you want to spend your entire Greek holiday going to the nudist beach all day and clubbing at night, that’s fine, but you really should visit Crete some day.