Crete – Greece

A Unique Island History and Culture

The largest of the Greek islands is also one of its most fascinating. Crete was the birthplace of Minoan culture, Europe’s first advanced civilization, and Knossos—discovered only in 1900—was its capital city. The reconstructed Palace of Knossos was once thought to have been the home of the legendary King Minos, whose wife bore the Minotaur— half bull, half man—which thrived on human sacrifice and lived in a secret labyrinth beneath the palace.

The palace dates to 1700 B.C., although the brilliance and vibrancy of its fres­coes and sophistication of its layout and organ­ization make it seem almost contemporary. Knossos’s restoration has been the source of heated controversy among archaeologists, who consider it, at best, the enlightened guesswork of the early-20th-century archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans

The Royal Apartments are with­out doubt the epitome of luxurious court living, four floors of rooms that illustrate Minoan life more than 3,000 years ago. Portraying a remarkably advanced and peaceful society, many of the Minoan treasures and frescoes (unsurpassed in the ancient world) have been removed and are now housed in Heraklion’s Archaeological Museum (second only to that of Athens).

Purists will prefer the nearby Palace of Phaistos. It was excavated at almost the same time and dates to the same period, but was left in a practically unreconstructed state.

Meanwhile, the most spectacular natural wonder in Crete lies along the Samarid Gorge, the longest ravine in Europe. The popular but strenuous downhill hike through the White Mountains begins with a 3,000-foot drop during the first mile via the steep, zigzagging Xyloskalo (Wooden Stairs). A well-trodden 11-mile trail levels off after that, perfumed with mountain thyme and wild oregano.

If you’re lucky, you might glimpse the rare homed kri-kri (Cretan wild goat) known to live here. The hike’s high point comes at Sidirdsportes (Iron Gates), where trekkers squeeze through a 9-foot-wide space, the gorge’s narrowest, between sheer rock walls soaring 2,000 feet on either side.

The hike eventually leads down to a seaside village and a cool dip in the Libyan Sea some five to seven exhilarating hours later. The common jumping-off place is the coastal town of Chania, known for its atmospheric historical port.

Not nearby, but worth the drive, is the pol­ished Elounda Mare hotel, built into the side of a terraced slope graced by the natural beauty of the Mirabella Bay and views of the distant mountains. Half the suites come with their own wall-enclosed garden and small plunge pool, although the turquoise-blue sea is within easy reach.

A deft balance between northern European sophistication and island simplicity, the Elounda Mare’s Mediterranean aesthetics are reflected in its traditional but high-quality Greek furnishings and in its cui­sine. The Elounda Mare boasts three acclaimed restaurants, all with outside dining, an excellent selection of fresh seafood, and extensive wine lists.

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