After our quick little jaunt through Northern Ireland, we took a RyanAir flight from Dublin to Chania for the start of about 8 days on the Greek island of Crete. Peter’s PhD advisor and his wife are Greek, so I reached out to them when I started planning our trip and told them about all these grand island-hopping plans I had (I originally thought of doing Naxos and Santorini). When Helen asked what I was most looking forward to doing (some hiking, eating, and the beach), she suggested Crete as a way to do all of those things on one island. Crete really was a perfect family destination for us – it was relatively easy to get to since its airports (Chania and Heraklion) are served by European hubs and several flights from Athens, there were many different activities to do, and the food was delicious.
Where We Stayed
I booked accommodations for this trip months before James was born and wanted to be able to scrap the whole trip if birth didn’t go well or if he was a terrible traveler, so I used Booking.com because everything was cancellable. Book via this link for $20 off your stay.
In Chania, we stayed at Frida Apartments in a family room, although the “apartments” are more like a hotel with larger rooms (1 separate bedroom and a twin bed and sofa in the living area). I loved the other places we stayed in Greece, too, but this was truly special. The owners really took care of us – they helped organize a taxi pick-up from the airport for us (who waited 2 hours for us when our flight was delayed and passport control took forever), they squeezed in an extra night in the same family room when the flight times didn’t work out the way I hoped, and everyone on staff treated our children like royalty. There was also a 2 foot deep kiddie pool and a similar depth shallow end in one of the 2 larger pools, so they won Julia over and she still won’t stop talking about it. My favorite parts were the views over the ocean and breakfast. I almost never like hotel breakfasts because they seem like an after thought (cold cereal and waffles from a mix? No thank you, I can get those at home). Frida offered different daily baked items (like spinach pies and other pastries I couldn’t name for you if I tried), eggs, meat, amazing Greek yogurt with homemade jams (the orange marmalade is to die for) and strong coffee. We had a leisurely breakfast every day because we could.
In Heraklion, we stayed in an apartment called Home Away From Home. This had 3 bedrooms and was in a middle class neighborhood just outside of the city center. It felt a lot like living amongst locals – we could walk to downtown in 20 minutes, but there was a playground right up the street with local kids playing on it (who befriended me, Julia and James one night while we hung out) and we had space to stretch out. The best bedroom had 2 twin beds and toys for Julia, including a little puppet theater. It was also the most well-equipped kitchen of anywhere we stayed. There were not only dishes and ample cookware, but also basic supplies like salt, pepper and olive oil. As a result, we actually cooked dinner at the apartment twice during our stay.
What We Did
We arrived in Chania super late on a Friday, woke up late the next morning for breakfast and enjoyed swimming and lunch by the pool before walking down to downtown Chania. Both kids fell asleep, so we were able to stroll along the waterfront, where we saw a funny half-submerged submarine in the harbor water. It ended up that we were just in time for Sea Adventures’ last ride of the day, so we quickly hopped on and took about an hour cruise around the harbor. The ride was kind of lackluster – it was pretty hot even with AC and we were the last to board, so we had seats that were exposed to the sunshine, and there wasn’t much to see other than a handful of fish. The other passengers (all adults) spent most of the ride looking at their phones… As if the captain could sense our disappointment, he found a sea turtle swimming around in the last 10 minutes that we were able to watch for awhile.
After getting off the boat, we had a cool drink at the sailing club and then walked all the way to the lighthouse at the end of the harbor. It’s a gorgeous walk, particularly in the late afternoon, but not stroller-friendly (very rocky, some places where you have to go up stairs and then walk along a wall), so we were happy to have James in the baby carrier.
The next day, I realized that I’d made a little snafu with our car rental. Since I knew we would arrive late on Friday and would need a day to recover, I had planned for Peter to take a bus from Chania to the airport to pick up the car (a minor nuisance compared to schlepping all of us there, and less expensive than a taxi). However, the car was in my name and Enterprise wouldn’t let us change it. So, we cancelled the car and Peter managed to find a little company in town called Vacanza that not only had a car available in town, but would also drop it off at our hotel for us and had no issues with a one-way rental to Heraklion. Score! So we hung out by the pool and waited for the car. Of course, we had wasted some time figuring out a back-up plan, so rather than our original road trip for the day, we stayed fairly local and went to Iguana Beach, which is not far out of Chania town. It wasn’t the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been to, but it was convenient, full of locals, and had chairs and umbrellas to rent (10 EUR with no specific time limit) that made our stay at the beach lovely.
On our 3rd full day, we left for Elafonisi Beach right after breakfast since it’s about a 1.5-2 hour (beautiful!) drive from Chania. We were really happy to have left early because we were able to park relatively close and easily get chairs and an umbrella. We went to a spot that seemed to have the least possible wind (it was really windy and wind-blown sand stings!), so we never ended up doing the much-discussed walk across a lagoon, but it was a wonderful day regardless. The water here is warm and shallow and the edges have pink sand from ground-up seashells. There were even little fish darting about in the water.
We spent about 2 hours at the beach, including a little stroll around, before heading back to Chania via Elos, a little village with a few quaint restaurants along a waterway. Our restaurant for dinner was alright (Portes), but the real highlight was finishing in time to catch the sunset at a little playground on the water.
In the morning, we headed off to an olive oil tour with Vamos Village. I had originally inquired about the Local Producers tour, but there weren’t enough people to run it, so the Olive Oil Path was a good back-up. We enjoyed the tour and felt like it offered a nice view into local industry. The whole tour took about 4 hours, but we drove ourselves and the tour guide (who was driving the other couple on the tour) was very patient with us since loading up two small kids in a car takes a long time. We stopped in an olive grove and learned about growing olive trees (so labor intensive – farmers everywhere are amazingly dedicated) and tasted the oil pressed from the grove – there isn’t much that’s better than copious amounts of olive oil poured over fresh bread with a little sea salt and fresh oregano. Then, we went to a modern oil press and looked at the high tech way to press oil, followed by a visit to a monastery that had its own mill, and then lunch in a little village restaurant. The monastery was particularly beautiful and really well cared for even today. Our tour guide moved from Athens several years ago with her young son, and it was a great way to learn about life with children in Greece. She loved James and Julia and even held James while we listened to parts of the tour.
Even though the drive from Chania to Heraklion is only about 2 hours, we wanted to break up the time with a stop. We’d already done some beaches and a whole day of learning about olive oil, plus it was really hot, so we decided on the springs of Argiroupoli. We parked near the springs and only intended to take a short walk, but ended up on a trail that led up into the town above and were so glad we did. The springs were gorgeous and refreshing to see, and the town looked like quintessential Greece with its windy pedestrian streets.
A bunch of gossiping grandmas fawned over the kids in Greek and offered Julia biscuits, an old man noticed me admiring a beautiful door and opened it to show us Venetian olive mill hiding inside, and a fountain outside a church had refreshingly cold water when we were thirsty since we’d left our bottle in the car (only expecting to take a short walk). We had lunch in town and then made our way back to the car. It was also a really neat way to see the way kids bounce back during travel (and a lesson in why we should bring more snacks) – Julia loved the springs, HATED the hike and complained the whole way about the heat and how “tired” she was (literally 50 feet in after she’d been sitting in the car for an hour), but then that granny offered her a biscuit and she was suddenly ready to explore the town.
After arriving and settling into Heraklion, we took a look at the weather forecast and the following day was supposed to be the least hot, so we decided to brave the Minoan Palace of Knossos with the kids. This was a site I really wanted to visit, so I’m glad that we went, but it wasn’t the most fun or kid-friendly activity we did while in Crete. Even though we visited early, the tour groups pretty much stood in the way or ran us over at every turn, and reading the limited signage was challenging with two kids. Also, most of the site’s frescoes have been moved to museums, so what’s left is largely a re-creation (as opposed to frescoes we saw in Egypt that are still original and well preserved many years later, albeit with an even drier climate). However, it is still really amazing to stand in a site that was built 4,000 years ago and I would have been sad to go all the way to Crete and not see it. There are tons of stairs and crumbling boulders here, so we were all grateful for the baby carriers, even if carrying the kids around in the heat was challenging. We made our way back to Heraklion and went to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum as an opportunity to borrow their air conditioning while learning some more about Cretan history. Julia was too interested in the jewelry and giant vessels for wine/olive oil to nap (pros/cons of toddlers in museums!), but the museum was a nice place to walk around for an hour or two. It was another place that we probably would have enjoyed more without kids and with a tour guide, but I think part of travel is that you appreciate it at all stages of life and this is the one we’re in, so I’m going to appreciate staring at the amethyst and gold jewelry for 5 minutes simply because it’s purple and sparkly, while walking right by things that I might personally find more interesting. The night before, we had befriended a fruit seller whose apricots were delicious, plentiful and cheap. It was so hot and our kitchen was well-equipped, so we decided to have a light dinner that was heavy on fruit and did some shopping at the little local markets for vegetables, bread and cheese. Vegetables and fruit in Crete are so inexpensive and delicious that by eating a simple vegetarian meal of sauteed vegetables, bread and cheese with apricots for dessert, the whole meal cost less than 8 EUR.
With another hot forecast ahead of us, Peter took over planning for a day and we headed to the Lasithi plateau to go spelunking. There are two cave locations considered to be the mythical place where the Greek god Zeus was raised and hidden from his infanticidal father, one of which is the Psychro cave. We stopped at the even smaller Kronios cave on the way up, which felt more rugged – it was a short drive off the main road with a little hike and there was even a goat skeleton in the cave and a cave toad! Parking at the Psychro cave was relatively simple, although we were glad to have cash to pay the parking attendant. It’s a short but hot hike up a relatively unshaded path (there are donkeys you can ride, but they didn’t look too excited about their work) to the entrance, which costs 6 EUR for adults. The inside was deliciously cool and beautiful and easy to navigate with the kids in their carriers (i.e., handrails and largely paved paths, so we just exercised caution, but didn’t need to watch our heads or anything). There does seem to be less care taken to prevent evidence of humans than at similar caves in the U.S. – for example, most of the pools were full of coins people had thrown in, and other visitors felt up the stalagmites like teenagers, which can degrade them over time. At the bottom of the hike there are a coupe of restaurants and a juice stand, so we indulged in some fresh pomegranate juice to cool off after walking back down.
On our last full day in Heraklion, we took another day trip down south to Matala, which is a beach with caves! The cliffside caves were either ancient tombs or dwellings, depending on whom you ask, and hippies lived in them for awhile in the sixties. The beach is pebbly and has waves, so it was very different from western Crete beaches like Elafonisi. Julia had fun digging in the pebbles and splashing in the waves, and similar to other beaches, there were umbrellas and chairs to rent (we didn’t realize there was a parking lot just behind the beach for a small fee, so we parked along the street much further away and walked). We didn’t spend too long at the beach because we wanted time to explore the caves before the kids turned into pumpkins. There’s an entrance fee of about 2 EUR per person and the guardian gently warned us to be careful with the children. It was a windy day and there are no guard rails other than a chain link fence preventing unauthorized access to the site, so there’s nothing to prevent falling and it can be a little slippery since the cliffs are basically just soft sandy stone. The caves range in size, but the smaller, lower ones are perfect for kids to play in – Julia made herself a pretend restaurant and could have stayed all day, but it was uncomfortable for the adults to stand in the sun with the wind whipping sand and dust on us, so we spent about 30-40 minutes climbing around before heading for lunch. I don’t think any of the restaurants along the beach are going to win Michelin stars, but they provide a comfortable place to look out over the beautiful scenery and sip a beer, so I was still glad we ate where we did.
Where We Ate
We ate at some fantastic places, some okay places, and some places that were really just locations for the view. Highlights included:
Hotel breakfast (Chania) – no but seriously, it was so good. See notes in where we stayed above.
Theodosi (Chania) – this place was geographically very close to our hotel, but we didn’t figure out the best way to walk to it (on a little hillside trail below the restaurant) until the way home. It’s high on a hill where there are epic sunset views and the food was delicious. There was a pretty good kids menu (Julia had some chicken souvlaki that was really good), non-alcoholic drinks so she felt special, great local wine, and excellent food. I had stuffed vegetables that were delicious, and the local specialty apaki pork appetizer was phenomenal. It’s also on a very low-traffic street, so Julia and I were able to take a walk to get some energy out while we waited for our food.
Taverna Lappa (Argiroupoli) – nestled under a large olive tree that has some toys for kids, this little place had one of the best moussakas in Crete and great dolmadas, as well as good draft beer (it was called Karma, and we never saw it on tap elsewhere).
Peskesi (Heraklion) – for the most part, Greece was a vacation from my husband’s corn/soy allergies because it’s not as common for animals to be fed those things in Greece as in the U.S., and they aren’t part of the traditional cuisine. Peskesi actually uses corn starch in their sauces, but the food preparation here was so interesting and unique, and they really knew what was in their food and were not only helpful with finding the right things for us to eat, but also tolerated some really challenging behavior from Julia. The coolest dish we ordered was a sage-smoked pork chop – they put burning sage in a wax paper dome with the pork chops when they come off the grill and then lift off the covering when they get to the table. Other great touches included a changing table in the bathroom (so uncommon!) and the complimentary raki at the end of the meal, as well as some lemonade for Julia so she would feel included. Raki is commonly served as a gesture of hospitality, but this was infused with a local flower that smelled similar to geranium and it was amazing.
Erganos (Heraklion) – another very kid-friendly place (changing table right in a side dining room!). This spot had delicious antikristo lamb (Cretan specialty) and the sauteed greens with lemon that were common on menus in Crete were particularly good. They were super friendly with the kids and the location was neat – it’s right on the other wide of the Venetian wall from a large park and outdoor concert venue. There was a classical concert the night we ate there, so we got some relaxing dinner music with our dinner.
Overall, we loved our stay on Crete. We met many couples who have returned annually over decades, so clearly we aren’t the only ones. People just love to chat up a family with small kids, which is one of the many reasons we chose Greece as James’ first big trip. Despite some occasionally horrific behavior (mostly from our threenager) in restaurants, no one looked even remotely bothered and in many cases they would do their best to entertain/distract/pacify either or both kids. The food was great, too – I felt like we were always eating, yet with all the walking (and sweating), I lost weight on vacation because the Cretan diet has so many vegetable options. It was a welcome “vacation” from Peter’s allergies and would be a great fit for vegetarians, vegans, or people who can’t eat gluten (yes, there’s lots of bread, but rice and potatoes are also common and readily available). Crete was also relatively inexpensive compared to Santorini or other European vacations, so we spent about $100/night on really great accommodations and didn’t blow our budget on food, either.