travel guide: chania, crete, greece
BFJ’s sister Caitlin here! As you may have seen on Brittany’s feed, this past May we went on a 10-day family vacation to Chania, Crete, Greece. Many of you have asked what we did (and more importantly, where we ate), so I have outlined our adventures below as well as ways you can find more information!
Before I dive into the trip, I first want to give the stunning Villa Malaxa a shout out. We found the villa on Airbnb and it was absolutely breathtaking. Because we love authentic experiences, we decided to stay outside the tourist areas. Malaxa is a small village on top of a literal mountain. The road to get up is windy and we drove past many herds of sheep that sometimes sat in the middle of the road. The view all the way up was spectacular. When we first arrived at Villa Malaxa, Stefanos greeted us personally (even though it was 1am) and gave us a tour of his stunning villa. Stefanos told us that Malaxa was his home village and it was ravished by World War II. The only reason his father survived the war was because his grandmother dressed him up as a young girl so the Nazis wouldn’t murder him. When the area was bombed, his house was destroyed. Stefanos built the villa from the actual rubble of his family’s home, which took him years. It’s really an incredible story - and what a legacy to his family. On one side the villa is an ocean view, and on the other side was mountains – it was idyllic. We had a massive deck with a wading pool and a very friendly cat who lived on premises that we named Costos.
My Mom, aka our tour captain and motivator, woke us bright and early to hit the olive farms and vineyards of Crete. For this adventure and our grand welcome to Crete, we enlisted the help of a tour group and selected Chania Wine Tours. Vasili and Anna Maria picked us up right on time (with mimosas and cheese pies in hand) and off we went! I’m sure no one reading this will be shocked that Brittany ate most of the cheese pies.
Anna Maria and Vasili just recently started their company. They are Greek-Americans who moved to Crete from California and Massachusetts 5 years ago (Anna Maria is from Methuen). They have many different excursions you can choose from, and we selected the whole sha-bang which included tours of St John the Hermit’s cave, Biolea olive oil farm and factory, and two vineyards.
Biolea Olive Oil is possibly the best I’ve ever tasted. It is entirely organic, made with olives grown in the family's own farm, and made the old-fashioned way. The olives are crushed with granite stones, then the paste is smeared onto round plastic mats which are then squished until the oil from the olives collects. We bought a few too many bottles for our suitcases (*you can buy this in the US at select locations, some in New England).
The first wine tasting we did was at the Wines of Crete shop. One of the wonderful things about Crete is the community there, and this is a perfect example of that. Vineyards are many people’s livelihoods, and to ensure all vineyards are represented in the Cretan wine industry, Wines of Crete supports everyone. Crete is known for their whites and roses, and they have several native grapes. The wines were delicious and very interesting! Nothing like we have here in the states.
Later on in the day, we visited the oldest olive tree in the world, a man-made lake made specially for bird migration, and had some raki and fruit in the sunshine. Raki is a huge part of the Cretan diet, they drink it before and/or after each meal to aid digestion. It certainly does clear the palate, but I can’t say it went down smoothly for me, it tasted a bit like moonshine. Then we went to Manusakis Winery for lunch and more tastings. Again, the wines were wonderful and our traditional lunch of grape leaves, Greek salad, and youvetsi really hit the spot (*youvetsi is a delicious Greek stew made with beef or lamb and orzo pasta, cooked in a red sauce and baked – amazing!).
Our first day was wonderful and Anna Maria and Vasili perfectly kicked off our trip! We stayed in touch with them for the rest of our time in Crete and they provided great advice and suggestions, making us feel right at home.
After a slow morning (adjusting to the time change), we set off on a very BFJ-esque food adventure. Britt caught wind of this local place that makes bougatsa, or fried cheese pies with sugar and cinnamon for breakfast. After a few circles around in the tiny streets, we found it and enjoyed a delicious (albeit somewhat heavy) breakfast of baked cheese in a sweet pastry puff.
After breakfast, we explored the port of Chania. What’s amazing about the port is that it has looked the same for thousands of years. We walked out to the light house point, took a lot of pictures of the old wall, and explored some shops on the water front. Then we decided to venture to one of Crete’s famous beaches. We read about this amazing beach called Seitan Limania, a “secret” beach on the other side of town. After some questionably windy roads, you suddenly emerge at the end of a cliff with no guard rails, barely wide enough for two cars. The road down the mountain is a series of four incredibly sharp and steep switch back turns. When we got to the bottom, we noticed the beach was wedged between two crevices and required a hike down. Since we valued our lives and didn’t feel all that confident in our cliff climbing skills, we admired the beach from above and journeyed back up the dangerous road to find some lunch. If heights aren’t your thing, do NOT go here! If you love a little adventure and aren’t afraid to climb, this would be a great beach for you.
For lunch, we stumbled on this wonderful family owned restaurant - Bourakis. When we asked our server what his favorites were on the menu he quickly said, “I cannot say because my Mom does all the cooking!” We had chicken and pork souvlaki (grilled meat), a fresh Greek salad, fried zucchini flowers (a specialty on Crete), and cheese stuffed peppers. It was so fresh and delicious. Then we went back to Malaxa for some much-needed rest time before dinner.
For dinner, we made our way back down the mountain to the old city to see what it was like at night. It was a warm night, so we strolled around and finally stumbled on this adorable place off the main street for dinner - Kalderimi. With some delicious rose, we consumed all the Greek pasta dishes and seafood and ate our fair share of garlic cloves in the tzatziki – well worth it.
We slept pretty much all morning before finally getting ourselves organized and out the door by late afternoon. My Dad, who isn’t much of a planner, discovered a cooking class in Vamos village and we booked it! Vamos is a traditional village, one of the few still standing after the devastation of World War II. It gives tourists insight into what a normal Cretan village would have looked like thousands of years ago.
We arrived early and ventured around the little town. The cooking class was in an 18th century olive oil mill/barn with a working kitchen built in. Koula Barydakis, a native Cretan woman and an amazing chef, was our host for the day. For the rest of the afternoon and evening we learned how to make traditional Mediterranean dishes like zucchini fritters, grape leaves, traditional lamb, cheese pies, and tzatziki. Our experience with Koula was amazing. She taught us about all the healing powers of the Cretan herbs and how that’s lead Cretans to have one of the best health records in the world. We learned so much about the food and culture of Crete and took home her personal cook book! This was one of our favorite experiences and ended with my Dad and Koula tearfully hugging because she reminded my Dad so much of his Greek grandmother.
Probably my entire family’s favorite day, if we had to choose. We woke up early and chartered a yacht to take us to some of the other islands surrounding Crete.
Our first stop of the day was Gramvousa, a spectacular fort built on top of an island cliff. We set out to the top with our guide George and had breathtaking views from every direction. The fort was built by the Venetians during their occupation in the 14th century and as many as 3000 people lived there at one time.
Then, we set out to the famous Balos Lagoon. A beach that’s so beautiful it’s difficult to explain! Wedged between 2 mountains, a sprawling sand bar with crystal clear water slowly slopes off to slightly deeper water where you can swim. The sand is tinted pink from the coral. You are legit on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
After a couple hours on Balos, we shipped off for a secret beach in Kissamos where we jumped off the boat into the aqua water and explored some caves and the rocks along the shore line of the beach. We had a nice lunch of cheese pies and wraps. Then our talented captain drove us quite literally into a cave (without careening into the rocks miraculously) so we could see what it looked like inside. As the sun was starting to go down, we headed back to the port for, what else? Our next meal!
Anna Maria from Chania Wine Tours recommended their friend Persephone to cook a traditional meal for us. Being in Malaxa, we had incredible views of the city and ocean below, so we set up camp on the porch for dinner to watch the sunset. Persephone cooked more amazing food than we could ever eat! Starting with some cheese and traditional smoked meats, we got a salad of Cretan greens with pomegranate, goat cheese, walnuts, and onions. Then we moved onto the fish course of octopus with red onion and fava bean (which I totally devoured). The next course was a Cretan pasta with roasted red peppers and fresh goat cheese – amazing! And to finish us off Persephone brought out roasted chicken and potatoes. To say we were stuffed is an understatement. Persephone and her server Nikki were adorable and amazing humans in general and we had a lovely chat with them as we wrapped up the evening. I would highly recommend them if you are looking for an authentic Cretan dinner and don’t want to leave your Airbnb.
Today we decided to get a private history tour of the old city. The Boston Food Journal herself was admittedly half asleep for most of this day (she doesn’t do history). My Dad and I however were TOTALLY into it – geek alert, I know.
We met our tour guide, Vasiliki, right outside the town market and from there started walking! Let’s just say we all wished we had worn sneakers that day. Vasiliki was incredibly knowledgeable on the history of Crete and the old city. Crete is an island that has been conquered by many peoples – the Venetians, the Turks, and the Germans in World War II before finally coming back into Greek control. As a result, it has a unique architecture and blend of culture. I will spare you a long history lecture here, but let me just say, if you love history you should have Vasiliki show you around.
We were starving after walking almost six miles, so we headed to the nearest gyro stand! Shaved pork, French fries, tzatziki sauce, and lettuce and tomato wrapped in a fresh warm pita – pure heaven. I admit I was a fool and did not write down the name of this particular place, I’m not sure it had a name! But in any case, it was right in the port, next to the fountain in the square, if that helps. After our gyro, we headed back to Malaxa to relax our tired feet for a bit.
This night we had one of our favorite dinners at Oinoa Wine Bar! We had three bottles of wine with our dinner, watched the sun set over the ocean next to an ancient fort, sat there until very late, and had shots of raki with honey with our wonderful waitress Christina. The saffron mussels were delicious – a must have dish if you go there. Pro tip: Make reservations in advance because they get booked up and can’t take walk ins.
Our last day in Chania! Today we decided to go on a good old-fashioned adventure. We spent the afternoon researching beautiful beaches and took some recommendations into consideration from our friends Persephone and Anna Maria. We decided to venture over to a beach called Falassarna, which according to Persephone was a local’s beach. The ride started getting steeper and steeper, with more and more twists and GPS mishaps, but eventually we rounded a corner and below us was a white sandy beach wedged between two mountain ranges with cute beach umbrellas and a beach bar. Given that this beach was not nearly as treacherous to get to as Seitan Limania, we were excited. We posted up under one of the umbrellas and had a very relaxing day at the beach with frozen drinks and fresh and delicious food from the bar. The beach was so relaxing and far away from the tourist areas. If you are looking for a great spot for a beach day, I would recommend making the trek to Falassarna, you won’t be disappointed.
We decided to cruise around the old town one final time to pick up any last-minute souvenirs and do something simple for dinner. Our tour guide Vasiliki from earlier in the week had recommended we try her favorite gyro place – Delish. This was the best gyro I’ve ever had. If you are looking for a quick dinner and want to taste pure heaven, stop at Delish. It’s on the edge of the old city, so may be a bit of a walk, but well worth it.
We woke up early and made the two-hour drive to Heraklion. Our flight was leaving early from there the next morning, so we thought it would be fun to spend a day and see what Heraklion had to offer.
After checking into the hotel and grabbing a latte, we were picked up by our guide Panos to do a tour of Knossos, one of Europe’s oldest cities and home to the famous Minoan ruins. Panos was incredibly knowledgeable and gave us a great private tour of the ruins. Again, I’ll spare you the history lecture, but the magnitude of these ruins and the palace this ancient civilization was able to build was really striking. After the tour of the ruins, we walked around the center of town. Heraklion has a much different vibe than Chania. It’s more of a college town, a lot of young people, and not quite as much of an “old time” feel. Heraklion was completely leveled during World War II, so unfortunately none of the old architecture or ancient city center survived as it did in Chania. There was a more “happening” night scene, so if you are into clubbing and bars open late, it is worth staying a night or two.
We went out with a bang for dinner! We got reservations at the highly rated Peskesi, for authentic Cretan cuisine and essentially ate the entire menu. We had the meat sweats when we were done. If you spend the night in Heraklion, check out this spot.
For the record, I crammed 6 bottles of wine, and 3 bottles of olive oil into my suitcase someway somehow, and it was worth the extra money to check my bag. No regrets. We met so many wonderful people in Chania and got to experience the wonderful community there.
Overall, it’s a magical place that’s so often overlooked in the tourism books. If you are planning a trip to Greece, do not ignore Crete. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but well worth the incredible adventure.