Largest of the Greek islands, and one of most southerly places in Europe, Crete has little unsettled weather in summer and a relatively sunny winter. Few boats cruise the 560nm of coastline, and often you'll be the only boat at anchor. The north coast plain is the most densely populated, and rises steadily to the massive ridge of mountains that forms the bulk of Crete, with many peaks over 2000m, and sliced by over 30 gorges, including the Samaria Gorge, reputedly the longest in Europe. Major port towns of Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion, Agios Nikolaos and Sitia are spaced fairly evenly along this coast, some 40nm apart, but with few anchorages between compared to other Greek cruising areas. The south coast is very steep to, only accessible by boat in most parts, is much less developed than the north.
The Minoan palace at Knossos, close to Heraklion, is a very popular tourist destination but there are many less well-known palace complexes on the island, notably at Kato Zakros in the east and Phaestos in the south, that attract few tourists and where you can wander in peace. The “old town” areas of Chania, Rethymnon and Herkalion are full of Venetian and Turkish architecture and old mosques and several minarets can be found in all three towns.
The mild winter climate is very good for live aboard wintering. The sea area north of Souda Bay (off the Akrotiri headland/peninsula east of Chania) is a firing range extending up to 20nm to seaward, sometimes closed to yachts during the working week. The Port Police in Chania and Rethymnon can tell you when the range is operating.
Greece, and Boat regulations
Weather, and When to Go.
Over the whole year, Crete is one of the driest and sunniest parts of the Mediterranean - along with Costa del Sol, Malta, Rhodes and parts of the N African coast. This makes it a popular tourist destination from May to mid October, with many summer charter flights to UK, and year round internal flights to Athens. A moderate number of UK expats are in residence.
Places to Visit
North Coast. June to September the winds slightly favour travelling west to east along the north coast, but either direction, a day sailing cruise is feasible. The Meltemi doesn't often blow home, although its swell can roll in from the north. At each end of the island strong summer northerlies are frequent. These build fairly large and confused seas. Locally strong summer northerlies also occur off Ak Maleka (north of Souda Bay) and Ak Ioannis (N of Agios Nikolaos).
- Chania. At the west end of the island Chania is attractive and a busy town which has managed to maintain a lot of local charm around its harbour and marina. This is a possible live-aboard wintering spot and you may find a few hardy souls here, although it's a bit hairy in strong northerlies and it's not recommended.
- Rethymnon is surrounded by tourist development and, although the town itself is crowded, the centre has escaped major development, and is attractive. The "old town" in particular is well worth a look and the massive Venetian fortress is worth seeing too. There's a good yacht harbour with a small but growing live-aboard wintering community.
- Heraklion is the gateway to the Minoan palace at Knossos, and worth a visit as long as you can stand the crowds and blatant tourism in the town. A new harbour framework has been built at Palaoikastro (west of the town) but it is already well filled with local boats and it has shallow patches with less than 2m, so enter with care! Nisis Dhia, 6nm north of Heraklion, has a delighful, if deserted, anchorage on it's south coast.
- Porto Gouves is a small full service marina sited below a tourist hotel some 6nm E of Heraklion - web site www.portogouves.gr. It is very exposed however and is recommended only in calm weather.
- Spinalonga Lagoon, just north of Agios Nikolaos, is superbly sheltered, about 2 nm long, and mostly less than 6m deep. At it's head is the town of Elounda, an old town now given over to tourism but still quite charming. Anchor anywhere convenient and make a point of visiting Spinalonga Island at the entrance to the lagoon both for it's Venetian fortifications and because it was once a leper colony. It was the setting for the book "The Island" by Victoria Hislop.
- Agios Nikolaos has a most unusual setting with a steep sided lake in the centre of town. The popular restaurants around the lake suffer from pushy restaurant touts and they are best avoided. To the south of the town is a good full-service marina, a popular live-aboard wintering spot with an active and lively community - web site http://daean.gr/. There are good beaches east of here at Almyros and Ammoudara.
- Sitia is s small town that has managed to embrace tourism without giving up it's soul, though the ongoing construction of a new international terminal at the airport here may change all that. The pretty harbour is crowded but safe in the summer winds and fronted by bars and tavernas. A walk up to the small Venetian castle is well worth the effort just for the views. Just around the eastern-most headland of Crete, the remarkable palm beach of Vai, a reasonable daytime anchorage in settled summer weather - as long as you don't mind the beach brollies and water sports.
South Coast. Summer sailing along the south coast is feasible in either direction, but there are many wind direction (and strength!) changes as the winds blast down from the mountains and through the many gorges. In meltemi, some of these gusts are very strong, you'll be creaming along on white water for a mile or two in 35 - 45 kts, so make sure you're able to reef quickly. In winter, southerlies are very common; sometimes very strong with a very big seaway. There are only three harbours on the south coast, which is probably best avoided out of season.
- Ierapetra is a large sprawling town at the east end of the south coast. The harbour has a narrow and shallow (2m) entrance and there is really little ro recommend the place. 8nm offshore is the deserted Chrissi Island, a popular tourist boat-trip destination, but a pretty place to anchor for an afternoon.
- Aghia Galini in the centre of the south coast is the only really safe harbour on this coast. The small town is a popular tourist destination but it still has a charm and beauty about it. 7nm south of Aghia Galini is the bay and town of Matala. Matala is famous for the 1st century rock tombs carved into it's sandstone cliffs, these were used in the 1960's and 70's as homes for the hippie colony that was here.
- Loutro is an absolutely beautiful bay and tiny town (hamlet?) that is only accesible by boat. All the houses are painted white with blue shutters and although there are tourists here it retains it's quiet charm. If you walk the Samaria Gorge catch the ferry to Chora Sfakion, it stops at Loutro on the way.
- Paliochora, on the SW corner of Crete, is a pretty spot with a sandy beach and a good, if desolate, harbour. This quiet little village is popular with windsurfers, and accessible by ferry to the Samaria Gorge - a famous but rather crowded walk down the longest gorge in Europe.
- Gramvoussa island at the NW corner is a delightful point to arrive from (or leave for) the Peloponese. No facilities, but well sheltered from the N winds and stunnigly beautiful in a desolate way. Once the tripper boats leave in the afternoon you're on your own. We think it is one of the "must see" places on Crete.
- Attractions. Minoan palace at Knossos, Samaria Gorge, Gramvousa, mild winters.
- Snags. Intrusive influence of tourism in and around large towns.
- Ports of Entry. Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion, Agios Nikolaos.
- Layup or Wintering. Live aboard: Chania (not recommended), Rethymnon (limited space), Agios Nikolaos. Shore hard: Agios Nikolaos
- Transport. Frequent summer charter flights from UK to Heraklion, a few to Chania and one or two to Sitia. Many flights a day to Athens from Heraklion and some from Chania. Several flights a week form Sitia to Preveza. Ferries to Piraeus from Heraklion daily (year round) and Rethymnon daily in season. Seasonal ferries to a variety of Cyclades islands from Rethymnon and Heraklion.
- Boat Charter. Private charter is available in Agios Nikolaos but there are no commercial charters available on the island