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Spending winter in Crete

[ 1 ] August 5, 2013 |

Back in 2011 we were rugged up in stunningly gorgeous but frigidly cold Veliko Tarnova in Bulgaria. It was Christmas day in the middle of a winter cold snap, the snow was knee deep outside and while it was beautiful to look at we were a bit over the cold. That’s when we came up with what we thought was a brilliant idea: “Let’s go to Crete!”

When you are facing several more weeks of predicted sub zero snowy days,  an island where the weather was 15 degrees warmer sounds tempting. Sure, in winter the weather in Crete is a little fickle with a mix of sunny days and blustery rainy days but still, surely being on a Greek Island even on a cold windy, wet day would still be worth it. Right? And being off season it would be quiet and cheap!

Another travelling family that we knew had the same plan and had been talking with several of the hotel complexes in the small towns surrounding Heraklion about renting an apartment over winter. We joined in on their negotiations and soon found a place to stay. We were on our way to Crete in winter!

Heraklion harbour

So was it a good decision? Well yes, and no. Crete is breath-taking no matter the time of year. So stunning you can’t stop saying “wow” around every corner, quickly followed by “look at that” and “can you believe we’re in Crete” while you jump up and down like an excited school kid. I’m not joking, it really is that beautiful and yes, I really was that excited that whole time. The historic sites are amazing and the scenery is jaw dropping. Crete’s beaches, the mountains and coastline are lovely and on a sunny winter’s day, the water is so clear you almost want to jump in. We did get our feet in a few times despite the wintery chill.

Off season is certainly a more affordable time to visit. You will save a lot of money on accommodation and hiring transport. It’s quiet, which is really lovely. The shoulder season would be even nicer thanks to the warmer temperatures but even winter had it’s appeal. We did learn some important lessons from our time there that would have been wonderful to know before going though.

They’re not kidding when they say Crete is quiet in winter

Outside of the larger cities, Crete in off-season takes on a ghost-town like quality. The smaller villages who rely on summer holidays to Crete as their primary source of income all shut down. And I don’t just mean the resorts. This was the mistake we made. We knew the resorts would be shut down but we assumed the services would still be open for the locals. What we didn’t realise was that these smaller services all shut down over winter and people living in these small villages drive to nearby towns to shop at larger stores. In the villages everything shuts. The convenience stores, the restaurants, the museums and petrol stations. Go for a 30 minute walk and you’ll be unlikely to encounter anything open. It’s unlikely you’ll see a single person.

We were in a village 30 minutes drive outside of Heraklion. Having those quiet lanes and beaches totally to ourselves was lovely but it had it’s drawbacks. The buses were irregular in winter, there were no nearby restaurants or stores and to get a loaf of bread was  a 1 hour return walk. Self-catering was really hard without transport.

However ten minutes drive away by car was a small town with a supermarket, a number of small restaurants and a lovely community feel when we felt the need to interact with other people after wandering all day along beaches and lanes without seeing another person. As soon as we realised that we rented a car for 100 euros per week. Monthly rates were even better. It certainly made being in Crete during winter more enjoyable. With the reduced bus service and so many shops shut, we went from feeling trapped and isolated to being able to enjoy the quiet villages and get the most out of our stay. Without kids, I probably would have rented a bike and happily spend days cycling my way around nearby destinations.

The secret to enjoying winter in Crete if you want to be in a smaller village – have your own transport!

It’s also worth noting that a lot of the smaller museums, except for those in Heraklion, close down over winter. Places like Knossos have shorter opening hours and will most likely be closed on Sundays and during the Christmas holiday period.

What if quiet isn’t your thing?

If the quiet village life doesn’t appeal for you, look for any town or city with a population greater than 20,000 people.

Heraklion and Chania are cities with a large enough local population that everything is still open. Heraklion was really busy at times, with some of the craziest streets I’ve seen … and I’ve been to Vietnam and Sri Lanka. But it had a lovely vibe with a great mix of cafes, parks, historic sites, nearby beaches, markets and museums.

Mid sized cities and larger towns like Rethimon and Agios Nikolaos were quiet but still had enough going on that they didn’t feel like ghost towns. We really liked Agios Nikolaos. On a sunny day there were people out walking everywhere but if still felt quiet and relax. The stunning beaches, crystal clear harbour and lake certainly helped endear the town!

Lake Agios Nikolaos

Winter is a good option for a longer stay, shoulder season is better for a short visit.

The weather in winter is fickle. You are going to loose several sight seeing days each week due to bad weather. Museums and other attractions have shorter opening hours over winter. Some shut on weekends. Others shut for the entire Christmas period, which can mean they are shut for almost two weeks. Bus schedules are more irregular.

None of these things are bad – they just mean you need to allow yourself more time for your visit.

Wintertime is the time to come to Crete if you plan on coming for a month or longer. If a shorter holiday is what you have in mind, plan to come during the shoulder seasons of April – May and August – early October. You can find very cheap holidays during these months that avoid the peak season crowds but still have the benefits of lovely weather and everything being open. If we were planning a second visit I’d be researching coming to Crete in September-October.

Resort apartments are designed for summer

Our single biggest mistake was renting an apartment in a holiday resort complex. It only took us a day to realise that our apartment had been perfectly designed with the Cretan summer in mind … not with the winter.

No one rents holiday apartments in winter so why should their reverse cycle air conditioning actually warm the apartment to a temperature where you can actually feel or fingers or their solar water system heat the water to the point that you don’t get frost bite taking a shower? Our hot water system did not handle the diminished winter sunlight nor the occasional wet day, even with the occasional electric boost. We froze the entire time. There was nothing we or the landlord could do, the apartment simply wasn’t build to be inhabited over winter.

Renting a local apartment would have been smarter. These are designed to handle year-round temperatures.

It would most likely have been cheaper too. Because we were travelling with friends and they wanted to book ahead of time, we agreed with their decision to book the resort apartment. We paid 600 euros for the month for a two bedroom apartment, including heating and water. I’m sure if we had of arrived in Crete and found something in person it would have been cheaper. And warmer.

Vista point with lodge

It’s not as warm as you’d think

When the sun is out, winter in Crete is glorious. We spent those days in long sleeves and jeans. Even occasionally t-shirts or shorts.  The extra few hours of sunlight each day was certainly a nice change too. But when the weather changes it really chills down. It was as cold as a wet, windy winters day in London or Melbourne.

Despite the fact that it was still 12 degrees, it felt as cold as those snowy days in Bulgaria. It wasn’t so much the brief showers of rain but the blustery winds. In the two weeks we ended up staying in Crete at least one-third of the days were like this. That’s when you were grateful for a car so that you could drive to Heraklion or another large town and spend your time in museums or exploring historic sites. The sunny days did make up for it. They really were glorious.

West of Heraklion

There’s a lot to recommend Crete in winter. When the sun is out it’s glorious. 15+ degrees and sunshine all day. The water is clear and it’s warm enough to enjoy being at the beach, hiking or sitting outside in a cafe. You’re also only a few hours drive from snow!

But I don’t think it’s the type of island that you can rent an apartment over the internet and just show up, unless you know the island well.  Come to Crete first for a few nights to find the right location and apartment. Many of the villages are really, really quiet so you want to find one that offers you exactly what you want – whether that’s access to services and cafes or solitude. You also want to be certain that your apartment is designed for the winter. Alternatively come in the shoulder season when more things are open. Prices might not be quite as cheap but the weather will be as nicer and it will be quiet but not too quiet.

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Category: Europe

About onurwaytravel: Colin has been travelling the world with his young family for the past 2 and half years. He runs a couple of websites all revolve around travel, family travel and digital nomadism. His websites include http://ourtravellifestyle.com, http://vagabondfamily.org, http://nunomad.com and now http://on-our-way-travel.com. View author profile.

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