A narrow 260km-wide ridge lying on the crossroads between Europe, Africa and Asia, Crete is about as far south as you can go without leaving Europe. It's the largest Greek island, and the fifth- biggest island in the Mediterranean.
Much of the north coast is developed - besides the brash modern capital Iraklion (also transliterated as Heraklion) there are large resorts such as Malia, Hersonissos and Agios Nikolaos. The south is more tranquil. Some villages on the coast can be reached only by sea or on foot, but wherever you are on Crete, going a few kilometres inland takes you away from the crowds.
Most visitors arrive on package holidays, though the first direct scheduled flights from the UK begin next summer. Once on the island, you can be as active or inactive as you please. With ancient ruins, sandy beaches, lively resorts, wild mountains and historic towns, Crete packs quite a punch for its size.
WHO LIVES THERE?
Cretans pride themselves on their differences from other Greeks and - because of the formidable mountains straddling the island - each other. Even today, mutually incomprehensible dialects are spoken, while some islanders are campaigning for Cretan to be recognised as a separate language.
If Greece is the cradle of European civilisation, then Crete has a good claim to be its nursemaid. From their base on the island, the ancient Minoans (named after the mythical King Minos) established Europe's first literate civilisation. They ran a state based on commerce rather than military might that was known for its magnificent palaces and advanced administration. Long before mainland Greeks learnt to scratch a few letters, the Minoans were building grand public buildings, trading throughout the Mediterranean and chronicling the gods that became part of Greek mythology. The island's history is certainly distinct. We have a lot to thank the Minoans for, including wine, the merchant state and Classical literature.
For reasons not fully understood - but widely suspected to be the after- effects of the volcano that shattered Santorini - the Minoan civilisation collapsed around 1,500BC and faded into legend. It was only through excavations at the start of the 20th century that the Minoans were revealed to be more than myth. Later, the Myceneans, Dorians, Romans, Venetians and Ottomans all left their mark on the island. After the Turks left in 1898, Crete went its own way until 1913, when it officially became part of Greece.
WHAT CAN I SEE FROM THE GLORY DAYS?
If you prefer your Minoan vestiges in their original setting, head for the Palace of Knossos (00 30 2810 231940), five kilometres south of Iraklion. The largest Minoan palace, it comprised several storeys linked by ceremonial staircases and decorated with vibrant frescoes.
To this day no one is quite sure what the original layout was, or what function each room served. The site - and with it proof the Minoans actually existed - came to light only at the turn of the 20th century during excavations by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. It opens daily except Mondays from 8.30am-7pm (April- September), 8.30am-3pm (October-March), entry EUR6 (pounds 4.30).
Iraklion also has a fascinating archaeological museum (00 30 2810 226092), and boasts an extraordinarily rich collection of Minoan artefacts. In its Hall of the Frescoes, you appreciate how far ahead Minoan artists were for their time. The museum on Xanthoudhidhou Street is open daily from 8am-5pm between October and March, with different opening times in summer. Admission is EUR6 (pounds 4.30), though it is free on Sundays from November to May. If that isn't enough for you, the archaeological museum in Agios Nikolaos (00 30 2841 022462) has a splendid array of Minoan and Greco- Roman items. It opens 8.30am-3pm daily except Monday, entry EUR3 (pounds 2.15). …