As late as the 1960s, Crete was impoverished and inaccessible. You went by train from Victoria to Athens and then took the overnight boat from the port of Piraeus to the old Venetian capital, Heraklion. You travelled in aged buses crammed with livestock and vegetables destined for some local market. And you slept in peasant cottages. The object of the exercise was to tramp around Sir Arthur Evans's flamboyant reconstruction of the magnificent Minoan palace of Knossos, and other less-known pre- Classical sites.
The thuggish Colonels who ruled Greece between 1967 and 1974 put an end to all that. To buy the loyalty of the rebellious and democratically- inclined Cretans they presented the islanders with a motorway along the northern shore. It runs from Heraklion, with its pocket-sized international airport, to Haghios Nikolaos in the Bay of Mirabello, 80 miles west. Endless ribbon development followed. But now Crete can't fill its downmarket hotels and rooming houses. Once again it is looking to sell its complex history to those serious travellers who want more than plate smashing and wet T-shirt contests.
There are several world-class hotels. I stayed at the Elounda Mare complex just outside the undistinguished but unspoilt fishing village of Elounda, five miles from Haghios Nikolaos. Spyros Kokotas, who built these two luxury hotels is an architect by training and an archaeologist by avocation, and it shows. His gentle, three-storey buildings are strongly influenced by the labyrinthine Minoan palaces, with their endless small, shaded rooms, unexpected flights of stairs leading to colonnades and courtyards. The public rooms are decorated with fine antique chests and painted wooden panels, and the walls contain carved stone, Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish, rescued from decaying buildings. In the courtyard are marble Islamic gravestones, all that remains to remind one that, until a relatively benign form of ethnic cleansing of a century ago, the population was 40 per cent Turkish.
When the hotels' luxury palled, I made for Elounda proper, two miles from the complex. I have been fond of this working harbour since I first came across it back in 1958. Then its two 1930s hotels, the Aristea and the Kalypso overlooking the harbour, seemed the height of luxury. Today they seem spartan but spotless and friendly.
An evening here can be spent drinking raki (home-brewed grappa) and eating meze with the local fishermen in a zany Venetian fortress in the middle of the medieval square harbour. It is connected to the shore by a rickety bridge. Then pop in for a night-cap with Sue Baldwin, a bookseller from Dorset who has sold up and moved here to open Eklekytos which, is . . . well, eclectic and only slightly self-conscious. It is a second-hand cum antique book shop specialising in Hellenica at a very moderate price.
A 15-minute boat ride from Elounda harbour is the stunningly beautiful abandoned island of Spinalonga, which neatly encapsulates the violent history of Crete. It was heavily fortified by the Venetians who held out here against the Turkish invaders until 1715, 46 years longer than they did on mainland Crete. Just under two centuries later Spinalonga was used as a refuge for the final thousand or so Turks who stayed on after Turkey ceded control of the island to Greece. The Greek administration turned it into a leper colony, supposedly to make life impossible for the Turks, who duly left for Asia Minor.
Less than 40 years ago lepers were still dumped on the island and left to fend for themselves. They farmed and fished, married, gave birth and eventually died in a grotesque community of the damned. Then the colony was closed and the survivors taken to hospital. Today the ancient village is falling ever more deeply into decay. There is a feeling of …