The Greeks like to say that Chania is their version of Venice. But there are no canals or exorbitantly priced shoes and you don’t keep getting lost, so it’s a gross exaggeration.
Even so, its narrow streets crammed with wispy clothes boutiques and jewellery dens and the pretty waterfront clustered with yellowing, Italianate buildings do have a Venetian feel.
Which is perfectly understandable given that Crete was ruled by Venice from 1204 (it took them eight years to seize total control) to 1669.
Sparkling: Chania in Crete (above), which ‘Greeks like to say is their version of Venice’
And it’s a good place to begin your Crete experience.
The women can buy floaty numbers for beach cover-ups and a bit of funky jewellery that they’ll probably never wear again. The men can treat themselves to a decent pair of shorts that aren’t emblazoned with palm trees or skulls.
In among the cafes in one of Chania’s backstreets, we found what looked like a pet shop with lots of little fish in tanks. It turned out you didn’t buy the creatures, you put your feet in among them.
Now, I thought I was going to Crete to eat lots of snapper, not for their offspring to eat me. But the sensation was quite tingly and pleasant (and a lot less painful and embarrassing than a pedicure) and afterwards I emerged with one pair of vaguely presentable feet. Well, sort of.
That was a good start and Chania, connected to the rest of Crete by a new, largely empty motorway, is a great point from which to explore the less populous parts of the island.
We stayed in an architect-designed three-bedroom villa with complimentary brunch chef (courgette pie her speciality) set in olive groves 15 minutes from the hubbub.
The water in Crete is so clear because there is no algae, which would usually make the sea green.
The owner, Despina, is your willing personal concierge. On her recommendation we drove west, arriving at the wide sweep of Falassarna beach in half an hour. Everyone raved about this spot, but we gave it 6/10. It was a wider version of Sandown in the Isle of Wight and windier.
We headed inland and the road climbed through pine forests and sleepy hamlets, at any of which you can get a strong coffee and the Cretan speciality Spanakopita (spinach pie.)
The road clung to the side of towering canyons, some of which you can hike down. At the dramatic Topolia Gorge there is a parking place just after the village from where you can admire the view, be seduced by the chime of a goat’s bell and a vendor trying to sell you honey, and walk up 200 stone steps to a small chapel in a cave.
A short drive from there is Milia Mountain Retreat, a restored 17th century village that is now an ecolodge (which basically means no Wi-fi.) Back in the car, a half-hour winding descent brings you to the Elafonisi peninsula. This is regularly featured in the world’s top 20 beaches.
Fishy business: Simon Hughes has a pedicure courtesy of a fish tank
It is good because there is plenty of parking, lots of different sections — some with beach umbrellas some without — and the watersports enthusiasts, who these days seem to be mainly surfers hanging from kites, have their own separate lagoon to career about in.
It is not a beach polluted by the relentless drone of chill-out music either. The water is ridiculously clear. But the pink sand for which Elafonisi is famous has mainly disappeared. On a Sunday in mid-June it wasn’t overcrowded.
Another day we headed east of Chania to Seitan Limania, (Satan’s beach) so named because it is a devil to find. You go round the back of a small mountain, left at a cottage, right at a tiny church and take a twisty, precipitous drive to the top of a cliff. It is not for the faint-hearted.
From the small car park, you descend an awkward path, clambering over boulders and across scree and make it to a divine little beach hemmed in by sheer cliffs and populated mainly by young, fit Greeks (and the odd goat.) It is the most awe-inspiring place I have ever swum. I was glad I’d had my feet done.
After the return journey, we needed a good feed. And that is where Chania really delivers. We finally got to eat some fish, sitting on a sun-dappled roof-terrace of the old city palazzo (Pallas) overlooking the harbour. The grilled octopus with a mash of Santorini fava beans was outstanding.
There’s more than enough to do in Crete to keep you happy for a week (we didn’t manage to fit in the wine-tasting, or the sailing lessons or the boat trip to remote Balos Beach), and the food is healthier and more varied than I was expecting, even if they do stuff cheese in everything.
All this for the price of a weekend in Venice.