Golden beaches, cosmopolitan harbour towns and myth-spiked historical sites are yours for the taking on a holiday to the Lassithi area of Crete.
The Lassithi area takes up residence in Crete’s east wing. This part of the island has a finishing school-style refinement to it. It leaves the rustic hamlets and rugged coastlines to the west of the island, and in their place, it puts cosmopolitan harbour towns and pretty beach resorts.
Agios Nikolaos is one such harbour town. The focal point of this place is Lake Voulismeni. This inland lake is surrounded by cafes, ice cream parlours and bars. Beyond here, the town’s complexion changes to incorporate streets full of jewellery and olive oil shops. Agios Nikolaos’ outskirts, meanwhile, are characterised by a handful of small sandy beaches.
Elounda is the flagship of Lassithi’s beach resorts. Its main square is just a few steps away from its sandy beach, so holiday makers can go from sand to shop to seaside café in the drop of a hat.
Spinilonga is the most name-dropped of Lassithi’s sights. This island, a 15-minute boat ride from Elounda’s harbour, was made famous by Victoria Hislop’s best-selling novel, The Island. It was Europe’s last leper colony and scores of lepers lived here, in exile from the mainland, until 1957.
Things to See and Do in Lassithi area
A to Z of beaches
The Lassithi area’s beaches come in dolly-mixture variety. There are Blue Flag ones, family-friendly ones, and ones that are right in the heart of towns, like Elounda and Agios Nikolaos. Plenty of Lassithi’s beaches fall into the off-the-beaten track category, too. You don’t have to go far to find them, either – quiet coves like Kolokytha lie within a 15 kilometre radius of the main resorts.
The big beach
Almyros Beach in Agios Nikolaos has a reputation for being one of the Lassithi area’s best beaches. It’s a 5-minute drive north from the centre of town, along the seafront and Ammoudiou Street. The attention it gets speaks for itself. This place is very rarely deserted. Families favour it most, thanks to its calm waters and soft sand.
The secret beach
Kolokytha Beach is kept under wraps. The golden sand here is unadorned by the trappings of tourism. There aren’t any places selling food, so most visitors bring their own picnics. One some days, boat trips stop for lunch on the beach, but the rest of the time, it’s pretty much empty.
For shoestring shopping, head to the Lassithi area’s markets. In Agios Nikolaos, stalls are set up on a Wednesday morning, next to the marina. Elounda’s market, meanwhile, takes place in the main square on Fridays. In both places, you can pick up traditional Cretan products like thyme honey, olive oil and sponges, while locals shop for their weekly fruit and veg supplies.
Olive wood is eastern Crete’s signature souvenir. Craftspeople carve everything from fruit bowls to chessboards out of the trunks of olive trees. Prices range from 10 to 20 euros for smaller items to 100-plus euros for more labour-intensive work. The streets near Lake Voulismeni in Agios Nikolaos and around Elounda’s main square are the places to go to stock up.
If your money is burning a hole in your pocket, head to Agios Nikolaos. Nikou Plastira Street and the road leading up to the harbour from Lake Voulismeni are full of jewellery shops, where artisan jewellers craft their own pieces. Gold is the most popular material used and you’ll find it combined with amethyst, turquoise and jade to make rings.
There are so many good restaurants in Agios Nikoloas that it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. Help in choosing comes in the form of TripAdvisor reviews – some of the highest ranked eateries cluster around Koundourou Street. Lake Voulismeni, meanwhile, is the place to go for post-dinner coffees and sky-scraping ice-cream sundaes. If you’re in Elounda, head to the restaurants next to the marina. Some of them have floating seating sections in the sea.
Agios Nikolaos doesn’t scrimp on bars. For cocktails and continental beers, head to Martinou Street. Alternatively, try Lake Voulismeni. There are rooftop bars here, which play music into the early hours. For live rock, Yanni’s Rock Bar on Iosif Koundourou Street is a local institution. Elounda is a little bit shier than Agios Nikolaos when it comes to night life, but there are a few-late night bars and pubs in the main square.
Every bakery worth its salt serves kalitsounia. They’re often described as pies, but they’re more like miniature pasties. They’re made from flaky pastry and filled with soft – usually mizithra – cheese. They’re around-the-clock snacks, and it’s common to eat them for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Lychnarakia are kalitsounia in a sweet guise. They’re made in an almost identical way to the savoury cheese pies, except the sweet recipe calls for vanilla, honey, lemon rind and cinnamon to be added to the cream cheese mixture. Some bakeries make grown-up lychnarakia by adding raki to the pastry.
This tongue-twister of a dish is the Lassithi area’s take on Cretan pilaf. It’s made by boiling rice in meat stock and adding spaghetti. In some restaurants, this dish will come out looking like a broth, with chunks of meat included. In others, it will look more like a risotto and will be served with seafood.
Stuffed courgette flowers
Courgettes crop up a lot in Cretan cuisine, but this dish is different in that it uses the plant’s flowers. They’re cut off the top of the vegetable and stuffed with cheese, before being fried. In the Lassithi area, they’re usually added to platters of mezze.
This is the Lassithi area’s brand of firewater. Most villages in the region produce their own varieties of this clear spirit. It’s made from the skins of grapes and its APV can vary from 35 to 65 per cent, depending on where it’s made. Lots of tavernas in the Lassithi area serve it as a digestif after dinner.
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Elounda is a seaside town on Crete’s northwestern coast. It’s an up-and-coming retreat that revolves around a colourful harbour and the main square just next door. The place is packed with authentic Greek tavernas and friendly bars – it also comes with a sandy beach that looks out to the intriguing Spinalonga Island. It’s quite a lively spot, but if you want more action there’s Agios Nikolaos just 15 minutes’ drive away.
Prina is a pocket-sized village nestled on the side of pine-clad mountains in southern Crete. Think traditional Greece – just a handful of narrow streets, whitewashed houses with terracotta rooftops and olive groves all around. There’s a real taste of local life in the snug tavernas and village shops, but if you fancy some sun and sand, the white sand beach is just down the road. And so is the town of Agios Nikolaos, the nightlife centre in these parts.
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