We drove into the main square of Neapolis, a hill town in eastern Crete, and couldn’t find our hotel, despite the fact that it was the only one in town. A man in a café pointed out the right street but forgot to mention the No Entry sign. We headed for the next street but that was No Entry too, so we went down the first one we could find and hoped for the best, but were soon back in the main square again. We set off once more, and after a nervous drive through narrow streets you could hardly get a donkey down, we emerged in the main square yet again. The man in the café came over, climbed in the car and guided us to the hotel before walking back to his spot on the square. I had forgotten the kindness of Greeks, and especially Cretans.
Next morning we drove towards the Lasithi Plateau, famous for its picturesque little windmills, but what I enjoyed most was meeting an old man sitting outside his tiny house carving wooden spoons. We bought one of his spoons and he sent us on our way with a plate of fresh figs, oozing juice.
It's in out-of-the-way places you're more likely to experience such kindnesses, and despite Crete's popularity as a tourist island there are still plenty of those. In a month of touring Greece's largest island, researching a guidebook, we found plenty such places which we mentally logged for longer visits next time round.
We drove down a dramatic winding road to Kato Zakros, where we had to pause while a duck crossed in front of us. Kato Zakros has everything for those who like to do nothing. One short street with a restaurant and a few rooms to rent (and a resident duck) backs a beach, and behind the single row of buildings is the archaeological site of ancient Zakros.
This Minoan palace was occupied only from 1600-1450BC, when the Minoan civilisation was swept away, probably by a tidal wave from Santorini. Today little terrapins swim in its old cisterns, and its low-key approach is ideal for this lazy location. Kato Zakros was perfection. If we hadn't had a book to write we'd probably still be there, sitting by the sea eating fresh fish.
On the south coast a place called Souyia worked its magic. No ducks here, except on the menus of the handful of tavernas. At the Lyvikon taverna the owner was charm itself, suggesting we try the oven-baked stew of mountain goat, and perhaps a local cheese on the salad instead of the inevitable feta. With a beach, good food, a few shops and a few places to stay, Souyia had it all, including the impressive backdrop of mountains on the island's dramatic south coast.
Yes, hire a car in Crete and you’ll find that the more you venture off that beaten track, the better Greece gets. With free figs thrown in.
Greece Travel Secrets visits the Cretan Botano herbs and spices shop near Matala in southern Crete in search of the herb man of Kouses.
Greece Travel Secrets visits the Zacharioudakis Winery near Ancient Gortina in southern Crete, and does a vineyard tour arranged by our guide from Go Crete.
Here's a very thorough and helpful city guide to Athens from the UK's Guardian newspaper, for anyone planning a visit.