Visitors to Crete will find the past is still present Island scenes: You can go from a modern city to ancient ruins and gorgeous beaches.

February 04, 1996|By Melissa Grace | Melissa Grace,SUN STAFF

No matter how overdeveloped, overrun and overpopulated the rest of the world becomes, Crete remains removed, mythical, impervious. Like villages nestled in the Swiss Alps or the high hills of the Himalayas, the people, sights and smells of Crete are from another world.

There are ancient Minoan palaces along the roadside. Skyscraperlike mountains jut from the sea. Although the high, unpaved mountain roads leave travelers choking from the red dust, they offer breathtaking views of the wild, beautiful landscape. The roads will leave many feeling as if they are driving in circles: An old man on his donkey looks like the same old man a driver already passed three times that day.

Travelers cannot hike in the hills of Crete without finding pottery shards from antiquity at practically every fifth step. Visitors climb to see the monasteries of the Greek Orthodox church. The abbot, dressed in flowing black robes and a square-topped black hat, will be there sharing a glass of raki and splitting sunflower seeds with the village men.

The best way to see Crete is to rent a car and drive. Visitors should spend the night in a mountain town and drive to a coastal village for a meal and a dip in the sea. In between, there are places to explore.

Crete is the southernmost and the largest of the Greek isles. A 50-minute flight (120 miles) will get you from Athens to Heraklion, the capital of Crete. Travelers can also go by ferry. From Piraeus, Athens' main port, it is a 12-hour, overnight sail to Crete.

This island is 300 miles north of Libya and the North African coast. On the north shore is the Sea of Crete, and on the south coast is the Mediterranean. In the summer, powerful winds blow north from Africa, particularly in July. The windier beaches and bays serve as campsites for European windsurfers.

When visitors arrive at the airport or seaport of Heraklion, they may rent a car. Reservations can be made from home. Either find a hotel in Heraklion (reservations can also be made from home) if you get in late, or head out into the country.

The farther visitors travel from Heraklion, in any direction, the smaller and more traditional the villages become. The beaches and villages on the west, the south and the east coasts are never crowded. Nor are the roads. But, even remote coastal and mountain villages will have a place for visitors to spend the night and a kitchen to eat in.

Fueled by a breakfast of fresh yogurt drenched in Cretan honey and a ham and feta omelet from the taverna run by the hotel proprietor, the traveler's first order of business should be a swim. Then, pack up the car and hit the road.

Cretan roadsides overflow in the spring with chrysanthemum blooms -- pink, white, purple and violet. The twisting coastal and mountain roads, both paved and unpaved, lead to the hundreds of villages that dot the hillsides, valleys, beaches and coves. In the towns, travelers can eat, drink, sleep, swim and see what Cretan life is about.

Olive groves and vineyards abound.

A morning visit to a monastery also may include a hike, but not always. Many monasteries are high on steep hillsides, where they are nestled deep in mountain gorges. The unapproachable slopes served as protection against marauding pirates of the 14th and 15th centuries.

By the time visitors have toured the ancient grotto, looked over guidebooks, been offered Greek coffee and a chat with the local caretaker, it will be time for lunch.

There are tavernas (restaurants) everywhere. They offer some of the best and definitely some of the freshest food in the world. Cretans eat their fish just off the boat. Octopus has to be tenderized, so it is hung out to dry on clotheslines or smashed against a rock; both methods achieve the desired succulence. The meat is lamb or goat. Between meals, snacks are plentiful -- Greek appetizers and ice cream. There are ice cream boxes in every supermarket, taverna, cigarette kiosk and bar on Crete.

No one will go hungry. But everyone is going to have a pretty

good appetite.

By the time lunch is finished it's midafternoon. In Crete, this is nap time, and, like everywhere else in the Mediterranean, people are snoozing. It's time to join the legions of nappers or go to the beach. The sun isn't as hot as earlier in the day, and visitors will have the beach to themselves.

In either case, travelers should take a minute to breeze through their guide book and find a Minoan site to visit later.

Minoan archaeology

Crete is not the only Greek isle with a history dating back to pre-Homeric times, but the Minoan civilization (roughly 3000 B.C.-1200 B.C.) thrived first on Crete. From there, its culture and influence spread to mainland Greece, Egypt and Asia.

The ancient Minoan sites of Crete are hugely impressive. They have been under excavation for 100 years. The Minoan #i civilization is considered the precursor to the Greeks that Homer wrote about in the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey."

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