For our late Sept.-early Oct. 2019 trip, we also used Rough Guide and Lonely Planet books for planning. For starters, one used different spelling for some places, which was actually helpful. Iraklio, Hania, and Festos, for example, are closer to how those places are actually pronounced, and if you’re not using the Greek alphabet anyway, they turned out to be better spellings for our purposes. You could find alternative spellings for a location in your research, too.
Anyway, we also started in Iraklio, and flew home from Hania. In between, we drove a basically clockwise route, including central, eastern, southeastern, and south-central parts of Crete, staying many places. Although we certainly didn’t see all of Crete, being in more than just those two biggest cities was rewarding and very worthwhile.
On a previous trip to Greece, we did a private guided tour of the ancient site and museum at Olympia with Nikki, Rick Steves’ prime guide who’s been featured in his TV shows. We e-mailed her about an expert for Knossos, and hired her recommendation, Maria. Increasingly, we’ve found guides really helpful at archaeological sights, especially at popular places. They help us get through, or away from crowds, and also can help with understanding the history and function of a structure that would otherwise just seem to be a pile of stones. Took taxi to Knossos, met Maria at the gate, then took the bus back. Iraklio was close to Knossos, and our hotel was just a short walk to the Archaeological museum.
Regarding the museum, late September wasn’t high tourist season, but I’d have to think that July will have more crowds. Still, we learned that at least one huge cruise ship had arrived, and wave after wave of ship tour groups flooded into the room with the incredible frescoes from the Knossos palace, then just one other room. The rest of the museum didn’t get such a crowd, and by moving to another room, then returning later when a crowd had left, made it possible to see things much better. The fresco room needed 4 separate times to see well.
In Iraklio, be sure to have dinner at Ippokampos (“Seahorse” in Greek). It was recommended over and over, and it was outstanding, worth a bit of a walk from our hotel. You might want to make a reservation, especially in July. The Iraklio airport’s on the east end of town, just off the highway. Turn in your rental car there; driving around in the city isn’t the way to end (or in our case) begin a vacation.
As for central Crete, totally different from the coast, I can’t stress enough how extraordinary the Lasithi Plateau is. We stayed in Tzermiado. It’s flat land surrounded by a ring of mountains and quaint, tiny villages. We had to drive up a twisty road to get to this high plateau, and hiked one of the many trails that ascend from there. There were once a thousand windmills, and a few remain, but aren’t an agricultural necessity now. On the way from Iraklio, we stopped to tour the magnificent Malia ruins, visible from a pull-off along the highway but well worth going inside to see up close, and a contrast from Knossos.
Southeast is Kato Zakros, with a small beach (still had warmish water in late September), its own Minoan site a few hundred yards away, and its own gorge, much shorter than Samaria. The Gorge of the Dead, named for caves high on the walls of the gorge that were used long by ago as tombs, ends right at the sea. The place we stayed overlooked the ocean - stunning.
South-central Crete, we based ourselves in Pitsidia. We were about the only Americans, as every other visitor seemed to be Germans. Pretty short walk to the ocean, pretty short drive to the amazing Festos site.
We had a fabulous view from our room in Hania, right on the old harbor, but a night-long loud disco at one end was less than perfect. But do get an old town location, harbor view optional.
Samaria was iconic, with unique kri kri goats. It’s your big chance to do it, but not totally must-do.