There's a hint of what's to come when you notice that the stunning beaches on a cobalt blue Mediterranean stand almost empty. The excitement gets stronger when you find yourself wandering practically alone through a labyrinth of moldering mansions, small eateries and bursts of hibiscus. By the time your bags are planted at a waterfront hotel and you sip your first glass of local wine, it hits you: low-season Crete is fabulous.
Each year, from late November to May, Greece's largest island shows its softer side, and the northern port of Chania is the place to be. Gone are the throngs of mass tourism and the packed beaches and bars that punctuate the city's summer season and great deals can be had.
Accommodation options in Chania range from $7-per-night hostels, to bed-and-breakfasts in the $20 to $50 range, to some of the most decadent resorts in the Mediterranean. But whereas strict price controls are in place in all hotels for the high season meaning maximum prices must be displayed and not altered during the low season prices can be dropped by as much as 50%, especially for longer stays. Similar bargains are available for trips, guides, taxis and rentals.
These off-season months are technically winter, but as George Tsampas, of the Niriis Hotel in Chania, points out, last November was the hottest in Crete since 1926, with temperatures reaching 25 degrees C. "Crete is a paradise in the low season," he says.
Chania is famous for its rambling old quarter and waterfront café district. The town, the second largest in Crete with 57,000 inhabitants, instantly charms with its alleyways, mountainous backdrop and ocean views. For maritime buffs, Chania's harbor and ancient brick shipyards are pilgrimage sites. For historians, Minoan ruins and crumbling Roman fortresses are a day trip away.
Near the seaside promenade, the city is a maze of restaurants, shops and bars. Start the day with coffee and breakfast on the waterfront, looking out to legendary waters past Chania's iconic Faros, or Lighthouse. Then stroll back to one of many historic sites or the archaeological and Cretan cultural museums.
Getting to Chania can be half the fun: a picturesque ferry ride, lasting up to eight hours, can be taken from the Athens port of Piraeus. Otherwise, there are 30-minute flights from the Greek capital. In low season, you might have one of those to yourself too.