Welcome to the easternmost and least mountainous region of Crete, where the population resides in four semi-urban centers: Áyios Nikólaos, Ierápetra, Sitía and Neápoli. The mythical palm tree forest of Váï, the Gulf of Mirabello, the windmills on the Plateau of Lassíthi (the largest in Crete), beaches lapped by crystalline water, beautiful cities and luxurious hotel resorts all make up a rather fascinating world.
10 km north of Áyios Nikólaos you will find a jet-setter haven, Eloúnda, a famous cosmopolitan resort with luxury accommodation facilities. The village is built on the southern coast of the Gulf of Eloúnda, 1km east of the ancient settlement of Oloúnda. The four villages of Eloúnda spread all across the lower slopes of the massif: Páno and Káto Eloúnda, Mavrikianó and the new settlement of Skisma.
Close to Eloúnda lies the island of Spinalónga (meaning long thorn), which you may access by boat from Eloúnda, Áyios Nikolaos or Pláka. Boat trips from Eloúnda take approximately fifteen minutes while trips departing from Áyios Nikolaos take almost an hour. The former leper colony is today an unoccupied island and one of the main tourist attractions in Crete due to its historical and significance. In addition to the abandoned leper colony, where the lepers’ houses still stand, you can admire its fortress and swim at its small pebble beaches. Note that there are no accommodation facilities on the island; therefore the visit here can last only a few hours.
Neápoli, located 15km northwest of Áyios Nikolaos, was the region’s capital until 1904. Today it is a small town nestled picturesquely on an olive grove valley. It is distinguished by its excellent urban planning and well-preserved neoclassical buildings. The town boasts among others an interesting archaeological collection, a Folklore Museum, Byzantine monasteries (don’t miss the 15th century Monastery of Kremastá), the picturesque traditional villages of Síssi, Nikithianós, Houmeriákos, Límnes, Latsída, Vrýses and Vrahássi and the Mílatos Cave.
The plateau of Lassíthi is the largest plateau in Greece (covering a surface of approximately 50 sq km) and one of the most fertile valleys in Greece. Located at an altitude of 817-850m on the NW edge of Mt. Dhikti, its fertile soil produces fruit and vegetables of the highest quality. In the plateau's wider region you can choose to stay in one of the plenty agrotourism lodging facilities. Tzermiádo, located at a distance of 49km west of Áyios Nikolaos, is the largest of the area’s 16 villages. Thousands of white-cloth—sailed windmills are the plateau's trademark. They don’t operate anymore but many of them are under restoration.
A less explored region of Crete is Sitía, a busy port of the northeastern Crete, the sea gate from Crete to the Dodecanese and the birthplace of the poet Vintsentzos Kornaros, author of "Erotokritos". Getting to this more isolated region, located 70 km east of Áyios Nikolaos, takes you on a journey through magnificent countryside generously adorned with dramatic gorges (Áyion Pánton gorge and the Richti gorge), intriguing villages hanging onto inland peninsulas or steep hillsides. Sitía is also home to notable monasteries (like Toploú), archaeological sites, palm-forested beaches, sparkling bays and fascinating routes across the mountains.
Once you’ve reached the waterfront in Sitía you'll spot the long sandy beach curving around the bay to the east. Don’t hesitate to dive –the waters are clean! Sitía boasts also a beautiful harbour full of colourful small fishing boats, tavernas and cafés. Unlike the buzzing harbours in Réthymno or Chaniá, here visitors can easily observe the daily life of the Sitians: listen to old ladies gossiping, watch old men sipping their coffee and soak up the authentic Cretan laid-back atmosphere. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Venetian Kazárma fortress (where also the Kornária festival is held during the summer), the Archaeological and the Folklore museums. The surrounding villages of Zoú, Zíros, Handrás, the abandoned Etiá and the surroundings of Karýdi, hold much of their interest in their ancient buildings and archaeological finds. Visit also Stavroménos, a scenic village that offers a beautiful view to Sitía bay and the villages of Sandáli with the plane-trees and the running waters.
Váï, located 24km east of Sitía, is the only palm forest in Europe consisting of more than 5,000 trees and extending for about 250 hectares. There are many legends concerning the creation of this palm forest. It is said that it dates back to medieval times when the Arabs conquered Crete and planted those trees; others say that the trees were planted by Saracens pirates who used to hide in the area. In front of the forest lies a long sandy beach, which combined with the lush vegetation forms an impressive desert-like landscape. This superb beach was discovered by a few hippies during the 70s, but by the early 1980s Váï had become a campground. The beach is now clean and has been declared as a protected area with rare flora and fauna. If you don’t have a car, a public bus, that departs from Sitía (trip duration: 25 min.), will take you there.
Ierápetra, 35km south of Áyios Nikolaos, is the largest city in Lassíthi region and the sunniest city in Europe! The most interesting sightseeings here are the 19th century mosque in the old town, the 13th century Kalés Venetian fortress at the port entrance, the Archaeological Collection housed in the building of the former Ottoman School at the City Hall square, and a plethora of old churches. In the surrounding area, visit also the Folklore museum at Vainiá (3.5 km northeast of Ierápetra), the artificial lake Bramianón, the Minoan settlements at Mýrtos and the volcanic islet Hryssí (or Yaidouroníssi) where you can bask in an amazing white sandy beach, one of the best in Greece, under the natural shade of cedars!
In Lassíthi region, various feasts are also organised all-year-round. Visitors will always have the opportunity to participate in a traditional Cretan feast, where they can listen to the sound of the Cretan lyre and enjoy proud Cretan dancers twirling in a pendozáli dance.
Don’t miss out: the celebration of Áyios Antonios in Zákros, on January 17; the celebration of Áyios Yeoryios in Selinári on Easter Monday; the “Kalamáfkia feast”, in Kalamáfka, organised by the village cultural association. “Kýrvia” in Ierápetra is a colourful event held every July and August for the last 25 years. Participate also in the “Lato” gastronomy festival in Áyios Nikolaos or in the “Kornária” in Sitía in July and August. Fresh fish, boiled goat, handmade mizíthra cheese pies with honey, stuffed tomatoes with “hóndros” (home-made pasta), and courgette flowers stuffed with rice, are only some of the culinary pleasures on offer in Lassíthi region!