It’s not very likely that you will choose the Cretan winter (lasting from October until mid-April) to visit our island, but just in case, here’s how to face this tricky season.
What you must understand is that Crete is a continent of sorts. The coastal weather does not coincide with the mountainous realities, and the north is not the south. Thus, while not excessively extreme, the weather changes on the island. It tends to surprise you: rain turns to snow in a matter of minutes when you drive, let’s say, from Falasarna (a beach) to Pachnes (the highest summit of the Lefka Ori mountains).
Fall and winter are a homogenous blend as early as mid-October early November, and the season ends in April or May. We call this the Cretan winter: we do not care much about splitting seasons, except for the Cretan spring – the most fleeting of seasons – a brief time in May when the fields wear colorful yellows, purples, and reds when the flowers bloom.
During the Cretan winter, the weather stays the same: endless rains, cloudy skies, winds, and occasional storms. The skies are dull, and snowfall is rare by the sea. On the high peaks of Lefka Ori, however, inches of snow layer from January until the first months of the summer. Those familiar with the mountains take the opportunity to ski or snowboard.
Cretans have a love-hate relationship with winter because it drops down like a faulty window shade – overnight. And the locals have an intense dislike for the cold. The weather change is amplified because you suddenly need to wear a winter jacket, and so soon after, you spend days sunbathing under the scorching Aegean sun. Cretans’ cold weather may mean 25°C or anything lower, and they light fires when the first raindrops hit the ground.
“Oh, Panagia Mou, wear a jacket,” my landlady tells me when the temperature drops two-three degrees under 25°C. I don’t feel cold even when the temperature is around 18°C when Cretans walk around like North Pole explorers in down jackets with thick scarves around their necks.
But it’s damp at night – that’s when the coldness creeps in, deep in your bones, and it feels that nothing but a roaring fire can thaw you.
As soon as the colder season kicks in, most hotels, restaurants, attractions, and entertainment venues close their doors. As a result, the island gets this “sleepy-with-a-touch-of-creepy” vibe as the crowds seem to vanish from the most popular streets, markets, and beaches.
There are no reasonable air or ferry rates to access the island at this time. Still, if you look for accommodation, hotels usually overpriced in the summer are accessible, offering the same level of hospitality, albeit with some minor differences like fewer entertainment options, different restaurant operating hours, and even early hotel bar closing times.
Bargain accommodation doesn’t make up for the exorbitant airfare fees. However, it still works for those who want to see the island in winter. “Like a local” is a cliche experience by now, overused by the travel and hospitality industry. But, on Crete island, the Cretan winter is truly the season to explore, eat, and party like a local. More on this, another time.
Facing the Cretan winter, though…
What You Must Know About the Cretan Winter
Down jackets or coats (even vests) – they work. Cretans wear them religiously and needlessly. The weather here never drops beneath 14°C (I am not sure about Lefka Ori or other Cretan mountains as I do not live there), but the Cretans seem to be freezing as soon as the temperature drops below 20°C. If it’s your first time, don’t worry. You will not feel “the wet bite” of the Cretan winter’s weather. Second timers, beware. You will feel at this time.
Old Cretan houses leak. Always. The water will surprise you. It comes from… everywhere and anywhere: ceilings, power outlets, window sills, heaters, and even floors if you want a reason to rant. I am not sure the new Cretan houses are any better. The Cretan winter seems to take over anything and everything.
Restaurants close. However puzzling this seems, Cretans fast (or rather eat at home) in winter. Most restaurants close their doors, but those in popular meeting areas, like in Heraklion’s Venizelou square, by the Lion’s Fountain, stay open, and people dressed in dawn jackets are there. Like the “Children of the Corn.” Stephen Kingian. Freaky. Get with the program: Cretans love coffee joints, and they’ll dress the part.
You need a fireplace to face the Cretan winter. Always. There’s something taming in fire, it makes you feel warm in the leakiest of the leaking Cretan homes. And they all leak. Fire is good. Ugh-ugh! If you live here, by now, you realize you need a fireplace. If you don’t, you may reconsider your next trip to an “exotic” island. Crete’s exotic appeal ends when the weather bites.
It’s always raining. Do not believe any travel guide or article (not even my own) encouraging you to visit Crete in winter. It’s raining cats and dogs; it’s wet and nasty, and you cannot – you really cannot – visit anything when the weather is this dull. Gorges vaunt unreachable paths; mountain villages go to sleep. Beaches be loco, and so on. There is nothing to do unless you are depressively inclined.