Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, and the fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, and Corsica. Crete and a number of surrounding islands and islets constitute the region of Crete one of the 13 top-level administrative units of Greece. The capital and the largest city is Heraklion. As of 2011, the region had a population of 623,065.
Crete forms a significant part of the economy and cultural heritage of Greece, while retaining its own local cultural traits (such as its own poetry and music). It was once the center of the Minoan civilization(c. 2700–1420 BC), which is currently regarded as the earliest recorded civilization in Europe.
The island has an elongated shape: it spans 260 km (160 mi) from east to west, is 60 km (37 mi) at its widest point, and narrows to as little as 12 km (7.5 mi) (close to Ierapetra). Crete covers an area of 8,336 km2 (3,219 sq mi), with a coastline of 1,046 km (650 mi) to the north, it broaches the Sea of Crete to the south, the Libyan Sea in the west, the Myrtoan Sea, and toward the east the Karpathian Sea. It lies approximately 160 km (99 mi) south of the Greek mainland.
Crete is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Greece. Fifteen percent of all arrivals in Greece come through the city of Heraklion (port and airport), while charter journeys to Heraklion last year made up 20% of all charter flights in Greece. Overall, more than two million tourists visited Crete last year and this increase in tourism is reflected on the number of hotel beds, rising by 53% in the period between 1986 and 1991, when the rest of Greece saw increases of only 25%.
Today, the island’s tourism infrastructure caters to all tastes, including a very wide range of accommodation; the island’s facilities take in large luxury hotels with their complete facilities, swimming pools, sports and recreation, smaller family-owned apartments, camping facilities and others. Visitors reach the island via two international airports in Heraklion and Chania and a smaller airport in Sitia (international charter and domestic flights starting May 2012 or by boat to the main ports of Heraklion, Chania, Rethimno, Agios Nikolaos and Sitia.
Popular tourist attractions include the archaeological sites of the Minoan civilisation, the Venetian old city and port of Chania, the Venetian castle at Rethymno, the gorge of Samaria, the islands of Chrysi, Elafonisi, Gramvousa, and Spinalonga and the Palm Beach of Vai, which is the largest natural palm forest in Europe.