From CNN TravelGuide Contributor Steve Nettleton
IRAKLION, Greece (CNN) -- The power of Poseidon still pounds the shores of Crete, a land one 17th century English traveler called "the garden of the universe." Crete is where gods were born, where myths flourished, and where Europe's earliest civilization -- the Minoans -- rose from the Mediterranean.
According to Greek mythology, Crete was the birthplace of Zeus, chief of the gods. And it was here that a half-man, half-bull -- the Minotaur -- devoured young men and women in the Labyrinth, until it was killed by the warrior Theseus.
The roots of these legends lie shrouded in historical mystery. But ruins of entire cities leave little doubt that an advanced people once ruled here, centuries before the Greeks and Romans.
On the surface, Crete may seem typically Greek. But a deeper dig reveals that Crete's culture is unique. The island became part of Greece in 1913 -- before that, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Turks had been its rulers.
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, stretching more than 150 miles (242 kilometers) east to west. A short trip inland seems to contradict the fact that it's an island. Mountains reaching as high as 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) partition Crete into distinct regions, each with its own local flavor.
Iraklion is Crete's largest city, and feels like it. The congested streets and busy port are a sharp contrast to quiet towns nearby.