Every part of Crete has its loyal devotees and it's hard to pick out highlights, but on the whole if you want to get away from it all you should head for the ends of the island - west, towards Hania and the smaller, less well-connected places along the south and west coasts, or east to Sitia. Wherever you're staying though, you don't have to go far inland to escape the crowds.
Whatever you do, your first objective will probably be to leave behind the urban sprawl of Iraklion (Heraklion) as quickly as possible - having paid the obligatory, and rewarding, visits to the archeological museum and nearby Knossos. The Minoan sites are of course one of the major attractions of Crete: as well as Knossos itself there are many other grand remains scattered around the centre of the island - Festos and Ayia Triadha in the south (with Roman Gortys to provide contrast) and Malia on the north coast. Almost wherever you go though, you'll find some kind of reminder of this history - the town of Gournia near the tourist enticements of Ayios Nikolaos, the palace of Zakros over in the far east or the lesser sites scattered around the west.
For many people, unexpected highlights also turn out to be Crete's Venetian forts - dominant at Rethimnon, magnificent at Frangokastello, and found in various stages of ruin around most of the island; the Byzantine churches, most famously at Kritsa but again to be discovered almost anywhere; and in Rethimnon and Hania cluttered old towns full of Venetian and Turkish relics.
The mountains and valleys of the interior also deserve far more attention than they get. Only the Lasithi plateau in the east and the Samarian gorge in the west really see large numbers of visitors, but almost anywhere you can turn off the main roads and find agricultural villages going about their daily life, and often astonishingly beautiful scenery. This is especially true in the west, where the Lefka Ori - the White Mountains - dramatically dominate every view, and numerous lesser gorges run parallel to the Samarian one down to the Libyan Sea. But there's lovely country behind Iraklion too, in the foothills of the Psiloritis range, and especially on the other side of these mountains in the Amari Valley, easily reached from Rethimnon. The east also has its moments, in the Dhikti range and in the spectacular cliff drive from Ayios Nikolaos to Sitia.
As for beaches, you'll find great ones almost anywhere on the north coast. From Iraklion to Ayios Nikolaos there's very heavy development, and most package tourists are aiming for the resort hotels here. These places can be fun if nightlife and crowds are what you're after - especially the biggest of them, like Malia and Ayios Nikolaos, which have the added advantage of being large enough to have plenty of cheap food and accommodation, plus good transport links. Malia also has sand as good as any on the island (if you can find it through the crowds), but Ayios Nikolaos really doesn't have much of a beach of its own. Further east things get quieter: Sitia is a place of real character, and beyond it on the east coast are a number of beautifully tranquil places - especially Zakros - and Vai, very busy with day-trippers. To the west there's another tranche of development around Rethimnon, but the town itself is relatively unscathed, and a rather lesser cluster of apartments and smaller hotels near Hania, the most attractive of the big towns. Other places at this end of the island tend to be on a smaller scale.
Along the south coast, resorts are far more scattered, and the mountains come straight down to the sea much of the way along. Only a handful of places are really developed - Ierapetra, Ayia Galini, Matala, Paleohora - and a few more, like Plakias and Makriyialos, on their way. But lesser spots in between, not always easy to get to, are some of the most attractive in Crete.
When to go
As the southernmost of all Greek islands, Crete has by far the longest summers: you can get a decent tan here right into October and swim at least from April until early November. Spring is the prime time to come: in April and May the island is relatively empty of visitors, the weather clear and not overpoweringly hot, and every scene is brightened by a profusion of wild flowers.
By mid-June the rush is beginning. July and August are not only the hottest, the most crowded and most expensive months, they are also intermittently blighted by fierce winds and accompanying high seas, which make boat trips very uncomfortable, and at their worst can mean staying indoors for a day or more at a time. The south coast is particularly prone to these. In September the crowds gradually begin to thin out, and autumn can again be a great time to visit - but now the landscape looks parched and tired, and there's a feeling of things gradually winding down.
Winters are mild, but also vaguely depressing: many things are shut, it can rain sporadically, sometimes for days, and there's far less life in the streets. In the mountains it snows, even to the extent where villages can be cut off; on the south coast it's generally warmer, soothed by a breeze from Africa. You may get a week or more of really fine weather in the middle of winter, but equally you can have sudden viciously cold snaps right through into March.