Crete is a deceptive place. On the surface it's all sun, sea and souvlaki. Hordes of happy holidaymakers swarm around souvenir shops in search of ceramics and leather sandals. But Greece's largest island has a darker side.

At a cafe in the city of Chania, hip local lads warn me that Cretan mountainfolk are poor, uneducated and prone to vendettas. Apparently, the family rivalries go back generations.

"They take guns to weddings to shoot into the air but end up shooting each other," a youth says, firing an imaginary rifle for emphasis.

It turns out that a handful of these vendetta villages are only a short drive from Chania. With a degree of trepidation I hop into the hire car and set the satnav.

Snow-capped for more than half the year, the White Mountains are actually named for their glinting limestone peaks. Steep serpentine roads terminate in ageless villages that seek reassurance in the shadow of Orthodox churches. Sure-footed livestock scramble onto rocky outcrops and there always seems to be someone at the side of the road, arm outstretched, in need of a lift.

Lofty Koustogerako is peaceful enough. A handful of old-timers snooze outside a cafe but things weren't always so quiet. A modest memorial honours those who defended the village against the Nazis in 1943. Resistance was fierce and although the Germans fled, they returned the following day with reinforcements. The settlement was razed; the inhabitants were rounded up and machine-gunned to death.

In the next village I offer a ride to a gnarled mountain man who smells of dust and goat's milk. His destination is lost in translation but somehow I can't imagine him ambling along the pedestrianised shopping precincts of Chania. He belongs right here in the rugged hills. He gets out in the middle of nowhere, hands me a flaky tiropita (cheese pie) as payment and disappears into the forest, presumably in search of a wild animal to wrestle.

The morning rush is over when I arrive at awe-inspiring Samaria Gorge. It's advisable to begin the strenuous six-hour trek as early as possible to avoid the heat of the day but I'm banking on benign temperatures at this time of year. A stony path weaves its way through two million years of geological history and 600-metre vertical cliffs render hikers insignificant by comparison. Halfway down the 16km chasm the ghostly ruins of Samaria crumble in the sunshine. Villagers were relocated when the area was proclaimed a national park in 1962.

At about the same time, hippies were finding their way to Paleochora, drawn by free accommodation in the caves that fleck the surrounding mountainside. The town, which is nestled on a peninsula projecting into the Libyan Sea, retains an "end of the world" feel to this day.

While many resorts sell themselves on what they offer, Paleochora makes a virtue of what it lacks: overdevelopment. From Chania it's a hair-raising drive across the soaring spine of the island, which acts as a natural deterrent to mass tourism. Even mischievous-looking dark clouds end up snagged on mountaintops, seemingly unable to reach the sunny southern shores.

Spring marks the start of the holiday season and comes early to this mellow corner of Crete; wild flowers bloom and laid-back locals have time to teach Greek phrases to tongue-tied travellers. To prove no one is in a hurry in this part of the world, Paleochora Art Week lasts for 15 days (this year, from September 3 to 18).

Sunbathers have a choice of sand and shingle bays although only the hardiest would venture into the water before April. Beach connoisseurs are lured further afield to Crete's signature seascapes. The approach to Elafonisi, famed for its azure water and pinkly white sand, is via the kind of goat-strewn dirt road that car rental companies forbid their customers from driving on.

I press on to gorgeous Falassarna beach, which is also approached along a dusty unmade track, this one lined with vendors selling honey, olive oil and fresh herbs. The sea is so swimming pool-turquoise you can almost smell chlorine, and not for the first time I find myself scouring estate agent windows for a "traditional property, ripe for renovation".

My final detour is to the Allied War Cemetery, at Souda Bay. The sublimely scenic place of rest is dedicated to 1,500 Commonwealth servicemen who lost their lives in the Battle of Crete, during the second world war. I join an Antipodean tour group dawdling across meticulously maintained lawns, inspecting the marble headstones that face out to sea. The first entry in the visitor's book, "Rest in peace Uncle Bill", further adds to the poignancy.

After a week of exploring, it's back to where I started. Chania serves up reminders of its rich history at every turn. The Venetian lighthouse is one of the oldest in the Mediterranean and is a popular destination for a sunset stroll. Centuries-old dwellings, now converted into restaurants, cluster around the postcard-perfect harbour and provide an ideal spot in which to relax over a plate of mezes and a glass of retsina.

Narrow cobbled streets lead away from the water and reveal handicraft studios, hidden tavernas and eco-friendly cafes. In recent years, the Cretan diet has gained a reputation as one of the world's healthiest and eateries have been quick to jump on the bandwagon. Even the most grubby-looking kebab shops display signs assuring customers they prepare "traditional food".

Tourism continues to insulate the island from the worst effects of the misfiring Greek economy. Savvy locals appear undaunted by capital controls, introduced to prevent withdrawals of more than €420 (HK$3,600) per week.

"Everyone has more than one bank account," my guesthouse owner admits. "And a lot of us have land - an orchard or an olive grove. We're not starving."

At Chania's busy tourist office, I'm reminded again of Crete's darker side. In response to my questioning, the woman on duty finishes helping some sightseers, turns back to me and lowers her voice.

"Many of us have remarkable family stories," she begins. "I'm only here because my grandfather hid in the mountains above his village when he heard the Nazis were coming."

Cretan mountain folk; they may be poor and uneducated but they're no fools.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies to Athens, from where Aegean Airlines (en.aegeanair.com) connects to Chania.