Iraklion, Crete — It is a strange and exciting thing, if you are accustomed to Christmas and New Year's at home, with all the habitual trimmings and cozy traditions, to spend that ebullient season abroad exploring a place you are completely unfamiliar with. It can be rather thrilling, just for once, to cut away from family and friends at this time of year. My wife and I were in Crete for 10 days last Christmas and had a holiday we're unlikely to forget.
For a start it was (to someone from Britain) pleasantly warm on the large Greek island. To the Cretans this is the cool, wet time of year. As the proprietor of one of the gorgeously stocked flower shops in Iraklion, the centrally placed capital where we stayed, said, ''We like it to be cool at Christmas. It is closer to the way we imagine Christmas should be, with snow and everything.''
I doubt, however, if he really knew the meaning of ''cool'' - the only snow we saw was distantly on the peaks of the white mountains, the Lefkaori, south of Chania, at the western end of this elongated island. To us there was an exotic unusualness in being able to buy enormous, juicy, honey-sweet oranges freshly picked, and to see the trees with oranges and lemons hanging ripe from their branches; to enjoy the bougainvillea smothered in its carmine bracts; to find in the grass the wild purple and pink anemones with their black centers, flowering near the Minoan remains at Phaistos, and to hear the Cretan peasants up in the still, echoing hills beating the olive trees with sticks so that the tiny black fruit pattered down onto sacks or netting lying on the earth around their trunks. And all this in December. It was romantically, enchantingly far from our conventional Christmastime expectations.
Usually, of course, most of us have a clear notion where we'll be on Christmas Day. In Crete last year we had no idea. As it turned out, this was the day of our second attempt to reach the plain of Lasithi, which is high up among the mountains southwest of Iraklion. On the map it looks like a green lemon placed in a basketful of leaves - the ''leaves'' being the surrounding mountains.
The Cretan countryside is a stony landscape, described by the island's poet Kazantzakis as resembling ''good prose . . . powerful and restrained,'' and summed up in a neat phrase by Henry Miller: ''Stone and sky, they marry here.'' The arable parts of this land amount to no more than three-eighths of the total. The Lasithi plain, which in summer is picturesquely dotted with the sails of windmills used for irrigation (though petrol pumps are becoming more popular), is among its most fertile regions.
We had already tried to visit the plain late one afternoon a few days earlier. But we had badly miscalculated the road. It wriggles like ticker tape, and the climb in our little hired Fiat was so slow that the very black Cretan night caught us in mid-ascent. We had to turn back. This was an adventure, made melodramatic by distant lightning, by the precipitous road, by headlights as weak as glowworms, and by a general sense of being a million miles from ''civilization'' and the 20th century: Crete can still easily surprise by its primitive remoteness.
On Christmas Day we started in the morning, approaching from the west, and it was a breathtaking zigzag climb into the mountains, misty and expansively beautiful. In these hills, the evocative tinkling of the sheep and goat bells seems to make distances come close, and to bring into the present moment all the continuance of forgotten centuries.
(Not that the centuries are forgotten in Crete, which is, after all, the home of Phaistos, Knossos, and Gortys. At Gortys is the great inscription stone, the earliest written legal document in Europe. Lawrence Durrell writes in his entertaining and informative book ''The Greek Islands'': ''the first centre of high civilization in the Aegean area, with great cities and sumptuous palaces, highly developed art, extended trade writing and the use of seal stones, was here in Crete.'')
Although it was daylight on our second, less terrifying, approach to Lasithi, it still seemed virtually deserted, as if it was back in the 15th century when the occupying Venetians emptied it of inhabitants and forbade farming there. However, the more likely explanation now was (as it would have been at home) that most people were indoors celebrating Christmas.But you couldn't be sure. There is very little outward evidence of the season in Crete. Even in the towns and cities, there is little or no bunting, scarcely a Christmas tree in sight. The shed-like taverna that we found open, after a search in one of the villages which circle the plain, was not decked out with holly and ivy. There was one cheerful Cretan family having a Christmas meal in a corner of it, though. This building was typical of many eating places and cafes on Crete: bare and uninviting in appearance, as if it had remained unchanged and undecorated since World War II. (The same, incidentally, can be said of many Cretan trucks and motor bikes, and they are often driven with noisy abandon and reckless haste.) But in this taverna, as in a number of others, we had a good, straightforward, nourishing meal. Usually we ate our main meal of the day in Iraklion in the evening. There is fine fish and lamb to be enjoyed, and of course moussaka, and there are large, fresh green salads.But today we decided to indulge in a lunch of potato omelettes. They were the best potato omelettes imaginable. And I don't believe it is just perversity on my part, but this meal still seems to be me to have been a memorable Christmas dinner. Who wants turkey and plum pudding when you could be tucking hungrily into a potato omelette on the plain of Lasithi?A hired car is a great asset in Crete. In 10 days we saw a considerable portion of the island, though Sitia in the distant eastern tip had to await another visit, and we didn't walk through the gorge of Samaria in the west, which is reportedly spectacular, and so popular in summer that more than 2,000 sightseers go through it each day. But driving daily out from the central northern capital, we explored south, east, and west, and we felt a growing familiarity with the varying scenery in this land of mountains and sea. We even sat, rather damply, on a beach, one hot day, gazing at the blue-green ocean.But it is never too hot at this time of year to keep you from being on the move. If too many other tourists are not to your taste, this is certainly the season for you to visit Crete.New Year's Eve came almost at the end of our stay, and it was a completely unexpected and delightful climax for us in Iraklion that day, having wandered up and down the hectic market, visited the Venetian fort, sampled the luscious cakes and sweets sold in the most tempting little shop, sat on the bench in the small garden which contains a bust of one of Crete's notable offspring, the painter El Greco. The afternoon had been very quiet. Then in the evening with little warning, it seemed that every Cretan in the city, men, women, and children, had erupted onto the streets, and a joyful, loud, riotous celebration was under way. The receptionist at the hotel told us afterward that what we had witnessed was a comparatively ''new'' tradition, only a few years old (certainly not Minoan, anyway). Every child was equipped with a light, perfectly harmless plastic club, like a cartoon cave man's, and they were all rushing around hitting each other over the head with unrestrained and sometimes overvigorous abandon. It was a hilarious free-for-all - good, lighthearted fun. We wandered (perhaps a little uncertainly) in among this excited crowd, but tourists are outsiders.All this exuberance ceased almost as suddenly as it had started. In one of the side streets, we had a meal of pieces of meat on skewers, then went back to the hotel for a while. ''You should go down to the harbor at midnight,'' the girl at the desk told us, ''and hear how the boats welcome the new year.''So at 10 minutes to 12 we strolled down to the sea front and along to the quay where the vessels were moored. We thought there would be crowds of people. It was deserted. We were virtually alone. We had a slight feeling of being let down as we were walking past the first of the boats, towering above us. The night was deeply silent, the city dead to the world . . . and then ''BOOM,'' the ship's horn sounded. It was so devastatingly loud and so near that we both jumped clean out of our skins. BOOM again. And then a third BOOM. Each time it shattered the night (almost knocking us over) and echoed away across the water.Another boat answered faintly through the night - boom. Crete was full of surprises for us, old and new. This was one way we had never before ''seen the new year in.''