An affordable Mediterranean retirement in Crete

The island of Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, and is a little bigger than the state of Delaware. Its history dates back 4,000 years, and the healthy Mediterranean diet originates here. The beaches are superb, the Mediterranean water is crystal clear and the sun shines for 300 days a year.

Along with the sun, sea, history and food, two other things make Crete particularly interesting if you're shopping for options for a new life of adventure in the Old World: The low cost of living and the affordable European residency program.

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Island life is slower and more relaxed than mainland living, but Crete also has all the usual trappings of Western society, including good internet, excellent bus service, two international airports, a cruise port and all kinds of shops. But do not expect big freeways or mega malls; they do not exist.

Greece offers non-European citizens the chance to buy property and qualify for a permanent residency visa, granting access to the whole Schengen Area. The Schengen Area includes most but not all European Union countries. For example, it does not include Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom, despite those countries being part of the EU. Additionally, the Schengen Area includes some non-EU countries, such as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

See photos of Crete:

The minimum qualifying property value is 250,000 euros, which can be invested in one property or several. That investment provides residency for you and your spouse and dependents (children up to 21 years old). You do not have to live in Crete to maintain your residency status, and you can rent your property out after all the paperwork has been finalized. One of the few restrictions is that you cannot work in Greece.

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Eating and drinking out, so much a part of life in Crete, is very affordable. You can enjoy an excellent meal of ntakos, a local dish of crusty barley rusk topped with tomatoes, olive oil and crumbled mizithra cheese, plus a plate of tzatziki and a huge Greek salad, for just 12 euros, including wine. The costs are even less off the tourist trail.

Crete is divided into four regional units: Chania (pronounced and sometimes written "Hania"), Rethymo, Heraklion (sometimes called Iraklio) and Lasithi. A couple could live on a penny-pincher's budget, renting in Chania town, for just under 800 euros a month. A 2,000 euros per month budget would provide a very comfortable standard of living.

Chania's Old Town is a mass of winding streets with properties dating back hundreds of years on foundations that go back to the Minoans. Old Town properties are sturdy, thick-walled, built close together (so sometimes a little dark inside), typically without parking and surrounded by extraordinary history. But this is also tourist territory, which has positives, including lots of bars and restaurants to choose from, and negatives, such as noise and ever-changing neighbors.

In New Town the structures are modern in Cretan terms; the majority have been built from the 1980s. The streets are wide, there's usually private or on-street parking and you are more likely to find properties with gardens and patios. It's also quieter here than in the Old Town because fewer tourists visit. The day-trippers, who are the majority of visitors to the island, generally don't make it to this area. However, if history is what brings you to Crete, you'll find New Town has less character.

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Properties in Old Town are available for prices that are short of the visa requirement. Many of them need renovation, modernization or updating, and the amount spent on the building work can be added to the property cost. In many cases that would be enough to get you to the minimum 250,000 euro visa threshold.

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group.

Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report