Crete, the largest of all the Greek Islands, is a perfect place to spend a sunshine and summits holiday – if you can detach yourself from the beach for a day or so.
Travel to the island’s incredible White Mountains, or Lefka Ori in Greek. Home to the dizzying depths of the Samaria Gorge and the heady heights of Pachnes (2456m up), the area is ripe for exploration by hire car and is a favourite with nimble-footed trekkers.
Zip through the countryside on your own or with a group, watching out for mountain goats (called Kri- Kri) and the eagles and Griffon vultures that drift overhead. Serious mountaineers may converge here with vacuum-packed food and sleeping bags, but taking a day trek or discovering mouthwatering meals can be just as exhilarating.
Excursions to the gorge are easy to arrange and everyone agrees the rewards are well worth it. Toast Samaria’s spectacular scenery with a cold beer and a much-needed dip in the ocean, when you make the finish line of this 18 km trek. The sun-drenched beach in Agia Roumeli is the oasis that you’re aiming for.
Canny day trippers and independent trekkers start out for the mouth of the gorge, in Omalos, just after dawn, to start the downhill wander in the coolest part of the day. You won’t necessarily be alone on this footpath which winds through pine and cypress forests – in fact Samaria is the second most popular footpath in Greece, after Mount Olympus – but all that company helps you stay on track.
Fast-track tip: Walking the full length of the Samaria Gorge takes active types in walking boots an average of 6 hours. Tour operators and hotels offer a snapshot of this amazing landscape for people who might be worried about their fitness or are short on time. Ask for the route to the ‘Iron Gates’ or the ‘Lazy way’, taking in Agia Roumeli through the narrowest part of the gorge. This gate might be narrow, but it raises 350 metres above your head.
If you’re able to step up your effort and fancy a mountain walk up to the giddy heights of 1,980m, try ascending Gingilos. The path kicks off close to the entrance to the Samaria Gorge, which you can peer down into as you march further upwards. Join an organised walk if you’re nervous and call it a day when you reach a point on the mountain known as the ‘Saddle’, two hours or so into the journey. Surrounded by rocks and zigzagging along the path, you’ll be greeted by staggering views of the Libyan Sea and the coastline. Rest your legs here awhile, rather than stagger back down straight away.
Soak up the sea-level atmosphere and charm of picturesque Old Chania, a Venetian harbour lined with tavernas, coffee stops and sleepy churches. Take your pick of the beautiful, remote or lively beaches that are strung out nearby. Loungers and umbrellas dot the sandy stretch at Plantanias, 10km away, where aquamarine waters lap the shore. Venture further in the same direction to find yourself a private section of peaceful Maleme beach.
An exciting foodie scene has emerged in this region of Crete, where cooks can take their pick from fresh wild oregano, sage and marjoram that grows on the sun-drenched hillsides. Seasonal produce grown or raised on the land stocks markets and village shops. Stop off at an organic farm restaurant as you drive the coastal roads to experience more than your average mezze. Sheep cheese and honey pastries called sarikopitakia, named after the Cretan tie of the same shape, are particularly moreish. Alongside your kalamata (black) olives, feta cheese and fresh bread sip White Mountain tea (malotira), which is often called Shepherd’s Tea, and can boost your immune system.
Posted : Wednesday, September 5th, 2012 at 10:00
Kelly Pipes is a writer and editor who has worked in travel and travel publishing for the last ten years, and has enjoyed every single minute of it. Alongside other projects she shares off-beat travel news and authentic travel experiences on her own blog, Sandwagon.