Exotic Hikes: Crete’s Mountain and Seaside Tracks and Trails

Raki came into our lives as a complimentary dinner aperitif at a village outdoor café on the Greek island of Crete. The ubiquitous fiery grape-made spirit is part of the island’s social fabric, found in shops, tavernas and more. It’s considered rude not to drink it when offered by your host. I learned that the hard way. Another time, when a shopkeeper offered me some, I pantomimed I was driving and didn’t want to drink. “Me no police,” he said handing me a shot.

Raki came into our lives as a complimentary dinner aperitif at a village outdoor café on the Greek island of Crete. The ubiquitous fiery grape-made spirit is part of the island’s social fabric, found in shops, tavernas and more. It’s considered rude not to drink it when offered by your host.

I learned that the hard way. Another time, when a shopkeeper offered me some, I pantomimed I was driving and didn’t want to drink.

“Me no police,” he said handing me a shot. 

I acquiesced and downing the often homemade elixir became the daily routine that put omnipresent smiles on our faces as we explored mountain and seaside trails on Crete, including a day-long trek through one of the largest gorges in Europe. 

The mythical birthplace of the god of sky and thunder Zeus, Crete is Greece’s largest island. Accessible by plane, and by ferry from Piraeus outside Athens, there’s an enchanting air about the island with its coves and cliffs, hunched hills, snow-touched mountains, gorgeous beaches, fertile valleys and placid villages. Western Crete holds the White Mountains called Lefka Ori with more than 30 peaks over 6,500 feet high. The name comes from the way the light often reflects off the limestone of these mountains and for the snow that lingers at their summits.

The White Mountains are also home to a wealth of gorges including one of Europe’s most famous—Samaria Gorge. The 10-mile trek through needle-thin passages and by precarious precipices is a magical journey from the rugged mountains to the sparkling Mediterranean Sea.

Crete’s native allure is matched by its history. The Minoans thrived on the island from about 2600 to 1600 BC and are known as the first civilization on European soil.

Crete is also food heaven with local wines, meats, cheeses, breads, pastries and olive oil. A simple meal of feta cheese, olives and bread paired with a local wine and finished with raki, sometimes infused with honey, proves delightful.

But before reaching Crete, my wife, Jan, and I started our Greek getaway in sprawling Athens, a natural gateway to the island playground with its ancient steps among must-do ruins like the Acropolis and Parthenon and the cobblestones found in the Plaka with its temples and tavernas. We shunned the funicular for the 20-minute hike up to the chapel and café on Lykavittos Hill with its sweeping views of the city, sea and mountains of the Peloponnese.

Our gracious Airbnb hostess brought us closer to the sea when she discovered our passion for trekking. Meeting us for coffee at cafés after her day’s work, she twice ferried us during her errands to the city’s outskirts to show off her beloved sea. Driving to the start of the coastal rambles, both times she pointed out the metro stations we would use after our walks. Those traipses were unexpected pleasures, showcasing everyday life from a wedding photographer at work to parks, beach volleyball games and luxurious yachts.

An Athens bookstore also rewarded us with a guidebook that would lead us around western Crete. Though online resources are always a large part of travel, so is happenstance. With many books published in the UK, I figured I’d find a book in Athens cheaper than online with its overseas postage. I did and it became our docent. 

Samaria Gorge would be the highlight hike during our springtime Crete visit. The idea was to augment that outing with shorter hikes and rambles, keeping in mind that we were hiking while on vacation and not on a hiking vacation. We made sure to enjoy the beaches, people, sunsets, bakeries, markets, ruins, churches and raki too. 

Base camp was in the little town of Kissamos at another Airbnb property with a helpful host who assisted in securing a rental car waiting for us in the ferry port upon our arrival by the historic and alluring city of Chania. Kissamos is about a half-hour drive west and sits sleepily in a U-shaped bay formed by two protruding lobster claw rocky peninsulas: Gramvoussa to the west and Rodopou in the east. Gramvoussa has the stunning white sand Balos beach with some footpaths all reached by a 5-mile long dirt road or boat while remote and windswept Rodopou is best explored by 4x4s or on foot. 

We chose foot and an 11-mile loop hike from the quiet village square of Rodopou where old men drank coffee in a taverna not far from Kissamos.

Quickly, one learns that hiking away is not like hiking at home. 

First, there’s the travel experiences of different language, alphabet, food, driving, hygiene and customs. Those can be wonderful and frustrating at the same time, as pantomime and guesswork become part of the day.

Then throw in hiking with limited mileages, signs, maps and obvious trailheads and that exasperated excitement hits you like a Zeus bolt of lightening. Best bet is to pack plenty of patience and whimsy.

Though we had that guidebook for the journey by ancient churches and olive trees, sheer barren cliffs, sweeping sea vistas and sheep with bells like wind chimes, there were no signs or obvious markers along the way. There were plenty of prickly plants and wild oregano but not so much shade. The pathways meandered between dirt road and loose-stone goat paths. The guidebook measured distances in time, not miles. Landmarks were road bends, stone walls, pillars and cisterns. 

Then there were the directions. 

“Head off left beside the cisterns, on a smaller track (more like a goat’s trail—or like a stream bed after wet weather). One or two minutes past the cisterns, cross a track and continue straight on. A couple of minutes later curve round to the right. Continue round to the right and then, where the track forks a minute later, keep left uphill.”

Couples’ angst initially hit us hard, but once we slowly accepted the directions and awe-inspiring landscape, we relaxed a bit more and marveled at the shrines along the trail and the white church off in the distance. Hills, pastures and animal pens dotted the terrain and eventually we made it back to our tiny rental car in the village where my wife set the tone for future hikes on the island by declaring, “Honey, I don’t do goat paths.”

With goat paths off the table, a beach ramble seemed fitting along the pinkish sands of Elafonisi on Crete’s western corner. 

Elafonisi is a stop on a 70-mile-loop drive from Kissamos that includes mountainous hair-raising coastal and inland roads loaded with sheep and goats. 

Driving on Crete is its own adventure; speed limits, mere suggestions. The shoulder or breakdown lane is a travel lane where drivers expect you to pull over so they can pass. Narrow rural roads are two-way, but often not wide enough for two subcompacts traveling in opposite directions to navigate simultaneously. Motorcycles and scooters rule, often using the dotted white lines as their own travel lanes and passing on the right. Perhaps that explains the popularity of raki, a celebratory shot after arriving home safely.

An island off the island, Elafonisi is reachable by a short walk through the clear water, easier in low tide. A popular tourist spot, it wasn’t crowded in early May, too early for lifeguards and food stalls but not changing areas. 

Typically, hiking and water don’t bode well for us when we hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire back home. Boots get wet, rocks are slippery, the water cold and current strong enough sometimes to topple. Not on Elafonisi. 

Hiking boots were traded for rugged sandals, taken off on the pleasant sand and in the warm shin-deep water. We found some sharp rocks on occasion but also sheltered coves, caves and nature trails with boardwalks made easier with those sandals.

At Elafonisi, we were prepared for the beach walk, but weren’t aware of the nature trail circuit we found there. We knew Europe’s E4 hiking path was near, the roughly 6,200-mile trail between Spain and Greece winds through France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Cyprus. But it was a surprise to see a small unoccupied kiosk with some flora and fauna photos and arrows.

It told us in clumsy English—much better than my stumbling attempts at Greek—that Elafonisi hosts a great number of rare or protected endemic species as well an an important and especially sensitive ecosystem of sand dune species.

Another sign said the pinkish sand “is one of the specificities which compose the natural miracle called Lafonisi. If each visitor claims even the minimum amount of sand in their pockets, then they are each of them to blame for the disbain [sic] of this uniqueness.” It also warned that taking the soothing sands is against the law and violators will be prosecuted. We didn’t steal any sand, though, admittedly, some grains may have made a jailbreak in our footwear.

We walked the lovely sandy seaside nature trail among the sand dunes, curious shorebirds and waving grasses. We played among the rocks and watched the sea crash and flow. We stuck to the primitive wooden planks and walked by the colorful wildflowers of spring.

We marveled at the blue waters and the stunning mountains that met the sea. In the sparse shade, we had a picnic of feta cheese, tomatoes, olives and bread from a bakery.

We just walked, not knowing or caring for how long or how far. On Elafonisi, it just didn’t seem to matter.

Over the days we took other small hikes, like a boat and trek experience to the Gramvoussa peninsula with its island castle and trails by a lagoon. On another day, we found ourselves in a small shop on the ancient streets of Polyrinnia with Jan searching for a coveted olive wood salad bowl. The artisan shop owner welcomed us with some glorious honey-laced raki with a nice oregano after taste. Through pantomime and limited English not only did Jan find her olive wood grail, but the artisan told us of the village’s acropolis complete with archeological ruins.

Raki-fueled, we hiked with bowl and tongs in backpack to the citadel on the hill on an impromptu circuit on dirt roads and narrow paths with aged walls, as at one time, Polyrinnia was the stronghold of Crete, a well-fortressed city. 

On the way to the top and its cross, we passed a church built near the tail end of the 19th century. A few Greek and English signs guided us as we ambled by Roman cisterns, a Hellenistic wall with towers and gates in various conditions, including a sign reminding us to “Please Close the Door.”

From the top, we were treated to stunning mountain and ocean views.

As we descended, we came upon an elderly woman dressed in black holding a water can, perhaps used to sustain livestock. I think I spoke more Greek then she English. 

Between big smiles, she asked if we had been to the acropolis. We answered yes. This seemed to impress her.

She asked if we were from England. We answered, “America.” With that she patted Jan on her back. 

She pointed the way down, and then we parted ways, secure in the notion that the encounter is kept forever in an olive wood bowl of memories.

But it was Samaria Gorge that topped the hikes while on Crete. Reputed to be Europe’s longest gorge, the downhill track from the small lodge of Xvyloskalo to the black sand beaches of the village of Agia Roumeli along the Libyan Sea on the island’s south coast passes by towering cliffs, mountain goats and forests of cypress, pine, wildflowers and more. 

Since Agia Roumeli is only accessible by foot or boat, we went with a tour operator providing transportation to the starting point from the port where the boat docked. The operator also threw in trekking poles when we asked. 

The popular Samaria National Park day-long tour sees swarms in summer, so hiking it in May meant fewer tourists with early starts suggested no matter the season. The well-marked path winds through the gorge with 1,000-foot-high cliffs and breadths that range from about 500 feet at its widest to 10 feet at its slimmest. 

Before the heat of the day, the gorge is cool. Yellow numbered markers along the way help hikers keep pace. Wardens on mules patrol the gorge, and are the way out if a hiker sustains an injury.

Initially wide, the gorge narrows along the journey and passes by the village of Samaria abandoned in the early 1960s when townspeople were relocated when the gorge became a national park. A small church nearby was dedicated to the gorge’s namesake, Saint Maria of Egypt. The shade was a welcome rest spot for our Cretan staples of olives, feta and bread. 

The alpine drama increases as the walls eventually narrow to perhaps the most popular spot of the gorge, the Iron Gates. There the gorge is but 10 feet wide, and we navigated the rocky and wet way along rickety wooden boards leading from one side of the water to the other. Huge boulders rested on the ravine floor. 

Before long, the pathway leaves the park for a good mellow mile to the village. There we found a café serving another Greek staple we loved, the gyro. An open air café was the perfect place to order the meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie, served wrapped in pita bread and swathed with yogurt-based tzatziki sauce.

The appreciated meal was only surpassed when we went into a shop and found some raki. Naturally we had to sample some before buying a bottle. From there, we sipped raki as we meandered along the black sands, lapped by the turquoise sea at the edge of Crete’s White Mountains in the faraway land that shares the name of our mountains back home. 

Photo: David Anderson