Take to the skies above East Crete with travel writer Heidi Fuller-love who enjoys a magical sunset helicopter ride from Abaton Island’s helipad.
The helicopter’s propellers whirr like a million bees wings as we take off from Abaton Island’s helipad. Beneath us the resort’s alabaster-white walls, framed by emerald lawns and reflected in countless swimming pools, glitter like molten silver in the setting sun. “We’re going to follow the coast, then fly inland over the Lasithi plateau, cross over to Crete’s southern coast, then cross back to the north coast again,” our pilot says as we turn our back on the luxury resort and hum along the coastline, flying so low that we can see the waves unfurling white feathers along an endless stretch of golden sand.
We fly above the lively resort of Hersonissos, swooping low to see the boats bobbing like corks in the resort’s small harbour, then we turn inland and cross the Aposelemis dam.
Created in 2012 to supply water to the Heraklion area, this vast artificial lake attracts nature lovers who hike here hoping to spot peregrine falcons, griffon vultures and other endangered species that flourish in this remote wetland area. We crane our necks hoping to spot Sfendyli, a village complete with Byzantine church that sank beneath the waters when the dam was created, but the sinking sun casts such a bright glare on the lake we can only see the shadow of our helicopter whirring across the silvered sheet of water.
Ahead of us the elephant grey flanks of the Dikti mountain range – its ancient mottled spine lined with a Mohicans’ spike of pine trees - stretches like an impenetrable wall. We climb vertically just a few dozen metres from the rock face. As the sun sinks lower on the horizon behind us, the full moon rises ahead of us white as ivory – it’s so close we can see its grinning ‘face’ formed by the blotches of lava from ancient volcanic eruptions.
We’re flying some 800 metres above sea level now and the air - perfumed with pungent odours of wild thyme, goats dropping and feta cheese - is cooler than down on the coast. We rise higher. Gravel scuds from the tracks beneath us and a black goat standing high on a rocky peak opposite stamps its foot in anger.” We’re climbing just like the goats,” our pilot jokes.
A narrow V-shaped cleft opens in the mountains ahead of us. On ether side of the cleft stand the ruins of ancient Axetrocharis windmills, like stone sentries defending the gateway to a hidden world.
We head for the centre of the V - flying low enough above the crumbled windmills to see the wooden grinding mechanism within - then burst through the gap into a world of brilliant green and gold as we fly over the lush Lasithi plateau.
Inhabited since Minoan times, this fertile plain gained its name from the drainage ditches or lasctiti dug by the Venetians to bring water to grow the succulent fruit, taste-packed vegetables and other crops for which this sheltered upland is famed. Although every kind of vegetable - from runner beans to tomatoes - grows well here, the Lasithi plateau is particularly renowned for its nut-flavoured, golden skinned potatoes that are celebrated during the region’s potato festival every summer.
We soar above the rust-coloured fields and woolly backs of grazing sheep. At more than 800 metres above sea level this is one of the highest inhabited island zones in the Mediterranean and snow lingers on the slopes here – and is visible from down below at Abaton Island - until late spring.
It’s summer now and the vivid sea of crops are dotted with the iron skeletons of windmills, their white sails spinning furiously to bring up the water from deep artesian wells to water the crops. Up until the 1950’s there were more than 13,000 of these windmills. As young people fled to find better paid, less arduous work in the cities, however, many of the windmills were abandoned and now there are only a few hundred still working.
We putter low across the immense 130km2 plateau’s handful of villages: Agios Giorgos, home of the Lasinthos Ecopark showcasing local arts and crafts and a museum dedicated to great Greek statesman, Eleftherios Venizelos; Agios Konstantinos standing watch over its legendary 16th century monastery of Kroustalenia where Cretan revolutionaries fought the Venetians and the Ottomans, and main town Tzermiadon, famed for its hand-woven tablecloths, carpet and other items made in local looms.
We circle the village of Psychro, and then fly over the dark entrance of Dikteon Andron the mythical cave where legend says ruler of all the gods Zeus, and his son Minos the King of Knossos were both born. Spinning up and over the mountains again, we leave the lovely Lasithi plateau behind and glide along East Crete’s southern shoreline near Ierapetra. This near-deserted stretch of coast is home to ahalf a dozen laidback holiday resorts and an endless expanse of thermokipia, the huge greenhouses where vegetable ranging from peppers and cucumbers, to tomatoes and courgettes are grown, then exported around the globe.
Soon we reach Agios Nikolaos, the capital of East Crete, renowned for its labyrinth of shopping lanes and its ‘bottomless’ lake where legend says goddess Athena once loved to bathe. Then we’re skimming across Mirabello Bay heading for the resort of Elounda, which has been a magnet for jetsetters ever since shipping millionaire Aristotle Onassis and First Lady Jackie Kennedy came here in the 1970’s. Beneath us a succession of tiny bays, like oyster shells filled with ripples of transparent turquoise water, lead to Spinalonga. We hover above the island made famous by Victoria Hislop’s poignant novel, taking photos of the Venetian castle at the top of the ridge, and then circling to get a closer view of the abandoned houses where Greece’s lepers lived right up until 1957. Finally we turn and head back along the coast towards Hersonissos.
As we land on Abaton Island Resort & Spa’s grass-lined helipad, the sun finally sets in a glow of molten gold and crimson. It’s a glorious finale to our fabulous 45 minute helicopter ride to discover the magical landscapes of East Crete.
Did you know?
The Minoans, who are considered to be Europe’s first advanced civilisation, inhabited Crete from 2,700BC and left behind many architectural gems, including the Palace of Knossos near Heraklion and the Palace of Zakros in East Crete.
Cretan dwarf mammoths the size of large dogs once roamed in the mountains behind Hersonissos.
According to legend King Minos ordered Daedalus to build a subterranean labyrinth beneath the Palace of Knossos where he kept the Minotaur, a monster with a bull’s head and a man’s body who gobbled up human sacrifices. The Minotaur was killed by Greek hero Theseus, with the help of Minos’ daughter, Ariadne.
Greek statesman Eleftherios Venizelos was born near Chania during Ottoman rule in 1864.
Subsequently involved in the Cretan uprisings in 1889 and 1896, the renowned Cretan freedom fighter became Greek Prime Minister in 1911.