How to get off the beaten track in Crete
Measuring 260 kilometres long and 56 kilometres wide, it takes at least six hours to drive from one end of Crete to the other - and for most of the way you’ll have spectacular views of the sea.
But if you really want to discover a more authentic side to this island known for its superb beaches and succulent food, you’ll need to head for the atoll’s eastern end, or follow winding roads inland to explore Crete’s rugged and mountainous interior.
Here are three exclusive tours within easy reach of Abaton Island Resort & Spa, which are guaranteed to show you another side of this island where legendary king of Mount Olympus and god of the sky Zeus was born.
STEP BACK IN TIME AS YOU EXPLORE A STRING OF TRADITIONAL VILLAGES
Where is it? At the eastern end of the island, Lasithi is one of Crete’s lesser known regions. From the capital Agios Nikolaos, famed for its bottomless lake, to the high flung Lasithi plateau with its fertile windmill-studded plains, this is a region where you’re guaranteed to get an authentic taste of local life.
What’s so great? This tour gives you the opportunity to visit traditional villages untouched by tourism (and barely touched by time) with your own professional guide.
What will I see? Apart from those jaw-dropping panoramic views en-route, you’ll visit the age-old village of Krasi at the foot of mount Selena, where iconic Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis (whose wife was born here), loved to escape the summer heat. Here you’ll marvel at the 2,400 year-old plane tree - known as ‘the writer’s tree’ in memory of Kazantzakis - and dabble fingers in the cool springs where locals once came to wash their laundry.
From Krasi, you’ll drive through winding lanes to visit the 13th century Byzantine monastery of Panagia Kera in the thyme-clad Dikti Mountains, where you’ll see some of the island’s finest Byzantine frescoes.
You’ll end your fascinating tour with a visit to the Diktaion Andron, an ancient cave that’s believed to be the birthplace of legendary god Zeus.
Useful tip: Take some cash with you and have lunch after your tour, in one of Krasi’s pretty little taverns serving local home-cooked food.
HIKE A WILDER VERSION OF THE CELEBRATED SAMARIA GORGE
Where is it? Samaria Gorge near Chania might be a magnet for hikers, but in this mountainous island scored by deep gorges there are plenty of other places where you can enjoy trekking through equally impressive canyons. One not-to-miss is the eight-kilometre-long Imbros Gorge in the wild and mountainous province of Sfakia.
What’s so great? This impressive gorge rarely gets crowded (as Samaria often does) so you’ll be able to make the two-and-a-half hour hike at your own pace.
What will I see? The flanks of this spectacularly picturesque gorge, which measures only 1.6kilometers at its narrowest point, are studded with endemic plants and pungent herbs. You should also look out for rusting wartime artefacts: before the war, when there was no road between Hora Sfakion and Chania, this path was used by thousands of British Commonwealth and ANZAC troops fleeing to the coast after the Nazis invasion and the Battle of Crete. Some 16,000 soldiers were evacuated in late May 1941 and taken to safety in Egypt - those that didn’t make it were captured and spent the rest of the war in POW camps.
Your tour, which begins on the fertile Askyfou plain, ends in the atmospheric village of Komitades, where you’ll sit out on the terrace and enjoy a tasty meal at a family-run taverna as you admire stunning views over the Libyan Sea.
Useful tip? Although there are several spectacular sections to this hike, the path, which runs mainly downhill, is fairly easy - as long as they have sturdy footwear, this hike is also suitable for families with older children.
VISIT ‘HISLOP’S ISLAND’ THEN DISCOVER ANOTHER ISOLATED ATOLL
Where is it? This tour begins in the lesser-known, eastern part of Crete Island in the laidback resort of Elounda, where jetsetters ranging from Aristotle Onassis and Jackie O, to Riana and Lady Gaga have been spotted chilling in the local cafes.
What’s so great? Not only do you get to visit ‘the leper island’ which is the subject of Victoria Hislop’s eponymous best-selling novel, you will also spend time on a typical local trehandri fishing boat, which will sail you out to explore the pretty bay of Kolokitha.
What will I see? From the small resort of Plaka overlooking Elounda’s Bay, you’ll take the 20-minute boat trip to the island of Spinalonga. After exploring this barren atoll’s Venetian fortress - and marvelling at the poignant remains from the time when Greece’s lepers were quarantined here between 1903 and 1957, you’ll visit Kolokitha Bay, which is named for its shape (‘kolokitha’ means ‘marrow’) – you’ll even have the chance to swim in those crystal clear waters.
By now you’ll be hungry, so you’ll enjoy your lunch of Cretan specialities in Plaka, before ending the tour browsing local arts and crafts in the picturesque streets of Kritsa, a picturesque mountain village close to the ancient Greek city of Lato.
Useful tip? Renowned for keeping old Cretan customs and traditions alive, Kritsa’s inhabitants make wonderful hand-woven items - ranging from large rugs to tea towels - which are sold in the local shops. So make sure to bring a credit card if you want to bring back a unique souvenir of your trip to discover Crete’s hidden gems.