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Published: December 4th 2014
No, I was not in Kentucky but Crete itself where I arrived by overnight ferry from Athens. I opted not to take a berth in a cabin or even an "airplane" seat but went deck class which wasn't actually on the deck but in one of the lounges where I could crash out after it closed at midnight. Last time I did that was in 2000 on a 20+ hour sailing from Athens to Rhodes and all I remember about that trip was that it was still legal to smoke indoors on Greek ferries. That is thankfully no longer the case.
Crete is probably my favorite place in all of Greece. There are so many cool, little villages scattered all over the interior and along the coast with sparkling clear water and miles of hiking trails leading to endless summits. There's even skiing in winter. The locals are super friendly, it's easy to get around, and it was not at all crowded when I was there late in the tourist season.
I ended up spending the first 4 days on Crete in Chania which was more than I had planned. Nearly island wide, the weather was awful after I did
the Samaria Gorge hike straight off so there was really no reason to leave. It's a great city especially the old town around the Venetian Harbor with its seawall and iconic lighthouse. Accommodation and food
Stayed in Chania Hostel in Xalapa which was about a 20 minute walk to the center of Chania taken to be the KTEL bus terminal. It's pretty rustic and a work in progress but only €16 in the dorm which I had to myself for 3 of the 4 nights. There's WiFi, self service breakfast, and tea or Greek coffee anytime of the day. Roumeli up the street from the hostel has arguably the best chicken gyros
in Greece for ~€2 as well as other dishes but it was all Greek to me, seriously. Near Roumeli are several sidewalk cafés where a massive brekky was ~€7 which was perfect after the long ferry trip. The cafeteria-cum-bakery at the KTEL bus station is really good and inexpensive, ~€3.50 for a huge Greek salad except they don't call it Greek salad there, it's country salad. Kind of like in France where they call French fries and French toast Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast, respectively. The piping
Agia Roumeli Beach
Waiting for the ferry after the gorge hike
hot mpougatsa thessalonikis
before I hopped on the bus to Samaria was delicious and packed with plenty of sugar and fat for the long hike. Free WiFi at the bus terminal. Transport
ANEK ferry was €36 departing Piraeus at 21:00 and arriving in Souda at 6:00 where KTEL buses were waiting to shuttle passengers to Chania center for €1.50. I picked up the SIXT rental car in Agia Marina avoiding the €17 airport surcharge. Drove first to Elounda for Spinalonga Island then Heraklion for a couple nights. Used the car for a short trip to underwhelming Knossos then to the Nida Plateau for the start of the hike to Psiloritis. After the hike stayed in stormy Matala for 2 nights then took an incredible drive along the coast via Plakias to Sfakia, basing myself there for another day hike this time to Mount Pachnes. Returned to Chania for my last night then dropped the car at the airport before my flight to Cyprus. Day trip to Samaria Gorge
The way it worked from Chania was to take the 07:45 KTEL bus (08:45 would also have worked and meant less time waiting around Agia Roumeli for the 17:30 boat)
Kri-kri in Samaria Gorge
Half deer-half goat endemic only to the gorge environs
which arrived at the gorge an hour later. Surprisingly there were already 4 tour buses there. Paid €5 for the entrance and set off ~08:50 along with hundreds of others. The forecast called for afternoon rain so I went very quickly with only a few brief stops and got to the exit ticket boot at 12:15. Only a very light sprinkle of rain for a half hour or so in the gorge. Hung out at the café near the exit then proceeded to Agia Roumeli a couple kms down the road (there's actually a shuttle for €1.50 but if you already did 13 punishing kms in the gorge, what's another 2 kms?) where the boat to Sfakia was not leaving for 3½ hrs (boat to Sougia left 17:00, other days 17:30).
Weather was iffy so I opted to leave rather than spend the night which I had preferred and was prepared to do. Plenty of places there and Sfakia too (also Loutro but it looked much smaller so maybe more limited choices). Boat ride to Sfakia was actually the highlight of the trip - along the coast with a short stop at Loutro and an amazing sunset. Got to
Sfakia ~18:45 where 2 KTEL buses and 5 tour buses were waiting. My bus took off just before 19:00 and we were back at Chania KTEL ~20:20. Long day, pricey too: round trip bus ticket was €14.60 (can use return ticket any day/time), ferry was €11 (for an hour ride!), plus €5 entrance fee for the hike in the park. People I met told me their tour bus was €27 (ferry and entrance fee NOT included) and you have to be ready to leave Chania much earlier because they drive around to many hotels to pick people up.
I think the best plan is to sleep in and take the KTEL 08:45 bus and if the weather is nice stay in Ag. Roumeli for the night, next morning take the 08:30 boat to Sfakia and the 11:00 bus from there to Chania. I didn't stay in Ag. Roumeli because I was worried the boats would not run when I wanted to leave and I'd be stranded there an unwanted extra day which in hindsight may have been 2 days with the stormy weather that blew through.
Not nearly as nice as Chania with limited budget accommodation and dining options.
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Also more difficult to drive around. But I'm not sure there's any reason to stay here except to catch a ferry, flight, or bus. Accommodation and food
Presumably only backpacker option is the youth hostel for €10/night in a 10 person dorm. It's not the most updated hostel I've stayed in, the bathrooms could use a major sprucing up. It is just barely serviceable as it has clearly not received any maintenance since the Arab occupation. There's WiFi which was necessary to watch the New England Patriots dispatch the hapless Chicago Bears led by QB and fellow Vanderbilt alum Jay Cutler. No kitchen facilities save for an electric kettle and fridge. No lockers nor a place to really hang out either. It is right in the center, however, close to the port and bus terminal. I don't remember much about the restaurants except that most near the hostel were expensive compared to Chania. Gyros
were at least €3 whereas in the rest of Greece ~€2. The price of gyros
was my metric for determining how expensive a place was. I previously used the Turkish kebap
scale in Austria and both are fairly accurate barometers. Spinalonga Island
Only way in is by ferry or hike through the gorge
highlight of Crete... after the 2 summit hikes, of course. The island has run the gamut from Venetian and Ottoman Fortresses to leper colony, now a major tourist draw. Boats run from Plaka (€8 round trip, frequent departures) north of Elounda ~1½ hours from Heraklion by car but can also get there by bus. Entry fee is €2 and the island fortress is not to be missed if in the area. As a bonus, it is drier there than in much of Crete. Knossos
Hard to be jazzed about Knossos (kuh-NOS-os) after Delphi. €6 entry fee and eminently missable in my opinion unless one is a real archeology or ancient history aficionado. Free parking just before the entrance. Day hike to Psiloritis (a.k.a., Mount Ida)
Purportedly the highest mountain in Crete and designated as such until ~2006 when the Greek military reassessed the height of Mt. Pachnes and determined that it was a few centimeters higher than Psiloritis. Therefore the only way to be absolutely certain of attaining the highest summit on the island was to hike to the top of both. A car is necessary for both of these objectives.
I left Heraklion at 8:18 after
a quick resupply stop at a supermarket on the way out of town near the highway. After a 15 minute stop in Anogia to get directions, I reached the Nida Plateau's abandoned lodge at 10:18 where there was exactly one other car, also a miniscule, fuel efficient rental (petrol is ~€1.60/L on Crete), on the dreary Monday. There's only one trail out from the parking lot so I took it right after arrival first towards a small church then a spur trail on a rising traverse high above Nida. It was chilly and overcast, constantly threatening with rain, so I hauled booty taking only a couple breaks for water, my ever present Snickers bars, and orientation because there were a couple of trails once I got to the gigantic basin below the summit where the E4 supposedly passes but was unmarked. There was a another set of disorienting trail blazes just before the final summit ridge but the visibility was still excellent and I reached the summit at 13:38 where I met the hikers with the other car who took the same route to the summit as I did.
After cooling down it felt positively arctic on the summit
so we all left together at 14:04 but we did not take the same route down to Nida. I think the return trip was on the actual trail and our ascent track was a shepard's path as there was a rudimentary stone shelter that we did not pass on the descent. The clouds were getting thicker so we only stopped for a few minutes once we had Nida in our sights. Time at the cars was 16:48. The first sign on the ascent claims the summit is 7.5 kms away but that is a total sandbag because at my pace I should have easily reached the summit in much less than 3¼ hours if that were the correct distance. I'm guessing it's more like 10 kms plus another 1 km from the parking lot.
As I drove off the skies opened up and it positively poured until I got well away from the mountainous area. I took the road heading straight down the middle of the island on the way to Matala where I assumed if any place on the island would be dry it would be there. That was unfortunately not the case. On the way to Matala
I did come across Taverna Psistaria a few kms before Moiles where €7.50 got me a massive grilled lamb chop platter with tsatsiki
and the ubiquitous pile of freedom fries. Another €2 for a bottle of Alfa beer. The meal was enormous but I had no trouble polishing it off after the freezing hike. To top it off was free watermelon which was very common all over Crete. Also fast WiFi at the taverna
Set in a beautiful, small cove Matala would have been a great place to relax on the beach for a day after the hike but the torrential rain and wind would not permit that. Accommodation and food
Slept in the car both nights in the free parking lot at Kalamaki Beach. Matala Beach has a public ablutions block and there are cold showers on the beach. Grabbed a €1.50 espresso at Mama's Bakery so I could use their WiFi. Around the corner are a few souvlaki
shacks serving massive "open" gyros
plates. Not entirely sure what the difference was with the "closed" plate. Decent Carrefour supermarket in town with fresh and cheap country salads.
Really liked Sfakia and the drive there from Matala passing
through Plakias was spectacular. Even in the last week of October there were still quite a few tourists but that did not preclude many local proprietors from closing up shop on Halloween for the upcoming winter. Accommodation and food
That time of year there was no problem finding a place to stay. I headed straight to Hotel Stavris and was offered a very nice ensuite sea view room for €25. The view was not a necessity since the entire town is right on the water so I settled on a similar amenities room sans
view for €20. There's parking close by and good WiFi. Plenty of bakeries but Mama’s on the promenade has a great variety of huge cakes for ~€3/slice (mocha amaretto slab was incredible after the Pachnes hike). There is a small grill next to Delphin restaurant where €7 is enough for a huge chicken souvlaki
plate complete with fries, small salad, tsatsiki
... free sea view too. Day hike to Mount Pachnes
While a much shorter hike than Psiloritis, the crux of Mt. Pachnes was much more demanding - the 19 km tortuous dirt track from Anopoli to the trailhead high at ~2,000 meters that was
the biggest challenge ever faced by my diminutive Peugot 107 rental car. The summit was only 2,456 m so the vertical was minimal. I left Sfakia ~8:00 and the route to the trailhead went like this: drive to the end of town at the Anopoli Tavern and turn right; at the first fork with red and white marks on post turn left; at the second fork with red and white marks on the rock turn right; at the 3rd fork follow the motorcycle sign to left; at the 4th fork go left and don’t follow the obvious wooden arrow pointed right. Continue for another ~30 minutes and park at wire gate ~1-2 kms from the trailhead even if the gate is open as the road gets even worse after that.
I left the car at 10:11 and it didn't take long to find the signed trail by the side of the road before its end. Started on the trail at 10:24, reached Rousies Col ~10:50 and the summit at 11:26. The trail at Rousies Col purportedly had an arrow pointed to the summit trail but there was none when I was there. Overall it's a very easy and short
hike to the summit with a trail well marked with rock cairns. The weather, while very cold and windy, was brilliant but thick clouds were approaching from the island's interior so I hightailed it off the summit at 11:30, reaching the car at 12:30. From there was a much shorter drive back to Sfakia since I knew where I was going on the return trip. Reached the hotel ~14:00. On the drive back to Chania the next day the car was squeaking a lot more after the drive on the road to Pachnes which was unsurprising after the beating inflicted on it.
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