Updated: Mar 30, 2019
Day 3: The South-west Coast
Following an agreeable Cretan breakfast of yoghurt, honey, coffee and fruit, we drove south from Rethymno on our third day on the main road in the direction of the town of Plakias. After the village of Armeni, the drive became gorgeous – the mountainous interior of the island makes even the most routine drive an absolute pleasure of winding roads, plunging cliffs and verdant valleys – with one or other of the coastlines almost always on the horizon.
The Kourtaliotiko Gorge was particularly spectacular, and demanded a photo stop. The tiny Agia Nikolas Monastery here is also worth a stop, with a stunning location near the top of a high pass leading down to the south coast – whose waters are part of the Libyan Sea. In fact, this gorge leads all the way down to Moni Preveli Monastery, east of Plakias, which took about 90 minutes in total from Rethymno. Always plan for things to take longer than they should here – roads are rarely fast when you stray away from the north coast. Preveli is, after Arkadi, probably western Crete's most holy site and it fully justifies a visit. It's famed for its part in the resistance against the Turks and also during WW2, when it acted as a shelter to Allied troops stranded on the beach below it. It's a splendidly-located place high on the cliffs above Preveli beach and with views out to the sea beyond, it rivals and even betters Arkadi for atmosphere. The beach 300m below is quite a hike – it's only accessible by foot, and coming back up is a bit of a lung-buster. But it's well worth the effort, as you descend to an (at this time of year) almost completely deserted beach, fed by the fresh water from the Kourtaliotiko Gorge, and it's possible to hike up the gorge some distance. There are a couple of swimmable pools in the river if the beach is too crowded in summer (which it does get). We had it all to ourselves for an hour though and enjoyed the Spring sun with a cold drink from a little taverna on the beach.
However, we had a full itinerary in front of us and didn't linger as long as we'd have liked. We passed by the rather touristy town of Plakias without stopping. It seemed pleasant enough but didn't appear to have too much to detain us – it's a base for tourists though and is one of the best bets on the south east coast for amenities. Its long, wide, sandy beach and shallow waters make it a family-friendly destination without being very noisy. Our next stop, about thirty kilometres further west along the coast, was Frangocastelo. It's a scattered village but with one major attraction – its castle, which stands sentry over it, looking more than a little incongruous. It's a huge, imposing structure which can be seen for miles, but like Fortezza in Rethymno, is basically just a shell. It was built by the Venetians in 1371 to deter pirates – some would call that overkill – and one can't imagine any soldiers stationed here seeing much action. The beach nearby was also practically deserted, save for a few strung-out looking hippy types, looking for serenity no doubt. They'd have found it here.
Our main aim for the day was up next. We stopped at the village of Hora Sfakion and parked the car just 3km beyond it, where a footpath began along the cliffs to the inaccessible-by-road hamlet of Loutro, a 90 minute hike further on. The hike was pretty taxing – up and down a quite precipitate footpath and on a stony surface in rugged surrounds. For a reasonably fit adult, it was no problem, but anyone less fit, or with young children, wouldn't be advised to attempt it – especially in the heat. It was only in the low 20s, but the lack of shade made the walk tiring. After about half an hour we reached the rather stony but pleasant Sweetwater Beach (Glyka Nera), named after a freshwater stream that feeds the sea here.
It's a perfect place for a rest and would have been ideal for a swim later in the year as it had beautiful crystal-clear waters with a lovely mountainous backdrop, but the waters were a little cold still. Another hour or so of very scenic clifftop hiking took us to Loutro, which is one of the very few settlements I've visited in the world unconnected to roads. The only way in and out is on foot or by boat, and so the village has an extremely calm and relaxing vibe. It's basically just a few whitewashed houses scattered around a harbour, some of which are guesthouses. There are a handful of tavernas and bars, a shop, and a church – and that's about it.
If you want relaxation, and to escape the crowds – this is undoubtedly the place to come. For many, the lack of things to do other than sunbathe and swim might be a deterrent, and a couple of hours was enough for me, but it was a truly special place and I definitely would like to have seen more of this coastline. The footpath we took was part of the European E4 coastal route, and it hugs the coastline of much of southwest Crete; it's undoubtedly a stunning section of the island, very little of which is reachable by car, so Loutro is far from the only village of its kind in this part of the world – just the most well-known. The most famous of all the hikes in Crete ends only a few kilometres west of Loutro – at the village of Agia Roumeli, which is similarly isolated. That walk is the mighty Samaria Gorge, and I'd have loved to write about that for this guide, but unfortunately it was not open while we were there. It opens in late May usually – because the path follows a riverbed, which obviously needs to be dry, which it generally isn't in early Spring. Suffice to say I was disappointed by this news, but I suppose it's a reason to go back.
We took a boat back to Hora Sfakion (€5 each), which took about twenty minutes, and gave some great views back to the coastline we had just hiked. Hora Sfakion is just a little harbour with a few houses really, but there are a few tavernas with seafood and snacks if you need to eat there, Tria Adelfia probably being the best option. Our drive back to Rethymno got us there before dusk, which was just as well because the road north from Hora Sfakion was again windy and very hilly, so would have been tough in the dark. A meal at the very local taverna in our village of Atsipopolo was memorable for a selection of locally-grown vegetables, sheep's cheese, freshly caught squid and locally, erm, sourced snails, served with the usual carafe of plonk, all for under €15 each.
Day 4: Mili Gorge & Chania
I noticed on the map that only 10km east of where we were staying was a promising green splodge called Mili Gorge. On a hunch, I decided we should try it out for a hike. As it turned out, this was one of my better hunches. While it's true that Crete is criss-crossed with gorges, many of them are well-known, and get pretty crowded with hikers, certainly in-season. Mili Gorge is not one of those gorges, and I cannot imagine it ever getting busy. We started the hike from the small village of Xiro Chorio parked there. The three hour loop we took could be shortened by starting at the top of the gorge and walking down – it's quite a steep slog going up as we did – and getting a bus back to where you started. This would involve some bus timetable logistics however. The hike itself was beautiful. The path follows a small babbling brook, crossing it many times on little bridges, and you are covered by trees for most of the way, shading you from the heat of the sun – important if you tackle this during the summer months.
As we were there in early spring, a lot of trees were just coming into blossom and the air was filled with their fragrances. Wildlife – particularly birds – were plentiful, and butterflies were abundant. High above us, as we looked beyond the towering cliffs to the blue sky beyond, we'd spy the occasional kestrel or buzzard. To add to the natural beauty, the gorge was scattered with ruined stone houses – the village was originally arranged around a mill (from where the gorge gets its name), but has been abandoned – and there were also several little churches along the way, most of which could be visited. It was all rather magical. Presently, we arrived at a cafe where we stopped for a cold drink – it was a hot day – before continuing to the road beyond. After about an hour of road walking, the descent back to Xiro Chorio took us down a much wider valley, with open views down to the blue sea. It was extremely enjoyable, and perhaps the best hike of the trip – anyone staying in the Rethymno area should not miss it. The lack of people on it made it even better.
We drove west to Chania – the biggest city on the north coast after Heraklion, and arguably the most important (and beautiful) city in Crete. We'd skipped it when we flew in, but decided to spend an afternoon there on our way to Kisamos, where we'd stay for the rest of the trip. Chania is a pretty compact place, and its sights can easily be covered in a few hours on foot. It would make a very good base for your trip to western Crete – indeed, we could and maybe should have stayed there ourselves, but decided against it as we were seeking somewhere a little quieter and less touristy. If there is a drawback to the town, it's that it's very busy. Even when we were there, there were more people than we'd seen anywhere, and plenty of the restaurants and bars were pretty full – so high season might not be a time to come here. It's easy to understand why Hania is so popular – it's an extremely pretty old town, huddled around a little harbour, dating back to Venetian times, and with plenty of Turkish-era remains – the skyline is dotted with mosques and minarets.
With its shimmering waterfront, crumbling masonry and web of alleys, Hania has a very good claim to being the spiritual capital of Crete, as it lacks Heraklion's urban sprawl and semi-industrial hinterlands; furthermore, despite its nearby airport, it is not particularly surrounded by any resorts – at least not the kind that package holiday tourists flock to on some Mediterranean islands. In fact, in western Crete we didn't notice any purpose-built places at all, which makes it a great place to feel as if you are really sampling local life. The best thing you can do in Hania is stroll around, pausing now and again to admire the views, or to have a snack or beer. It's a remarkably laid-back sort of place.
The focal point is its Venetian harbour, and you'll want to walk its length because that's where everything is. The narrow streets that run off it, filled with Venetian and Turkish architectural delights, especially in the Kastelli area, are a great pleasure to wander around. The Mosque of the Janissaries dominates the harbour area, remiding you you're never too far from the Ottoman past in Crete. If you want to have a look back even further in time, visit the Byzantine Museum (Theotokopolou 78) to get a feel for a largely overlooked period of history – the entire period from early Christian to the end of the Venetian Occupation in the 17th Century.
West of the Byzantine Museum, there are some pretty sturdy remnants of the City Wall – and following its length, you stumble across some of the most interesting alleys in the town, many containing arts and craft shops including locally-made leather goods. After a good stroll around, we just had time for dinner – we chose Portes nearby the city walls, and I sampled rabbit with prunes whilst Kasia tried cuttlefish with fennel – delicious. The drive to Kisamos and our little stone cottage in the hills would've been a lot less enjoyable without that. Okay, it was still a nightmare (it was dark and it was in the middle of nowhere) – this is where Googlemaps let us down badly, but let's not get bogged down in details. Our stone cottage, once found, was a beauty, hidden away in the hills and perfect for feeling the real Crete.
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This is the second part of a three part guide to western Crete. You can read the other parts here:
and the third part, including the best beaches of western Crete, here: