Road trip in Crete

Summer vacations in November? Yes, I know it sounds strange, but it turned out to be one of our best breaks in years. 2023 season was a big success but at the same time challenging and demanding, so after the last trip of the season in Morocco at the end of October we decided to head to Crete for some much-needed rest and time to regroup.
We boarded the night ferry from Athens, and by 7:00 the next morning, we were disembarking at the port of Heraklion. As we arrived, we tuned in to the local station, which was exclusively playing Cretan music and we drove to the city itself, which encapsulates an amalgamation of history, culture, and natural allure. It was early, so the city was still asleep, presenting us with the opportunity to take a walking tour and explore some of its highlights, which concluded at the Lions Square, the hears of the city, and the Kirkor cafe. It has been serving bougatsa, a filo pastry filled with sweet cream or local cheese sprinkled with a generous drizzle of honey, for almost a hundred years.


Next stop was the town of Rethymno, which would be our base for the following days. There, we met our friend Stefanos and we headed to the south part of the prefecture. We quickly found ourselves immersed in endless tranquility and natural beauty as we drifted through tiny hamlets cradled by olive groves where locals cherish traditions that had stood the test of time. Our destination was the gorge of Kourtaliotiko, with dramatic cliffs that reach heights of up to 300 meters, which stands as one of Rethymno’s most breathtaking natural wonders.


We parked our car close to the Preveli bridge and from there we hiked upwards along the riverbed of Kourtaliotis River, one of the few rivers in Crete with water flowing all year round.Our destination, was the springs of Kourtaliotis. Just below the springs, is the amazing waterfall of Kourtaliotis, one of those places on earth where photos cannot capture the beauty of nature. It is located in a very narrow part of the gorge and can only be reached by swimming. Although the crystal clear, turquoise blue water may look inviting, the water is so cold that it will literally take your breath away. After the hike, it was time for our first dip in the sea, and it was lovely! We went to Ammoudaki beach, the sun was still shining, there was no breeze and very few people around. After spending a couple of hours at the beach, our hunger began to kick in since we had been snacking all day, prompting us to head to Mariou restaurant. It is perched high above Plakias bay with a great view towards the sea and serves traditional home-style cooked dishes.


Next day was a slow one as we stayed in Rethymno, and we wandered in the city. Nestled on Crete’s northern coast, the town’s diverse heritage reflects Venetian, Ottoman, and Greek influences, evident in its fortresses, mosques, and vibrant markets. Its Old Town is a lyrical maze of lanes draped in floral canopies and punctuated with graceful wood-balconies houses and ornate monuments. For dinner we went to Hasika, one of the best restaurants in town. Here you will find modern variations on traditional Greek cuisine with fresh and local ingredients. The menu was fantastic, and it felt like a fine dining experience in an ambient, relaxed setting.


After the rest day, we were ready to hit the road again and we headed towards Amari valley, a quilt of unspoilt villages punctuated by Byzantine churches and framed by olive groves and orchards. Mountain Psiloritis looms gradly above the lyrical landscape whose charms lie less in what’s there than what isn’t: traffic, billboards and megaresorts. From there we headed towards the famous fortified monastery of Arkadi, the most sacred symbol of the struggle of the Cretans for liberation. We visited the site and we continued to Margarites. It is a traditional village where the ancient tradition of pottery still survives, and you can learn more about the various ways and techniques that flourish here today. On the way back to Rethymno, we drove through Adele, a beautiful agricultural area where the scenery is dominated by traditional olive groves, interspersed with several small valleys with groups of cypresses.


The beaches of South Rethymno are well-known throughout Crete for their diverse landscapes and crystal-clear waters. Among all of them the Melissa Cape Sandhills, shine bright. Situated approximately 55km south of Rethymno, they boast massive sand dunes nestled amidst a majestic, untouched landscape. When we arrived, they were very few people around, even allowing for nude bathing. After a few hours at the beach, it was time for lunch, so we headed to a kafeneio in the village of Akoumia, named the Romantic Corner. A kafeneio is a traditional Greek café, where people gather to socialize, drink coffee, and enjoy simple meals. They’re characterized by a relaxed atmosphere and are integral to Greek culture and social life.


The following day we left Rethymno behind and our next destination was Chania. Instead of driving through the national road, we decided to drive the scenic route along the south coast towards the village of Chora Sfakion. After a stop for a Greek coffee, we took a taxi towards the deserted village of Aradena, located in the Chania prefecture. Since 1950’s no one lives in the village after two boys had a fight over a goat bell, which ultimately resulted in a vendetta and the death of nearly all residents. Our goal was to hike through the gorge towards the Libyan Sea, so from the iron bridge, we followed the cobblestone path down to where the rocky riverbed is forced into an extremely narrow gap between sheer walls that rise vertically above us up to 150m. Heading down to the mouth of a gorge is the ideal hike. Walking shaded from the sun’s ferocity and looking forward to a welcome swim at the end as a reward. At the end of the gorge, is the beach of Marmara, meaning “marbles” in Greek, which was named after the towering white rocky cliffs that surround it. From there, we continued the coastal path to the final destination of the hike, the village of Loutro. It lies in the embrace of a cliff that towers nearly 800 meters above its inhabitants. It is accessible only by boat, connecting it with Chora Sfakion where we got back to our car and proceeded to drive towards Chania.


We reached the town in the afternoon, and after settling in our hotel we went to the old harbor for dinner. The options are numerous, but my personal favorite is Salis. If you’re a foodie in search of unique cuisine worth traveling for, this is the place to go. It offers a modern twist on traditional cuisine and some of the dishes are exquisite. For example, Deconstructed Pastitsio, with wild truffle from Agios Nikolaos is a must. It’s like a symphony of flavors melting in your mouth, the kind of food memory you tuck away to savor long after the moment has passed.


Chania is Crete’s most evocative city, with its pretty Venetian quarter, crisscrossed by narrow lanes, culminating at a magnificent harbor. Remnants of Venetian and Turkish architecture abound, with old town houses now restored, transformed into atmospheric restaurants and boutique hotels. All this beauty means that the old town is deluged with tourists in summer, but this time of the year we walked around without the crowds. For lunch, we decided to drive towards the village of Drakona 30km from Chania. In this mountainous region, deep gorges carve through the landscape, networked by nerve-jangling switchbacks leading to mountain villages that hide gastronomic surprises – such as Ntounias. Chef and owner Stelios Trilyrakis once had a restaurant in Chania but retreated into the hills to set up the rather grand-sounding Gastronomy Centre of Cretan Diet in Drakona. The Cretan diet, renowned as the original Mediterranean diet for its emphasis on fresh produce like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and olive oil, serves as his inspiration. His vision? Reverting to traditional cooking methods and authentic recipes while cultivating everything—from vegetables, herbs, to olive oil, wine, and honey—on his organic farm, orchard, and steeply terraced kitchen garden. Many of the dishes are prepared in clay pots over an open, wood-fired stove.


Time seemed to slip away unnoticed, and before we knew it, we found ourselves on the final day of our trip. So in the last day, we drove towards Balos lagoon, one of Chania’s most prized gems which cannot be missed. It is an exotic sandy beach of turquoise waters with a unique geomorphological shape located on the northwest side of the prefecture. Renowned for its untamed natural beauty, it stands among the country’s most stunning beaches.


In the afternoon, we walked the coastal pedestrian road that crosses Koum Kapi, borders Halepa, and then reaches Tabakaria area. The word means tanneries in the Turkish language, and the whole neighborhood is considered an architectural monument, featuring mostly the remains of an industrial crafts center that thrived in the area during the 19th century. In the heyday of the 1950s, Tabakaria was home to more than 80 tanneries employing hundreds of skilled craftspeople. After the 1970s, new methods for treating leather replaced the old, causing many to leave the profession. The area was abandoned, then deteriorated, and all that remained were the shells of buildings that, despite being abandoned, formed a unique architectural ensemble. Today, 26 Tabakaria have been designated Monuments of Industrial Archaeology, while others are being restored with respect to their importance and impact on the history and character of the area. One of the buildings, it is converted into an amazing hotel, and it’s restaurant Periplous located on the ground floor, is literally in front of the sea.


Here, executive Chef Christos Saridakis, a well-known figure in the Cretan gastronomy scene, honors tradition, while pursuing freshness, modernity, and excitement. Sipping a glass of wine, while watching the sun go down marked the idyllic conclusion to our unforgettable vacation

Written by Dimitris Papageorgiou

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