Our walking holidays on Crete cover all compass points of this mountainous island, the largest in Greece. Heading north to south through the White Mountains and stupendous Samaria Gorge is an epic Cretan adventure, ending up at Agia Roumeli beach in the west, because the coast always beckons when walking on Crete. Our eastern walking holiday leads you through the Sitìa Geopark to some of Crete’s best beaches. These include Vai and Skinias, or a final walk in the Gorge of the Dead, bringing you out at the coastal village of Zakros.
Our self-guided holidays bring you into the heart of its unique natural heritage. It’s also part of the islanders’ cultural heritage because mountain life is in Cretan DNA, much more so than coastal living. It’s an island not just with colossal landscapes but with total blow-your-mind-scapes.
The White Mountains
The White Mountains are called Lefka Ori locally, which translates as white mountains because of their light-coloured peaks, thanks to the snow that hovers until late spring or their limestone makeup that gives them perfect contouring throughout the rest of the year. If you thought Crete was all about beaches, then the White Mountains are a wonderful wake-up call to its hiking highs. They dominate the centre of western Crete, stretching 50km north to south and 25km west to east. They don’t hold back though, squeezing 50 peaks with an altitude of over 2,000m into this relatively small area, the highest summit being Pachnes at 2,453m. You walk along trails enveloped by these peaks, rather than summiting them, on our shorter eight day north to south coast trek.
“We (two couples in our seventies) loved the variety of the terrain on this hike. From the walk around Vamos village to small dirt roads through olive orchards to a mountain path and meadow, down a rocky gorge and finally to walking along the sea, every day was different and stimulating. All of the transfers were seamless.” – Lucy, Maine, USA.
The high peaks of the White Mountains are fairly barren, but there are many green trails to be found, such as the Omalos Plateau. At an elevation of 1,200m, this is a relatively flat trail but one encircled by peaks, where the smell of wild oregano and thyme hits you, as does ironwort, used in the local mountain tea. It’s only 15km2, but its fertile soil has made this a small holdings haven and also an important stop for shepherds bringing sheep and goats to pasture, a tradition that still happens on Crete.
Keep an eye out for small round stone houses (mitata), which were used for making local cheese. Some walkers just pass through here in order to reach Samaria Gorge, but it’s definitely worth taking time to pootle around the plateau itself. On our North to south coast trek holiday, you stay at a hotel in Omalos, the plateau’s only small hamlet, which caters for keen hikers.
This is the jewel in the White Mountains crown, also protected by national park status, and it is home to Crete’s most celebrated 16km trekking trail. It’s also the island’s most popular trail, so get in early before the crowds descend, although not everyone takes on the whole route. For those who do, however, most start at the Xyloskalo trailhead and descend down from an elevation of 1,200m through narrow passages, rock arches and past freshwater springs and limestone caves all the way down to sea level at the Mediterranean. The perfect light at the end of one terrific tunnel.
Samaria features on our North to south coast trek holiday but is also one of several other gorgeous ones on our Walking the gorges of west Crete holiday. It’s only open for hikers between 01 May and around mid October, depending on when the autumn rains start. If there is rain during the season, the national park authorities are very strict about closing access to the trail, in which case we suggest an alternative route for you that day.
“Our favourite hike was Day 4: Sougia to Omalos via the Irini Gorge. We set off a little later than normal (9:30am) and we still had the entire gorge to ourselves. All you could hear were birds! The second part of the hike form the gorge to Omalos was like being back in the alps. It was through mountainous fields with sheep and cobbled paths. It was beautiful.” – Stacey from Bavaria.
Sitìa Geopark and east Crete
Walking in the UNESCO Geopark of Sitìa is for littoral lovers, clinging to the east coast of Crete, with the Zakros Mountains as your backdrop. Spend a week sauntering along these seascapes in the remote region of Lasithi, following the Zakros Way. This area is protected because its karst limestone shoreline is home to an array of ancient fossils, caves and gorges. And it’s truly gorgeous. There are also some ancient archaeological sites, such as the Zakros’ Minoan palace or the abandoned village of Hamètoulo, which are peppered along the coast like a sun-drenched museum.
Sitìa Geopark is also home to Gorge of the Dead, otherwise known as Zakros Gorge. The former name is because ancient Minoans walked for miles to bury their dead in the gorge’s caves and walls here. You can walk this route over seven days or, if you have less time, take a slightly speedier five days. Either way, you will feel like you’ve been away for an age as Sitìa Geopark transports you to another time.
Smaller but no less sweet on the eye than Samaria, Imbros Gorge is 8km long and only takes a few hours to explore. Running parallel to Samaria Gorge, this is the route that Allied troops famously walked in 1941 to escape the Nazis, helped along by Crete’s strong resistance movement. The landscape hasn’t changed of course, a narrow rocky riverbed with canyon walls that almost touch at some points. It feels like a place of immense natural power and also attracts fewer visitors than Samaria. You emerge from the gorge at the village of Komitades, home to the church of Saint George, just one of many across the island where iconographic frescoes were painted by Ioannis Pagomenos as early as 1,314AD.
You have to walk on for a bit to get your end-of-day swim, just a few kilometres to the beach at Chora Sfakion. This small town is also the place where you stay for the whole week on our centre-based walking holiday in west Crete. Trekking in Imbros Gorge is included on our Crete north to south walking holiday.
“We had an excellent adventure hiking through the Gorges of Crete. The hikes were clearly mapped out and easy to follow. Some of the hikes were very rigorous (especially one in particular on the last day), but that was what we were hoping for!” – Daniel, Boston, MA.
Best time to go walking on Crete
For walking on Crete, we offer holidays between March and October, with some taking a break during the busy and boiling summer months of July and August. Even though you do get snow on the White Mountains between late October and May, it’s rare for lower elevations to dip into single figures on the centigrade scale at any time throughout the year.
One of the joys of walking on Crete, in addition to the walking trails, is the wildflowers, which all start to explode in spring. From Cretan orchids to the beautiful bellflowers of campanula, or blankets of yellow poppies and buttercups, the mountains come to life from late March onwards, depending on the snowfall. Our only Crete walking holiday to start in March is the North to south coast trek where, in the distance, you may well still see more than a sprinkling of snow.
What you can’t do on our Walking the Gorges holiday, which opens in April, is hike in Samaria Gorge during that month, as it doesn’t open until 01 May. We will organise another wonderful walking trail for you if you book during this time and trust us, there is no shortage of those. One example is starting in Sougia, where you take a ferry to Agia Roumeli for a 10km walk. Agia Roumeli is also a magical place, located at the foot of Samaria Gorge and built on the ancient ruins from an earthquake.
We hope that this has given you all the information you need to start planning a Cretan odyssey. Get ready not only to be wow’ed by the place itself but also to be won over by the sheer pride of place that Cretans have for their island and unique heritage. You will notice, for example, that local family names here end in ‘akis’, which is unique to Crete. It comes from a nickname given by Turks during their occupation. It means ‘small’, and it was used as a diminutive to put the islanders down. That didn’t work out so well, however. Cretans stand tall and proud, surrounded by their equally behemoth beauty. And we will certainly never stop bigging them up.