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Saturday, 18 November 2017

Outbound adventures: Crete – a rugged island paradise

Crete is one of the largest and prettiest islands in the Mediterranean. With its mountains, olive groves and vineyards, its pristine waters and beautiful sunsets, the island is the perfect summer destination

Walt Curnow , Monday 10 Jul 2017
 Balos beach
The scenic Balos with pristine waters and green mountains (Photo: Walt Curnow)
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As the route to the retreat winds higher into the mountains, paved road gives way to a dirt track. Dense olive groves fade away, with shrubs bearing bright-pink-and-white flowers taking over, lining the cliff-side. Agricultural fields can be seen deep in the valley, and away in the distance is the rugged coastline.

Crete, the largest of the Greek Islands, is almost as close to Alexandria as it is Athens. It is also regarded as having the earliest recorded signs of civilisation in Europe, which is not surprising considering where it is situated in the world. The clear blue water of the beaches and the relative remoteness that the mountains offer make it a popular holiday destination, irrespective of its historical riches. The vastness of the island – it’s the fifth largest in the Mediterranean – also allows for solitude and silence.

On completing the ascent to Milia Mountain Retreat – once an abandoned village and now an eco-lodge – visitors find themselves in a small valley nestled between two mountains. Sharp, rocky outcrops cast shadows over the lodging for much of the day.

The eco-lodge project began in the 1980s, after the original village had long been abandoned, the locals finding it too remote. Some grandchildren from a local family wished to save their village from ruin and decided to build the lodge. The project was a risk at a time when eco-tourism was not as popular as it is today, but the founders are still still running the retreat as a business.

Milia

The food is all locally produced or brought in from Chania, the main city in western Crete. Just over an hour away by car, Chania is also the location of the airport.

Milia is generally all about hiking. Tracks in every direction lead you into valleys or higher up for views of the island's western coast. Even a short walk from the lodge will lead you away from most signs of civilisation, providing tranquillity and silence, as well as the smell of wild herbs and flowers.

As we went in June, we found the weather too hot for any long hikes. However, the garden of the eco-lodge is beautiful, and with few guests at the time, it was peaceful. The bedrooms have their own small courtyard to one side that leads into the garden, as well as a small rooftop with deck chairs, from which to observe the valley and the canopy of stars.

The cosiness of the bedrooms cannot be stressed enough: they have fireplaces and chimneys (unnecessary in the summer, of course), small desks and windows looking onto the greenery.

The common area in the eco-lodge consists of two levels, with lunch and dinner served upstairs. Here there is an indoor area where candles are lit in the evening, as well as a terrace overlooking the valley. The food is delicious and the service friendly and chatty.

Anything with pork, goat or lamb was especially delicious, the eggplant was great, the wine local and smooth. Each night after dinner, local raki was served in a carafe to help further conversation and relaxation.

Breakfast, which is served downstairs, is self-service and is plentiful enough for a day of hiking, or in our case, the beach.

Public transport to the lodge is almost non-existent, so hiring your own car is a necessity. We hired one from the small coastal city of Kissamos, an hour's drive from Milia.

On our first day with the car, we headed to the beach of Falassarna on the northwest coast. The water is bright blue and fresh and the sand white and soft. There aren't too many people here, so while you don’t have the beach to yourself, you don’t have to worry about crowds or noise.

It’s a short drive from Kissamos (locals kept telling us 10 minutes, but in reality it's a bit longer) where you wind up the cliff-face to overlook the Mediterranean and then descend along a steep dirt road surrounded by thick olive groves all the way to the shore.

Falassarna is said to have the best sunset (and the latest) on the island, as it is the most western tip. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay around long enough to enjoy it.

Instead, we left after a couple of hours of the gruelling sun and enjoyable swimming and had lunch and iced-coffee at a taverna up the road. From here, there is a view far off into the sea – of the beaches stretching along the coastline and the olive groves everywhere in sight.

Instead of watching the sunset, we decided to slowly wind our way back to Milia and stop in some of the small, irresistible villages that sit on the mountainside. All the villages have small stands on the side of the road selling local vegetables, honey, goat cheese and raki. Slowly driving through the villages we stopped and found one with an atmosphere suited perfectly to the late afternoon. We walked around to see the nice town houses, shops and the view down into the valley and more of the village that sat just below the road. We had a late delicious lunch of sausages – all local meat of course.

The end of the road, just before Milia, is very narrow and drops off into a gorge. So it is best to complete this journey before sunset if you are not familiar with the road.

It turns out that this stretch provides an excellent view of the sun dipping into the sea in the far distance. The last vestiges of light illuminate villages in the valley that look tiny from so high up.

Milia

On our second day, we made it to the less accessible yet more beautiful beach of Balos. Reaching Balos requires either a big cruise with hundreds of other people, a smaller cruise of 10, or renting a private four-wheel drive over a difficult and inconvenient dirt road and a long walk in the hot sun. Instead, we hired a fisherman and his small boat for the day to take us there directly, hours before the crowds of the charter boats arrived.

Balos is remote and incredibly beautiful, its essence sublime. The beach is directly at the foot of a mountain and protected by the island of Gramvousa a few kilometres away. The aquamarine water, the epic mountains behind and the lack of people (at least early in the day) make this place spectacular. After swimming in the warm water and walking around the beach for over an hour, we climbed back onto the fishing boat and our captain took us to the island of Gramvousa.

When we first arrived, the small inlet was full of people from the cruise boat. However, after 20 minutes, they were all back on the boat and we had the island basically to ourselves. The only people left were our nice captain and an old fisherman who lives on the island alone. He gave us fresh fish for lunch and we sat enjoying the sea breeze, silence and an amazing view, with a Cretan beer to wash it down.

Milia

Before sunset, our captain took us back to Kissamos, a pleasant hour-long ride, looking at the stark mountains and many shades of blue in the sea just below us and out into the distance. From here, we took the car back to Milia for our last night.

Unfortunately, three nights is not enough to get a feel for even a small part of Crete. Despite being a relatively small island, one gets the sense that a lifetime obsession could be played out here, always looking for more secrets. But three days it was, and it’s certainly enough to relax and to enjoy some of the exquisite culture and nature that the Cretans have on offer.

The authenticity of life in Crete makes the place very easy to like: the delicious food and drinks, the genuinely nice people, and the stunning beaches and mountains.

If you have time, you should go to Elaffonisi beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, with pristine, crystal-clear waters, and – believe it or not – a white-and-pink sandy beach. It is perfect for spending the day tanning, swimming, eating and drinking. There are cafes, restaurants, bars and changing facilities too.

Also, if you make it to Crete's Chania, go to the town of Kisamos for a lovely stroll down its beautiful streets, and we totally recommend dining at one particular restaurant with a view to die for. The Cellar Tavern is a family restaurant, serving fresh sea food and home-cooked meals, great wines. The view and the atmosphere are quite magical.
 

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