Conquering the rocky slopes of Crete
By ROBERTA SOTONOFF
Luxurious resorts are not part of the beach scene. Battered rocks sprinkled with whitewashed villages are.
Hotels are carved from mountainsides; they're picturesque but with no elevators, no bellhops and lots of steps.
Still, the wine, baklava and yogurt with honey they serve are the best.
For several thousand years, Crete has been a destination. From 3000 to 1900 B.C., the Minoans were there. Homer wrote about them in the Odyssey and the Iliad. Then an earthquake or volcanic eruption ended that part of history.
Other tribes settled on the island, and for several decades Crete has been a stop for tourists seeking to enjoy history -- maybe through a bit of exertion -- without bumping into busloads of other tourists.
You can easily explore Crete by car, but then you would miss sites accessible only by foot and kayak. That's where Rick Sweitzer comes in. About 30 years ago, Sweitzer went to the island as a student. He kept returning, and 15 years ago he founded the Northwest Passage, an adventure travel outfitter near Chicago.
"I found magical places, and I wanted to share them," Sweitzer said.
He shares them by making his customers sweat. A typical tour with his company begins with an easy walk through the Knossos, a noted archaeological site that was once the home of Crete's first king, Minos.
Legend has it that Minos was the son of Zeus. At his compound, Minos built a labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur, the bovine-human son of Minos' wife, Paiphae.
Knossos was a huge administrative, spiritual and economic center. It was financed by exporting resin, wine and olive oil to North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt.
At Knossos' rebuilt site, bullhorns, a sacred symbol to the Minoans, loom at the south facade. Visitors can see the remains of the 4-acre, flat-roofed, pillared palace, which once circled the courtyard and contained living quarters, workshops and storage. Original skylights, windows, patios and staircases are still recognizable.
Apparently, gender equality thrived in those days, because some frescos denote women participating in the same activities as men. The queen's apartments, tastefully decorated with a fresco of dolphins, fish and sea urchins, had indoor plumbing.
Religious ceremonies were standing-room only at the 4,000-year-old theater.
After this warmup walk, Sweitzer's group heads to Matala, a popular port town in ancient times. It was in the 1960s, too: Singers Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens temporarily lived in caves that surround Matala's bays. Today the place is quiet, but its two streets have good shopping and a great bakery.
On the beach, participants are matched to kayaks by skill levels, which range from novices such as myself to quite proficient paddlers. From the water, the area's unique cliff formations become more prominent to the tourgoers.
Then, wearing headlamps, we explore a 300-foot-deep cave. In another cavern, light seeps underneath the rocks, making the water glow bright blue.
Next to Red Beach, where nude bathers tan, ancients carved on the rocks images of faces, mermaids, bull's heads, octopuses and sea turtles.
After this, we head south to Taverna Comaos and a delicious lunch. Payment, as at all the little beach tavernas, or cafes, is done like this: Eat, find the cashier, tell him what you ate and settle up.
After lunch, as we head to the ruins of a former Phaestos port, my sandals turn into pebble magnets, and I am in pain.
Phaestos, an impressive Minoan site, was founded by Rhadamanthe, another purported son of Zeus. Sibling rivalry with Minos motivated him to build his own home. Rhadamanthe chose a site that is bordered by three mountain ranges and the Libyan Sea.
After that we go to the top of Samaria Gorge National Park. Water and snacks are purchased for the six-hour journey that ranges from about 5,500 feet down to sea level.
The air at the beginning of the walk, down a steep rocky staircase, is saturated with the fragrance of pines and profusely blooming mountain flowers. The Byzantine church along the way, St. Mary of Egypt, has a lintel dated 1379.
The sharp incline finally evens out, but the path becomes a seemingly endless array of jagged rocks. We zigzag across a stream; the water-covered rocks make footing precarious.
The trek continues over bridges made from oddly spaced split logs tied to wobbly supports. Within the canyon, bright colors ooze from the rocks. The sun lowers, turning the gorge to shimmering gold.
As the light fades, the path narrows. Finally we see the exit, leaving two miles to the hotel at Agia Roumeli. There, Mike, one of the guides, demonstrates that he is a trained masseuse.
Morning puts us back into the kayaks. Six-foot swells cause them to disappear one minute and pop up the next. The kayaks rock and roll until we put into Agios Pavlos, where an 11th century chapel dedicated to St. Paul hugs the shore. Illuminated by candlelight, many of the original murals are visible.
The surf gets rougher, so the paddling is abandoned, and the trek to the evening's lodgings begins -- over stones, of course. The trail passes the ruins of a Venetian fortress.
We plod on to Loutrs. The flower-filled, whitewashed village is wrapped around the bay.
The next day is a six-mile hike to Hora Sfakion.
"You will love it," says Sweitzer, so three of our group set off, the blue sky above us, the sun in our faces, the sea at our side and goats our companions.
But recent landslides have turned the trail into piles of rocks three and four feet high.
When we reach the paved road that winds down to Hora Sfakion, our legs ache, and one in our group is limping. Still, our trek up ridges and down to the seashore has revealed breathtaking ocean vistas.
We plop into a van, hoping to never have to take another step. But step we do at Frangokastello. The 14th century Venetian fortress with its rooklike corners overlooks the sea. Venetian soldiers abandoned it to the Turks in 1623.
The last day is spent covering 18 miles by kayak, much of it floating. By the last six miles, the paddling or the sun has affected our brains. My paddling partner, Gail, and I see faces, animals and erotic forms in the rocks until we reach Aghia Galini's quaint harbor.
Aghia Galini is built into a steep mountain, so everything is on a slant. That seems to prove what our guide, George Stavroulakis, has said about Crete: "It was created by God when he was drunk."
-- Freelance writer Roberta Sotonoff lives in Glenview, Ill.
If you go
Though rated as easy, this is not a trip for the inactive. The hikes are for the experienced trekker.
The Northwest Passage is the only outfitter that offers a kayaking trip to Crete; seven-day trips are $1,995. The company also offers bicycling and hiking trips on Crete.
Contact the company by calling toll-free 1-800-732-73283; the Web site is www.nwpassage.com; send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times