After a week in Amsterdam with my dad, I caught a plane to the island Crete, which is on the complete opposite side of the continent. I can’t help but laugh at my travel route, which is starting to resemble a toddler scribbling on a map of Europe. Random and unpredictable, I love it.
I landed in Crete at about 8pm without a clue of how to get to my hostel. It looked like we were in the middle of nowhere, so walking into town and asking for directions wasn’t an option. Step 1: Get to city center.
This type of situation used to stress me out. Now, arriving in a new place without a plan is oddly invigorating. I like to break it into little goals: Step 1: Find city center. Step 2: Look for a map at the bus/train station. Step 3: Find the street & take picture of map if you can’t take it with you. Step 4: Reward a safe arrival with ice cream.
Fortunately, there was a bus station near the exit and a bus headed to city center in 30 minutes. I bought a ticket. The bus system reminded me a bit of Thailand. There isn’t an information booth or a timetable at each bus station, there are bus drivers that ask you where you need to go and herd you in the right direction. You feel completely out of control of the situation, but somehow you end up in the right place.
The bus dropped us off in the center of Chania. From Chania, I got a bus to Rethimnon. The views from the bus were breathtaking, Google images did not do Crete justice. When I finally made it to Rethimnon, it was dark and almost 10pm. I looked for a map of the city to find the street my hostel was located on. Nothing (of course).
“Can you tell me how to get to Tombazi Street?” I asked the guy at the information booth as I pointed to a word scribbled on a piece of notebook paper.
“Hmm…” He scratched his chin. “Go down this street.” (He pointed to his left) “Take a left at the end of the park, then another left, then a right.”
“Do you know the street names?” I asked.
He looked at me, confused. “Two lefts and one right!”
“Okay, great, thank you!”
I headed in the direction of the street he pointed to figuring if I made it to the park, I could ask for directions again. I walked for ten minutes. No park. I walked into a grocery store and asked the cashier. She had never heard of Tombazi street. I walked a little farther and asked for directions from a man on the road. No idea. I finally stumbled on a busy street and night market, where I spotted an ice cream stand. I bought a cone (because that’s what you do when you’re lost), and as I turned to walk away, I spotted it. Tombazi Street.
Alex, the owner of the hostel was barefoot and wore a big smile. He gave me a short overview of the island and gawked when I said I was thinking about visiting Santorini after two days. “But you MUST spend more than a week here, there’s so much to see! Santorini is for tourists,” he told me as he finished his tour of the hostel.
Rethimnon hostel was markedly different from the Western European hostels I had been staying in. There was one set of bathrooms and showers outside near the community area. No laundry facilities, just sinks and clothesline. A quick peek into the rooms made it clear that washing the sheets wasn’t a priority.
It didn’t take long to figure out that everything ran on a trust basis at Rethimnon Hostel. If I decided to stay another night, I just did.
The morning would go something like this: “Hey Alex, I decided to stay again last night.”
He would nod. “Coffee this morning?”
I met a group of Canadians at the hostel early on. They were headed to the Samaria Gorge and invited me to join. I had heard about the 16km hike, which is supposedly the most beautiful in Europe, and happily agreed.
We woke up at 5am the next day to catch the bus to the top of Samaria Gorge. The two hour bus ride to the top took us through oceanside villages and windy roads through green valleys. The path started from Xyloskalo (near Omalos) in the White Mountains at an altitude of 1230 meters and came to an end at the village of Agia Roumeli at the Libyan sea.
Although I had heard of the gorge’s stunning natural beauty, I was still awestruck at the variety of landscapes and nature we encountered in our hike. At the beginning, we passed through forests of ancient cypresses and pines and descended between vertical cliffs. Mountain streams flooded into cool, blue pools where we stopped for a dip. When we entered the Iron Gates, it felt like we had stepped into the Land Before Time. The mountains on either side of us were wild, high and steep.
13km later: we were hot, sweaty, dusty and exhausted. We trudged the last 3km, anxiously awaiting the beach that awaited us at the end.
I forgot my swimsuit so I rewarded myself with a big bowl of ice cream instead. Banana was the flavor of the day. 99% of the time, choosing ice cream is a great way to end a long day in the sun. This was part of the 1%. 2 hours later, I found myself puking in a bush on the side of the train station. Honestly, what would a trip be without me getting sick? (Flashback to Thailand…again.)
On the way home, I got the scoop (no pun intended) on the rest of the things to do in Crete. There was Plakias beach with a forest of palm trees and cliff jumping spot. The ruins of Knossos. The caves of Matala that used to be home to hippies. Sigh, I want to do it all.
Alex, you win. I’m canceling my trip to Santorini.
Beach Hopping Day
After the four Canadians left the hostel, I made friends with a girl from Seattle, Catherine, and a guy from Vancouver, Jeff. We decided to rent a car and hit some of the top beaches on the island. Neither of them were interested in driving, so I took the reins. This was hilarious considering my friends always out-rule me as the driver for roadtrips.
Thrilled to be behind a wheel again, we left Rethimnon early armed with a horrible road map (shouldn’t road maps have road names?), traditional Greek music, and classic American overconfidence.
It didn’t take long to give up on our map and rely on road signs, a compass, and gas station workers. Believe it or not, we made it to beach #1 with only a ten-minute detour! Plakias beach was small but beautiful.
The local beer guy recommended Palm Tree beach, which was “only 10km away,” so we hopped in the car and headed in the direction of Prevelis according to the road signs. 10km – yes – but 10km of treacherous roads. I’ve been on backroads in Jamaica, Thailand and Costa Rica, but NOTHING compared to these roads.
There was only enough room for one car, so you better pray you don’t have to pass someone coming the opposite direction. The roads went through the mountains, so there were blind corners, potholes, sharp drop-offs, and no guard rails. I couldn’t help but picture us blowing a tire and being stuck in the middle of nowhere for hours… or days. Maybe we would fry in the sun. Or starve to death. I think Jeff mentioned something about trail mix in his bag…
Okay back to reality. We made it to Palm Tree beach without a scratch. After a 10-minute hike, we reached a small oasis with a stream of fresh water that let out into the ocean. We relaxed in the sun for a bit and admired the view. Views like this are a lot better when you just conquered a near death situation. Catherine and Jeff took a shot of Raki before we hiked back to the car to brave the roads again and head to our last destination: Elafonisi beach.
Note: Raki (pronounced rocky), the local liquor made from the runoff of wine, is disgusting. If tequila and vodka had a baby, it would be Raki. The first time I tried it was after breakfast at the restaurant down the street from my hostel. I drank it out of consideration since the waiter brought it as a gift, but it was a seriously rocky (pun intended) start to my day.
Our last stop was Elafonisi beach on the Southeastern coast of Crete. The beach is well-known for its turquoise water and pink (!!!) sand. We barely made it before sunset and watched the sun go down over the water. It was a peaceful ending to a fast-paced day.
On my second to last day, we were joined by James the Australian. And so our group of 3 became 4. We spent a few lazy days on the beach, soaking up the sun over beers and a few DMs (Australian for deep meaningfuls, haha).
I was the first of our group to leave on a pre-booked flight to Athens. The weirdest thing to me about travel is hitting it off with a group of people and saying goodbye a few days later knowing I may never see them again. Strangers become friends and friends become a memory. Reunion in Greece, same time next year?