The Old Port at Rethimnon

A Week in Crete, Greece

In Europe by Mallory12 Comments

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.

Here&Mal Travel Route

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.

My first view of the island Crete

My first view of the island Crete

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!”

Shit.

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?”

The Old Port at Rethimnon

The Old Port at Rethimnon

Samaria Gorge

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.

Samaria Gorge

Preparing for our 16km hike through Samaria Gorge

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.

Samaria Gorge

Problem: There are lots of falling rocks. Solution: Tell people to walk faster.

Samaria Gorge

Stopping for a dip!

13km later: we were hot, sweaty, dusty and exhausted. We trudged the last 3km, anxiously awaiting the beach that awaited us at the end.

Samaria Gorge

Only 3km left to go…

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.)

Ahhhhh... the beach.

Ahhhhh… the beach.

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.

Ferry from Agia Roumeli

Ferry from Agia Roumeli

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.

Plakias Beach, Crete

Plakias Beach

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…

Road to palm tree beach

Rocky road has a whole new meaning

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.

Palm Tree Beach, Crete

Palm Tree Beach! We made it!

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.

Elafonisi beach

Elafonisi beach! Note: Jeff is holding a Go Pro…not a golf club

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).

Lazy day in Rethimnon

Lazy day in Rethimnon

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? :)

Saying goodbye!

Saying goodbye!

Comments

  1. Tammy Whitaker

    I sooooo look forward to all of your stories and visits. How cool is that just to meet people and hang with them. Friendships are made and you never know where they will take you if you keep in touch. Keep up the safe travels on those rocky roads.

    1. Author
      Mallory

      Thanks Tammy! I’m back on solid ground (for now), but I’m sure South America will provide plenty more opportunities for rocky roads. 😉

  2. Carol/Mom

    Mal, I distinctly remember you telling me to get rid of the ice cream in our house. Now I understand why. You and I had not earned it! So, next time we hike 10 miles or encounter death, we can have some?

  3. Elsa Colopy

    Love, love, love this blog! What a grand adventure (aside from the puking thing). I adventured with you in spirit and loved it all. Wahoo!

    1. Author
      Mallory

      Even the puking is part of the adventure. I mean, how many opportunities do you get to puke outside of a bus station on the island Crete?! Not many. That’s the answer.

  4. Meg Wang

    How fun! I’ve neverseenabeach with pink sand! And the waster is so beautiful! Glad you are meeting so many friends and having a safe trip. Looking forward to your next blog entry!

    1. Author
      Mallory

      The pink sand was so cool! We came at dusk so we didn’t get the full effect, but it was crazy to see pink sand.

      Now that I think about it, every single beach on the island Crete that I visited had different sand. Elafonisi was pink, the beach at Agia Soumeli was black, it was fine and grainy in Rethimnon, and thick and rocky at Palm tree beach and Plakias. Crazy that you can get so many different beaches on one island!

  5. Helen Liu

    What an adventure you have! I enjoy traveling with you
    And can’t wait to see where we go next!
    I was in Santorini last Nov, but missed Crete where
    I would love to visit some day!

  6. Michelle

    I’ve just driven through the mountains of west Crete to get to elifonisi beach ! Omg it was the scariest thing I have ever done! Different car and the first time to drive on the opposite side of the road! I had my whole family with me. Terrifying doesn’t come close.

    1. Author
      Mallory

      Haha! I’m glad someone can identify with the feeling. I was told that Greece straddles the border between “developing” and “developed” and my drive through Crete confirmed that. On a brighter note, sometimes the extra effort (and fear) makes the views that much better! :)

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