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Lessons from the back-roads of Crete

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Balos beach, about to be inundated by day-tripping tourists.

Balos beach, about to be inundated by day-tripping tourists. Photo: Thomas Andronas

23 August 2010

Crete is Greece's biggest island and home to its third-biggest city, Iraklio.

It's most heavily populated along its northern coast where thousands of tourists, mostly Scandinavian, flock during the summer months to soak up the rays and party in Rethymno and Chania, where the nightlife, with its abundant bars, are at a comfortable distance from the beach. If you're looking for more of an adventure hit the road, as there are many lessons to be learnt along the way.

Lesson 1: The beach at Preveli, less than an hour's drive south of Rethymno is worth the trip, if you don't mind working for your swim.

Frequented mostly by day-tripping tourists, the beach is well serviced by public buses and is (almost) accessible by car, the rugged terrain requiring a challenging half-hour hike down the cliffs from the car park to the beach. There you'll find nothing more than a cantina serving drinks and snacks, and crystal clear waters that are certainly worth the effort. But like anything, Preveli is what you make it. If you're looking for a less touristy experience and you're not averse to stretching out your sleeping bag on pointy jagged rocks, consider staying the night. Admittedly, rocks do not make comfortable beds, but the banter and frivolity around the campfire with other like-minded travelers is worth the discomfort, and if you drink enough wine you won't even notice the shards jabbing you in the spine. On your way back the next day pull over at the arch about ten minutes back up the road and take a hike up the gorge, where a 2km rock-hop reveals fresh-water springs gushing from caves that dot the gorge walls. Along the way you're likely to encounter the handful of hippies who make their way each summer to live in the gorge. Most are friendly, though respecting their space is probably a good idea, especially when they're wearing nothing but a pair of zebra-print budgie-smugglers.

Lesson 2: After driving the brutally rough 7km dirt road to get there, and completing the pain-staking 2km hike down the cliffs, you could be forgiven for expecting you'd be alone on the beach at Balos.

Arriving there just before nightfall the beach is deserted and there's just enough light to collect firewood before settling in for the night. In contrast to Preveli, the beach at Balos is wide and sandy, and surprisingly comfortable to sleep on. Stargazing here is unavoidable as the night sky is illuminated by millions of bright dots and shooting stars. By morning however, the mystique and tranquility of the place is shattered by the thousands of tourists that converge their via ferry from nearby Gramvousa, proving that Balos is best enjoyed by night.

Lesson 3: If while you're walking the road to Kourna Lake, 3km from Georgioupolis on the island's northern coast, a young man stops to offer you a lift in his ute, take it, chances are it will end at Marko's Place.

A small tavern on the banks of the lake run by the namesake and his four brothers, Marko's serves only fresh local produce, the majority of which is grown at the family farm. Marko takes great pride in showing his guests true Cretan hospitality, including plenty of his homemade raki, which despite its potency is smooth and syrupy. Before ordering your meal, be sure to ask Marko what's on the specials menu. If he says moussaka, order it, he'll gladly guarantee you've never tasted anything like it. The majestic blue waters of the fresh-water Kourna Lake are worth a look as well. Bring your swimming gear.

Lesson 4: Turning off the New National Road, which runs from Sitia to Kissamos and services most of Crete's main towns, is done at your own risk.

Picture this, for example: seven people cram themselves and all their luggage into a Holden Zafira and take the Paleochora turn-off from Elafonisi, on Crete's south-western tip. Elafonisi is a tourist town featuring a long stretch of umbrella-studded beach, smothered in Italian tourists by day that disappear to unknown places at night, as the town has only three tavernas and a handful of rooms to rent. As the crow flies, the much bigger and livelier Paleochora is relatively close-by but by road requires either a 2-hour detour or a shorter, riskier off-road diversion. It's a 32km drive through the mountains and after 150-metres of asphalt-paved bliss the road turns to dirt, complete with jagged rocks. About 3km later the Zafira decides it's going no further as it struggles up a mild incline. The seven occupants pile out in the hopes of willing their little car further but to no avail, so they turn around and head back to Elafonisi, defeated. On the way back down the hill a tyre pops, an appropriate end to a rough day's drive.

Lesson 5: Crete is full of hidden treasures that can easily be found by looking a little beyond the norm.

Indeed, even the well-trodden path can be enjoyed in new ways that can make your experience of a place so far removed from the average tourist's, that it's difficult to believe you've been to the same place. Give it a go, it's worth the effort.

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