The ferry slowly approached the dock broadside under the sleepy eyes of all those who had spent the night aboard, sailing towards Crete. The horizon was painted blue and bright orange behind a steady parade of airplanes that at regular intervals ferried visitors back and forth to the Heraklion airport just beyond the city. We sipped our morning coffee on the deck rails enjoying the salty breeze before we were entangled in the controlled chaos that accompanies disembarkation from a Greek ferry in August. Within a few minutes we were leaving Heraklion in a caravan of two cars headed east. A two-hour drive was all that separated us from our destination: Sitia.
We chose Sitia for a two week stay attracted by its isolated character, and by the descriptions that our good friend Manolis --a Sitia born Athenian-- had provided for years. Manolis and his family, as a matter of ritual, descents to his native homeland,
Kato Episkopi, outside Sitia every summer to visit his elderly parents, his brother Giannis, and the army of cousins and distant relatives who all gather from around Greece to reinforce family bonds, to relax, and to harvest the grapes that in time will be transformed into the potent"raki" and wine that fuel all social events.
The rising sun burned our eyes as we drove east, parallel to the North coast of the island and within an hour we were passing by Agios Nikolaos. As the road changed from relatively wide and level to a more narrow patch of asphalt that began winding endlessly up and down rugged mountains, we knew that we were driving on a less traveled road. Eastern Lasithi is by no means an isolated place, but it is definitely less affected by the constructions of mass tourism, and this fact made it even more attractive to us. In fact, the south-East end of Crete -- around Xerokampos -- is still underdeveloped and isolated with one paved road connecting the tiny village with the rest of the island. I feel almost guilty writing about this part of Crete, for its beauty depends so much on the untouched nature that surrounds a few traditional towns and an endless string of picturesque villages.
On our initial drive towards Sitia, as we passed Agios Nikolaos and just before we were about to serpentine up the mountainous road, we stopped for a morning coffee at the Panorama Cafe and admired the incredible view of the Mirabello gulf in the morning light before we continued towards our destination through small picturesque villages and endless rows of silver-green olive trees that alternate with the ocher and sienna hues of the rocky terrain.
The island of Crete (Crete map) is located in the center of the eastern Mediterranean at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe. It measures about 200 Km from east to west, and between 12 to 58 Km from north to south at its narrowest and widest distances, making it one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean sea. It was re-united with free Greece in 1913 after centuries of occupation by the Ottoman empire.
Crete's largest modern town is Heraklion (35° 20' latitude, 25° 08' longitude) and its landscape oscillates between tall, rugged mountains, gentle slopes, and plateaus, which are framed by the Aegean coast line to the North, and the Lybian Sea to the south.
The temperate climate of Crete with its short, mild winters and its dry, warm summers, along with the fertility of the Cretan plains produces sufficient food supplies to support an affluent local population, and for exports.
The area East of Agios Nikolaos is a bit more inaccessible than the rest of Crete, thanks in large part to the tall mountains of Thriptis and Orno which allow for very few paved roads to traverse. There is one main route that leads to Sitia along the long coast, and it is a difficult one to drive as it winds endlessly around the coastal mountainous terrain. Beyond Sitia the land is sparsely populated with many small villages clinging precariously to the slopes of hills, and the largest population center is found in the town of Palekastro. For the visitor the East coast of Crete can be the ideal place to relax, as it houses some of the best beaches of the island at Erimoupoli, Vai, and Kouremenos. At the same time, the landscape is filled with the excavated ruins of important Minoan cultural centers such as the palace at Kato Zakros, and the ancient town at Rousolakos near Palekastro among others.
The fact that the area has not seen hotel and resort development is due in part to Moni Toplou which claims ownership of the entire north-east coast of Crete, and utilizes the rocky terrain to sustain a large population of free range goats.
As we approached our final destination of Sitia we were amused to see the hills lined with dozens of modern, power producing wind mills. We found out soon that they were there not by accident: Eastern Crete is a very windy place. During our entire stay the wind was a force to reckon with when we tried to settle our beach umbrella or when we tried to keep plastic cups on the table as we dined outdoors. On the other hand, the wind made the evenings a little cooler than expected in Greece this time of the year.
While the north-east coast of Crete has seen moderate development due in large part to the popularity of Vai and Kouremenos beach, the southern part of the cost is as isolated as it can be. The area between Goudouras and Kato Zakros is barely populated and not easily accessible. We drove to Xerokampos to find beautiful beaches around a tiny village which is only inhabited during the Summer months. Kato Zakros is barely a village with only a small number of tavernas serving the visitors to the important Minoan palace one hundred meters inland.
Ferry trip to Crete from Piraeus takes about 10-12 hours.
Day ferries are available, but most take the trip overnight.
The one way ferry ticket for a cabin costs around €35 (adult) or €23 (children). For a car, the ticket costs around €55 (the driver also buys a ticket).
We visited the East coast of Crete in August 2003 and made Sitia our base. From there we were able to explore the surrounding area for two weeks. Almost every day we drove from Sitia for about half hour to reach the beautiful beaches of the eastern shore. We travel with our two children so a swimming activity is a daily ritual for our family. I also had a chance to visit many of the archaeological sites on the East shore including the important Minoan palace of Kato Zakros (about which I wrote extensively in the ancient-greece.org site).While our days were occupied with swimming and exploring, our nights were filled with visits to our friend's house where we consumed untold quantities of home-made raki, and enjoyed an impressive array of dishes unique to Crete. Spectacular as the land of Crete is, the warmth of its people transcend it to a special status. Crete is not merely a place to go for a visit; it is a place you go to live life to its fullest.
At the end of our trip we had to return to Heraklion to board the ferry back to Piraeus. Instead of the usual northern route that offers a fairly comfortable wide road, we chose a two day trip through the south of the island. We left Sitia and drove to Ierapetra (a busy resort town) and from there to Myrtos where we stopped for a swim and lunch. The road beyond Myrtos and towards Agia Galini climbs through spectacular mountainous landscape. The pavement is narrow and the drive demanding through ill-maintained stretches of asphalt that often transform to gravel patches for miles on end.
We stayed in Agia Galini overnight and the next morning we visited the second largest palace of Crete in Phaistos, and the impressive beach at Matala where we cooled off and had lunch before we drove north to Heraklion to catch our ferry for our overnight trip back to Piraeus.
The entire West coast of Crete was out of our reach during this visit. While in two weeks we could have visited the West coast we opted to do less driving during this vacation. Instead we left satisfied that we absorbed the spirit of Eastern Crete, and visited the important sites of Heraklion. We now look forward to a trip to see the rest of the island sometime in the future. I have been to Crete many times in the past and places I would love to visit again include the beautiful town of Chania, the fantastic beaches at Falassarna, Elafonisi, and Preveli, and to walk through the Samaria gorge.
In retrospect, we found ourselves driving constantly from Sitia to the east coast beaches, and this turned out to be more than one hour of driving per day just for swimming. Next visit we would love to stay at the small town of Palekastro. From there the beaches of Kouremenos and Chiona are within walking distance and Vai is not much further. If we visited the area again I would love to visit the archaeological museum of Agios Nikolaos, and to spend some extra time inland, maybe at the Lasithi plateau which we simply had no time to explore. One of the ideas for a subsequent trip is to tour all the caves around the island - now that's something to look forward to.