Fairytale holiday ticking every box for walking destination
Travelling and adventuring can be all about those extra special moments – you might see something unusual and spectacular, it could be a memorable meal enjoyed in an extraordinary restaurant, or it could be that you suddenly find yourself standing somewhere that you've yearned to visit all your life.
That was the case with me recently when I found myself on a beautiful beach after a long and utterly enchanting walk in Western Crete.
I knew the beach – had wanted to visit it for decades – and suddenly there I was. Exhausted, and delighted, in the great sandy bay that so memorably played host to the famous 1960s film Zorba the Greek…
The movie version of Nikos Kazantzakis's novel may have been filmed in black and white, but there I was in glorious real-life Technicolor – able to recognise the place after all these years, partly because the dramatic bay has changed very little.
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And also because the Ramblers Worldwide Holiday walks leader, Yvonne Gribben, had been telling us about it on the truly wondrous hike that terminated on the sandy shores at Stavros, a few miles east of Chania, which is where this holiday is based.
Yvonne had told us: "The dancing in Zorba the Greek was filmed right here on the beach – and the British cameraman, Walter Lesally, received an Oscar for it in 1964. I believe he still has a house nearby – and certainly, it is still a brilliant film."
That morning we'd left the charming old port of Chania in a fleet of taxis to travel a dozen miles or so up to the enigmatic Gouverneto Monastery for what our guide promised would be a "wild, windy, rough and lonely walk on the Akrotiri Peninsula".
It was all of those things. In fact, it was more. I'd say that this walk sums up and encapsulates the magic of western Crete like no other. But the trouble with walking in Crete is that you find yourself thinking this a lot…
The taxis climbed for quite a way before depositing us in front of the monastery, where signs tell you that photography is strictly forbidden. No matter – there would be plenty of other delights to snap away at on this eight-mile stroll.
For a few hundred metres you feel slightly miffed that you're not allowed to capture the view – then, suddenly, it doesn't matter any more. Because you cross a low watershed and are introduced to some of the most dramatic coastal ravines you'll see anywhere.
An ancient cobbled track leads down, down, down towards the sea and you begin to think this must be a route that will in some way terminate at the coast where you'll have to be picked up by boat. It doesn't. Yvonne knows a tiny path that veers from the main track to descend a few steps to Crete's oldest (now semi-derelict) monastery. It's called Katholiko and is partly a subterranean affair that tunnels into one of the great cliffs.
There's a dramatic bridge which seems to lead to nowhere – and then there's a diminutive path that allows you to scramble down into a kind of side ravine.
So this is the point where we turn our backs on the coast and make our way up a secret, ever-narrowing, gorge. Eventually this defile shrinks to nothing and issues out on to a barren tableland – and at this point Yvonne gives us a choice when it comes to a well-earned break. We can either settle here under the odd olive tree that punctuates the plateau, or march up to a ridge that lurks a few hundred metres above.
It is best to take Yvonne's advice and make the short climb – because we are suddenly and unexpectedly right on the edge of the plateau enjoying stunning cliff-edge views.
It's an ideal spot for a drink and a nibble of something to keep us going – then we cross the tableland to climb to another small watershed. This, in turn, introduces us to another ravine which we descend – this time one that's full of goats that seem to be fending very much for themselves.
There's also an eagle owl, who appears to be most put out that we should disturb his daytime sleep and flies off with a great sweep of his wings.
Down the ravine we go, to arrive on a great mountainside which we then traverse.
And there is the bay. Zorba's bay, with it's almost impossibly blue lagoon. It is a place for swimming, and for lunch, and for the catching of a bus home to Chania.
A word about this charming town… It is one of the most appealing ports I know in the whole length and breadth of the Mediterranean – a place of much history, and even more bustle. One of the few towns I know that shares both the luxuriant feel of the warm sea and immediate views of great snow-capped mountains. At least, they were snow-capped in spring when we were there – a perfect time for walking in Crete as you get to see a million flowers on every walk you take.
We did six good walks in our week in western Crete with RWH and each had its own highlights and charm. Most dramatic of all was the great descent down the Imbros Gorge.
This was an extra excursion that Yvonne had organised as it was Easter Day and she'd arranged a truly delicious lunch at Komitades, a small village that hugs the southern coastal mountain slopes beneath the gorge, but high above the sea. Taverna owners Giorgos and Annette put on a massive spread for we hungry hikers, which their entire family of polite young sons helped serve.
Talk of food inspires me to mention the subject more fully – and I do so because the meals we enjoyed in western Crete were by far the best I've experienced on any RWH trip. The island is known for its fantastic cuisine, but also I think the RWH leaders have been coming to Chania for so long they know the best tavernas. The company always likes to share its spending power around various restaurants in all its many destinations, which can be problematic – but I can vouch that very meal in Chania was local, fresh and superb.
The family run two-star Hotel Falassarna was perfectly adequate – the staff were enormously friendly and accommodating – not that we spent much time there. It's tucked away in a more modern part of Chania to the west of the historic old town with its great defensive walls and busy harbour. And actually I didn't mind not being in the more touristy zone – the hotel is situated in a pleasant residential area close to a good beach which is where the locals go to play.
Nevertheless, the hotel is less than a ten-minute stroll into the old town and my wife and I spent as much time as we could exploring. For us the highlight was the massive Saturday street market where we saw more fresh and fabulous-looking vegetables than we'd ever seen piled into one place before.
If there's one difficulty in writing about this holiday it is in trying to decide which of the first-class walks was best. If I single out the White Mountain hike from Therisso, then it's probably only because it was the last we did and therefore freshest in my memory.
A coach took us up into the tree-clad foothills and eventually dropped us off at the village of Therisso. From there we walked up an "old, scratchy, rocky mule path" (to use Yvonne's own description) to the col where we took a breather before continuing a traverse along a dramatic road under massive cliffs to our pre-arranged date with Aimilia. That is the name of a taverna in a hamlet perched on a hilltop where we not only enjoyed copious different dishes of Cretan food, but also extensive views of the distant coast. After such a good feed it was very pleasant indeed to discover the entire afternoon's hike would be all downhill on easy tracks.
Eventually we arrived at cool and wonderful Meskla – a village of massive plane trees and bubbling springs, where a couple of tavernas make the best of shade and water-cooled temperatures to serve drinks.
If I was forced to put it in a nutshell I'd say that this vacation in western Crete was all a walking holiday should be. Not only was each and every hike superb, but the whole holiday took us, magically, into another world.
And what a world it is. One of blue vistas, intimate valleys, gorges and snow-capped mountains – a small universe of floral delight – a galaxy of ancient and modern, sand and sea, olive and grape, excellent food and even better scenery. A world that could be nowhere else other than western Crete – a place that inspired Zorba the Greek to declare…
"This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right and to realize of a sudden that in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale."