The road less travelled – exploring Crete’s east coast

We are just finishing seven glorious days at Anemone Apartments, about 85 km. west of Crete’s most easterly point. This is our holiday-within-a-holiday; a full week to set up camp and relax. As our host Nikos advised us, “you must stay still in Greece and just enjoy.” Stellar advice when you have the luxury of time and have stumbled upon this heavenly place.

This is the view from our deck. That little blue car is our super-cheap rental car. Steve discovered an offer we couldn’t refuse – 56 Euros ($90) for one week. We asked for a Fiat Panda, but got a rather lived-in Suzuki, complete with a hole in the rear bumper and multiple dents. However, it is mechanically sound and practically drives on fumes, so we’re happy.

Our place is centrally located to most of Crete’s eastern and southeastern attractions, and best of all, is a 15-minute walk to Voulisma Beach – golden sand and crystal water.

Our apartment is so charming – spread out over two floors, with kitchen, living room, 2 bedrooms and bathroom and three decks. It is decorated in an old-fashioned Cretan style – paned windows that open up to the fresh air, and embroidered wall hangings on the white plastered walls. But this is where we spend our time:

Sunrise from our bedroom balcony:

During these less-travelled times, we are paying just $52 a night for our apartment, which is about 20% less than normal and that has been typical for all of our accommodation so far.

Stephen keeps track of our expenses, in order that we might stick to our budget and continue along in this lifestyle! As many of you have (discreetly) inquired about how we afford this, Stephen will prepare a cost breakdown that we’ll share once our trip is over.

There is a large rocky outcropping right in front of our place, that is filled with olive trees and sandy roads. We went exploring and discovered a tiny little beach; one of hundreds just like it on Crete – calm, protected and utterly private.

Olive trees – I idly wondered how many olive trees there are in Greece. Millions? Tens of millions?

Greek olive oil is one of my favourite things – you could almost drink it. Clean, sightly grassy, so pure and fresh. I am definitely switching to a Mediterranean diet once we are home again.

If I wasn’t already laden down like a pack mule with my overstuffed backpack, I would be bringing back olive oil, leather sandals, textiles…

The trees are such a characteristic of Crete – everywhere we go the air is fragrant with the scents of thyme, oregano, lavender and cypress.When I think of Crete I think of a landscape of short, gnarly branches, piles of boulders, sunbleached paths and the sea.

Agios Nikolaos is a small city about 10 km. from here. It is similar to other Cretan cities, with streets that rise up from the harbour, filled with cafes and shops and many churches. We found it less interesting that Chania or Rethymno, but worth a few hours of browsing.

The city centers around Lake Voulismeni, which feeds out to the sea. It provides a lovely backdrop for a stroll around the shops and restaurants that ring the lake.

One of a number of small lanes lead to the lake.

Agios Nikolaos is built on seven hills, which means your hamstrings will get a good workout if you are here for any length of time. A number of staircases are painted with murals.

Crete is so mountainous that it is inevitable that you will find yourself on switchbacks just getting to the next village. The roads are well-paved and well-engineered and at least on the east side of Crete, much less-travelled.

Far fewer tourists make it to the east side of Crete, even in normal times, so it is possible to navigate steep mountain roads comfortably.

We drove to Kritsa, one of Crete’s oldest and most photogenic villages, cantilevered off the steep mountain slopes. The area produces award-winning olive oil and specializes in women’s crafts. There is a women’s collective and many of the shops are filled with their textiles and embroidered goods.

A statue immortalizes the beauty and patience of the women’s work.

and the real thing:

Some street scenes:

From Kritsa, we drove to the Lasithi Plateau, an elevated plain in the mountains, in search of the iconic stone windmills.

The drive was simply breathtaking; our goal was to reach the Lasithi Plateau after driving a 23-km. loop through 18 traditional villages. We throughly enjoyed the drive and the villages, but when we arrived at our destination (GPS), we were completely confused. No signage, and the road we were encouraged to turn down became a rocky, rutted narrow path. We turned around and decided that, having seen a number of windmills already, we could call it a day.

But not before we stopped at this crazy place for lunch.

Mariana and Onasis an otherworldly oasis just off a series of switchback roads, and utterly festooned with vegetables. Pumpkins, gourds, squash, clusters of tomatoes hung by the hundreds from clotheslines. Stephen managed to whack his head on a pumpkin while attempting to enter the restaurant.

We enjoyed a beautiful lunch – everything grown from their garden and enhanced with local olive oil.

Fresh tomatoes, zucchini stuffed with rice and topped with local yogurt and little cheese pies.

Then we met the owner Onasis, with an uncomfortable-looking Stephen in his clutches.

He told us he smokes five packages every two days and proudly declared he is 75 years old. (No argument from us.) He asked Stephen his age and challenged him to run 100 yards (“If you win, I will give your wife 200 euros.”)
The challenge had no legs, so we all kept our dignity, but left with a good story and a bag full of his apples and tomatoes.

Then there are the goats. They are a fixture on Crete and although I tell myself I like goats, I am not 100% comfortable around them. When we stopped to take a photo of this fellow, he perked right up and began to head toward me with a resolute trot. Would he head-butt me? Bite me? I lost my nerve at the last minute and jumped back into the car.

Another goat encounter a few days later also ended with some nerves. We were driving through a small herd of goats, and this one was close to my side of the car. It is probably safe to say these characters get handouts from the tourists and he seemed so tame, but once he started snapping his teeth at me, we moved on.

And Greek beaches! If there is a bad one, we haven’t been there yet – they are uniformly crystal clear and utterly turquoise.

This beach at Mirtos on the south coast on the Libyan Sea was practically empty.

The beach at Vai is so distinctive as it is located at the far eastern reach of Crete and is surrounded by a huge palm forest. Vai, which is a local word for the branch of the palm tree, is part of the UNESCO geopark in that area and the palm grove is unique to Vai.

Beaches in Crete are quite democratic. If you choose, you can rent two sunbeds and an umbrella for 10 Euros, or at certain beaches, you can take the VIP package for 15 Euros (as shown in the top photo) – 2 sunbeds of higher quality, on the first line of the beach, with a lockable cabinet for your valuables. You can also bring your own towel and umbrella and stake out a spot anywhere – for free!

On the way to Vai beach, we stopped at the Holy Monastery of Toplou, one of the most important monasteries on Crete. Currently a sanctuary and a place to provide solace and direction, the monasteries operated as bastions of resistance during the 200-year Ottoman regime and during the Nazi occupation of WWII.

The monastery and surrounding gardens and grounds were beautifully preserved and maintained.

Tomorrow we arrive in Heraklion for four days – still lots to explore before we leave Crete.