Family Microadventures in Crete

After 18 months on English soil, the longest stretch I’ve ever spent in the country since I was a little girl, we finally left her shores to explore the beautiful island of Crete. I would have gone anywhere just for a change of scenery. But, on further investigation, this rugged Greek island with its impressive mountain ranges to hike, gorges to trek, stunning beaches to explore, friendly locals and delicious cuisine makes the perfect spot for adventurous families.

Honestly, I’d been feeling a little demotivated on the adventure front and maybe also a little anxious after all the limitations placed on us through the lockdowns. But after a mere two days of doing nothing other than read books, play and swim, the Beans were itching to explore. I could tell Bean10 was getting quite antsy but as soon as we’d built a plan of activities together as a family, he visibly relaxed!

Based on the west side of the island, here are the microadventures we chose, which reenergised all our little adventurous souls!

Sea Kayaking the South Coast

The southwest coast of Crete is dotted with isolated little beaches, backed by towering cliffs, and picturesque, whitewashed villages tucked into little coves, many of which can only be accessed by foot or boat. Most explore by ferry. But travelling by sea kayak with the opportunity to explore all the nooks and crannies of its dramatic coastline seemed that much more appealing.

We booked our family sea kayaking adventure with Enjoy Crete and it turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. In the morning, we made our way down to the beach at Hora Sfakion to meet our guides for the day: Stelios and Yves, both incredibly welcoming, the former with many a fascinating story to tell and the latter always ready with a wide smile and joke to tell. They immediately made me feel at ease. We were also introduced to our fellow kayakers for the day, a lovely German lady and Swedish couple.

Then followed the clearest description of the proper and most efficient technique of sea kayaking I have ever heard (and between us we’ve kayaked quite a bit before). On trying my best to emulate the technique Stelios showed us, I realised how wrong I’d been doing it up until now. It was so much smoother and easier with his approach. Bean12 and I quickly settled into a relaxed rhythm in our double following behind the boys in theirs.

We headed west ducking in and out of caves, weaving around rocks and past stunning beaches to a little cove where we stopped for a short break.

The kids swam and snorkelled in the crystal-clear waters, climbed, and jumped off a giant rock. I meanwhile explored the rock pools and listened to Stelios’ stories about the native flora and how his grandmother survived the war hidden in a cave, just about getting enough nutrients to prevent starvation by foraging from the land.

Next, we paddled past bays and on to the peaceful crescent of the village of Loutro.

Here Stelios took us to a local taverna for a much-needed slap-up meal of delicious local fare and a chance to chat to our kayaking friends. Fully replete, we pushed off and kayaked back to the remote Sweetwater Beach, so named because spring water can be found just below the surface of the pebbles. We were met by a group of griffin vultures circling low over the beach. Here again we landed for a drink in the tiny taverna positioned on a rock just off the shore, whilst the kids snorkelled and MrJ had an impromptu Greek language lesson from Stelios!

Finally, we were on the last stretch of kayaking back past Hora Sfakion to another cave before landing back on the beach. We’d been out for six hours but the time had flown by. It was a fabulous day, which we would all highly recommend. They also run four-day excursions along the coastline camping as you go, which feels like the perfect adventure for another time!

Hiking the Samaria Gorge

Walking the spectacular Samaria Gorge, one of the iconic hiking destinations of Europe, was top of my list for this trip and it did not fail to impress. At 16-km long, making it the longest gorge in the continent, it travels from the pine and cypress forests of a plateau beneath the White Mountains down past soaring 500m-high walls to the sparkling Libyan Sea. The trail takes you past abandoned villages, tiny churches and many freshwater springs for you to refill your water bottle, criss-crossing a crystal-clear river, either over cute little rickety bridges or by hopping from stone to stone. At the narrowest point, the walls are just 3m apart, stretching to 150m at its widest. The scenery is stunning and despite the number of other hikers, being immersed in such natural magnificent beauty was a very calming and soothing experience.

Downhill all the way, we found it to be a relatively easy but long hike with our two little Beans. It took us a total of four hours including food breaks, although this was at quite a fast pace. Right at the outset, MrJ and Bean10 invented a game in which he scored a point for every person he passed… (his final total was 423 to give you an idea of how many hikers there were). Thus, there was no dilly-dillaying around for us! In fact, at one point, a couple of ultrarunners passed us, and we all thought it would be an amusing idea to try and follow them for half a mile! This might sound crazy, but it was genuinely fun to skip and jump over the rocks at pace down the hills following these slightly bemused ultrarunners, and it was certainly easier to pass other hikers this way.

But on a serious note, you could easily hike the trail at a very relaxed pace in 5-6 hours. The last 2km of the route are along a road leading to the sea, which you can either walk as we did or, if little legs are flagging, catch a bus for €2.

Logistics

The hike starts at Xyloskalo near the village of Omalos, dropping 1,250m to the shores of the Libyan Sea by the tiny village of Agia Roumeli. The only way out is by boat, either to Sougia or Hora Sfakion.

Most hikers arrive at the gorge on organised tours and start the trail early at 8am. This is so that everyone, including the least fit, can make it down to catch the only ferries of the day at 5pm or 5:30pm to Sougia. From here, they’re picked up by the coaches and delivered back to their hotels.

But the thought of having to get up at 5:30am to sit on a coach as it slowly picks up punters from all the local hotels filled this (‘slightly’ impatient) introvert with dread. Instead, we opted for doing it ourselves, which turned out to be much cheaper, easier and significantly more pleasurable in my humble opinion. We had a hire car for the duration of our stay and so drove to the trail head for 10:30am. This first part of the trail is the steepest and most difficult. By arriving later in the day, we had the path almost to ourselves and didn’t have the frustration of getting stuck behind struggling hikers. Although on the narrower parts of the path, we did get held up behind groups of walkers, generally hikers were well spread out over the route, making it easier to pass and walk at our own pace.

We arrived in Agia Roumeli at 2:30pm and promptly fell on the nearest restaurant for an ice-cold drink and snack. The kids then spent a happy hour playing on the beach and swimming in the sea before an early 4pm dinner (we were all starving after our exertions, so the early meal was heartily welcomed!), before making our way onto the 5:30pm ferry. MrJ had also booked us a taxi which met us in Sougia to drive us back to the start of the trail head for us to pick up our car (if you want a cheaper option, there are buses running back to Sougia).

All in all, including parking, entrance to the National Park, ferry tickets and taxi hire, we spent €98, significantly cheaper than the organised excursion option: the same trip would have cost us around €250.

As a final note, if you have younger children and the thought of a 16-km walk feels too ambitious, there are various other easier and just as beautiful options such as the Agia Irini Gorge or the Imbros Gorge. We hiked the latter, which is half the length of Samaria, with the Beans when they were just 5 & 6, and it was the perfect day’s walk for little but active children.

Horse Riding on the Beach/Horse Swimming!

Riding a horse along a beach has been on my bucket list for ever. Finding a place that allows you to do it without having a lot of horse-riding experience is tricky. But here in Crete I managed to fulfil my dream!

Zoraida’s Horse Riding centre in Kavros is run by a wonderfully eccentric and multilingual lady called Kristy. After discussing our riding experience, she suggested that I join an advanced group with an easy horse, as I hadn’t cantered/galloped on a horse for at least 15 years (and that was on holiday), but in her words, “it’s like riding a bike, once you know, you never forget!” MrJ took the Beans in the beginner group, but they had a special treat to look forward to as well – the chance to swim in the sea with the horses!

On arrival and discovery that my fellow riders had 15 years of experience each, I started to get serious imposter syndrome, but I needn’t have worried. We set off at 7:30am as the sun was rising. The horses walked for an hour following our super friendly guide Sophie through beautiful scenery towards the beach. I asked one of my fellow riders for any top tips and she replied, “if you feel unstable, hang onto the saddle for balance.” It was good advice.

As soon as we hit the beach, Sophie signalled for us to trot and then move into a gallop. Galloping along that shoreline with the sun beating down and the sparkling sea beside me was one of the most exhilarating and exciting times of my life. I was grinning like a Cheshire cat and giggling to myself like a crazy person. The horse I’d been given – Navario – was beautifully behaved and easy to control. Although the experience was thrilling, at no point did I feel unsafe.

After much fun galloping up and down the beach, we joined up with the beginner’s group. The Beans only had a bit of experience, but they proudly told me they’d been allowed to ride unaided on their pretty route down to the shoreline and even on the beach itself. They’d also managed to sneak in a cheeky bit of trotting along the way!

The next experience of horse swimming was truly special. After instruction, we took it in turns to be led bareback on the swimming horses into the calm sea and, when it was deep enough, lay along their backs as they swam around in circles, led by the enthusiastic guides. The horses seemed to enjoy it as much as us humans! MrJ later told me that the sight of me riding out of the sea with a look of sheer joy will stay with him forever.

So, if you, like me, have always wanted to ride on a beach and your kids fancy trying the unique horse swimming feeling, I would highly recommend this fantastic outfit.

Climbing Mt. Psiloritis, the Highest Peak on the Island

Inspired by the book Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall, which follows the exploits of a bunch of resistance fighters in WWII ultrarunning their way through the mountains of this rugged island, MrJ was very keen to scale its tallest peak: Mt Psiloritis. Also known as Mt. Ida, this imposing mountain reaches 2,456m or 8,058ft.

After a bit of research (whilst laid on the beach), he found us a relatively doable route up the last third of the mountain. The small car park was nearly full when we arrived, but the walkers were well spread out over the trail. From here it was only 2.8 miles of distance up to the summit, but this involved 891m of elevation gain so it was slow going. Yet again I was astonished by the Bean’s ability to behave like mountain goats and power their way up the mountain side at a rate of knots chattering away, whilst I huffed and puffed far below them.

We all felt the effects of the high altitude, as our noses started to stream (they completely dried up by the time we’d reach sea level again later in the day), no-one felt like eating (although I insisted) despite the calories we were burning and, as the walk progressed, a sort of out-of-body, surreal dizzy feeling, which was not unpleasant (sort of like that initial happy drunk feeling) just a little unnerving…

After nearly 2 hours of walking (including many stops), we reached the summit of this monster and gazed out at the breathtaking views across the island, over both the south and north coast. The large bell proved too much of a draw for the kids to leave untested (much to the amusement of our fellow hikers) and they also explored the tiny, twin-domed chapel with its burning incense.

The route down, whilst not as hard on the lungs, was a serious test of our muscles. Again, it was slow going lest you not slip too often on its steep slopes, taking us 1 hr 15mins to descend. The kids continued to outpace me playing games as they walked whereas it took all of my attention to focus on the actual process of putting one foot in front of the other. Once down, we replenished our calories and set off for the hairy drive home along some serious switch backs complete with daring local drivers!

Preveli Monastery, Beach & River Floating

After a morning visit to the calm and sacred spot of Preveli Monastery high above the Libyan Sea (many Allied soldiers were sheltered here by the Cretan monks in WWII before their evacuation to Egypt), we made our way down to the exquisite Preveli Beach. At the mouth of the Kourtaliotiko Gorge, the Grand River (Megalopotamos) flows into the sea here along the banks of a palm forest, giving the setting a tropical feel.

Aside from the usual beach activities, we also walked along the shaded pathway meandering through the palm forest backed by towering cliffs and clambered over giant boulders. The Beans then decided to complete their own microadventure by floating down the ice-cold river back to the sea!

Jet Skiing on Falasarna Beach

Keen to try out jet skiing, we headed to the gorgeous beach of Falasarna with its calm turquoise sea and long white stretch of sand. The Beans each had a turn with MrJ driving. Bean10 was more cautious, but my daredevil girl had a ball, and together with her adrenaline-junkie dad jetted around the bay at speeds of over 50mph twisting, turning and loving the sensation of flying over the waves!

Barefoot Walk & Following the Course of the River Home

Sometimes the craziest ideas are the best. On one of our last days, we decided it would be fun to do a barefoot walk along a quiet back road which wound its way 1.5 miles to our local taverna on the banks of a shallow river. I think the locals appreciated the eccentricity, smiling and waving ‘kalimera’ (good morning) to us as we passed. I thought it would be painful, but it turned out to be incredibly grounding and fantastic for my sore ankle which had prevented me running that morning. Plus, our slower pace meant we noticed so much more, from the scent of the orange trees to the olives and figs hanging low on their branches to the crickets jumping along beside us.

After a delicious lunch and a play in the stream for the Beans (racing their teddies down the stream), MrJ came up with the idea of following the course of the river back to our house. He checked in with the restaurant owners who thought it would be possible and then set off with two excited Beans in tow. It was a lot harder than they’d envisaged and involved them scrambling up rock faces and sinking into sand up to their calves making it more of a macroadventure. But the parts where they could float combined with the beauty of their surroundings and the abundant birdlife (kingfishers, egrets, eagles and herons) more than made up for the difficulty.

Go Karting

Given Bean10’s addiction to Top Gear, he (quite literally) jumped at the opportunity of Go Karting. Despite all the other exciting adventures we had, this simple activity, which we could do back in the UK, was one of his highlights!

Exploring Chania

Not a microadventure as such but exploring Chania’s wonderful Venetian harbour and cute tiny backstreets is an experience not to be missed if you’re located in this part of Crete.

Beach Fun

And last but not least, time spent playing on the local beach was a pleasure. We’d brought the Beach Book (loads of things to do at lakes, rivers and the seaside) by Jo Schofield, and the Beans had fun trying out some of their ideas, such as trick photos, making a ball run, stone balancing, making boats from driftwood, building giant feet and beach games. And on one of our last days, we gathered on the sand to watch the sun setting over the Myrtoan Sea.

Needless to say, it was a wonderful and much enjoyed two-week break. If you’re considering a European holiday destination, I would highly advocate for the gorgeous island of Crete. We’ll most certainly be back for more fun!


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