Mark Nicholls hikes across western Crete with a group of solo travellers from the Mistral Hotel.
Guest feature by Mark Nicholls
Across the mountainous landscape of western Crete, diverse paths plot a course through some of the Mediterranean’s finest walking terrain.
They edge along cliff sides, open onto broad beaches, descend into shaded woodland, or follow river beds into deep gorges.
The variety of routes, the changing scenery, and the ambient climate is all part of the lure of late-season walking on Greece’s largest island.
I joined a group from the Mistral Hotel at Maleme, near Chania, for four walks spread over a week through this landscape during the pleasant early October sunshine.
Lasting from 2-5 hours, we meandered along routes with enough diversity to keep everyone happy, yet also not be too challenging for those seeking a leisurely – but naturally spectacular – sunny stroll.
From the Mistral, a boutique hotel at Maleme near Chania specialising in holidays for solo travellers, the mini-bus took us to the starting point of our first walk from the village of Nopigia along the Rotherpou Peninsular.
With a light breeze and barely a cloud in the sky, we set off along a quiet a road alongside the shore lined with mesembryanthemum and samphire, and then ascended the coastal path.
We passed olive trees, the Carob with its chocolate-flavoured fruit, and pines with goats and sheep grazing nearby before gaining height to enjoy panoramic views across Kissamos Bay.
Our descent toward the village of Ravdouha after an 8km hike offered the chance to refresh with a dip in the sea before a taverna lunch.
By late afternoon, we were back at the Mistral, relaxing beside its two pools and enjoying a refreshing beer at the alfresco bar.
The Mistral opened for the 2020 season on August 4, with social distancing protocols in place to ensure staff and guests remain safe, yet retaining the social ambience the hotel is renowned for.
It features 35 stylish double rooms, each for single occupancy but with no single supplement, with guests dining communally in the hotel’s restaurant, which continues to serve the very best of traditional Cretan cuisine and wine.
Food is always central to a stay at the Mistral; expect to dine on papoutsakia (aubergines stuffed with minced beef and vegetables with béchamel sauce), Greek salad, Cretan Boureki (layers of potato and courgette with Mizithra goat cheese and mint topped with pastry), gemista (peppers, tomato and courgettes stuffed with rice and herbs), moussaka (layers of aubergine, potato and minced beef) or stifado (tomato-based casserole with chestnuts, shallots and chunks of beef, tuna or veal).
Fresh produce is sourced from the hotel garden and the olive oil used in the cooking and on salads is from the family’s own olive groves. (They’ll give you a bottle to take home with you too!)
One thing is certain – you’ll never go hungry on a Cretan diet, widely recognised as one of the healthiest cuisines on earth. And after a good walk, you’ll be ready for it too.
The terrain of western Crete is as dramatic as it is beautiful. Mountains reach down to the turquoise waters of the Aegean Sea, the scent is often of thyme as the aroma is released by passing boots, while inland gorges which run deep through the landscape, including the Samaria Gorge which at 17km is Europe’s longest.
In winter and spring, sweet water runs through these fissures, carrying the snowmelt from the White Mountains, while in the summer, the boulder-strewn beds are fascinating footpaths to follow.
Our second walk took us into the Agia Irini Gorge (St Irene Gorge). The little sister of the Samaria, with a shallower descent, we reached the entrance on a drive from Maleme into the White Mountains.
For the next 7km, we find ourselves at times on a dry river bed following a path through trees and across the boulders or rising above it walking through a path looking down on the rubble-strewn gorge. Much of the way – on the E4 European Walking Path – is shaded by the rich vegetation, pine and cypress trees, and an array of different herbs growing in the rocks.
For those planning to walk the Samaria Gorge, this is a pleasant introduction.
The choice of routes and walks, which include either taverna lunch or picnic, are classed as easy to moderate and are dependent on weather conditions and group ability. Other routes include the 7km hike through the Sirikari Gorge to the village of Polyrheneia and its archaeological site dating from 300BC; a 5km walk from the 16th Century Gouverneto Monastery on the Akrotiri peninsular following a path originally traced by an 11th Century hermit; a 5km stroll up to the restored village at Milia; a two-hour walk through Deliana Gorge and a taverna lunch; or a walk from the lovely town of Paleochora, to the pink-tinged beached of Elafonisi on a route which includes rocky paths, remote beaches and passes through cypress and juniper trees.
It is this combination of sea air and exercise, but with the comfort, cuisine and camaraderie of a boutique hotel for solo travellers to head back to every evening, that is so appealing.
Crete is a beautiful island and there is no better way to experience the wonderful flora, fauna and stunning scenery than on foot…with wholesome helpings of traditional Cretan food and wine for sustenance.
WALKING WEEKS IN CRETE – FACTBOX:
Mark Nicholls stayed at the Mistral Hotel, Maleme. The seven-night autumn walking week (October 6-13) is from £1047 (the 2021 walking weeks are from May 4-11 and October 5-12). Bring walking shoes/boots, water bottle, camera, rucksack, sunhat and sun cream. A standard week-long stay at The Mistral is from £835, half board with single occupancy in double rooms (not including flights).
In addition to walking week, the Mistral is hosting a Photography Week (£1200) from September 29 to October 6. Aimed at beginners and improvers, guests will learn about composition, exposure, storing and manipulating pictures using a PC, as well as visiting picturesque locations to capture some memorable images. For more information, visit www.singlesincrete.com