Hippies, goats and hedgehogs. Jonathan Cowie ventures off the tourist trail in south east Crete
It seemed like the perfect detox trip away: a week in a Cretan mountain village 15 minutes from deserted beaches. Seven days of sea swimming, mountain running and healthy living. But sometimes life gets in the way of the best-laid plans. So, when you find yourself going to buy moonshine raki with a local shepherd and returning instead with a homemade cheese, a small dog called Frou Frou and a hedgehog, it is probably best to just go with the flow.
South east Crete is somewhat off the tourist trail. Away from the flesh pots of Malia and upscale resorts of Agios Nikolaos, it offers a more low-key and authentic experience. I was staying in Agios Ioannis, a partly ruined village overlooking the south coast. The nearest town is Ierapetra, which the Rough Guide to Crete rather unfairly describes as “pretty uninspiring”. The southernmost town in Europe, it is a bustling regional centre for agriculture with a Venetian fort and abandoned mosque as testament to its long and chequered history.
The village of Agios Ioannis was abandoned in the early 1980s when its residents moved to the coast to farm tomatoes in greenhouses. Much more profitable than subsistence farming in the mountains, polytunnel greenhouses now cover much of the area’s coastline.
Yet farming endures in the mountains – terraced olive groves and smallholdings with a couple of goats and vegetable gardens growing traditional horta and grapes are still tended high above the mountain villages. It is part of the reason why Crete, the largest Greek island, has weathered the economic crisis better than mainland Greece: agriculture and tourism make for a more self-sufficient economy.
When the villagers left Agios Ioannis, the village began a slow decline into ruin. The decline, however, has been halted by an influx of foreign – predominantly Italian – tourists, who have renovated a handful of houses and created a holiday community that has breathed life back into the village – the original residents now return on feast days and holidays for religious celebrations, and shepherds mix with Italian fashion designers in the local kafenion.
Swim and run
My plan for the week was simple: swim and run. The local beaches offer a range of swimming opportunities and, armed with my trusty Swim Secure tow float, I was able to explore the coastline and discover hidden beaches, all set against the backdrop of glowering mountains. From long sandy strands to pebbly coves, the area offers delightful swimming with clear water and, for non-swimming companions, the choice of beautiful beaches. I visited at the beginning of November, when the warmth of the summer still lingers in the sea, which was 22 degrees Celsius. I was lucky with the weather; to be sure of autumn sunshine it is best to visit in September or October.
Does what it says on the tin
My first stop was the aptly named Long Beach at Koutsonari. A pebbly 5km stretch set back from the dusty main road and its strip of shops, the beach can be windswept in August when the metelmi flings parasols into the sea and whips up the waves into white horses. I entered the water towards the western end of the beach, close by some ruined
gun towers from the Second World War. The beach is so long and flat that it was used as an airfield by the Allies in the war. The water here is very clear, although with not as much marine life to watch as at more rocky coves. At the eastern end of the beach, however, kingfishers dive into the water after fish. Inspired by their quicksilver blue flashes, I decided fish should be on my menu too. I walked back towards my car and ate at the taverna Alatsi, dining under tamarisk trees on the beach as the sun began to set.
Turtles and dolphins
Taking the main coast road eastwards towards Makrialos, there are various swimming options just by the main road, from busy beaches with tavernas for lunch to deserted coves. It pays to explore. Turtles can be spotted along this stretch of coastline, and swimming with them is a magical experience. Try the coves between Achlia and Mavros Kolimpos, where turtles also lay their eggs. On the road between Mavros Kolimpos and Koutsouras, look out for a rough track on your right down to the sea. Here you can swim from one beach, looping round a rock to another secluded cove, then swimming back, for a lovely one-mile swim with some fun waves to make things a bit more interesting. If there is one other person on the beach then consider it crowded – expect to have this place to yourself. Perfect for a bit of skinny dipping.
For lunch, drive a couple of minutes down the road to Kaliotzina at Koutsouras, a family-run taverna with a large terrace under trees looking out to sea. Choose from the daily specials to get the most delicious food.
Drive through Makrialos, perhaps stopping to explore the cute old harbour and eat an ice cream, to the far end of the village and a twisting concrete road down to Diaskari Beach.
Known as Green Beach for its stones that turn a deep jade when wet, this is a long stretch of great swimming off a beach neatly divided in two by a headland topped with a ruined building. On the near end is a good taverna and the possibility of hiring sunbeds and cabanas. Climb over the headland, past a small cave where a hermit lives during the summer, and you can find shade under tamarisk trees. The full stretch of beach offers the possibility of a safe 3km swim with caves under the headland to explore.
Off the road to Goudaras, after a sign to the Dragon’s Cave tavern, is a parking layby for Dragon’s Cave (or Ammoúdi) beach. Bring a picnic as there are no food or drink options on the beach, but the scramble down to this amphitheatre of a bay, with its own sun-warmed warm lagoon, is worth it. Swim out from the bay to a cluster of spiky rocks – if you are brave there is an underwater sea arch to swim through. Swim westwards along the coast to reach more beaches that are inaccessible from the road. A picnic in your dry bag is a good idea – swim, eat, relax then swim back.
Myrtos and Tertsa
Westwards out of Ierapetra, past countless polytunnels and through scrubby agricultural towns, is the small town of Myrtos. Popular with hippies in the sixties, it retains a laidback vibe and is worth a wander around. Once you have explored Mytros, take the concrete road out of the village to Tertsa, a hamlet that feels as though it is at the end of the world. Here, the counter culture never went away. In summer, the caves on the beach make temporary homes for bohemian sun worshippers. Swim along the coast to see how modern agriculture has changed the ancient Cretan landscape, as waves of polytunnels glint in the sun. After your swim, a lazy afternoon spent in the taverna Lambros will have you planning which cave you will live in next summer.
Running and hiking
As well as swimming, the mountains of south east Crete offer fantastic trail running and hiking. Although the paths aren’t always clearly marked, the views are amazing. The E4 path runs along the length of Crete and is accessible at Thripti above Agios Ioannis. If you are feeling fit, a 20-mile run from Agios Ioannis to Orino and back takes you high into the mountains, with only goats for company, before dropping down on a steep and winding path into the village of Orino.
Running and hiking are best done in spring or late summer/autumn when the temperatures are cooler. Spring in particular is perfect for exploring the mountains as all the plants and herbs are in flower.
A week spent unwinding and reconnecting with nature and landscape through swimming and running is a pretty good escape from the stresses of urban living. The hospitality of the Cretan people is legendary – expect each meal to start with a selection of unordered mezédes and end with a plate of fruit and shot of raki. Crete is also the source of the Mediterranean diet – so alongside fantastic swimming and running you can also eat simple, delicious and healthy food. It was the perfect detox week – just don’t mention the homemade cheese, Frou Frou and the hedgehog.
Easyjet flies regularly to Heraklion. Ierapetra is an hour and a half drive from the airport.
WHERE TO STAY
- Houses in Agios Ioannis and other mountain villages are available on AirBnB.
- The seaside village of Makrialos offers a number of luxury and eco-friendly accommodation options.
- Big Blue and SwimTrek offer organised swimming holidays in Crete. l For Greek adventures further afield, SwimQuest offer swim holidays on the island of Mathraki.