Kalimera Sas! The summer is in full swing in Crete – Greece’s most southerly island. This year, growing numbers of Greek agrotourism lovers are exploring the mountains, instead of the beach.There’s no better time to explore Crete’s hinterland than in summer; you can avoid the crowds who are clustered along the north shore; you can enjoy cooler breezes, mountain springs and witness the unspoilt rhythm of life.
One of the most popular, called ELEONAS Resort – located in the rural heart of Crete near Zaros – is featured in some of the world’s most influential travel sections, including The Sunday Times, The Lonely Planet, The Daily Express, Ekatherimeni (Greek Daily), while The Independent in the UK voted it ‘Best Discoveries 2012 – Readers’ tips’.
Other winning locations are Milia – in the north west near Chania, Arkus Suites near Rethymnon and Aspropotamos Cottages near Ierapetra. So go on, what are you waiting for?
ONE: THE SUMMER FESTIVALS
When it comes to celebrating, no one does it quite like the folks from Crete. The calendar of events ranges from food festivals, wine festivals, musical, religious, agricultural. Some last a day, others a week but they give a special insight into our unique culture. Here’s a pick of local events, to tempt your appetite.
Yakinthia Festival – last week of July, Anogia village located on the slopes of Mount Psiloritis. Saint Yakinthios (or Hyacinth) according to myth, was a martyr who died for love. This artistic cultural festival, organised by poet, singer and songwriter, Ludovikos is held in Fourni. Anogia’s defiant spirit played important roles throughout history, which is evident today in the vivid cultural life of the mainly livestock owning community.
If you miss Yakinthia, traditional Cretan music festivals can be enjoyed at the village’s open air concerts during the two first weeks of August. Otherwise, the square of Agios Georgios is a splendid way to tap into local life and a good place to stop for coffee, buy local cheese and visit the small church of the same name.
Assumption Day – August 15th The peak of summer, and the biggest of the Orthodox religious festivals and Bank holiday in Crete, Greece celebrates the Dormition of Virgin Mary. Especially revered, by anyone named Maria and Marios, or Thespina so don’t forget to say ‘chronia polla’ or ‘many happy returns’ if you know any!
Archanes Wine Festival – August 15th.
Archanes village, south of Heraklion, is synonymous with wine and agriculture. Its architecture won second best restoration project in Europe, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Mayor. The wine festival is one of the cultural fixtures, showcasing the regions famous red and white wines, which is fast being recognised on the world stage.
TWO: EAT CRETE ON THE GASTRO TRAIL
ELEONAS has firmly established its reputation as a foodie destination – both locally and internationally. The ELEONAS taverna has become an island treasure. It specialises in regional home cooked Cretan dishes, prepared with organic ingredients mostly sourced from Eleonas’ family farm nearby – or within a five kilometre radius.
Fresh bread is baked daily in the kitchens, along with daily dishes which underpin the famous Cretan diet.
If you want to perfect your own pastitsio or stuffed aubergine, you can join the free daily cookery demos, hosted by Manolis and mother Koula. Both young and old have great fun perfecting their filo pastry, while enjoying the knock out views over the shady terraces and across the gorge, in the afternoon sun. Those who miss out can find the most popular recipes on the website, www.eleonas.gr
Surprisingly fish lovers are never disappointed by this mountain location. Find fresh trout on the menu at the Votomos Lake Taverna and Caf? as well as the nearby Idi Hotel taverna. This beautiful lake – a bit like mini Switzerland – is fringed by shady plane trees. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy a hearty home cooked meal, or simply feed the ducks.
Herb and spice lovers should make a detour south to Kouses village to a wonderful herb shop called Botano, run by the charismatic Yiannis. Once your senses have recovered from the range of local and global mixes, you can relax with a delicious cup of tea on the shady terrace overlooking the valley of olive groves. Sheer magic.
Weaving south via gastro spots like Sivas village, find yourself spoilt for choice of fish tavernas lining the sandy Matala beach, overlooking the famous hippy caves. Drive over to ancient Gortyn to Zachariodakis’ winery for a tour and tasting, in a beautiful hilltop glass fronted showroom, before choosing your favourite of his award winning reds and whites direct from the grower.
The World Health Organisation recognises the Cretan diet as the world’s best, not surprisingly having the highest percentage organically registered farms, bringing unprocessed products to market with little changed over the last few centuries.
THREE: THE GREAT OUTDOORS.
Crete’s landscape is perfect for nature lovers, especially in summer. Being located in in the shade of the mountains and olive groves, inland Crete enjoy cooler breezes from the sea. The biodiversity is impressive; countless endemic plants, and a dizzying array of flowers and herbs found on nature trails is a truly wonderful experience. Not least, Crete has magnificent rare bird colonies, such as the bearded vulture, many of which can be seen soaring around the UNESCO national park of Mt Psiloritis. Not surprisingly it attracts many groups of bird watchers from around the world.
One of the most wonderful ways of exploring its beauty is to walk a section of the E4 trail and signposted paths which bring you into direct contact with the landscape. The E4 route to the beautiful Rouvas Gorge can be picked up at the Votomos Lake, just outside Zaros. Take the path from near Zaros lake, pass the monastery, after 2.5 km you’ll be in the entrance to the fascinating canyon, leading to the rare Holm Oak forest of Rouvas, one of only a handful in Greece. You will find yourself in a mountain valley, the only building being the church of Ag. Ioanni (St John) church. Picnic tables and information about flora and fauna including rare orchids can make it an interesting day out for families. The trail there and back to Zaros is 5km, with an estimated 2.5 hours to walk uphill and 1.5 hours downhill.
FIVE: AN EASY HOP OVER! Flight access is the best in Europe; as Crete has two international airports; Heraklion and Chania, with hourly arrivals from the UK alone.
Heraklion International Airport, Crete has direct flights from most major European cities from May to October.
Flights operate from all UK regional airports including Gatwick, Manchester and Leeds. The charters include Thomas Cook, Thomson, easyJet and there are currently return flights for as little as £129 return!
Daily scheduled flights via Athens Eleftherios Venizelos airport operate year round from 130 Euro return. Domestic airlines are Aegean Airlines, Olympic Airlines or Sky Express.
Ferries connect Heraklion port to Athens Piraeaus Port by high speed service (six hours) , more info on www.gtp.gr
Hire cars offices and licenced taxis are in abundance at both airports.