Covid-19 will change our holiday priorities this year. For the following months social distancing will remain the norm. Instead of crowded beaches, crammed with sunbeds and busy beach bars, travelers will seek locations off the beaten track, offering an authentic experience, close to nature. So what makes Eastern Crete an ideal destination this season (and every season)?
This is the first introductory article on eastern Crete, more in-depth posts will follow!
Crete’s easternmost part has remained largely untouched by mass tourism. A combination of distance from the main hub of Heraklion and rugged geography has kept the region more of a secret for seasoned travelers. As you make your way to the east, you pass the village of Kavousi which marks the entrance to the less known municipality of Sitia. And as you climb up the mountains of eastern Crete try to keep an eye on the wheel because the majestic sea views and the small picturesque villages perched on the hillside are sure to keep you distracted.
Do stop for some photographs and a snack in one of the roadside tavernas before arriving in Sitia, the capital of the region and a town famous for its great food, hospitality and laid-back atmosphere.
Vai is Europe’s largest natural palm grove, located 24km (30 min drive) east of Sitia town. The Cretan Date Palm (Phoenix Theophrasti) has found ideal conditions here, covering an area of approximately 250,000sqm. The sandy beach is partially organized (sunbeds, canteen, restaurant) although there is plenty of space if you want to stay away from the crowds. Psili Ammos beach, located 5 min walk to the south offers complete isolation.
If a pristine sandy beach and gin-clear water is your cup of tea, then you should definitely visit Itanos bay (also known as Erimoupolis), which consists of 3 beaches with the archaeological site of the ancient city overlooking all of them. It is located 26km from Sitia, just north of Vai. The beaches and the surrounding landscape are completely untouched by tourism. The northernmost beach is the most popular while not visible from the parking area. It is accessed via a short footpath over a hill. As you climb the hill you will be pleasantly surprised by the panoramic view over the bay and the vivid turquoise colour of the water below. Note that this is an ideal snorkeling area.
Driving closer to Palaikastro village you will find the beaches of Kouremenos and Chiona. Kouremenos is actually two beaches, the easternmost, with its shallow, sandy water, suited for families and the westernmost is ideal for windsurfing. Chiona beach is an ideal family beach, being shallow and sandy.
Xerokambos bay and settlement is one of the most remote locations on the island. It can be accessed through two major routes a) the road connecting the town of Sitia with Ziros and b) road coming from Palaikastro – Ano Zakros. From Ziros, the road passes through plateaus with olive and grape cultivations and medieval villages (Etia, Chametoulio) untouched by time. Then the road winds down to the sea offering spectacular views of the South Cretan Sea (make sure you keep an eye on the road!). In Xerokambos the landscape around the valley is arid with spectacular rocks formations and steep ravines. The valley itself is mainly cultivated with olive groves. Xerokambos wild mountains are in direct contrast to the numerous shallow, sandy and warm beaches across the whole valley. There is also a beach with clay rocks where you can enjoy a natural spa.
The areas rugged terrain offers numerous gorges that are walkable with no special equipment. First and foremost, the 4km Richti gorge, near the village of Mesa Mouliana will dazzle you with the year-round waterfalls and dense vegetation all the way down to a remote beach.
The 4.5km gorge of Zakros starts at the village of Ano Zakros and meets the sea next to the archaeological site of Kato Zakros. It is one of the most impressive gorges in Crete with steep sides and dramatic rock formations. It is also known as the Gorge of the Dead because ancient Minoans buried their dead in caves high up on the gorge’s sides.
The 3.5km Chochlakies or Karoumes gorge ends in the magnificent and isolated bay of Karoumes. The wild, 4km gorge of Kapsas or Perivolakia in the south offers spectacular landscapes with high towering rock walls.
First and foremost you should pay a visit to Sitia’s archaeological museum which exhibits the most important finds from eastern Crete’s Minoan settlements. On your way to Vai and Erimoupoli you will pass from the monastery of Toplou. Here you can visit the monastery’s museum with items dating back to the Ottoman empire period up to the Second World War.
In Erimoupoli bay you can visit the ruins of the ancient town of Itanos. Further to the south east, Zakros is one of the four major Minoan palaces unearthed in Crete. The ruins of the palace await you at the lower entrance of the Zakros gorge.
In Sitia’s “Rakadika” and small taverns scattered in villages throughout the region you can try, apart from local meats, also some delicacies of the region cooked in locally produced olive oil, like “chochlious” (snails cooked either with tomato or vinegar and rosemary), “omaties” (stuffed pig intestines), “anthous” (stuffed courgettes) and other.
The branding of the Municipality of Sitia as the “City of olive oil” is well deserved since the area is known for the production of exceptional quality olive oil. Sitia is well known for its protected destination of origin (PDO) products. The xerothermic climate and the proximity to the sea create the ideal conditions for the Koroneiki variety of olives. The region’s olive oils are fragrant with very low acidity making them ideal for raw dishes. Do try to enjoy it during your stay and make sure you take a few bottles back home! In our properties you will find complementary olive oil for all your cooking needs throughout your stay.
When you visit Toplou don’t forget to grab a bite in the monastery’s small tavern and purchase organic products from the monastery’s extensive agricultural produce (honey, olive oil etc). In Sitia’s farmer’s market and in small markets around the region you can purchase a wide range of seasonal fruits and vegetables.
The region is a great base of water sports lovers, from stand-up paddling and canoeing to snorkeling and diving. For windsurfing enthusiasts, the world renowned Kouremenos beach is a must visit. The club offers equipment hire and lessons. Mountain bikes are a fun way to explore the region’s endless olive groves. Spring and autumn is the best period for this since the weather is cooler during the day.