Kayaking in Crete, Greece: The Libyan Sea to Phaestros and Beyond

Crete’s Shoreline is jawdropping. (Roberta Sotonoff)

An eight-day paddle in Crete sounded like the perfect trip: I’d been wanting to return to Greece, and I’d been wanting to improve my paddling skills, which to this point had often resulted in me being tangled in mangrove roots.

My adventure began in Mátala, Crete. Sitting alongside the Libyan Sea –a portion of the Mediterranean south of Crete — this town has been a popular tourist destination since ancient times. In the 1960s, singers Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens inhabited the caves that surround its bays. These days it is a place to come and relax.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You want to see a stunning, pristine landscape.
  • It’s out of the box.
  • This part of Crete offers a chance to visit a unique destination that is not totally overrun with tourists.
  • Whether a beginner or a seasoned kayaker, this experience will hone your skills.

It was on Mátala’s shoreline that I finally learned the kind of  kayaking techniques that might keep me out of the mangroves on future trips. Most of my group were proficient paddlers: for them, instructions about putting on a kayak skirt, properly holding the paddle and perfecting different strokes, was a review. Not for me. As for advanced techniques such as how to re-enter the craft after falling out: They were way beyond the skill level for klutzy me. But, I figured, there were plenty good paddlers around to save me. And I could only improve.

Paddling to Antiquity

Kayaking in calm water is idyllic (Roberta Sotonoff)

With that thought, I confidently climbed into the front of a double kayak. We paddled along the shoreline, past numerous caves. With headlamps aglow, the group made their way into one. It was 300-feet long, and dark. We joked about looking for Al Qaeda operatives.

In another cave, light seeped through from underneath, making the water glow a bright blue. It was so clear I could see everything. The same held true on Red Beach, where bathers-minus-bathing-suits caught their rays. I told myself: Stop being a voyeur. Do something else: Study the rock formations and imagine which animals they might resemble. Staring at the rocks took my mind off the sun-bathers, and finally we drifted past them.

We kayaked south to Taverna Comaos, a cute little restaurant alongside the shore. Starving from all that exercise, I practically snarfed down my lunch. Payment here, like at all the little beach tavernas, goes like this: Eat, find the cashier, tell him what you had, and pay.

By the time I got to Kommos Beach, I was exhausted from the paddling and the “let it all hang out” bathers had lost their charm. I was in too much pain to notice anything. My sandals were pebble magnets, and walking on the rocky beach to the ruins of the former Phaestos port felt like Chinese torture.

Phaestos

One of two Phaestros’ grand staircases.(Roberta Sotonoff)

Phaestos or Phaistos (pronounced Festos), was once a Minoan religious and economic conclave, second only to Knossόs.

The area’s history is rooted in Greek mythology. Sibling rivalry with Minos (the Knossόs founder and a ‘son” of Zeus) motivated Rhadamanthe, another purported son of Zeus, to develop these digs. He copied the Knossόs Palace layout to a “t.” But he also succeeded in one-upping his brother with a choice piece of real estate. It was a gorgeous spot. Sitting between three mountain ranges and the Libyan Sea, it overlooked the fertile Mesara Plain.

Built about 2000 or 1900 B.C., an earthquake destroyed the original Phaestos Palace around 1700 B.C. Like most teardowns these days, it was reconstructed over the old one. The newer version was much larger, grander and constantly getting upgrades.

Parts of the old palace have been excavated and sit on a lower level. The newer palace has a huge central courtyard with a drop dead view of the Mesara Plain. Apartments were arranged around it. Rooms were separated by columns. Two grand staircases accessed the main hall.

Minoans may have been the first germaphobes, based on the evidence here. An irrigation network underneath the palace indicates that sanitation was a priority. Deep wells and a river furnished the water supply. Apparently, these guys were very into hygiene.

The city flourished from 1600 B.C. until about 1450 B.C. when catastrophe struck all of Crete in the form of an undersea earthquake that may have reached 8 on the Richer scale, and caused widespread devastation throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Though it suffered much damage, Phaestos continued to function on this site until 100 A.D. when the neighboring Gortys totally destroyed it.

What really put Phaestos on today’s map, at least as far as historians are concerned, was the discovery of a circular tablet found among the ruins. The Phaestos Disk, which dates back to around 1600 B.C., is the earliest form of Minoan script. Its meaning still remains a mystery. The tablet now makes its home at the Heraklion Archeological Museum in the capital of Crete.

Weaving through the Waves

Phaestos was awesome and so were the next couple of days. Then one morning, the float took on a new dimension. Six-foot swells caused my fellow kayakers to disappear one minute and pop up the next. The kayaks rocked and rolled. Hoping things would ease up later, we put in at Agios Pavlos. The little 11th century chapel dedicated to St. Paul was illuminated by candlelight. Many of the church’s original murals were still visible.

Back in the kayaks, the surf got rougher. Winds whipped up to over 20 knots. This adventure was losing its charm. Rather than be blown to Libya, the paddle was aborted.

Venitian Fortress near Loutró (Roberta Sotonoff)

We got to our evening’s lodgings via Plan B—a hike through Venetian fortress ruins. Wild oregano, a labyrinth and primitive body-building equipment – a wooden bench and weights made from iron rods and cement – were its amenities. We finally arrived in Loutró, a flower-filled, blue and whitewashed village wrapped around a bay.

Palm Beach, a delightful little Eden, inhabited by ducks, bordered with palm trees and a river running through it, was part of the last day’s 18-mile float. By the last six miles of the trip, the paddling or the sun seemed to have affected our brains. My paddling partner, Gail, and I saw faces and animals in the rocks formatioins. Finally, thankfully, we reached the quaint little harbor at  Aghia Galini, a town built into mountains so steep that everything was on a slant.

That goes along with what our Greek guide, George Stavroulakis said, “It (Crete) was created by God when he was drunk.”

Obviously that isn’t true. But I thought: the incredible, pristine beauty along Crete’s shoreline reflects divine intervention.

Practicalities

  • Try Greek yogurt with honey. It’s far better than the stuff you get at home.
  • There is good shopping and a great bakery in Mátala. The little twisted cookies are delicious.
  • Bring kayaking gloves, a pack towel, sunscreen and a hat.
  • Even if you are a strong kayaker, you have to be in pretty good shape to do this trip.
  • My trip was organized through The Northwest Passage but it had pros and cons. On the plus side were the destination, two of the guides, and the itinerary: The seascape, the ruins, the small villages and tavernas made for a varied and interesting getaway. On the downside were the many conflicts guests had with the owner/guide, who often seemed abrasive and insisted on activities that only he wanted to do. For me, the net result was positive, especially because I became a much more skilled kayaker. I now know how to avoid the mangroves.
  • A few other companies offer multi-day kayaking tours in Crete. Check out GAdventures;  tel: (888) 800-4100, Wild Nature; or Enjoy Crete.  They do not visit Phaestros, but you can make that a road trip.

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