"I lived in New York City for 20 years," said Pavlos Fradelakis, a native of Crete and the manager of the Daskalogiannis Hotel. "I came back for a visit, and I took my return ticket, tore it in two, and threw it away!" he continued, making a flamboyant ripping motion and throwing his hands in the air. We were sitting at the table closest to the water in front of his hotel, sipping Mythos, Greece's most popular domestic beer, and watching the people go by, as he does every day of the summer.
When I rounded the corner into Loutro after the eight-mile kayak from Agia Roumeli, the view was so perfect I felt like I had stumbled upon an old Hollywood movie set. The ruins of a 250-year-old Turkish castle and a 500-year-old Venetian castle stood watch at the southern end of the small bay, and picturesque blue and white houses lined the shore in a crescent on top of the water. But Loutro is the real thing: Though it can host about 900 tourists, it is rarely full and retains the flavor of a laid-back Mediterranean fishing village. I spotted a wizened old man sitting over a large bucket of fish, baiting hooks next to a restaurant's back door. Behind the hotels, old multi-colored boats live out their years after being retired from the seas. Besides the music and voices that drift from cafés into the night air, the town is silent. There are no cars hereonly a 20-minute ferry ride or a three-mile hike from the nearest town, Hora Sfakion, can get you to Loutro. "This is the best life," says Pavlos, who hasn't left since he arrived for that visit 14 years ago. "It's a quiet life and things are the same year after year."
Practical Info: Hotel Daskalogiannis (phone: 011-30-28250-91514) rents attractive modern rooms with balconies for $47 and has the only public Internet connection in town. Hotel Sifis (phone: 011-30-28250-91337) next door rents cheaper rooms with seaside views for $29. SWEETWATER BEACH
On our way to Hora Sfakion, we docked on Sweetwater Beach, an hour-long, two-mile paddle from Loutro, to refuel with cappuccino. (This kayaking business is hard work!) The beach's stretch of smooth white stones has several freshwater springs and acts as a camp for a motley group of nudist-hippies. As we walked along it, a Swiss man by the name of Villy came out to greet us, wearing nothing but his birthday suit and a pair of flip-flops. "Hallo!" he exclaimed. He was quite friendly and told us that he had spent 24 hours a day for the last three weeks entirely nude. Before climbing into our kayaks again, Villy showed us his camp, including the spring he used as a refrigerator, and got ready for his morning swim. As we took off, all we could see of him was his bare behind and snorkel tube poking up out of the water.
By the end of the trip, I've seen more than my fair share of beautiful coastline, conquered a few kayaking anxieties, and emerged stronger, tanner, and more relaxed. After I wave goodbye to my tripmates, George, the former sea captain and driver for the trip and my newfound friend, whisks me off in his car. Before we part ways, he tells me to write something good about Crete, where he has lived most of his life when not piloting ships around five continents. "I was born here, raised here, and I'm going to die here," he says. "I hope, I hope!"
The Northwest Passage (800-RECREATE, www.nwpassage.com) offers eight-day sea-kayaking trips, including accommodations, most meals, equipment, and instruction along the southern coast of Crete for $2,295. Trips with a yoga instructor for daily beachside yoga sessions are also available for $2,495.
Trekking Hellas (011-30-21033-10323, www.trekking.gr), an Athens-based organization, offers nine-day hiking trips in the gorges and along the coastline of southern Crete from $1,869 to $2,453 per person, depending on the size of the group.
For information about tourist activities and destinations throughout Greece, including Crete, contact the Greek National Tourist Organization (212-421-5777, www.gnto.gr).
Olympic Airways (800-223-1226, www.olympic-airways.com) offers direct flights from New York to Athens starting at $468, and from Athens to Iraklion for $135.
The tourism office in Hania (011-30-28210-92943) can provide information about tourist activities in the region, which includes the southwestern coast of Crete.
The Mountaineering Club of Hania (011-30-28210-44647) maintains the popular E4 Trail, which runs along the southern coast of Crete. The Club organizes occasional excursions and can provide some information about hiking and climbing in the area.