Sun worshippers lounge on Matala's protected beach, in front of caves used as ancient Roman tombs and Minoan storage cells.
From the beginning of the trail in Xyloskalos, the Samaria Gorge drops 3,000 feet in less than two miles.
The winds were gusting at 40 miles per hour and we stood warily on the beach watching white-capped waves crash about 300 yards from shore. "Wait, so do we actually have to go out in this?" said a fellow trip-mate. My stomach turned while I imagined myself capsizing and sinking in the chop. In a matter of hours, however, I graduated from the double to the single kayak and was ready for the safety procedure of intentionally capsizing and exiting the boat. Mike, the tanned, hunky 38-year-old co-leader of my trip, grabbed my paddle and pushed off from my boat. "See ya! Wouldn't wanna be ya!" he yelled. I cringed but took a big gulp of air, plugged my nose and dove under the water. I was halfway out of the boat before it turned over and was breathing again in less than a second. "Is your fun-o-meter is spinning like crazy?" he asked, grinning. How could my fun-o-meter not be spinning? A handsome (and skilled) kayaker was watching over me, I had just done my first "wet exit," I was paddling by ancient caves carved out for Roman tombs and gazing at a beautiful stretch of sandy umbrella-dotted beach.
After my first kayak session in Matala, I dined on a vegetarian pita at Cafe Nikos and then spotted a small sign pointing the way to Red Beach. From there, I set out on a 30-minute hike that took me past the ruins of an ancient Minoan port town and over a hill with a spectacular view. Red Beach could be mistaken for a seacoast version of Eden: beautiful tanned nude men and women walk down the shore with golden-haired toddlers in tow. The water is a translucent shade of turquoise, and in the summer and fall, endangered sea turtles congregate to nest and hatch their young.
Practical Info: Hotel Zafiria (phone: 011-30-28920-45112) offers beach-view rooms with balconies for $47. Pension Silvia (phone: 011-30-28920-45127), a small bougainvillea and geranium-covered hotel, is a little further from the beaten path and rents simple rooms from $29. Both hotelsand many others on the southern coast of Creteare open only from April to October.
"Man, I would love a big Amstel right now," said Gordon, 45, a tall Canadian from the tour group who was my hiking partner for the day. "And a shower," he added. "And a chair." Amen to that, I thought, as we walked into the town of Agia Roumelimy feet were numb from 10 miles of downhill pounding and a cold brew would've hit the spot, but I had to admit I was enjoying myself. We had walked through the Samaria Gorge, a pine- and cypress-filled fissure dotted with aquamarine pools of river water, and had hardly seen a single soul. Though the gorge is much loved by tourists, in the off-hours it retains a sense of undisturbed serenity. In fact, you can hardly munch a sesame-honey bar (the Greek version of a Powerbar) without a kri kria small, deer-like goat native to Cretecoming out of the trees to eye you. In 1962, the gorge was established as a national park to protect the overhunted kri kri and other rare wildlife, such as eagles, owls, vultures, and the Cretan polecat. In April and May the gorge teems with wildflowers, and at the end of it the ruins of two Turkish castles overlook the ocean, one easily reachable by a steep half-mile walk from the coastal village of Agia Roumeli.
Practical Info: No roads connect to Agia Roumeli at the bottom of the gorge and the last ferry to Hora Sfakion, where a road leads from the coast, leaves at 6 pm in the summer and fall, and earlier in the low season. In order to avoid the crowds, get a late start and stay overnight. The simple but comfortable Hotel Agia Roumeli (011-30-28250-91432) offers rooms for $41 and the similar Hotel Kri Kri (011-30-28250-91089) rents rooms starting at $35.
AGIOS PAVLOS AND MARMARA BEACH
As if kayaking through royal blue and turquoise water while gazing at towering green mountains weren't enough, on our way from Agia Roumeli to Loutro we stopped at a small cross-shaped stone church presiding over the edge of a wide sweep of uninhabited bay. Created in the 11th century, the Byzantine Agios Pavlos (Saint Paul's) is only reachable by boat or foot. Every Mediterranean beach town that has any pride seems to insist that Paul, on his voyage from Caesaria to Rome, crashed upon its shores, so small shrines abound. This shrine is particularly beautiful with its remnants of frescoes and host of golden icons.
It seems that on this trip, whenever my arms and shoulders started to ache from paddling, some beautiful white sand beach would flicker into viewusually just in time for lunch. One day it was Marmara Beach, a 50-yard stretch of sand and marble stones insulated by sea caves and rock outcroppings perfect for cliff jumping. Three small white stucco buildings, including a miniscule chapel, dot the hillside above the beach just below the mouth of the Aradena Gorge. A hairy, two-and-a-half-mile hike up the gorge leads to the one-family mountain village of Aradena and the nearest road. After checking out the sea caves, I debarked from my boat and climbed the rock stairway leading from the southwestern end of the beach to a small cafe, where I savored the spectacular view, a plate of ancient salad (the cafe's specialty, a mixture of fresh beans and vegetables), and a cheese pie with local honey.
Practical Info: The owner of the cafe, Chrisostomos Orfanoudakis (011-30-6942-20156), rents rooms in the small white buildings above the beach starting at $23 from April to October. To get there, take a water taxi (about $18) west from Loutro or walk the two miles along European long-distance footpath E4.