The farthest reaches of a place always have a wild quality. Explorers seem to seek out places that, once reached, naturally mark the end of a journey. It’s as if explorers have trouble setting their own limits so natural barriers form a convenient stopping point. This trip is to one of these places.
Put your finger on the point most West and North on a United States map and it will be covering the Hoh River valley: the runoff basin for a series of glaciers formed on Washington’s Mount Olympus. This is where the Hoh River runs out to the Pacific Ocean and where a variety of routes, from day walks to advanced treks start for the long climb all the way up onto the glaciers.
Before this trip I had not developed a mental map of anything west of the Seattle area. It was just a strip of land between the Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. So on a recent visit to Seattle we decided to push farther west, as far as the land would allow.
The first day we made it as far as Forks, the quasi-fictional town of vampires from the Twilight novels. The unique relationship of land and ocean makes Forks the wettest place in the continental US, a fitting setting for vampires and werewolves to live concealed in the perpetual grey mist.
The next morning it was just a 20 min drive through the early morning fog to the Hoh River trailhead. We happened to have picked a holiday for our hike so we were not sure if that would mean empty trails or crowds. It was the former, not even a park ranger in sight.
We started out on one of the shorter walks from the trailhead to warm up. A sign warned that we might come across elk and to be careful, they may be in a bad mood. I didn’t give it much thought thinking elk were something akin to the deer that roam through back yards around the Puget Sound. A herd of cranky deer did not seem very daunting.
The word enchanted sounds cliché but it is what instantly comes to mind. The forest here is untouched and rarely do you come across a landscape which has grown layer upon layer for millennia.
Everything seemed out of scale. We are accustomed to trees growing out of suburban yards and reaching twice as high as a house, at most. This terrain is all encompassing and taller than seems “natural”, and the effect overwhelming. Left, right, front, back, up, down, all is fuzzy green and alive.
Standing awestruck, trying to take it all in, we’re startled by a large furry body lunging precariously from behind, bounding effortlessly through the undergrowth. Then another, and another. Awe quickly turned fear as we realized we were now right in middle of a stampeding herd of those a forewarned temperamental elk.
We froze, the elk froze and we had a perfectly silent moment, each of us wondering what to do next. A few minutes later the elk decided we were ok, and quickly disappeared. By the way, an elk is MUCH larger than a deer.
After that magical introduction we continued onto one of the longer routes and spent the day wandering through this enchanted forest at one of the most remote edges of North America.
< More fascinating vacation destinations await. Let’s go.
“Forget gourmet, discover gastronomy“ is the mantra of our hosts Fanis, Vagelis and Andonis. And they wear their message proudly. It’s the first thing we saw when they greeted us for our Natour Labs Cretan Cooking Class in the village of Milia Crete at the Milia Mountain Retreat, the words were emblazoned on their T-shirts.
I heard about these three ambassadors of Greek culture during a stay at Hotel Ammos. I contacted Andonis to learn more, and he graciously invited me to join the group for one of their Tuesday cooking courses.
The trip to Milia Crete is a story in itself. Traveling from the warm beaches of Chania to the top of the mountains takes less than an hour. The road is steep and quite rudimentary, with many stretches built with just one lane. For the uninitiated, driving up this road can be quite nerve wracking. But once you learn that what the roads lack in width, the drivers make up for in friendly cooperation, it all seems quite adequate. The caution necessary to transverse the route guarantees a slow and gentle ascent with ample time to take in the breathtaking views.
On arrival at the Milia Crete turn off, the road narrows even more and becomes gravel, more a path than a road.
The difficulty in accessing Milia Crete is in fact by design. In the past, the route to Milia would have been invisible to anyone not belonging there. Also, the hidden nature of the village has provided shelter and security during many wars and sieges and it kept the self-sustained villagers safe and fed while they waited for treacherous events to pass. Its obscurity was its main defense and the reason that today you can walk into approximately the same village you might have visited in the 17th century.
In the ‘70s, with the infrastructure of the village crumbling, the father-in-law of Tasos, the current owner, decided to save the village and turn it into an eco lodge with a restaurant open to the public. Every Tuesday, this is the home of Natour Labs Cretan Cooking Class. The beautiful stone houses of the village have been restored and outfitted as guest accommodations, with fire places inside, and hammocks outside perfect for reading in the afternoon sun to the occasional sound of bells from goats wandering the surrounding hills.
On the day of my visit, a varied group showed up hailing from New York, London, Paris and Greece. Our youngest cooking participant, who came with mom and dad from London, was just short of two years old! Tasos pitched in with child-minding duty and kept the little girl entertained with visits to see the piglets raised on the premises.
The island of Crete is rich in agriculture. A diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables has amply fed the islanders for many centuries. Locals were healthy and lived long active lives. Many studies talk about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. However in Crete, as in most countries, modern industrialized food has taken over. Imported foods abundant in carbohydrates and sugar dominate in the local grocery stores, as a result, the Cretans now suffer from an obesity epidemic. I can provide a first-hand account of this as I have been coming to Greece since I was a teenager. Years ago it was rare to see anyone overweight, but on my recent visit it was shocking to see XXXL shops prominently advertised on the main thoroughfare.
The mission of Natour Lab is to remind fellow Cretans (and visitors) about the traditional way of cooking and eating, encouraging a return to the practice of cooking with simple fresh ingredients, in season, and from local sources. At Natour Lab in most cases right from the Milia Crete. It’s a message beginning to be heard wherever you travel these days, and one championed by an ever-increasing chorus of voices advocating a more sustainable way of living.
The take away from the course was that with few ingredients and little time you can create the most wonderful dishes. Our three-course meal illustrated it. First, was a starter of local mountain cheese and tomatoes on crostini followed by a wonderful tomato and peach soup. Peaches and tomatoes go together naturally, we were taught, as do braised lamb and a honey dish with potatoes and courgette (which is zucchini if you live in the US or Australia).
Bread was made fresh that morning in a wood-fired bread oven. Delicious! A high light for us all were the cookies that we made from a simple dough of flour, olive oil, honey, and cinnamon. Repurposing a countertop sausage machine, the dough was extruded into delicate shapes. This resulted in a rustic “shortbread” cookie, just as good as the original, but with no sugar or butter.
The difficulty in accessing Milia Crete is in fact by design. In the past, the route to Milia would have been invisible to anyone not belonging there.
As is usually the case when a group of strangers are thrust into a room together, it begins with a “warming up” period! And as the class was conducted in English with most in our group speaking other languages, we had additional communication hurdles to overcome. But once we all started chopping and mixing, barriers quickly melted away. By late afternoon, we were all seated around a communal table in conversation, eating and drinking the fruits of our labor, wishing we could linger into the evening.
Check Natour Lab’s website to see what is being offered during your visit to Milia Crete. They also offer a variety of specialized experiences, including bee keeping, and hiking excursions throughout Crete. You can arrange private classes and tours to suit your schedule.
Some of the more challenging hikes require proper equipment. So if you are interested in those activities, enquire before you arrive, and get advice on what equipment to bring.
With a few idle days on the beach under my belt, it was refreshing to be on a tight schedule again. The first bus for the Samaria Gorge leaves before dawn and I was the first passenger to arrive at the central bus depot in Chania to start the journey. Just me, some staff and a friendly stray dog that sleepily stumbled from place to place as she was gently prodded by a sweeper preparing the station for the day’s coming crowds.
I have visited Crete several times and completing the Samaria Gorge hike has always been on my list to things to do. This time though the Samaria Gorge, it was September. Why is that important? Well, September is off-season and the Samaria Gorge is such a fantastic trip that in high season it can sometimes feel like a 16 kilometer queue. Doing it slightly off season means you have some room to breathe in this, one of the world’s great natural landscapes.
The hike offers a range of varied experiences all rolled into one. There’s nature: etched over time by a small river between the White Mountains and Mt. Volakias, the Samaria Gorge is a national park formed in 1962 in part to create protected habitat for the local species of mountain goat, the kiri-kiri. There’s history: the gorge has been occupied since ancient Greek times. You can visit the remnants of an ancient temple on which is built the more recent church of St. Nikolas. And the area was so inaccessible in the past that it occasionally was used as a retreat and hiding place for those defending Crete from invaders. And there’s exercise: the walk is exhilarating and a pretty good challenge, as is swimming in the Libyan Sea.
The bus quietly winds through country roads, along mountain passes and through herds of goats, reaching the settlement of Omalos in about an hour. The sun breaks the horizon just after we arrive and I am ready to start the day’s descent.
Descent is one of the distinguishing characteristics of this hike. Starting at an elevation of 1,250 meters, over the course of 16 kilometers, you eventually end up at sea level. At the trail head you pay a small fee for entrance into the park. Down the trail the valley vista opens up as you traverse the steep switchbacks and stairs. It’s a glorious sight. For the first hour and a half you walk through mountainous terrain, the early morning sunlight filtering through the dense trees.
In the beginning, experienced hikers will be moving through at a fast clip in order to make the mid-day ferry from the town of Agia Roumelli to the bus in the town of Chora Sfakion. I was in no rush though, so I could take my time and absorb the sights, sounds and smells of the surrounding mountains. After the initial morning rush, the trail was quite empty.
A little ways on, I began to see odd little stacks of rocks along the trail. Just simple stacks of three to seven stones balanced one on top of the other. They looked decidedly man made. Around each corner, the constructions became more prolific and elaborate until a few hundred meters on they started to overtake the landscape. Who was the “artist” that took time to painstakingly make these earth works with such tender care? I have no clue but the mystery of it makes it all the more intriguing.
Further on, I arrived at the settlement of Samaria where a lot of those speed hikers that passed me earlier were on lunch break. There is a first aid station here and it’s a good place to hang out with your fellow hikers and some local goats. A note of warning, wasps are numerous and tenacious here. Stay calm and move away slowly once they find you … and they will find you. One savvy hiker I met brought a pipe to smoke to keep the wasps at bay. After battling them in vain throughout my lunch, I realized he had the right idea.
Before embarking on my Samaria Gorge treck, several people told me, to my disbelief, that some tourists walk the gorge in flip-flops. This seemed absurd to me and I put it down to urban legend. But as I had lunch I noticed a young woman strolling into the settlement in flip-flops. Kitted out with good boots and already with some aches and pains, I couldn’t believe it. Over the next few kilometers, we crossed paths several times and she asked me to take her photograph. Like some sort of magical mountain pixie, she navigated the trail as easily as one of the goats. There is some lesson there about keeping your mind open and not putting limits on yourself. However, unless you are an experienced flip-flop hiker, I would not suggest trying it out for the first time on this particular hike.
Leaving the the Samaria settlement, I soon came across the most famous part of the Samaria Gorge. It’s the point where the path narrows to just a few meters. The enormous height of the gorge at this point is both breathtaking and treacherous. Signs kindly instruct you to “walk fast” as a way of lowering the risk of injury from falling rocks.
By this time it is around 1:00 pm, the sun is directly overhead and shade is hard to come by: good idea to bring a sun hat for this part. Here, the trail consists mostly of the river bed. The big boulders, small path, searing sun and a downhill trajectory make for a tricky walk.
This time though the Samaria Gorge, it was September. Why is that important? Well, September is off-season … in high season it can sometimes feel like a 16 kilometer queue.
Up until this point the trail has been mostly deserted but now I am encountering a lot more hikers coming in the other direction. These hikers seemed less prepared than those I started out with at the top. Come to find out that some tour groups take the boat to Agia Roumell but only walk up to the big attraction where the path narrows. I can only imagine that this might not be much fun in mid-summer.
At the end of the Samaria Gorge trail, there is the customary snack and postcard shop. But wait, I’m still not there yet. I need to get to Agia Roumelli to catch the ferry. It’s a short three-kilometer walk through the outskirts of the town. Or for a small charge you can hop on a van. My feet said, “take the van”.
The ferry to the town of Chora Sfakion leaves late in the day. So after locating and buying my ticket, I head to the real treat of the whole journey. The Libyan Sea is a shade of blue I had not experienced. Photos can only suggest the intense color of the water. Add to this a jet black beach, a strong wind, and an absolutely wild surf. It was like jumping into river rapids. I figured out that if I walked up the beach a hundred meters or so, and jumped in, within a few minutes I would be back where I started. The combination of exhaustion, intense sun, a billowing gale and plunging into this deep blue sea was unforgettable.
The ferry docked as large waves pounded the shore, showering all within proximity. Quite the dramatic scene to observe. Someone at the back of the ferry was waving vigorously signaling that it was time to board. En masse we passengers suddenly realized that in order to get on the ferry we would need to go through this test of water. Huddled together and wincing at the prospect of being doused, we dashed for the boat, encountering a few waves along the way. “Chaos” is not too strong of a word to describe this scene.
Upon arriving at Chora Sfakion there is one last bit of chaos when all the ferry passengers climb a few steps to meet the waiting busses. In the confusion it seems like this can not possibly work out … but it does.
Here are a few tips to make your Samaria Gorge experience a successful one.
– The walk is mostly down hill over rocky terrain. Walking in these conditions puts enormous pressures on your joints so be prepared. If you are relatively fit you will be fine.
– Wear good walking shoes.
– Bring plenty of water and enough food to fuel you for 16 kilometers. There are plenty of places to refill your water bottle with natural spring water, but no food available until you reach Agia Roumelli at the end of the gorge.
– This is one of the safer and better organized hiking experiences you will find. There are plenty of people around and Rangers on donkeys posted along the trail to rescue you in case of injury.
– Bring a bathing suit, a towel and flip-flops for the big plunge at the beach in Agia Roumelli.
– Pack a disposable rain poncho in case of rough seas on the ferry.
– There are a few places along the way where tickets are required; 1) the round-trip bus ticket that takes you to Omalos and picks you up in Chora Sfakion to take you home, 2) the entrance ticket to the Samaria Gorge, 3) the three-kilometer bus to the ferry (optional), and 4) the ferry ticket to Chora Sfakion to connect back to the bus home.
Finally, if you prefer a more guided hike, I highly recommend you contact the company Natour Lab. they are an experienced team specializing in local hikes. They also hold cooking classes on how to cook naturally using traditional Cretan methods. Definitely worth checking out.