The Real Crete
"There is an island in the Wine Dark Sea named Crete"…
…So wrote Homer all those generations ago and the poetry of his statement still strikes a chord today, especially to those who have seen a sunset over the Eastern Mediterranean.
Crete, the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean, is a very special place, not only because of its dramatic scenery and landscapes, its wonderful archaeological heritage, its profusion of spring flowers, its birdlife and its people, but also because of an indefinable magic which captures the heart and mind. The island is 150 miles long, broken up by three main mountain ranges towering up to 8500 feet. It has fabulous coastal scenery, deep gorges, flower-smothered meadows and high mountain passes; to wander round the streets of tiny medieval villages is to go back in time.
Our holiday is timed to coincide with the peak of bird migration when the olive groves are resonant with birdsong and resident populations of Griffon and Bearded Vultures are joined by such Eastern Mediterranean specialities as Bee-eaters, Golden Orioles and Red-footed Falcons. Over the ten days we would expect to see around 100 species of bird plus lots of orchids and other wild flowers, whilst not ignoring the archaeological heritage and the traditions of this most wonderful of islands.
Island Holidays has been taking people to this remarkable island since 1991 with a 7-year gap after the death of the amazing John Henshall who brought the island to life in so many ways for so many people. This year we believe we have found a partner on the island who is of like mind and who has created a programme for us which combines the natural history and archaeological interest of this extraordinary place with a deep insight into its people, their traditions and their incredible hospitality.
As you will see from the itinerary below, we stay in three centres: the capital Heraklion from where we visit the famous archaeological site of Knossos, the mountain village of Gerakari in the Amari area and finally the ancient city of Chania.
- The Real Crete: Birds, Wild Flowers & Cretan Culture
- Fully guided group tour
- Departure: 15 April 2019
- Nights: 10
- Fully inclusive cost: £1,935*
- Single room supplement: £185*
- Deposit: £400
- Meal Basis: Full Board, including local wine with meals
- Activity level: Easy
- Tour leader: Giorgos Makrydakis
- Maximum Group Size: 12
- Travel: EasyJet
- Departs: London Gatwick
- Included in cost: Air fare and taxes, full board accommodation, transfers, transport, all excursions, Island Holidays guide.
- Not included in cost: Travel insurance, tips, drinks, items of a personal nature.
- * Based on exchange rate of £1 = €1.13. This will be adjusted if there is more than a 2 point variation in exchange rates at time of invoicing.
- Crete 2019
Your tour leader
Giorgos (also known as George), is a Cretan who has acquired a deep knowledge of his island's nature. His speciality is botany but he also understands the island's landscape and is enthusiastic and increasingly knowledgeable about the birds. He takes huge pleasure in sharing experiences with visitors and is inspired by authentic interaction between visitors and his island's culture and local communities. Giorgos is an outdoor man whose gentleness touches everyone with whom he comes in contact.
Flight schedules are not available at the time of writing but we are planning to fly into Heraklion where we will stay in the Astoria Capsis Hotel for the first two nights of our holiday.
We start our exploration with an introduction to Cretan history through the Minoan antiquities of Knossos. We'll first visit the fabulous in the company of an expert archaeologist who will then show us round the impressive archaeological site of Knossos. Even if this isn't your prime interest, it is compellingly fascinating and gives an insight into the background of so much we will see and do during the holiday.
Lunch will be in a taverna in the scenic village of Archanes and then we go up to the mythical mountain of Giouchtas which, as well as being steeped in atmosphere, is home to a large colony of Griffon Vultures. Here too we will enjoy watching a variety of migratory birds and enjoying endemic plants and spectacular views. Crete is one of those places you simply don't know whether to look up or down! We return to Heraklion for dinner and overnight.
Having checked out of the Astoria Capsis Hotel we take the full day to reach our next base in Gerakari. Our route takes us through the foothills of Psiloritis (Mount Ida) where we stop periodically to enjoy the flowers and birds and the peace of the countryside, often enhanced by the sound of sheep bells. We stop for lunch at Krana where, at the Shepherd's Shelter, we will learn about milking and cheese-making before enjoying lunch which will include some local specialities. We then continue to Gerakari, a village in the Amari Valley in the prefecture of Rethymno, where we check in at Hotel Alexander which will be our base for the next five nights.
We start the morning at the Potamon Dam where we will hope to see an assortment of birds including herons and waders. After a quick stop for coffee (own expense) we drive to the Patso gorge where we have lunch before taking a wander along an easy path to an observation point. On our way back to Gerakari we'll make the odd stop to see or watch anything which pops up and is of interest.
The focus of today is the botanical wonder of Crete but we'll also enjoy the birds, the scenery and the unique atmosphere of the island. We start by driving to the south coast where, from the Triopetra Outfall, we will be hoping that migration will be in full flood and we'll see the birds coming in from Africa. No guarantees — it depends on the weather and what the birds want to do!
After lunch at a family-run taverna right on the beach (where there will be a chance for those who so wish to have a swim) we continue to the world-famous botanical site of Gious Kampos, a plateau near the town of Spilli. We will be hoping that the season has been kind to us and that we will experience the wealth of wild flowers — and Crete has 40 species of orchid, let alone the rest. One of the special flowers we'll be looking for is the Cretan tulip and there are many other endemics to be found. Whether or not your interest is in botany, this is the most amazing site and a wonderful aesthetic experience.
From botany to birding. It's a couple of hours' drive to reach the foothills of Psiloritis near Kamares. Having driven through the village we continue a little way before turning off and heading up the mountain. The road turns into a track and is not for the faint-hearted but we have a superb drive and our attention is taken by the breath-taking scenery and our search for today's “target” the critically endangered Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier as it used to be known — a much nicer name don't you think?!). There are just 15 pairs of these birds in the whole of Crete. Last year we were lucky to have terrific views of a pair flying close to us but there can be no guarantees of course. We'll also be looking for Blue Rock Thrush and Alpine Accentor amongst other species.
Having spent some time — hopefully with lots of luck — we'll descend the mountain back to the Amari valley where we'll have lunch in a local taverna followed by a wander in an ancient olive grove where the trees could be as much as a thousand years old.
For our last day in this area we head south to the Kourtaliotis area. Here two rivers create very special habitats. The Kourtaliotis works its way through a long gorge to Preveli beach, meeting the endemic palm forest whilst the Kotsifos River crosses a parallel gorge to connect with the south coast at Plakias. During the day we'll explore the different habitats and there'll be some free time for swimming and relaxation.
It's time to move on to our last hotel just outside the old city walls of Chania. To get there we head south-west from Gerakari to Sfakia and along a scenic coastal route to Frangokastello where we'll be looking for migratory and seabirds arriving from Africa such as Stone Curlew, Short-toed Lark, Collared Pratincole, Wryneck and Red-throated Pipit as well as interesting wetland flora and ground fauna. From here we climb up to the Askyfou plateau, a natural oasis of flora, fauna and interesting people — again giving a balance of interest and including tempting local cuisine which we'll enjoy at a local taverna. We end the day in Chania where we'll be spending the last three nights of our holiday ih the Hotel Kriti just outside the walls of the old city.
Today we drive out to the Akrotiri Peninsula where the focal point of the morning will be birding. We stop at the Tsagarolon Monastery (although we won't actually go in to the building itself) where there's an interesting tree which bears both oranges and lemons! We'll wander around the area hoping that migration is in full swing in which case we'll hope to see Bea-Eaters, Golden Oriole and Red-footed Falcon plus much more.
Lunch today is at a very nice taverna at Marathi Beach which, at this time of year, is almost deserted! There'll be time for those who wish to swim to do so or you can just wander around to see what you can see simply relax. We'll return to Chania in time for a look around the old town and its ancient harbour with its Venetian architecture and history.
One of the great birding sites in Crete is at Agia Lake and we'll spend the whole morning here. We never know what will turn up. Osprey, Marsh Harrier, Little Bittern, Yellow Wagtail, Little Grebe, Squacco Heron, Kingfisher – the list goes on and on. Eventually we'll have to tear ourselves away for our scenically stunning drive to the tiny village of Drakona. We head up in the direction of the Omalos plateau, stopping for coffee (and the yoghurt with strawberries or oranges is horribly tempting – one between four does it!). Here there's also a super opportunity for retail therapy involving anything to do with olive oil! Our route continues up to the village of Laki with its beautiful war memorial before we leave the main road for a beautiful drive to Drakona which is where we find the local taverna to be a member of the Slow Food Movement. Lunch here has to be the culinary highlight of the tour – and there have already been many! Finally we drive to the village of Therisso and its eponymous gorge so combining geological interest with the history of Western Crete. We'll return to Chania in time for a look around the old town and its ancient harbour with its Venetian architecture and history.
All good things come to an end and it's time to get our flight home, hopefully from Chania but this has still to be confirmed as schedules aren't available at the time of writing.
Please note that the itinerary can be changed without notice at the sole discretion of Island Holidays or your tour leader.