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Island Holidays
Established 1987

The Real Crete

"There is an island in the Wine Dark Sea named Crete"…

Lassithi plateau

…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 and the beautiful Lassithi plateau, the mountain village of Gerakari in the Amari area and finally the ancient city of Chania.

Arkadi Monastery

Key facts

  • The Real Crete: Birds, Wild Flowers & Cretan Culture
  • Fully guided group tour
  • Departure: 12 April 2017
  • Nights: 10
  • Fully inclusive cost: £2,250
  • Single room supplement: £160
  • Deposit: £350
  • Meal Basis: Full Board
  • Activity level: Easy
  • Tour leader: Libby Urquhart and Haris Papagiannakis
  • Maximum Group Size: 14
  • 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.
  • Crete 2017 detailed itinerary

Your tour leaders

Libby UrquhartLibby Urquhart is the project manager and a partner in the firm of ARCH. Her usual work is to promote cultural and natural heritage projects in Scotland and across Europe. She is currently involved in the new Erasmus+ programme which provides opportunities for professionals working in the natural and cultural heritage sectors to visit their counterparts in other European member states. Libby has travelled widely in Europe and is passionate about preserving the rich cultural and natural heritage, believing that sustainable environmentally sensitive tourism can improve local economies and encourage communities to value their heritage assets and preserve them for future generations.

Haris PapagiannakisHaris Papagiannakis worked as an administrative officer, private teacher and IT researcher in Athens and Heraklion for 10 years but his heart was always in the Cretan countryside. After a period of education in alternative tourism design, Haris joined the Hellenic Ornithological Society as an IBA caretaker. Birds soon became a passion and a motive for the ecosystems monitoring he undertakes as part of this program on Crete. Today Haris works as a tour designer and guide. His other interests are mountaineering, sailing, cultivating olives and beans, as well as interacting with all kinds of people.

Your itinerary

Day 1
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 three nights of our holiday.

Day 2
We start our exploration with an introduction to Cretan history through the Minoan antiquities of Knossos. We'll first visit the archeological museum of Heraklion and then the impressive archaeological site of Knossos where we will have a guided tour. 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 local taverna at Peza and then we go up to the mythical mountain of Knossos 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! The day ends with a walk in the traditional village of Arhanes before we return to Heraklion for dinner and overnight.

Day 3
Our destination today is the Lassithhi Plateau and the village of Krassi but first we'll visit the Aposelemis dam. Here we'll be looking for Cory's Shearwater, Little Crake, Purple Heron, Booted Eagle, Common and Honey Buzzard, Caspian Tern, Glossy Ibis and much more. We then continue our ascent to Lassithi where traditional windmills guard the drop down to the beautiful plateau. Here we'll take a walk looking for passerines or above for raptors whilst enjoying traditional villages and learning about the cultivation and the people, as well as having some glimpses into Cretan history. Lunch will be at Kares in the village of Krassi, followed by a “gastronomical workshop” where we'll learn such arts as folding ntolmades – grape leaves stuffed with rice. Our day ends with a walk in the village before we return to Heraklion for our lasts night in the city.

Day 4
Our next base will be in the Amari Valley in the village of Gerakari in the Rethymno prefecture. Our route takes us up the coast and through the foothills of Psiloritis where we wander through the old shepherd trails looking for vultures and eagles as well as smaller birds such as Rock Thrush, wheatears, martins and much more. We visit a shepherd's shelter in Krana where we witness and learn about milking, cheese-making and where our lunch will comprise some home-made delicacies. Our final visit of the day with be to the beautiful monastery of Arkadi before we arrive at the Alexander Hotel which will be our base for the next five nights.

Day 5
Today we concentrate on ornithology in the company of representatives of the Natural History Museum of Crete. We'll learn about the ringing of birds, its purpose and its practice and about the conservation work on-going in Crete which is such an important island, not least in terms of migration. The programme of the day will depend on the ringing site selected which isn't decided until a couple of months before. If it's near the coast there'll be time for those who so wish to go for a swim. In the evening, after dinner, we'll be entertained by local musicians playing traditional Cretan instruments.

Day 6
From birding to botany, this morning we revel in the countless endemic wild flowers of Gious Kampos including many species of orchid. We visit the “secret school” of Kissou Kampos (secret schools were hidden unofficial schools set up to keep education the Greeks during the Othoman period) after which we have lunch at Sholi Assomaton where we enjoy the beautiful scenery and delicious homemade food. In the afternoon we continue to Patsos where we take a short walk to appreciate the area's biodiversity. Our afternoon ends at the Potamon Dam in the company of acquatic birds and raptors.

Day 7
Today we visit the southern foothill of Psiloritis, home to vultures, eagles and falcons. In Zaros we go to a traditional cooking workshop followed by lunch to sample the gastronomic options before heading off to the lake of Faneromeni for a relaxed afternoon's birding. Here we'll find many aquatic species including various species of heron, bittern, ducks and much more. We return to Gerakari for dinner and overnight.

Day 8
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.

Day 9
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, through a scenic route along the coast, 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. The Askyfou plateau will be an intermediate natural oasis of flora, fauna and interesting people – again giving a balance of interest and including tempting local cuisine. We end the day in Chania where we'll be spending the last two nights of our holiday in Hotel Arkadi.

Day 10
One of the great birding sites in Crete is at Agia Lake and we'll spend the whole morning her. We never know what will turn up. Osprey, Marsh Harriers, Little Bittern, Yellow Wagtails, Little Grebe, Squacco Heron, Kingfisher – the list goes on and on. There's a nearby restaurant for those who fancy a coffee break! Eventually we'll have to tear ourselves away but a real treat of a lunch awaits us nearby with a super opportunity for retail therapy for anything to do with olive oil! In the afternoon we visit the gorge of Therisso, 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.

Day 11
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.