Given Crete’s spectrum of terrain, ranging from valleys to gorges, plateaux to rivers, lakes and caves, it’s little surprise it should be such a wonderland for the lover of outdoor adventure. Crete also lays claim to some of Greece’s finest underwater sites. You’ll find a wealth of tour specialists to take you to the best of it all.
Best Outdoor Activities
- Best Coastal Hike
Delve into the past among Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine ruins at Lissos on the 14.5km hike from Paleohora to Sougia.
- Best Dive Site
The Messerschmitt WWII wreck near Malia; ghostly intact and crawling with moray eels.
- Best Birdwatching
The marshes, lakes and rivers at Georgioupoli throng with migrant birds such as kingfishers and egrets.
- Best Off-Road Bike Trip
Get high along mountain trails between the Lasithi and Katharo Plateaux.
- Best Horse Riding
Exhilarating coastal and inland riding treks around Malia and through the Dikti mountains.
- Best Gorge Walk
Eastern Crete’s Zakros Gorge, aka the Valley of the Dead, is only 4km in length, but packs in all that’s best in gorge walking.
Canyoning, Climbing & Bungee Jumping
While Crete’s mountains may not offer the level of altitude on offer in Austria or Switzerland, its peaks are by no means shrinking violets, with the likes of Mt Thripti (1489m), the Dikti Mountains (2148m), the Idi Mountains (2456m) and the Lefka Ori (White Mountains; 2452m).
High above the Aradena Gorge, on the southern coast, is a spectacular bungee-jumping location, the highest bungee-jumping bridge in Greece and the second-highest in Europe. Thrill seekers can jump 138m into the narrow gorge from the bridge that crosses over the canyon. Jumps are held every weekend in July and August by Liquid Bungy. Head to www.bungy.gr for more information.
Canyoning is a developing sport in Crete and should not be confused with gorge walking. Most canyoning routes require serious rock climbing and/or caving experience, including the ability to abseil (rappel) under your own control. Most routes also require swimming ability and experience of constricted water flows. There is no shortage of wild and challenging canyons on the island.
The well-organised Cretan Canyoning Association has equipped more than 50 gorges in southern Crete with abseil and belay bolt anchors and guide wires. One of the most awe-inspiring is the mighty Ha Gorge near Mt Thripti in eastern Crete. The savage cleft of the gorge splits apart the great curtain wall of the Thripti Mountains in eastern Crete. The gorge is over 1.5km in length and rises in a series of rocky steps between narrow walls over 300m high. Its name is said to derive, not surprisingly, from the Greek word ‘to gape’, which is what most of us do from the safety of the main road.
The Association’s website has useful information and a published guide to Crete’s canyons. It organises regular excursions and also runs beginners’ courses. Canyoning is not a ‘thrill-seeker’s’ day out and you should be certain of your capabilities before getting involved. If you’re new to the sport, you should always be accompanied by an experienced canyoning guide.
The multilingual Canyoning in Crete, by Yiannis Bromirakis (Road Editions 2007), covers many of Crete’s newly accessible gorges in fine detail with maps and drawings. Check out Cretan Adventures for well-run, safety-conscious canyoning trips.
Rock climbing is on the increase in Crete. Southern Iraklio is one of the most popular areas for climbing, particularly the stunning cliffs around Kapetaniana and Mt Kofinas on the southern flanks of the Asteroussia mountains. The Agiofarango Gorge near Matala is another popular climbing spot, while many new venues are being developed around Crete, including around Samaria, Plakias, Loutro and Malia. The offshoot sport of deep water soloing – traversing sea cliffs unroped directly above deep water – has potential around Hora Sfakion.
Unless you are experienced, you are advised to contact local organisations before attempting any form of rock climbing. Visit www.climbincrete.com for plenty of information and some entertaining articles, including an account of an early descent of the Ha Gorge.
Rock & Sun (www.rockandsun.com) is the UK’s top climbing holiday operators and organises mountaineering holidays in Crete.
Mountaineering Club Refuges
You must call Rethymno Climbing Association (6977915978) to book.
Near the Samaria Gorge
Asites, East Psiloritis
Plateau of Askyfou
Outdoor Adventures in Crete
The following companies run a range of organised hikes, biking and other outdoor activities in Crete. Guided walks start from €45 per day and €500 per week, including accommodation, transfers and meals.
Cretan Adventures Organises hiking and trekking tours, mountain biking and other specialist and extreme activities. Highly recommended.
Happy Walker Runs a range of walks from March to November, including summer walks in the Omalos Plateau and Lefka Ori.
Korifi Tours Hiking and climbing tours around Kapetaniana, in southern Iraklio. Based in Kapetaniana.
Strata Walking Tours In Kissamos, offering anything from leisurely day trips to seven- to 15-day walking tours to the southern coast.
Trekking Hellas Organises nature excursions for all ages, be it cycling, walking, rafting or canoeing.
Trekking Plan This outfit at Agia Marina, 10km west of Hania, will take you hiking, rock climbing, abseiling (rappelling) and mountain biking in western Crete.
To tackle Crete’s mountains, the island has a number of established mountaineering clubs. Each prefecture has its own club, which maintains the E4 European Path and mountain refuges. They are all members of the association of Greek Mountaineering Club (EOS) and organise regular climbing, walking, speleology and skiing excursions around Crete, which visitors are welcome to join.
For decent info on Cretan climbs check out the excellent www.climbincrete.com.
- Greek Mountaineering Association Visit the local EOS branch in Hania or check its website to get the scoop on outdoor sports, including serious climbing in the Lefka Ori, mountain refuges and the E4 European Path.
- Mountaineering Club of Iraklio The local Iraklio chapter arranges hiking trips across the island most weekends (trip programs are published on its website). Anyone is welcome to join.
- Mountaineering Club of Rethymno Offers advice on local hikes along with the possibility to join excursions. It’s best to make contact via the website.
Cycling & Mountain Biking
Get on your bike and take off for freewheeling Crete. Traditional cycling has caught on in a big way on the island, despite the mountainous terrain. While it’s possible to cycle from one end of Crete to the other and barely raise a sweat, north–south routes and the southern coast are likely to test your stamina and fortitude. In contrast, the escarpment villages and valleys of the northern coast and the Mesara Plain of the south do allow for some relatively flat cycling experiences on surfaced roads. Crete, of course, is an off-road mountain-biker’s dream.
Plateau tours (especially around the Lasithi Plateau) are big business, with specialist companies transporting bikes up to the plateau to save you the gruelling Tour de France haul up from the coast. There are also more extreme biking options and eight-day tours covering more than 650km.
Several companies and small specialist operators offer tours for all levels of experience and fitness:
- Martinbike Crete Small specialist operator going strong for 20 years. Based near Agios Nikolaos, it runs one- and five-day trips in the surrounding areas.
- Freak Mountain Bike Centre This Palekastro-based operator offers four-day escapes around the surrounding countryside on well-maintained German bikes.
- Hub MTB Adventures Operating out of Malia, Hub MTB Adventures covers the whole of Crete. Has one-day tours of the Lasitihi Plateau and two-day coast-to-coast tours.
On Your Own
Independent cyclists coming to Crete with their own bikes are advised to bring sturdy touring bikes with multiple gears. You can hire mountain bikes for about €8 to €20 per day from a range of places around the island.
Crete offers an enormous variety of options for keen hikers and trekkers that pass through remote villages, across plains and into gorges. There are a few detailed English-language guides in publication and local booklets are beginning to appear. Check out www.discoveronfoot.com for some excellent walking guidebooks. Trails are not too well indicated, although places like the Kato Zakros (Valley of the Dead) are now thoroughly and expertly marked. Many visitors may opt for a guided hike or a short off-road stroll, but experienced walkers will find plenty to test and stimulate them.
Gorge walking will involve a bit of planning if you have your own transport. You will either have to walk back the same way to pick up your vehicle, or arrange for someone to collect you at the other end. Buses can normally get you to within striking distance of a gorge entrance.
Most gorge walks require a fairly decent level of fitness. A few require only straightforward walking, although tough footwear and a fair degree of stamina are still needed. Several demand some rock-scrambling experience and agility. The most extreme, such as the mighty Ha Gorge, require serious canyoning and rock-climbing abilities and the services of a competent guide. Consider what time of year you visit, too, for if it’s just after the winter there’s every chance the river level may still be high, so do a little homework first.
The E4 Route
The trans-European E4 walking trail starts in Portugal and ends in Crete. In Crete, the trail picks up at the port of Kissamos in the west and ends – after 320km – on the pebbly shore of Kato Zakros in eastern Crete. Enthusiasts planning to tackle the Cretan leg can do it in a minimum of three weeks, allowing for 15km per day, or more comfortably in four weeks allowing for stops and/or shorter hiking trips. You can, of course, tackle only sections of the route if your time is limited or if you just want to walk the most interesting parts. However, you will need to make important decisions early on as the trail splits into two distinct sections through western Crete: the coastal and alpine routes.
Making Your Way
Hikers tackling the E4 trail need to do some planning. While there is nearly always accommodation within the range of a six- to seven-hour daily hike, some of it will need to be arranged beforehand – particularly the mountain refuges, for which you might need to pick up keys.
The E4 trail is marked throughout its length with black and yellow posts and signs, but it’s not always well-maintained: paths are overgrown and in many sections signs are hard to find. The three-volume GPS-compatible 1:100.000 scale touring maps by Anavasi (www.anavasi.gr) show the E4 across Crete, but its walking maps cover sections in greater detail (at a scale of 1:25,000) for the Lefka Ori (Sfakia and Pahnes), Samaria Gorge/Sougia, Mt Psiloritis and Zakros-Vaï.
The E4 can be a lonely trail and there is no food (and little water) along most of the route – it is always wise to get local advice before setting off.
Crete Walks (www.crete-walks.com) Info on the best walks to take as well as images and maps.
Completely Crete (www.completely-crete.com/E4-path.html) All things Cretan, from best beaches to culture.
Samaria Alternative – Mt Gingilos
The Samaria Gorge is something of a must-do for many visitors to Crete, even if ‘wild walking’ is not their thing. The result is a sometimes less than solitary experience. If you’re an experienced mountain walker and fancy an ‘up’ rather than a ‘down’ adventure, veer off to the right from Xyloskalo at the entrance to the gorge. This will take you towards the top of the 2080m Mt Gingilos, the mighty peak whose precipitous north face towers over Samaria. Head uphill past the cafe and on to where the surfaced road ends at a lodge-style building and a good path begins.
Tackling the Mountain
It will take about six hours to climb to the summit of Gingilos and back. This is a real mountain trek with some rocky sections. The path throughout the first part of the climb has been greatly improved in recent years and winds delightfully up steep slopes on well-laid stones and stepped sections dotted with shrubs and gnarled cypresses. The path then levels off and winds south, passing beneath a fascinating rock arch. The ground for the next few hundred yards can be a touch loose, especially just after the springtime thaw. The path soon leads up to the spring of Linoseli and then zigzags up steep scree to a rocky saddle at 1700m, from where the Trypiti Gorge can be seen running to the south below.
From the saddle the route turns east and climbs steadily through a rocky landscape. There is no well-defined path and care should be taken at the start to stay clear of a steep-sided cavity. Red paint spots and arrows on boulders point the way to the summit. The descent is rocky at first, but should pose no problem for experienced hikers.
Preparation & Safety
Keep an eye on the weather reports: as late as the month of May heavy rain can fall, as was the case in 2015 when several hikers were trapped when the river that flows through the gorge flooded its banks. Reliable mountain footwear and clothing must be worn. Carry plenty of water and some food. You should also carry a compass and think twice about continuing if mist descends. From the saddle to the summit there can be fierce winds and care should be taken. For more information visit www.west-crete.com/gingilos.htm. And remember: you don’t have to go all the way…
Seven of the Best
- Agia Irini Gorge A full-day walk best tackled from the village of Agia Irini, north of Sougia. This is a fairly straightforward and rewarding hike with only a few steep sections. The last couple of kilometres to Sougia are unfortunately along the surfaced road.
- Agiofarango A popular hike in south-central Crete running from Moni Odigitrias, 24km southwest of Mires. The walk ends at a lovely beach.
- Hohlakies Gorge Not as well known as its near neighbour at Zakros, this short 3km walk runs from Hohlakies village to the coast. Hikers can walk a further 7km northwards to Palekastro.
- Imbros Gorge Perhaps the second most popular gorge walk after Samaria, and a reasonable outing for walkers. It runs from just south of the village of Imbros for 8km to Komitades, near Hora Sfakion.
- Rouvas Gorge This short link hike runs from the village of Zaros on the southern slopes of Mt Psiloritis to meet up with the alpine route of the E4 European Path. It’s a convenient way to get to and from the trans-Crete hike.
- Valley of the Dead A stunning two-hour hike in far-eastern Crete, the conclusion of which is an ancient ruins and turquoise bay. A new cave has also opened nearby. The valley is the last section of the E4 hiking path and runs from Zakros to the palace at Kato Zakros.
- Samaria Crete’s longest and most famous (and usually very crowded) gorge route.
Walking the Gorges
Crete’s numerous gorges attract hikers from all over the world. The walks can be a breathtaking and sometimes hard-going experience. The bonuses include the sheer pleasure of the spectacular surroundings, the aroma of wild herbs and flowers, shaded picnic spots and the potential for spotting wildlife.
Planning Your Trip
Get outdoors and active in Crete and you’ll experience the rewards of this stunning island beyond the relaxed pleasures of sun and sand. Crete’s rugged terrain, soaring mountains, dramatic gorges and wild coastline beyond the resorts make for an adventurer’s paradise, and such is the relative ease of access to these splendid wilderness areas that you can sample just about every outdoor activity available through selective day trips.
If you’re keen to sample a more edgy and exhilarating take on outdoor sport, opportunities for active and challenging holidays have increased on Crete, with several specialist operators operating on the island. There are excellent horse-riding trails, and more extreme pursuits, including rock climbing, canyoning and bungee jumping, are available with experienced guides and instructors.
Luxuriate on Crete’s superb beaches, of course, but take off now and then for memorable experiences on the wild side of this wonderful island.
When to Go
You can follow walking routes on the island’s hills and mountains and along the unspoiled coastlines at all times of the year, though, for the higher mountains, experience and full equipment is required during the winter period. While Crete is a veritable paradise for hikers, walking is not much fun between July and August, when the temperature can reach 40°C. Spring and autumn are the best times for great walks and serious hikes through beautiful gorges or along scenic coastal paths and alpine trails, while cycling, even for a day, is a rewarding way to explore Crete’s country byways and off-road tracks. For water enthusiasts, the sea has warmed come mid-June, ready for windsurfing and swimming.
Crete’s long northern and southern coasts are boxed off by short east and west shorelines, resulting in a range of sea conditions that lend themselves to all sorts of water sports.
Diving & Snorkelling
The sea off much of Crete’s coastline is a paradise for snorkelling and diving. There is nothing quite like cruising gently through water that can be as clear as air with visibility at times well over 30m.
For many years there were restrictions on diving anywhere in Greece due to fears of potential damage to ancient undersea ruins and because of the very real problem of theft of ancient artefacts from the seabed. Diving interests and the tourism lobby pushed for a sensible easing of the restrictions and in 2005 the Greek government opened up most Greek waters to recreational diving, with the exception of about 100 important archaeological sites. Some permitted recreational dive sites have ancient walls, fallen columns and large amphorae, the giant urns once used for storing wine, olive oil and grain.
The diving landscape of Crete is superb with a fascinating mix of natural features, rocks, reefs, caverns, cliffs and shining sand. Sea life on view includes the beautiful ‘wallpaper’ of marine plants, red and green algae, corals, sea anemones and sponges that coat undersea rocks and reefs, while the often variegated volcanic rocks of Crete create a kaleidoscope of undersea colour. You stand a good chance of spotting a roll-call of favourite fish and crustaceans including octopus, cuttlefish, squid, sea horses, lobster, moray, scorpionfish, snapper, bream and even stingrays.
The most popular region for diving is Crete’s north coast, where accessibility and sea conditions are more favourable, but many diving outfits also operate on south coast sites where there is a distinct upping of the ante on diving’s sense of adventure.
Some of the more interesting, easy snorkelling is around the sunken city of Olous near Elounda, which can be accessed from the shore. Bali and Panormo, Ammoudara and Malia, Plakias and Paleohora are popular diving sites.
Several diving centres offer courses from beginners to PADI certification. It’s wise to call at least a day in advance to book a dive.
Crete's Best Dive Sites
El Greco Cave Stunning stalactites and stalagmites in a 30m-long underwater cave, home to lobster, moray eel, grouper and tuna. Close to Agia Pelagia.
Messerschmitt WWII wreck An upended German aeroplane lies 24m down in fragmented sections, though the cockpit is still intact. Head to Analipsi.
Mononaftis Rich in marine life you’ll meet octopus, barracuda, moray eel, scorpionfish and often dolphin and stingray here. Also reef, canyons and underwater grottoes. Find it at Mononaftis Bay near Agia Pelagia. This dive is also suitable for beginners.
Shrimps Cave For the more experienced diver, expect to see thousands of shrimp in this stunning cave which plunges 40m. Close to Hersonisos.
Crete’s south coast has become increasingly popular for sea-kayaking trips. Between Paleohora and Hora Sfakion, especially, the coast is dramatic and fascinating and there are plenty of places to pull ashore at remote beaches and coves. However, there are not many kayaking operators on Crete and the tendency is for multiday expeditions catering for groups, with accommodation included along the way. It’s worth enquiring about day trips, however, and you may even be able to hire a canoe for the day if you have evidence of personal expertise. Some trips combine kayaking with hiking.
The sea can still be a hostile environment even when flat-calm and lapping a Greek beach, making all water sports potentially dangerous. The more specialised sports such as diving and kayaking are usually well regulated and clients are accompanied by qualified instructors. You should, however, always check your operators’ certification. With beach sports such as parasailing, make sure that whoever is operating the facility has full certification and a good safety record. Ringo rides are best left to capable youngsters with good swimming abilities! Parents should also keep an eye on teenagers when jet skis are up for hire. By law, operators must exercise strict checks on age limits and that the driver is not under the influence of alcohol.
What to Do
You can start with the ‘fun sports’ on the main organised beaches where everything is on offer, including waterskiing, jet skiing, pedalos, banana boats, and doughnut rides. The most spectacular beachside trip is parasailing, which can be done singly or in tandem.
On Crete’s northern coast, you’ll find a water-sports centre attached to most luxury hotels, and they are usually open to non-guests.
The more specialised water sports available in Crete include diving and snorkelling, windsurfing, kayaking and sailing. With diving and windsurfing, there are specific areas where ideal conditions prevail and there are numerous commercial operators who organise trips and rent equipment.
Windsurfing, or sailboarding, as the dedicated call it, is one of the most exhilarating of all water sports. A lot of practice and much skill is needed before you get anywhere near the spectacular freestyle and wave jumping of the experts. Still, even in the early stages of learning this is an exciting sport and enjoying it off the beautiful beaches of Crete is a bonus. Stand up, hang on and fly!
The best windsurfing in Crete is at Kouremenos beach, north of Palekastro in Sitia, where Freak Windsurf is a key local operator. Kouremenos is affected by the meltemi, the summer wind that can blow fiercely throughout the Aegean, and this wind coupled with a local funnelling effect creates some ideal windsurfing conditions. Windsurfing is also good in Almyrida, near Hania.
For more information about windsurfing in Greece check out the Hellenic Windsurfing Association.
Sailing & Boat Trips
To sail round Crete on a well-found yacht is a glorious experience, but unless you are an experienced yachting fan with your own boat, the answer is usually a charter trip. Some companies in Crete do offer daily sailing excursions and most commercial tourist offices will have information on sailing.
Crete has a few nine-hole golf courses, but the island’s only 18-hole pro course is the Crete Golf Club in Hersonisos. This desert-style, par-72 course has been designed to blend in with the environment. The course is quite tough and also has a double-ended driving range, a golf academy and club house. It’s not for casual hackers, however. A nine-hole round in summer costs €50, an 18-hole round €80 (excluding clubs or buggies). At the time of research the course was set to undergo a makeover to bring it up to world standards.
Several places in Crete offer horse riding and guided trail rides through the countryside.
- Odysseia Stables The most impressive operation is Odysseia, above Avdou, at the foot of Mt Dikti. These stables have excellent facilities (including accommodation) and run anything from two-hour beginners’ rides to three-day rides on the Lasithi Plateau and weeklong trails through the Dikti mountains to the southern coast. Typical prices range from €20 for a one-hour beach ride, €35 for a two-hour hack, €65 for a day trip and from €540 for eight-day courses including accommodation and meals. An eight-day trek up to the Lasithi Plateau area costs about €990.
- Zoraida’s Horseriding Located in Georgioupoli. Offers beach and nature trails, including day safaris and a six-day course for advanced riders.
- Melanouri Horse Farm Located in Pitsidia, near Matala. Runs rides through the surrounding region.
- Arion Stables Running since 2007 this German-Greek operation in Hersonisos is also an animal rescue centre, and offers you the chance to ride horses in wild places as well as on the beach.