Crete's outdoors are nothing short of extraordinary – whether you're tackling mythical mountains where gods were born, sailing gem-coloured seas, hiking gorges where the Minoans buried their dead, or making finny friends on underwater expeditions. You’ll find a wealth of tour specialists to show you the best of it all.
Planning Your Trip
Get outdoors and active in Crete to experience the rewards of this stunning island, beyond the relaxed pleasures of sun and sand. Crete’s rugged terrain, muscular mountains, dramatic gorges and untamed coastline beyond the resorts make for an adventurer’s paradise. The relative ease of access to these splendid areas opens the door to enjoying just about every outdoor adventure you set your sights on.
If you’re keen on sampling edgier or more strenuous or exhilarating outdoor sports, you'll find a growing number of specialist operators on Crete. Pursuits such as rock climbing, canyoning and sea kayaking are available with experienced guides and instructors.
When to Go
Spring (April to June) and autumn (September and October) are the best times for hiking, but July and August, when temperatures rise to around 40°C (104°F), are not much fun. The same applies to cycling, which, even for a day, is a rewarding way to explore Crete’s country byways and off-road tracks. Water enthusiasts will find the Med warm enough by mid-June to go swimming or windsurfing without trepidation.
The following companies run a range of organised hikes, biking and other outdoor activities in Crete.
Cretan Adventures Organises hiking and trekking tours, mountain biking and other specialist and extreme activities. Highly recommended.
Happy Walker Runs a range of day hikes to gorges, traditional villages and ancient shepherd trails from April to November, as well as multi-day treks into the mountains.
Strata Walking Tours In Kissamos, offering everything from guided walks in Samaria Gorge to leisurely day trips to Elafonisi beach.
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.
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.
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, the Lasithi Plateau and the Mesara Plain of the south do allow for some relatively flat cycling experiences on surfaced roads.
Be sure to carry puncture-repair and first-aid kits with you. Motorists are notoriously fast and not always travelling in the expected lane; extra caution on corners and narrow roads is well warranted. In July and August, most cyclists break between noon and 4pm to avoid sunstroke and dehydration.
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–type haul up from the coast.
Several companies and small specialist operators offer tours for all levels of experience and fitness. Rates usually include bike rental and transfers.
- Martinbike Crete Small specialist operator going strong for over 20 years. Based near Agios Nikolaos, it runs mountain bike holidays as well as one-day trips in the surrounding areas.
- Freak Mountain Bike Centre This Palekastro-based operator offers four-day escapes around eastern Crete and can customise private tours.
- Hub MTB Adventures Operating out of Malia, Hub covers the whole of Crete with various tours, including a one-day exploration of the Lasitihi Plateau and two-day coast-to-coast tours.
- Cretan Adventures This well-regarded Iraklio-based company organises mountain biking, hiking tours and extreme outdoor excursions.
- Cycling Creta (www.cyclingcreta.gr) Guided one-day mountain bike tours for various skill and fitness levels from their base in Hersonisos.
- Hellas Bikes Based near Hania, this outfit runs one- to seven-day mountain biking and bike trekking 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 from about €20 per day from a range of places around the island.
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, giving you the chance to experience areas that few ever get to see.
The well-organised Cretan Canyoning Association has equipped about 45 gorges in southern Crete with abseil and belay bolt anchors and guide wires. One of the most awe-inspiring is the mighty Ha Gorge, a savage cleft that 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 a safe distance. A 1km hike to the exit starts near the village of Monastiraki, on the road between Ierapetra and the north coast.
The Association has useful information and a published guide to Crete’s canyons on its website. It also organises regular excursions and 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.
See if you can get your hands on a copy of the multilingual Canyoning in Crete, by Yiannis Bromirakis (Road Editions 2007), which covers many of Crete’s gorges in fine detail with maps and drawings. Check out Cretan Adventures for well-run, safety-conscious canyoning trips.
Crete offers an enormous variety of options for keen hikers and trekkers of all skills and fitness levels, with the nicest trails passing through remote villages, across plains and into gorges. While popular routes are well walked and maintained, lesser-known paths are often overgrown and inadequately marked. Ask locally before setting out, especially after heavy rainfall.
Especially if you're venturing off the beaten track, a good map is essential. Most tourist maps are inadequate; the best hiking maps for the islands are produced by Anavasi (www.anavasi.gr) and Terrain (www.terrainmaps.gr), both Greece-based companies. Be realistic about your abilities, and always let somebody know where you're headed before setting out.
Spring (April to June) is the best time for hiking; the countryside is green and fresh from the winter rains, and carpeted with wildflowers. Autumn (September to October) is another good time, but July and August, when temperatures rise to around 40°C (104°F), are not much fun. Whatever the season, come equipped with a good pair of walking boots to handle the rough, rocky terrain, a wide-brimmed hat, a water bottle and a high-UV-factor sunscreen.
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.
Gorge walking involves a bit of planning if you have your own transport. You will either have to backtrack to your vehicle, arrange for someone to collect you at the other end or take a taxi. Buses can sometimes get you to within striking distance of a gorge entrance.
Most gorge walks require a decent level of fitness as well as sturdy footwear. Some involve only straightforward walking, while others 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. If you plan to set out just after the winter rains, there’s a chance that river levels may still be high.
Nine of the Best
- Samaria Gorge Crete’s longest and most famous (and usually very crowded) gorge hike.
- 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 along surfaced road.
- Agiofarango Gorge An easy and popular 3.5km round-trip hike in south-central Crete, ending at a lovely pebble beach with crystal-clear water.
- Kritsa Gorge This easy to moderate hike along a stony riverbed involves some bouldering and comes in a 5km and a 10km version.
- Hohlakies Gorge Not as well known as its near neighbour Zakros Gorge, this short 3km walk runs from Hohlakies village to the coast. Hikers can continue 7km northwards to Palekastro.
- Imbros Gorge Perhaps the 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.
- Zakros Gorge A stunning two-hour hike in far-eastern Crete, past Minoan burial caves and palace to the turquoise waters at Kato Zakros.
- Anydri Gorge An easy 3km trek from Anydri to gorgeous Gialiskari Beach.
The E4 European Path
The trans-European E4 walking trail starts in Portugal and passes through Crete before culminating in Cyprus. In Crete, it picks up at the port of Kissamos in the west and ends – after 320km – on the pebbly shore of Kato Zakros in southeastern Crete. Enthusiasts planning to tackle the Cretan leg should budget a minimum of three weeks, allowing for 15km per day; four weeks is more comfortable, 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 yellow markers and yellow/black arrows, 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.
The Cretan Way (www.cretanway.eu) Guidebook by Luca Gianotti with detailed route descriptions and maps.
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.
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 Clubs (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 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 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 of joining excursions. It’s best to make contact via the website.
- Mountaineering Club of Lasithi Maintains a refuge on Mt Dikti.
Mountaineering Club Refuges
Call the respective EOS chapter to book a space.
|Kallergi||Above the Samaria Gorge||1680m||50||Hania|
|Katsiveli||Svourihtis, central Lefka Ori (White Mountains)||1980m||22||Hania|
|Prinos||Asites, East Psiloritis||1100m||30||Iraklio|
|Tavris||Plateau of Askyfou||1200m||45||Hania|
|Toumbotos Prinos||Western Mt Psiloritis||1600m||30||Rethymno|
|Volikas||Near Kambi, northern White Mountains||1450m||30||Hania|
Samaria Gorge Alternative: Mt Gingilos
The Samaria Gorge is considered a must-do for many visitors to Crete, even if ‘wild walking’ is not their thing. The result is an often 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 winds delightfully up steep slopes on well-laid stones and stepped sections dotted with shrubs and gnarled cypresses. The trail then levels off and winds south, passing beneath a photogenic 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 and hikers have become trapped in the past, when the river that flows through the gorge flooded its banks. Reliable mountain footwear and clothing are musts. Carry plenty of water and some food. You should also carry a compass or GPS 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 details visit www.west-crete.com/gingilos.htm. And remember: you don’t have to go all the way…
Several places in Crete offer horse riding and guided trail rides through the countryside.
- Odysseia Stables These stables above Avdou, at the foot of Mt Dikti, have excellent facilities (including accommodation) and run anything from two-hour beginners’ jaunts to three-day rides on the Lasithi Plateau and week-long trails through the Dikti mountains to the southern coast. Typical prices include €45 for a two-hour hack, €75 for a day trip and from €805 for eight-day courses including accommodation and meals. An eight-day trek up to the Lasithi Plateau area costs about €1245.
- Zoraida’s Horseriding Located near Georgioupoli, between Kavros village and Lake Kournas, Zoraida's offers guided beach and nature-trail horse riding, including trips to Lake Kournas.
- Melanouri Horse Farm Located in Pitsidia, near Matala. Runs one- and two-hour rides along the beach or into the mountains.
- Arion Stables This sweet little horse farm in the hills between Hersonisos and Analipsi gets praise for its treatment of animals and its rides through the countryside and along the beach.
- Horseback Riding Plakias Family-run stables offering one- to four-hour rides on horses or donkeys along beaches and up into the surrounding mountains.
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 and additional venues are being developed around Samaria, Plakias, Loutro and Malia.
Unless you are experienced, you are advised to contact local organisations, including mountaineering clubs, before attempting any form of rock climbing. Visit Climb in Crete (www.climbincrete.com) for plenty of information and some entertaining articles, including an account of an early descent of the Ha Gorge.
Crete’s long northern and southern coasts are bookended by short eastern and western shorelines, resulting in a range of sea conditions that lend themselves to all sorts of water sports.
What to Do
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 gamut of ‘fun sports’ is on offer, including water-skiing, parasailing, jet skiing, pedalos, banana boats, and doughnut rides.
The more specialised water sports available in Crete include diving and snorkelling, windsurfing, kayaking and sailing. Numerous commercial operators organise trips and rent equipment.
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.
Greek law insists that diving be done under the supervision of a diving school in order to protect the many antiquities in the depths of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. Until 2005, dive sites were severely restricted, but many more have been opened and diving schools have flourished.
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. 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.
Most dive centres offer courses ranging from beginners to PADI certification. In peak season, call at least a day in advance to book a dive.
Crete has many reputable dive operators. A few favourites include Creta's Happy Divers and Pelagos Dive Centre in Agios Nikolaos, Blue Adventures Diving in Hania, and Paradise Diving Center in Rethymno. The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI; www.padi.com) has a list of all PADI-approved dive centres in Greece.
Crete's Top Five Dive Sites
El Greco Cave Stunning stalactites and stalagmites in a 30m-long underwater cave with a depth of up to 40m, home to lobster, moray eel, grouper and tuna. Close to Agia Pelagia.
Messerschmitt WWII wreck An upended German WWII plane wreck lies 24m down in fragmented sections, though the cockpit is still intact. Groupers love to hang out here. Off Analipsi.
Mononaftis Rich in marine life: you’ll meet octopus, barracuda, moray eel, scorpionfish and often dolphin and stingray in these reefs, canyons and grottoes. This dive is also suitable for beginners. Find it at Mononaftis Bay near Agia Pelagia.
Shrimps Cave More experienced divers can expect to see masses of shrimp in this stunning cave, which plunges to a depth of 40m. Close to Hersonisos.
Kalypso Walls This shore dive in Kalypso Bay enchants both novices and veterans with its whimsical rock formations and abundant critters from starfish to octopus.
Sailing & Boating
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 only way to get afloat is on a charter trip. Some companies in Crete do offer daily sailing excursions and most commercial tourist offices have information on sailing.
Amazing Sailing in Crete, in Elounda, takes you to hidden coves and a traditional fishing village. From Agios Nikolaos, Sail Crete and Nostos Cruises will both take you to Spinalonga Island. In Ierapetra, Nautilos Cruises delivers you to Chrissi Island in style, while Notos Sailing takes you to hidden places from Hania.
Crete’s south coast has become increasingly popular for sea-kayaking excursions. Between Paleohora and Hora Sfakion, especially, the coast is dramatic and fascinating, with 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 multi-day expeditions catering to groups, with accommodation included along the way. It’s worth enquiring about day trips, however, and you may even be able to hire a kayak for the day if you can demonstrate expertise. Some trips combine kayaking with hiking.
Hania Alpine Travel offers canoeing holidays, for families, groups and individuals. Petros Watersports in Plaka (near Elounda), UCPA Sports in Almyrida and Skippers in Bali are among the outfitters renting kayaks by the hour and day.
Windsurfing & SUP
Windsurfing and kitesurfing are exhilarating water sports that require a lot of practice and much skill before you get anywhere near the spectacular freestyle and wave jumping of the experts. Still, even in the early stages of learning they are exciting sports, and enjoying them off the beautiful beaches of Crete is a bonus.
The best windsurfing in Crete is at Kouremenos Beach, north of Palekastro in Sitia, where Freak Surf Crete 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 pretty good in Almyrida, Paleohora, Falasarna, Elounda and Hersonissos.
You’ll find sailboards for hire almost everywhere. Hire charges range from €15 to €30, depending on the gear and the location. If you are a novice, most places that rent equipment also give lessons.
Stand-up Paddling (SUP) is also growing in popularity, especially in the calmer northern seas around Hania, Iraklio, Elounda and Hersonisos. Hania-based SUP in Crete runs daily SUP tours around Crete, including one to Elafonisi.
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 ensure that the driver is not under the influence of alcohol.
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 makes challenging use of the hillside setting and is definitely not for hackers. A new 25-room hotel and clubhouse opened in 2018. A nine-hole round costs €60 and an 18-hole round €90 (excluding clubs and buggies).