By Aurelia, Contributing Editor
Sfakia, located South of Chania and surrounded by the Lefka Ori or “white mountains,” is one of the most barren and rugged areas of Crete. It appeals to visitors who like natural beauty and a craggy topography; it appeals to those who like to hike gorges, go deep sea diving or snorkeling, swim in “sweet” water, and enjoy a fishing holiday. And it has a special attraction for seekers of exquisite solitude. I came for the solitude.
The capital of Sfakia is the Village of Chora Sfakian with approximately 150 full-time residents There is just one long, winding road that leads here from Chania and it was recently paved. Before that, you would swear the busses or cars were descending into the village on a donkey path just a few feet wider than the donkey and his rider. But perhaps one should not complain. According to a web site called “Travelers Tales,” for many years, the only way to reach the south coast part of Chora Sfakian by land was through the Imbros Gorge.
Even today, with the meticulously planned and paved new road, choosing the area of Sfakia as a holiday destination is not for the faint of heart. But if you like to hike gorges and sunbathe, and if you treasure peace, quiet, and solitude in an unspoiled setting of natural beauty where, according to Xan Fielding, “the mountains meet the sea,” this is the place for you. Those seeking a livelier experience should find another place.
The unique character of Sfakia has been immortalized by a brilliant photographer named Wolfgang Kistler who has been taking pictures here for more than twenty years. For Mr. Kistler, Sfakia is “the hub of the world.” When he began his photographic odyssey of Greece, he saw and took pictures of most of the 150 inhabited Greek islands, which he found “marvelous, archaic, beautiful, fascinating,” but every trip ended in Sfakia. Please visit his website at https://www.wkistler.de/
On Mr. Kistler’s website, you will find thousands of photographs, plus a web cam which records the daily arrivals and departures of the Daskalogiannis ferry. An exciting addition are photographs taken in Sfakia during World War II of the German occupation and the fabled Cretan resistance. He found the archival material in Germany in Bilddatenbank Bundesarchiv Koblenz.
Locals call the White Mountains, so named because of white limestone peaks, “Madares.” There are many tall peaks and the largest is said to be Pachnes, which rises to 2,453 m. according to some guidebooks.
Chora Sfakian makes an outstanding base for hikers and it is said approximately twenty different hiking routes start from here. One guidebook I found at the Lefka Ori Hotel in the village describes nine magnificent hikes of varying degrees of difficulty; the text is interspersed with very nice color photographs.
The most famous hike in Sfakia, however, is the incomparable and world-famous , which some say is the largest in Europe. Following is a brief overview of hiking the Omalos gorge, plus an equally brief description of the Samaria gorge trek.
THE IMBROS GORGE. From Chora Sfakian, you can catch a bus to the Imbros gorge, or you can drive to the Village of Komitades, leave your car there, and take a taxi up. The walk can be done in less than three hours; some guidebooks say it is eight kilometers in length, others say eleven. If you don’t have a car, at the end of the walk you can take a cab if you can find one, or return to Chora Sfakian by foot (about 7 km.).
The Imbros Gorge is quite picturesque, has narrow passages, many canyons, varied and rich vegetation, and is a picture post card for a spot of unspoiled natural beauty. All guide books say walking the Imbros is safe and straightforward. It provides a solitary experience for the walker who wants to avoid crowds and commune with nature.
THE GORGE OF SAMARIA. And then there is the world famous Samaria Gorge, located in the National Park of Samaria. A friend, who is a Cretaphile and expert on the island, likes to ask travelers to Crete, “Well if you are not going to Crete to walk the Gorge of Samaria, why are going?” The gorge is 16 km in length and is one the longest in Europe. It begins on the plain of Omalos and ends at the Lybian sea in Agia Roumeli.
Depending upon your level of fitness, walkers make the descent anywhere between three and seven hours. Some people like to walk slowly and take pictures. Others, such as young Cretans, claim to have “run” the gorge in two and a half hours and say they have “bragging rights.” This practice is discouraged. Mules and helicopters are on site to rescue people injured because of simple falls, stumbles, broken bones and major injuries, and heat exhaustion. This gorge is not for those who are not physically fit, who are not dressed properly, or who are faint of heart.
If you are staying in the Village and want to walk the Gorge of Samaria, you need to take the bus to Chania and then another bus to Omalos. The ideal way to do this is to stay in Omalos overnight and attack the gorge when it opens in the morning hours. You will finish in Agia Roiumelli where you can catch the ferry back to Sfakia. You can also go on a guided, group tour and these usually leave from Chania.
Alternatively, you can walk the Samaria “the lazy way” by taking the morning ferry from Chora Sfakian to Agia Roumelli, walk part way up, at least to what is called “the Iron gates,” (no iron here, just stone portals) and then take the ferry back to your starting point. ( I chose the lazy way, or rather my knees made the choice for me.)
Check guidebooks for details about bus and ferry schedules, hotels at Omalos, and what to wear and take. If you are going to do this marvelous but challenging walk, read as much on the Gorge of Samaria as you can and go totally prepared. The most comprehensive information on walking the Gorge of Samaria can be found on the web site www.west-crete.com and it was written by a guide who has extensive experience with guiding groups on walks in west Crete.
The Village of Chora Sfakian is relatively small and compact. There is, however, a nice choice of places to stay, ranging from one modern hotel that has a lift to very basic and simple “rooms.” The food served by the various tavernas is excellent and the chefs excel in preparing vegetarian dishes with fresh produce grown locally. You will also find a potent drink made from the skin of the grapes called raki (also called tsikoudia) served at the tavernas; you can buy gift bottles of this in the shops.
Starting at the far end of the harbor near the ferries, there are two small tavernas where hikers congregate before boarding for the lovely village of Loutro and Agia Roumelli, the place where the gorge ends. Next one finds a mini market for food and souvenirs, the Taverna Delfini snack bar, a Rent A Car and Money Exchange, and the Taverna Nikos and Taverna Obrosgialos. The Taverna Obrosgialos serves a spectacular lobster and spaghetti dish second to none in the whole of Crete. It is said some people come here just to savor that very special dish. It is 50 euros for two people and worth every euro.
Across from the Taverna Obrosgialos is a gift shop run by Maxine, a woman from England who has lived here for many years and who is very helpful to all, expecially visitors who seek answers from someone fluent in English. Maxine has a great variety of gifts, including beautiful leather handbags handmade by artisans in Chania.
There is a second street behind the harbor where you will find a very nice gift shop and a bakery run by Marco and Nikki, a man and wife who prepare excellent breads, muffins, pastries, coussaints, and a very large variety of Cretan specialities. Marco, the baker, is considered an “artist” by many locals.
Moving along the sea front are Rooms Samaria and Restaurant, Room Libykon, a super market and gfit shop, and the popular Cafe Despina, where the locals tend to congregate for frappes, the Café’s famous cheesecake, and other baked goods. Next to the cafe is a shop that sells cigarettes, a gift shop, and the famous Lefka Ori Rooms and Taverna, run by a man and wife and their three sons.
The Lefka Ori has very pleasant rooms and also studios where you can cook if you choose. The views of the sea and mountains from the studios are spectacular. The Lefka Ori was made famous by a writer named Peter Trudgrill who, over a thirty year period, made more numerous visits to this area before writing an affectionate book that is really a valentine to the Village. It is also an interesting sociological study of the social manners and customs here.
Besides the Lefka Ori, other hotels that seem to be preferred by long-time visitors are Stavris rooms, Hotel Zenia, and the three Brother Hotel and Taverna. Behind the Lefka Ori sits Stavris rooms, a favorite hotel for hikers. Zenia is the last hotel on the harbor; it is a wonderful, modern hotel and taverna that has a lift, spacious rooms with tile floors and large baths, patios and balconies with the requisite views of the mountains and the sea, a large parking lot, and a private beach with a ladder that takes the swimmer directly into the sea. The taxi boats to Loutro and Sweetwater beach rest outside Hotel Zenia.
Above the Lefka Ori Rooms and Hotel Zenia sits one of the most romantic places in the Village. It is Hotel Three Brothers and its restaurant/taverna is on a balcony overlooking a small but picturesque pebble beach dotted with blue and white umbrellas. It is so pleasant to sit there after a swim and have lunch, or come back in the evening as the sun sets and enjoy an evening meal and cocktail.
This year, I had a studio at Hotel Lefka Ori for a few weeks and a room at Zenia for another week and enjoyed both immensely. I found the Zenia a bit more comfortable for my taste because it is more modern, and although the studio at the Lefka Ori is huge with great views, I had trouble climbing the many steep steps and was concerned that there was not a railing. I had to take each step with caution. I did not stay at the Three Brothers, but this hotel has no railings up to the rooms and their steps are much steeper.
I had no problem, however, getting to the restaurant or the beach.
Up the hill a bit you will find the Four Seasons Hotel which has seven self-catering apartments and panaramonic views of the seas and mountains. And at the top of the Village are Eleni Apartments and Notos Suites. You can find more information on all of the accommodations mentioned here by visiting various web-sites such as ExploreCrete, Sfakia.
The premier hotel in Sfakia and the naturalist or nudist resort in Crete is Hotel Vritomartis, a mile or so from the Village. A 20-person van comes four times daily to the square in Chora Sfakian to take guests to and fro. Opened in 1989, it has eighty-five rooms and a number of bungalows. It is exquisite.
The Hotel Vritomartis is beautifully and tastefully decorated and there is a large pool and access to a private beach. I found the visitors there to be an international mix of sophisticated travelers who want to sun bathe and swim natural. The atmosphere was welcoming and jolly and it should be a destination point for anyone who seeks a naturalist resort in a setting stolen from paradise.
It is not quite enough to say all the owners of the hotels and tavernas and staff members were “friendly.” From the smallest snack bar to the swankiest hotel, the owners and staff were gracious beyond measure. I believe one of the reasons there are so many return guest here is because of the welcoming and thoughtful service.
Two must see places very close to Chora Sfakian which can be reached by taxi boat are the Village of Loutro and Sweetwater Beach.
Loutro, or “this magic place,” as it is called by some, is small and contained and can be reached only by boat or by foot. There are no cars or mopeds and this makes for the extremely peaceful atmosphere. There are not many places to stay, but the hotels have excellent reputations, expecially Hotel Porto Loutro and the Blue House. There is a beach, a few tavernas, a mini-market and a fish taverna. You can walk to Sweetwater Beach from Loutro and also to Anopolis, or you can read and relax on the small pebble beach. The water taxi from Chora Sfakian takes guests to Loutro in the morning and picks them up for the return around 5 pm., or you can take the big ferry for a day trip.
Sweetwater Beach is a wonderful place for camping, for going to sleep and waking up to the sound of waves. It is a special place that attracts campers, hikers, and swimmer and sunbathers. Those who choose to go natural may and the naturalists tend to group on one end of the long, pebble beach. Above the beach are ragged cliffs and a very small cave is on the beach itself. You can rent sun chairs and umbrellas and simple but good food is served in the taverna. If you are staying at Loutro or chora Sfakian, Sweetwater can be reached by water taxi; hikers know they must reach it on foot.
All in all, there are many choices for a memorable holiday in Sfakia. I sampled a few of the offerings and I do believe I will return again, but next time it will be either May, September, or October when it is the most comfortable. The “regulars” know this is the best time to enjoy Sfakia.
Aurelia is a travel writer specializing in writing about the Greece mainland its islands. She is also the author of two novels, A Lone Red Apple, set on Mykonos, and Labyrinthine Ways, a tale of life and love in the mountain villages of Crete. Both are available on Amazon.