You’ll paddle in the wake of such ancient Greek gods as Zeus, Apollo, Artemis, Hercules, Pegasus and yes, even Poseidon himself, with a sea kayaking excursion to Crete. But even in the presence of these deities, it’s the area’s beauty that truly takes your breath away. With more than 650 miles of glassy, turquoise coastline to explore, Crete, the largest of Greece’s islands at 163 miles long, is as sculpted for sea kayaking as its gods were for marble statues. And its this same marble, in the form of the region’s precipitous, limestone mountains, that makes it such prime paddling.
Our 80-mile trip along the south coast of Crete starts in Heraklion, where we’re met by guides Dana Paskowitz and Rick Sweitzer, the owner of outfitter Northwest Passage. With gray, wispy hair and eyes that sparkle like the sea, Rick is the Socrates of sea kayaking here, having paddled in Greece for more than 20 years. With us are my wife and two daughters, ages 10 and 14; my mom, a game 79-year-old; and the five-strong Gross family from Chicago, consisting of Dan, Carmen, and kids Adam, 23, Lexi, 21, and Liza, 18.
Sizing up my daughters, Rick strategically inserts Abba’s Greek-influenced Mama Mia soundtrack into the stereo. Before we’re even out of the city the girls are singing “You Can Dance” at the top of their lungs. Thankfully, our first stop saves us. It’s at the ancient Minoan palace of Knossos, whose civilization was ruined–like the Abba song my daughters are butchering—by one of the world’s largest recorded volcanic eruptions in 1600 BC.
We outfit our sea kayaks in the village of Matala before taking them out for a quick day paddle in the local bay. Paddling up to Red Beach, my youngest’s face turns the tone of the sand. It’s our first glimpse of Greek nakedness, prompting a series of giggles. We cover up our own skin with a personalized spa treatment, compliments of a vat of mud by a shack selling mojitos. On the way back we tour a cathedral-like sea cave and take in Gavdos Island, where Homer began his Odyssey. It’s the southernmost island in Europe, with the coast of northern African lying just 125 miles beyond.
That evening we head to a restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean. Behind us, clouds cling to the summit of 8,058-foot Mt. Psiloritis, Zeus’s birthplace, like the god’s crown. Over such Greek delicacies as slovaki and mousaka, Rick outlines our itinerary: we’ll drive northwest to the top of the Samaria Gorge, which we’ll hike down to the town of Agia Roumeli. From there, we’ll paddle 80 miles east back to Matala, arriving, coincidentally, during the Matala Hippie Festival. As if on cue, the restaurant’s speakers blare Joni Mitchell, who wrote her “Blue” album here in 1970 while living in town’s beachside caves.
“Yamas!” toasts Dana, raising a glass of raki, a wine-based spirit unique to Crete. We’d learn that it comes with every meal.
After an early breakfast of Greek yoghurt, fruit and hard-boiled eggs, we drive out of the still-sleeping town. “No one gets up too early here,” says Rick. I find myself liking Greece more and more.
The van’s CD player is still stuck on Mama Mia. “It’s the only thing it can play,” justifies Rick. Our break this time comes at the ruins of Phaistos, a palace ruled by Zeus’s son Rhadamanthys, the brother of King Minos.
At the top of Samaria Gorge, a World Heritage Site cleaving Crete in two, we begin our 11-mile, slot-canyon hike. Tired but troopers, the kids do great and soon we arrive at the seaside town of Agia Roumeli, guarded by the ruins of a 1700s Turkish fortress high on the hillside. Since no road lead to the town, Dana water-taxi’d the kayaks over, which line the side of our hotel next to a hedge of night-blooming jasmine flowers. I find one of the fragrant blossoms under my pillow as I drift to sleep.
In the morning we head out to sea, like so many ancient sailors before us. Only we have it slightly easier. Paralleling the rocky, jagged coastline, our first stop comes in two hours at a taverna along the E-4 trail, the longest hiking trail in Europe. I realize I’d rather be sea kayaking this coast than hiking it. We pull our boats up, grab a cappuccino, tour a 10th century stone church and cliff jump into the water before heading on. Just another morning sea kayaking in Greece.
Our lunch stop appears out of the Mediterranean blue around a corner in a hidden cove along the convoluted coastline. A white-walled restaurant with a couple of overnight rooms, it’s at the base of the Aradena Gorge, another world-class hike. Owned by celebrated Greek photographer Christostomos, its name, Marmara, means marble, as illustrated by the stairway leading up to the bar.
After another cliff jump and cave swim, we paddle three more hours to Loutro, its gleaming white, blue-trimmed buildings clinging to the hillside. Paddling up to an umbrella-lined wharf, we check into our hotel still wearing our spray skirts.
We take a layover day to paddle to Sweetwater Beach, named for springs percolating up through the sand, after which Casey organizes the largest Mama Mia jump in history, with 11 of us singing and plunging off the dock to the delight of nearby diners. At sunset we hike to a Venetian fortress above town and another Turkish one above that. “People have been living here for countless millennia,” Rick says, pouring us Greek chardonnay. “There’s no other place in the world you can combine such great paddling with such history.”
We get another taste of this the next day when, after entering deeper water the color of Homer’s “wine dark sea,” we stop at the Venetian Frangokastello castle near Hora Sfakion. It was built in the 1400s to help subdue locals and monitor the sea. A plaque commemorates a battle where 465 locals died outside its gates. Their spirits are rumored to roam the area today. Later we pass the multi-hued hull off a shipwreck. It’s less than a year old, says Rick, and is from Russian smugglers caught in a storm. “All the stories we hear here are kind of sad,” says Casey from the bow of our tandem kayak.
The days are melding together like these tales and shadow-lined ridges in front of us.
“Friday night and the lights are low…” Rick belts out from the stern.
For the first time, I actually welcome Abba. He’s in the back of a tandem with Casey and we’re trying to make headway in the middle of a 30-mph wind storm. It’s not a fun place to be for anyone—especially for Casey, who’s getting wind- and wave-blasted in the bow. Rick’s trying to keep her morale up and it helps.
We’re toward the end of our paddle to the village of Plakias and adjust our course to the protection of a nearby harbor. Earlier, Poseidon had smiled on us with smooth seas. But offshore winds are now threatening to blow us to Libya, scattering everyone like olives on a plate.
Safely on shore, we begin the Herculean task of loading the boats on top of the van in a full-blown gale. “Offshores tend to kick up here,” understates Rick.
The good news as we drive to our hotel is that the “geriatric nude beach” Rick promised that we’d end up at is empty. The girls’ reward is a visit to the Fish Spa, where toothless Gara Rufa fish nibble skin bacteria from their feet for a 10 Euro “natural exfoliation treatment.”
The winds don’t let up the next morning. The bay is as frothy as our dinner’s mousaka. Rick checks his phone and confirms it’s a Beaufort 7, with 40 mph gusts. “Anyone paddling today will have to take their passports with them,” he says.
Prudently bypassing the day’s bay crossing, we pile back into the Dancing Queen to drive to Palm Beach, where a lone, palm tree-lined river meets the sea. We spend the morning drinking cappuccino and rock climbing and jumping off boulders jutting out of the bay. After lunch, we put in for a 10-mile paddle to Agia Galini. To pass the time, we play word games, answer riddles and spell out words with our kayaks.
En route, we thread a narrow passage between two islands, barely wider than our kayaks. It’s like King Minos’s ancient “bull leap” ritual, when he sacrificed maidens by having them jump through the horns of the minotaur. Theseus, son of Athenian King Agis, later sailed over the killed the minotaur, fleeing with King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne. Like those girls, it’s a tight squeeze for us as well, with rocks converging on both sides and the surges the undulating back of a bull.
Like a typical Greek dinner, we get a little of everything during the paddle – head winds, tail winds, side winds and calms. Soon, we round a corner into Galini, docking in a protected harbor. In Greek mythology, King Minos blamed local engineer Daedeus for Theseus navigating the labyrinth and killing the minotaur. That’s why Daedeus invented his wings to fly away with his son, Icarus. It’s only one of many such myths the kids and I are learning via sea kayak.
The next morning we wake early for a 12-mile crossing back to Matala, our longest yet. Poseidon smiles upon us with favorable winds, and we surf three-foot swells for football fields at a time. Eventually, we reach the bay and paddle in, barely recognizing it from a week earlier. It’s the climax of the Hippy Festival, and revelers line the beach everywhere. Threading past cliff jumpers, swimmers and snorkelers, we paddle ashore and carry our boats through the crowd. Then we prepare for a fun-filled evening with Dionysus, the god of Wine and Ecstasy, and Apollo the God of Music. Soon, our spirits are as light as Icarus’s wings…
Getting There: Air or ferry to Heraklion, the capital of Crete, from Athens.
Info: Northwest Passage, (800) 732-7328, www.nwpassage.com