The Hania region is perhaps the most visited in Crete and rightfully so due to the numerous sights and natural wonders it possesses. Visitors to this part of the island often begin their journey in the city of Hania after which the region is named. Hania’s history is as colorful as its lively residents and evidence of its previous ‘conquerors’ (including the Romans, Venetians and Ottomans) takes shape throughout the city’s unique architecture, music and food. Examples of this can be found in the Turkish mosque on the Old Harbour which is now a pottery museum and popular venue for art exhibitions, a Jewish synagogue which has seen itself reinvented as a bar and lounge that is a favourite haunt of local Haniotes, and the numerous Venetian style buildings bursting with color that pepper the small, wiry side streets.
Despite being a popular tourist destination for both Greeks as well as many Northern Europeans, Hania has maintained a formidable sense of self and visitors will be hard pressed not to fall prey to its magnetism. Spend an afternoon strolling through the charming maze of narrow passageways in the old town while stopping to admire the handiwork of local artisans, many of whom you will find labouring away in their studios on one of their exclusive creations. Keep in rhythm with the slow, steady heartbeat of the town during the daytime by sitting down to a midday ouzo and plate of freshly made savoury cheese pies or a refreshing dakos (also known as the ‘Cretan salad’ with tomato, cheese and rusk bread). For breathtaking views of the Old Harbor take a walk out to the lighthouse in the early evening, or simply while away the hours in one of the extraordinary waterfront seafood tavernas.
From the city of Hania the only challenge facing visitor’s is the decision of where to go next; popular attractions include Gramvousa (an uninhabited island dotting the Gramvousa peninsula which is crowned by an impressive Venetian fortress) lying about an hour’s drive west of Hania but does include a short ferry trip. It’s busy in the summertime but manageable, and once the ferry docks it’s easy to explore the tiny island in relative peace for a couple of hours. Hike to the top of the fortress for unparalleled panoramic views of Balos beach (also known as the Blue Lagoon), noted as one of the most pristine in the world. Those who enjoy snorkelling will revel in the shallow, crystal clear waters here.
Venturing further into the interior of western Crete one will decidedly come across the real beauty of the island, found in its wild landscape and unmatched natural wonders. Driving through the mountains one will stumble across any one of the area’s fifty-four gorges, including the awesome Gorge of Topolia. This is but one stop visitors can make en route to Milia – now famous for being one of the top ecologically-friendly resorts in the world. During the picturesque drive (through a main road or less traveled coastal route) family-run businesses selling Crete’s famous thyme honey, organic olive oil, and herbs as well as spirits like homemade (spitiko) ouzo, raki and wine dot the roadside. Visitors will delight in the hospitality bestowed on them by friendly locals who will often insist they drink at least a small shot of raki before resuming their journey.
Continue on to the enormous stalactite cave of Agia Sofia (Saint Sofia) which was once a place of worship for the ancient Minoans. One of literally thousands of known caves on the island, spend an hour exploring the remarkable stalactites and stalagmites of this cavernous wonder. Elafonissos is about an hour’s drive from Agia Sofia and has some of the most picturesque beaches in Crete. If they think you worthy, locals will give head spinning directions on how to arrive at the other side of the beach’s much lesser known counterpart where one can find themselves a spot in complete solitude among bone white sand dunes and cedar trees. A stone’s throw from Elafonissos is the impressive monastery of Hryssoskalitissa, dedicated to the Assumption of the Holy Mother.
There are many more sights to behold on the south side of the island and one could spend days, even weeks exploring the seaside towns of Paleochora, Sougia, Agia Roumeli, Loutro and the striking village of Sfakia with its sapphire-hued waters. The method of transportation chosen to navigate the southern part of this region will play a large role in how visitors experience this area. This is due mostly to the fact that the Samarian Gorge quite literally cuts through the interior of the southern half of this region, making east to west travel impossible by car for much of it. For those who enjoy walking or hiking however, this can turn into one of the most enjoyable parts of their Crete experience. Many of the most idyllic beaches, towns and nature of the south-west coast can only be reached on foot from more densely populated areas or by boat. Residents of the delightful village of Loutro, tucked safely away in a small bite of the coastline, have no motorized transportation at all in town; their little piece of paradise can be accessed by boat from Sfakia or Agia Roumeli, or better yet from the E4 trail.
Also known as the Long Distance Walking Path, the E4 trail covers a substantial distance between the east and west of Crete with a formidable portion along the southwest coast. Rumoured to take about three weeks to finish one major ‘leg’ of the path it can also be done in smaller bits for those who are looking to spend anything from a few hours to a couple of days hiking. The scenery and dramatic views of the sea, mountains and countryside along the path is exquisite and it’s a veritable Eden for those interested in photography or botany.
Wherever you go, however you get there, Crete’s stunningly wild landscape and tangible energy are sure to leave visitors with an unforgettable experience that will leave them yearning for more.