Crete is perhaps not the first place you think of when planning a winter trip yet, increasingly, people are beginning to discover the attractions of travelling here out of season. The weather is not guaranteed to always be pleasant and the lack of direct flights makes for greater commitment to the whole idea. However, once the decision is made and you understand how best to get here (flight to Athens then either another flight or the overnight ferry to Chania) the rest can be quite simple.
You will need to come prepared to experience a mixture of weather - there can be very heavy rain and/or biting winds from the north or crystal clear days making for a sharp cold night when a hot water bottle to tuck into bed with you is nearly essential! More luggage than for a high summer break will be needed to ensure you remain comfortable but there is nothing more wonderful, when Northern Europe and beyond is in the clutches of a grim winter, to take a walk in winter sunshine wearing t.shirt and shorts enjoying the warmth………. and the view of snow on the mountain peaks.
The following article appeared in the English Sunday newspaper 'The Observer' in December 2001, written by journalist Maggie Hall after a holiday here (Paleochora, Haris Studios). The piece was designed to appeal to the more mature traveller, perhaps retired, with time to spend and looking for a way to have an inexpensive winter break. We have had a successful response from all ages. Please note: prices quoted in the article were valid in 2001!
Picking-up that pension check? Then you're in a perfect position to act like a kid. Drop-out for a while. Right now!
There's still time to disappear for the winter. It doesn't take much planning - just a lust for doing the unexpected.
Why should it always be the young ones, students, disappearing on lengthy travel jaunts? That's what pushed us, a couple of grey-heads, off into the unknown for three months.
We took off, with little notice, when our mood was beginning to match the winter drabness and dampness.
A couple of weeks in Florida or the Canaries was just not going to cut it. Anyway we wanted something unpackaged. We wanted to go where we wouldn't be surrounded by folks like ourselves.
Our spontaneous adventure starts with a low-budget pledge. This is not to be a splashy time-out. It's not intended as a, forget-the-expense, trip of a lifetime. Hopefully it's the first of many long "disappearing" sojourns.
We also decide that while we will pack ultra-lightly, we will not become geriatric back-packers: it will be one wheeled duffle between us, a small overnight bag each, and a very loose plan. One that does not require us to keep, relentlessly, on the move.
The idea is to settle on a region of the world where a Euro pays for a fair amount of living, so allowing us to hang our hats for a while.
We turn our attention to islands. Crete comes up. Crete sticks. It's not just a Mediterranean playground. It's a complete "country" - jammed with history as well as beaches. Surely there'll be enough stimulation to stop us totally vegetating.
We do rudimentary research, on the internet. We soon work out that Crete is basically "closed" to holiday-makers from the end of October until Easter. It's a promising start. Then our foot-loose and fancy-free hearts start pounding. We find out that the few hotels, pensions and apartments, that don't put up the shutters for the winter, fall squarely into the cheap category.
We pack our bags....
Once in Chania, the picture-postcard Venetian port on the NW coast of Crete, we find a delightful 24 euro a night pension in the historic quarter. For the next few days we explore every twist and turn of Chania's narrow streets and relax for hours in the harbour-side cafes, over ouzo and mezes. And all the time - with the heady excitement of not knowing what's in store - plot and plan our next move.
We're looking for a small town that has not totally hibernated, with accommodation that will allow us to play "house" without breaking the bank. We keep returning to a place we can't get close to pronouncing. The description has us salivating. Nestled under a mountain range; on the tip of a South West peninsula; with the sun rising over the sea and a pebbly beach on one side; setting over the sea and a sandy beach, on the other.
We have zoomed-in on Paleochora.
In the 1960s the hippies discovered Paleochora - now we are about to. The sandal and brown rice crowd lived in the warren of caves that dot the hillsides that tumble into town. We hope to fare better.
An internet search has produced a potential address, with the rare phrase: "open all year". It has a sea-facing balcony. An e-mail tells the owners we're on our way.
After a two hour, 50 mile, bus ride, over the rain lashed, mist shrouded White Mountains, we fall into an extremely warm welcome.
The owners of the apartment meet us Paleochora born Haris Arkalakis and his Scottish business partner Flora, have no trouble picking us out from the other passengers. We are the only strangers.
Within minutes they usher us into an ocean-side flat/apartment - where the only thing we can take in is that on the Paleochora side of the mountain range, the rain clouds have disappeared. We gaze in delight at stunning snow-capped peaks. A sparkling blue but surging Mediterranean, crashes onto rocks just feet away.
We're in love. The deal is settled without us even taking a stroll through Paleochora's quaint alley-ways and couple of main streets. Flora is explaining, apologetically, that there will be no daily housekeeping; that clean bed linen will only be provided once a week, but we're barely listening. We're too busy, happily counting out our first month's rent of 250 euro (2001).
If we'd driven ourselves nuts, with minute planning and inquiry, we could not have done better.
As we open up our new front door to venture forth, and explore our winter "home town", we stumble over a box of reading. Flora has produced a box of books, to keep us occupied in case the Chania weather follows us.
It doesn't. For our three months in Paleochora the weather is infinitely better than we expected. Its winter climate is warmer, and drier, than the rest of Crete.
When north coast towns - like Chania, Rethymon, Ayios Nikolaos and the capital of Iraklion - are hit by gales, or glower under dull skies, we bask in sunshine and mild, upper 60's, lower 70's temperatures.
Not that "Pal" is spared. But when the storms hit they're spectacular. Our windows get washed, and we use up rolls of film - as giant rollers crash onto our craggy rocks view and swamp the little harbor pier.
Rainy-days give us a good excuse to join the residents of Paleochora, in one of the half-dozen tavernas and coffee houses, that have stayed open for the winter. With the season over, and the new one months away, they're lively with local customers. This, to our added enjoyment and experience, is Paleochora's breathing-space. When the residents have time for themselves, each other - and the very occasional stray visitor.
Spending the "down" season in Paleochora gives us a great entre into community life. And once it's realized we're there for the duration, the locals embrace us. They make amusing but fairly vain bids at drumming simple Greek phrases into us. We constantly find bags of just picked oranges and tomatoes on our doorstep. And they plie us with "on-the-house" raki - high-octane shots (snaps)made from fermented residue of grapes after wine making.
We meet more town's people in a week than we ever would in a month during the season. There's a succession of social events. We join in with relish. The town hall hosts dances. The soulful, haunting, tones of the lyre - Crete's national instrument - draw all-generations to the town hall, for a night of original "line-dancing".
We become soccer fans, supporting the Sunday afternoon games. We're invited to join the club at an away game. We can ride on the team bus. We do. Time and time again. It becomes a weekly trip, across the dramatic White Mountain range, to other parts of Western Crete.
George Dermitzakis - the town's mayor and doctor - tells us: "It's hard not to fall in love with Paleochora in the winter. The people have time to do things that can't during the season, when the tourists increase the population by three or four times. Apart from anything else we all have time to talk to each other!"
And all the time the cost of living, compounded by out-of-season prices, allows us to have a blast - on our "drop-outs' " budget.
A taverna dinner- with copious beer and enough wine - routinely comes in at around 6 euro each. A take-away crammed gyros sets us back 1.5 euro. And when we're sick and tired of lamb, pork chops, calamari, feta cheese and spit-roasted chicken, we indulge in large pizzas - baked in a wood-burning clay oven - for 4 euro.
The healthy surplus, from our trip fund, allows us, occasionally, to become real-tourists. A rental car - 30 euro for 24 hours - provides plenty of exploring, with away-days and overnights, to other parts of Crete.
We also make full use of the unadvertised cargo-ferry boat, that plies - on an erratic timetable - between Paleochora and Hora Sfakion, to the east, and to the island of Gavdos, the most southerly spot in Europe.
But wherever we go, we get "home" with relief. We never find a Cretan out-of-season spot we'd rather be than Paleochora.
The hiking alone is a reason to pick Paleochora in the winter. Serious walkers flock to the region the rest of the year. But how can they enjoy scrambling over the rocky masses, climbing up winding cliff-top trails, follow goat paths through scrub-land, in the intense heat that will set in, once we leave?
The pristine winter air and skies, we're blessed with, puts a heart-stopping edge to the magnificence we're surrounded by. Which ever way we turn, the sights are breath-taking - dominated by those snow-clad peaks.
And everywhere, in the roughest terrain, the renowned wild flowers of Crete push through to meet the warm winter sunshine we bask in.
It doesn't matter that the famous Samaria Gorge, which for seven months of the year attracts thousands of marching feet a day, is closed because of the fear of winter flash flooding. Just outside Paleochora is a mini-gorge. It starts from the tiny hill hamlet of Anidri - ending-up three, boulder tumbling, miles later on the beach.
For us, it's as exhilarating as doing the "big one".
We also engineer many walks to finish in tiny Azogires. Despite it's remote location, six miles from Paleochora, it boasts two tavernas. Plus, just enough passing traffic to make hitching a lift down the mountain, never a problem.
Every day - whether we're just strolling around town, exploring a labyrinth of caves, sitting quietly in a hill top circa 1300 chapel, sitting in full sun on our balcony reading, taking an afternoon nap during a rain storm, even taking the occasional brave swim - we're astonished that we are the only visitors settled in Paleochora for the winter.
A tiny ex-pat community of Brits, Norwegians, Germans, Dutch, Canadians and the odd American, have found lives, for one reason or another, in Paleochora. But the very few other foreigners, passing through during our time, are "drop-out" kids. The real variety.
One young Brit back-packing duo, has us doing metaphoric high-fives. They've fallen for Paleochora's laid-back winter charms. They complain that they have to press on. "We've got to do Turkey, Israel and Egypt, before we go home," they lament. "But you can just hang out here. You're so lucky."
We laugh. "Ooh, poor babies," we tell them. "But your time will come."
But YOU should make time - NOW!
Ends Crete Winter Odyssey:
GETTING THERE: there is no direct service from Northern Europe to Crete during the "off-season". There are daily flights from Athens to Chania (or Iraklion).
Two ferry-lines, Anek and Minoan, serve Crete's three north coast ports, Iraklion, Rethymon and Chania, with overnight-sailings. To check sailings, fares, and make reservations, go to: www.anek.gr & www.minoan.gr
Crete has a good public bus service, between the three, afore-mentioned, major cities. But direct service to Paleochora is only from Chania. In the winter there are three daily departures. Journey time, two hours. If you want to blow the budget, a taxi will speed you there in half the time.
ACCOMMODATION: Crete-for-visitors hibernates during the winter, so there are limited places to stay, everywhere. Though some "rooms for rent" owners will happily open up for those who knock on the door.
Paleochora: Leading the winter-way, in luring visitors, is Haris Studios
phone: 0030 28234 42438 or mobile 0030 693 809 8976