Kayaking Greece: The Land of the Gods
“Friday night and the lights are low…”
Rick Sweitzer’s falsetto belts out from the stern of his tandem sea kayak. For the first time of the trip, I actually welcome Abba.
The reason: My 10-year-old daughter, Casey, is in his bow and we’re all kayaking Greece’s islands, struggling to cross Crete’s Plakias Bay against a surprise, 30-mph gale. It’s not a fun situation for anyone — especially Casey, who’s getting wind- and wave-slapped up front. Rick’s trying to keep her morale up, and it’s working.
Like Homer running from a storm—or worse, the cyclops or sirens — we adjust our course and head to the protection of a nearby harbor. Just a half hour earlier, Poseidon had smiled upon us with smooth seas. But now offshore winds are threatening to blow us to northern Africa, scattering our six kayaks like olives on a plate.
We’re on day six of an eight-day, 80-mile paddle along the south coast of Crete, the largest of Greece’s islands. It’s as sculpted for sea kayaking as its ancient gods were for statues. It’s this same marble –metamorphosed limestone — that makes the island so suitable for sea kayaking. Jagged coasts extend for miles, pock-marked with sea caves, beaches and inland ravines. Throw in glassy, turquoise waters and you can see why the gods were happy to call the region home.
So is Rick, a friend who owns outfitter Northwest Passage. A Socrates of sea kayaking here, he’s paddled in Greece for more than 20 years, ever since first stumbling upon the region on a bike tour. A former canoeing outfitter leading trips on such rivers as the Magnetawan, Petawawa and Nahanni, and renowned polar outfitter, he’s well accustomed to traveling in some of the world’s prettiest places.
He and lead guide Dana Paskiewicz met us in Crete’s capital of Heraklion. For us, it was a family bonding trip, with my wife and two daughters, ages 10 and 14, as well as my 78-year-old mom. Another family — the five-strong Gross family from Chicago, consisting of Dan, Carmen and kids Adam, 23, Lexi, 21, and Liza, 18 – had the same thing in mind.
Abba made its cameo with Rick inserting Mama Mia into the van’s stereo. It was the only CD it could play. Before the last stoplight, the kids were belting out “You Can Dance.” Thankfully, our first stop ended the blaring. It came at the ancient Minoan palace of Knossos, whose civilization – like Abba by my daughters — was ruined not by vocal chords but by one of the world’s largest recorded volcanic eruptions in 1600 BC.
We stopped for the night in the quaint seaside village of Matala, where the next day we outfitted our kayaks – a mix of Prijon singles and doubles — and went through safety procedures on the bay. Graffiti on a breakwall along shore reveals the town’s slogan – “Today is Life, Tomorrow Never Comes,” a throwback to its ‘60s hippie days.
Soon, we headed around a rocky outcropping to Red Beach, exploring a cathedral-like sea cave en route. Casey’s face turned the tone of the amber shore at our first glimpse of plump, Greek nakedness on the beach. We covered up our own pasty skin with a personalized spa treatment, compliments of a vat of mud by a shack selling mojitos. The proprietor even gave the kids cucumber coins for their eyes.
On the paddle back, we could see Gavdos Island silhouetted in the distance. The southernmost island in Europe, just 125 miles north of Africa, it’s where Homer began his 10-year Odyssey during the Trojan War.
We had our own trial that night ordering off the menu at a restaurant overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean. The decision between salads, moussakas, souvlakis, spanakopitas, tzatzikis and more was as dizzying as our perch. In the distance, wispy clouds clung to the summit of 8,058-foot Mt. Psiloritis like Zeus’s crown, fitting since he was allegedly born there.
Rick then outlined our itinerary: we’d drive northwest to the top of Samaria Gorge, where we’d hike 11 miles down to the water-access-only town of Agia Roumeli. From there, we’d hop in our boats and paddle 80 miles east back to Matala, arriving, coincidentally, in the middle of the Matala Hippie Festival. As if on cue, the restaurant’s speakers blared “Help Me” by Joni Mitchell, who wrote her “Blue” album here in 1970 while living in the area’s many caves overlooking the sea.
“Yamas!” toasted Dana, raising a glass of raki, a local wine-based spirit served with every meal.
An early breakfast of Greek yoghurt, fruit and hard-boiled eggs escorted us out of the still-sleeping town, our nine sea kayaks dwarfing the van like a leaf atop an ant. “No one gets up too early here,” said Rick, negotiating the empty, cobblestone streets. I found myself liking Greece more and more.
But not necessarily Mama Mia, which again blared from single CD stereo. Salvation this time came from the ruins of Phaistos, a palace ruled by Zeus’s son Rhadamanthys, the brother of King Minos, who ruled Knossos.
Samaria Gorge is a World Heritage Site cleaving through Crete like a hot knife through a slab of feta. Eleven slot-canyon miles later, the kids tired but troopers, we arrived at the seaside town of Agia Roumeli, guarded by a 1700s Turkish fortress high on a hillside. Dana had water-taxi’d the kayaks over while we were hiking and they lay stacked by our hotel, next to a hedge of night-blooming jasmine flowers. I found a fragrant blossom under my pillow as I drifted to sleep, sore legs ready for the luxury of a sea kayak.
In the morning we headed out to sea, like so many ancient ships before us. Only we had it slightly easier. Our first stop came at a taverna along the E-4 trail, the longest hiking trail in Europe. Looking at the serrated coastline, I’d much rather be sea kayaking it than hiking it. We pulled our boats up, grabbed a cappuccino, toured a 10th century stone church, and cliff jumped into the water before heading on. Just another morning sea kayaking Greece.
Our lunch stop appeared out of nowhere in a hidden cove, a white-washed seaside restaurant perched at the base of the Aradena Gorge, another world-class hike. Owned by celebrated Greek photographer Christostomos, whose photo books line the shelves, its name “Marmara” means marble, evident by the smooth, polished stairway leading up to the bar.
After another cliff jump and cave snorkel, we paddled three more hours to an umbrella-lined wharf in quintessential Loutro, whose gleaming white, blue-trimmed buildings cling to the hillside like rice to a wall. We checked into our hotel still wearing our spray skirts. Near sunset, a wooden schooner sailed up to the dock, unloading 15 men dressed in black boots, slacks and shirts. They also unloaded two AK-47s. We’d stumbled into a Big Fat Greek Wedding, the likes of which even Rick had never seen. Soon, bursts of lead filled the air, sending seagulls scattering.
A layover day saw us paddle to Sweetwater Beach, named for springs percolating through the sand. We lounged, played soccer in the sand and swam to thwart Helios, the God of Sun. Later, back in Loutro, Casey organized the largest Mama Mia jump in history, 11 of us singing and cannonballing off the dock to the delight of nearby diners. At sunset we hiked to a Venetian fortress above town and another Turkish one above that. “People have been living here for countless millennia,” said Rick, pouring a Greek chardonnay as the sun melted into the Mediterranean. “There’s no other place in the world you can combine such great paddling with such history.”
We experienced both again the next day when, paddling through Homer’s “wine dark sea,” we stopped to tour the Frangokastello Venetian castle near Hora Sfakion. It was built in the 1400s to subdue locals and monitor the sea. A plaque commemorates 465 locals killed outside its gates, whose spirits are rumored to roam the area today. Later we passed the multi-hued hull of a shipwreck. It’s less than a year old, said Rick, Russian smugglers caught in a storm. “All of the stories we hear here are kind of sad,” noticed Casey from my bow. “The old ones and the new ones.”
If it’s a land of Greek tragedy, however, it’s also one of majesty – especially via sea kayak. You set your pace by ridgelines passed, alcoves snorkeled, sea caves explored, cliffs jumped, Greek salads consumed and ouzo shots hoisted. The days started to meld together like the tales of gods and wars and shadow-lined ridges in front of us.
Rick’s singing coaxes Casey and the rest of us to ignore the whitecaps pounding our quarters. In Greek mythology, Anemoi were the four wind gods, each charged with controlling a different cardinal direction under the watchful eye of storm god Aeolus. Boreas, god of the northern wind, seems to have our number today. Paddling hard, we make for the harbor, sheltered from the waves by a row of giant, jacks-shaped cement stars. In World War II the barriers were used to stop tanks from coming ashore; now they help us make our landing.
Safely out of the water, we begin the Herculean task of car-topping the boats in a full-blown gale before driving to our hotel. The good news is that the “geriatric nude beach” Rick promised 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” (they had seen it on Glee).
Boreas doesn’t let up the next morning. The bay is as frothy and white-capped as our dinner’s moussaka. Rick checks his phone and confirms it’s a Beaufort 7, with 40 mph gusts. We don’t have to consult Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, about whether to paddle.
“Anyone paddling today will have to take their passports with them,” he says.
“Otherwise, it’s Yaya Goes to Libya,” chimes in Adam, using the Greek word for grandmother, referencing my mom.
With a sag wagon accompanying us, so far yaya’s been able to paddle when she wants to and ride when she’s tired. It’s a good system, which kept her out of yesterday’s gale. I ask Rick to pass the salt for my soft-boiled egg. Instead, he leans his head to the side and taps his temple, loosening grains still caked into his ear.
Bypassing the crossing, it’s back into the Dancing Queen for an hour-long drive to Palm Beach, where a lone river meets the sea. We spend the morning drinking cappuccino and rock climbing and jumping off boulders jutting out of the bay. After lunch, now on a more leeward coast, we put back in for a 10-mile paddle to Agia Galini. To pass the time, we play word games, answer riddles and spell out letters and words with our kayaks while we’re paddling.
We thread a narrow passage between two rocky 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 and killed the minotaur, fleeing with King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne. Like those girls, it’s a tight squeeze for us as well, with the current surging like the undulating back of a bull.
Like a typical Greek dinner, we get a little of everything during the paddle, from all four Anemoi – head winds, tail winds, side winds and calms. Soon, we round a corner into Galini, docking in its protected harbor. It’s here where pride reportedly got the better of Icarus, carrying him too close to the sun. In Greek mythology, King Minos blamed local engineer Daedeus for allowing Theseus to navigate the labyrinth and kill the minotaur. So Daedeus invented his feather-and-wax wings to fly away with his son, Icarus. It’s one of countless such myths we’re learning via sea kayak.
The next morning we wake early for the 12-mile open-water crossing back to Matala, our longest yet. Yaya and Casey hop in the shuttle van while the rest of us gear up. Poseidon seems appeased as the morning dawns relatively calm. With Brooke commanding the bow, we surf three-foot swells for football fields at a time. Taking advantage of such close, shared quarters with a teen, and eye contact not a conversation-wrecker, I bring up the “dad” talk about the birds and the bees. We’ve heard so many other tales here of maidens, sirens, love and war that it seems oddly fitting. Fortunately, just like the ruins interrupting Abba, we don’t get too far. The swells keep us talking about our strokes.
We barely recognize Matala from a week earlier. It’s now the culmination of the Hippie Festival and revelers line the beach and its commune caves. Threading past cliff jumpers, swimmers and snorkelers, we paddle ashore and carry our boats through the crowd, preparing 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…
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