Pick up any travel guide to Crete and top of its ‘gorge-ous’ attractions will be Samaria, a stunner of a ravine that begins in the Lefka Ori (White Mountains) and descends 1,200m over 16 stunning kilometres to reach the beach at Agia Roumeli. But given Samaria's popularity, enjoying it without the crowds can mean an exceedingly early start and a very long day. And it's not the only gorge on the island. Here are five glorious gorges that may not match the overall splendour of Samaria, but still provide excellent walking with the added bonus of no crowds.
13.3km; descent 682m; 2hrs 40mins
Beginning alongside the small hamlet of Agia Irini, west of the Omalos Plateau and its more famous neighbouring gorge of Samaria, the Irini has been cut through the western edge of the White Mountains by millennia of rainfall. Much less steep than Samaria, most of the gorge is in the dappled shade of pine and plane trees which makes it an ideal walk for hot days. Criss-crossing the stream with plentiful blossoms of oleanders providing splashes of colour and wafts of perfume, birdsong fills the air and the occasional vulture can be seen circling high above.
Downside: Once you emerge from the gorge you have a 5km/1hr walk back to Sougia. It's a very pleasant road with little traffic, and the first 3km still within a gorge setting, but there's no shade. Fortunately, a couple of taxi services operate to collect walkers from the gorge exit (there's a convenient tavern in which to wait) and take them back to Sougia, or to their cars at the top of the gorge. The taxi numbers are prominently displayed at the gorge exit.
6km; descent 557m; 2hrs
Beginning 2km outside the ancient hill-top fortress of Polirinia, near Kissamos in the north-west of the island, and ascending to the tiny hamlet of Sirikari, this is one of the easiest gorges in Crete to walk. But the ease of walking does not detract from its beauty. You'll enjoy peace, tranquillity and even a small, riverside picnic area along its course and are almost guaranteed to spot griffon vultures and/or golden eagles circling overhead. A profusion of wild herbs including oregano, sage, thyme and rosemary scent the air, while in spring they're joned by an abundance of wildflowers including arums, cistus and cyclamen.
Downside: As there is no easy way to get to either end of the gorge, you need to walk it twice (12km; 4hrs) to return to your car, but the views are so different in each direction that it feels almost like two walks.
2.5km; descent 200m; 1hr 20mins
The Anidri Gorge runs from the pretty hamlet of Anidri (which also has an excellent kafenion) in south-west Crete, to the coast west of Paleochora at Gianiskari beach. Although the descent is not steep at all, the terrain in Anidri is predominantly rocky and there are a couple of sections that require scrabbling over boulders. But the gorge itself is as beautiful as it is dramatic and because it's much smaller than the likes of Samaria and Irini, it feels more intimate.
Downside: There's a long (4.5km), hot road walk from where you emerge at the Gianiskari beach, into the coastal resort of Paleochora.
Palea Roumata Gorge
4.7km; descent 145m; 1hr 40mins
Even before the heat of July and August turn Crete's mountains into high-altitude ovens, walking on Crete can be a sun-soaked and sweaty affair. This gorge is the perfect antidote. A dense canopy accompanies you on your route through this green valley which connects the interesting village of Palea Roumata to the tiny hamlet of Vavouledo in the Chania district, some 16km south of Voukolies. The route criss-crosses a stream which runs throughout winter and early spring, often via wooden bridges and occasionally over stepping stones. On sunny spring days, the light is deliciously dappled and the banks are peppered with picnic tables providing perfect lunch spots.
Downside: Heavy rain could make the walk too tricky, so it’s best avoided on rainy days. Once you get to Vavouledo, the return walk is along unshaded (quiet) roads. Far better to turn around and simply go back the way you came; not really a downside at all.
return walk - 6km; ascent/descent 175m; 1hr 30mins
Not large enough to really call a walk, this gentle stroll through a short, dramatic section of the Deliana gorge begins outside the village of the same name, not far from Kolimbari on the north-west coast, and takes you deep into goat and griffon vulture territory. In spring, the path is lined by a profusion of ariums swaying their heads in splintered sunlight falling through the plane trees. As the limestone cliffs close in on either side of the path, goats and their offspring perform acts of gravity-defying bravado while above their heads, griffon vultures circle.
Downside: The best of the gorge is so short that it's really not worth walking its entire length. Better to simply park at the beginning of the gorge, walk until the drama ends, and then return to the car.