Strolling the elegant Venetian harbour of Chania, the White Mountains dominate the inland backdrop to this corner of Western Crete, their granite slopes and snow-clad peaks presenting an alluring hint at the drama and beauty that lies beyond the coast. It's only a matter of time before we succumb to their Siren song.
The plan is to drive up into the mountains to visit the Botanical Park and Gardens of Crete but we've barely left our base in Ano Vouves when we pass an inauspicious sign pointing to Agia Lake and decide to check it out. Leaving the main road, we drive down a narrow, dusty track until we reach a small parking area beside a fence beyond which, we can see water. Following the path, we arrive alongside a contemporary restaurant with a beautiful, garden courtyard and a few steps beyond, a T-junction in the path. Ahead is the lake as far as the eye can see, its surface randomly littered by swans, ducks and warblers; its edges blurred by bull rushes and reeds. A boardwalk runs to left and right. Assuming it's a circular trail, we set off clockwise, passing an information board which informs us that this man-made lake is one of the most important bird watching sites on Crete with more than 200 species recorded here.
Ahead on the path we can see a man photographing something and follow the line of his lens to see a little egret posing on the handrail of a wooden bridge. A metre beyond, a young Labrador is snuffling around the edge of the bridge, seemingly oblivious to the presence of the bird. As we draw closer, the egret takes to the sky and the Labrador takes to us, running at our heels like an obedient pet.
The path swings around the side of the lake and comes to an abrupt end as the landscape opens out, revealing the White Mountains in the distance, their snow-coated beauty once again providing a sublimely dramatic scene-setter to an already splendid location. We linger to take photographs while the Labrador grows bored and wanders off to find someone more interesting to adopt.
Retracing our steps, we follow the path anti-clockwise as it winds its way, flanked by hosts of brilliant blue, wild forget-me-nots; delicate cyclamen and wild poppies, alongside vineyards and through leafy woodland, never far from the banks of the lake where fluffy ducklings weave through the reeds after their mums, like kitetails being slowly pulled across water. Onwards we walk, passing a man on a bench with binoculars fixed to his eyes, and extensive photographic paraphernalia laid out beside him. We pass a small weir and cross a platform over wetlands until we meet a group of workmen who, even as we approach, are extending the path, board by board, like we're in a Wiley Coyote cartoon. Luckily, our cartoon path doesn't lead over the edge of a cliff, it simply ends at the feet of the workmen and we have to retrace our steps and return to the car.
Back on plan and climbing steadily towards Omalos, we park at the Botanical Park and Gardens of Crete which stands alongside a deep ravine, flanked by the Lefka Ori mountains. At last, we are standing on the very cusp of our granite holy grail, their splendour laid at our feet. As we enter the gardens I'm expecting neat rows of trees; symmetric flowerbeds; orderly identification and manicured paths. Instead I find fragrant, chaotic, beauty; randomly labelled, and tumbling down terraces alongside a narrow, uneven path and stony steps. In 2003, fire swept through 20 hectares of 400-year-old olive groves on these hills, and from the ashes, a germ of an idea grew – to create a garden. Today, tropical, sub-tropical, and rare examples of native flora stand amongst 150 types of fruit trees and numerous herbs, medicinal plants and vineyards. It's a place to wander, to contemplate, and to breathe in the scents.
Jasmine, orange blossom, eucalyptus and gardenia all hang in the still air as we descend through tropical, Mediterranean and citrus gardens. New, enticing scents waft by as we amble through the aromatic and medicinal gardens – curry plant, lavender and wild thyme. The piercing cry of a peacock splits the air like dry lightning as we reach the lake in the valley floor where its originator, and several of its peer group, are strutting their stuff, amidst the turkeys, donkeys and Cretan wild goats wandering around the orange orchard and olive grove.
An eclectic collection of outdoor sculptures add curiosity to the blossoming paradise. A smiling flower pot man balances on a high branch; an old, iron bed sits in the shade waiting for someone to doze on it; axes, spades and rakes hang from the branches of a tree like strange fruit. From our table on the restaurant terrace, a breeze cools the air while the sun bathes our faces and we satiate on the mountainous splendour that surrounds us over fennel pie, olives and crusty bread served with cool, freshly squeezed, orange juice.
Finally dragging ourselves away, we get back on the road and drive deeper into the mountains to reach Theriso, a pretty village famed for its resistance fighters and its splendid gorge which will take us back towards Chania. Driving alongside the river, banks lined by chestnut and oak trees, the cliffs close in over us, a handful of goats scampering across their vertical faces with death-defying alacrity while above their heads, vultures reel in the endless blue of the sky.
The White Mountains haven't just fulfilled the promise they displayed so flagrantly from their elevated profile above Chania harbour, they've taken our expectations and risen them heavenward. And we haven't even laced up our boots and taken to their famous gorges... yet.