The Greek Cyclades – West Crete

It had been a busy (almost) two weeks travelling through Greece, starting with a couple of nights in the Sporades followed by a city break in Athens, a day sailing between three of the Saronic Islands, beginning our visit to the Cyclades with some time in Naxos, Iraklia and Koufonissi and then onto Santorini. Now, after yet a rather chaotic ferry experience, we were heading to our final island base, the largest of the Cyclades – Crete.

Arriving into the port of Heraklion quite a few hours later than planned due to ferry delays, we made the short walk to our city apartment block which would be our island base for the next 4 nights. With darkness already descending outside, we walked into the town centre to grab something to eat from a Greek fast food-style restaurant before returning for a quiet night in.

Wanting to see as much of Crete as possible, we had chosen Heraklion due to its central position on the north coast of Crete and had made plans to take excursions to different parts of the island from here over the next few days.

Fountain in the main square of Chania

First up was a trip to West Crete. We were met by a company representative at a pick up point close to our accommodation the next morning and driven to a main road where we joined a coach load of people already on board.

The old Mosque in Chania

Being the most westerly pick up point that day meant we were last on – the positive of that being we hadn’t had to get up too early and hadn’t spent hours sat on board making stop after stop picking up more passengers, the negative that it was a full coach and the last few seats were at opposite ends of the bus from each other.

Taking the last seat in the middle of the very back seat between two sets of strangers wasn’t ideal, especially as it seemed they’d been some of the first to board and had therefore been up since the early hours. Unable to keep there eyes open, I found my shoulders regularly becoming cushions for them to rest upon!

Walking along the sea front in Chania

It was still a couple of hours drive from Heraklion to our first stop in the city of Chania. The journey was broken up with a convenience stop at a roadside cafe and our guide kept us entertained with an informative commentary as we travelled.

Once in Chania, we were given a decent amount of free time to explore although it was lunch time and when we factored in finding somewhere to eat, this did drain into our time to explore quite a bit.

Above, and below, views strolling along the sea wall in Chania

From the coach park, we made our way through the pretty narrow streets at the back of the town and then out to the main square where a former Mosque (now used as an exhibition space) stood right on the water’s edge. We made our way around the sea wall out towards Chania lighthouse in the distance, from where there were impressive views of Chania’s beautiful Venetian harbour.

Back on the main seafront in Chnaia

This turned out to be a longer walk than we’d anticipated forcing us to turn back just before reaching the lighthouse itself and make our way back to the seafront. Lined with shops an restaurants, the promenade was bustling with seas of tourists enjoying the sunshine and pretty views.

We chose one of the many restaurant cafes to sit out at and ordered some toasties and drinks and then it was time to walk back towards the Venetian fortress which was our maker for finding the coach again.

Above, and below, Lake Kournas

An hour later we reached the second stop of the day, Lake Kournas. For those who could hold out for food, our guide had recommended eating here at one of the restaurants with a rooftop patio overlooking the lake but apart from hunger, we had had another reason for wanting to eat in Chania – we wanted to hire a pedalo during our free time at the lake!!

Strolling along the shore at Lake Kournas

This was a really pretty spot with the bright blue water of the lake surrounded by mountains.

Not wanting to hire the boats for the full hour being advertised, we took our guide’s advice to haggle with the vendors for a deal on a shorter amount of time and we soon found ourselves clambering into a pedal-powered boat and setting off for the middle of the lake.

As well as being a lot of fun, this was a great way to get some beautiful views of the lakeshore.

Once back on dry land, we wandered along the shore, looked in some of the souvenir stores and grabbed an ice cream from one of the cafes before it was time to board the coach again.

The Venetian Port of Rethymnom

It was just half an hour to our final stop of the day, another town with a Venetian port, Rethymnom. Here, we again wandered through pretty back streets past shops, restaurants and cafes and out onto the seafront with its Venetian-style harbour.

Whether it was because it was early evening – and therefore quieter – or not, but I liked Rethymnom more than Chania as it felt less touristy. We spent the last few minutes enjoying the atmosphere around the pretty harbour before boarding the coach one last time.

Above, and below, enjoying the views in Rethymnom

As we were last pick up that day, we were first drop off at the end. Instead of being dropped back in Heraklion itself, we once again found ourselves at the side of a busy main road where we were met by a driver to take us back into town.

The day had finished slightly earlier than we’d expected giving us plenty of time to walk up to the main square in Heraklion where we found an Italian restaurant for a pizza dinner before returning to our apartment.

The next day, we would be heading east on the island of Crete and this time, being first pick up of the day, it’d be an early start…

A day trip to the Saronic Islands of Greece

Having never visited Greece before, I was eager to see as much of it as possible. Beginning our (mainly) island-hopping adventure in the Sporades islands and finishing in the Cyclades, we were currently at the end of 4 days in the country’s capital city, Athens, and having spent the last few days fitting in as much sight-seeing and archaeological sites as possible, we decided to spend our final day based there on day trip out to some of the nearby Saronic Islands.

Off to sea!

We had found an organised tour including hotel pick-up, transfers to the marina and lunch which would visit the islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina all over the course of one day – a rather long day in which, being one of the first pick-ups, we had to be up at the crack of dawn to meet our coach transfer and were then not back til late evening.

Our coach was pretty much on time and having handed over our prepaid voucher, we settled in for the journey around Athens and its outskirts picking up more groups and individuals before dropping us at marina where we – and coach loads of other tourists – boarded a rather large boat!

Above, Kavos Castle on the island of Hydra, and below, views from and of the castle

By the time we were on board, space on the deck was running short but we freed a couple of chairs from a stack lying around and squeezed them in to a spot in the shade before settling sown ready to depart.

Donkeys and mules on the carless island of Hydra

The excursion was one of the most expensive daytrips we had planned while in Greece but what we hadn’t expected were the attempts to constantly upsell us. First, was the option to upgrade for access to a ‘VIP area’ – a quieter outdoor area and a more luxurious interior area.

Then, not long after departing Athens, we were all called, by the language we spoke, to a meeting in a downstairs room where we were told the day would be outlined and we’d find out the lunch arrangements. This was actually just a brief part of the meeting and could have been explained over the tannoy system. The main point of the meeting was to try and sell us a variety of on shore excursions including an over priced walking tour on Hydra and multiple, similarly overpriced options for the island of Aegina.

Having read that there was little to do around the port of Aegina where we’d be docking, we reluctantly parted with 25 euros each for a ‘scenic’ coach tour of the island, the other options being a visit to an ancient temple (we felt we needed a rest from ancient ruins) or a boat trip out to another nearby island for some beach and swimming time (we didn’t have any swimwear with us).

Meeting over, we headed back to the top deck where luckily, our seats still sat unoccupied and spent the next hour or so relaxing and admiring the scenery en route to Hydra.

Docking at Hydra, we planned to spend our hour or so there just wandering around and seeing what we’d find. We began by walking to Kavos Castle, a fortress and viewpoint on the sea front, before retracing our steps and walking along the seafront towards its clock tower, grabbing an ice cream from one of the many cafes. We then turned up one of the narrow side streets and wandered up steep steps, through winding passageways and up hills exploring.

At a viewpoint over Hydra

Hydra is a car free island and donkeys are used by the locals to transport good around the town. As we wandered, we passed donkeys carrying goods up to local stores as well as luggage belonging to tourists staying in town. We ended up at a viewpoint over the island and after admiring the scenery, made our way back down to the seafront and marina ready to board the boat in time to depart for Poros.

Back at the marina on the island of Hydra

Before arriving at Poros, it was lunch time. As we boarded the boat in Hydra, we were all given coloured cards indicating where on the boat we needed to go for dinner. Finding the correct room, we managed to grab a couple of seats together at a table and jump in the queue for the buffet. There was bread and a choice of fish, chicken, pasta and rice available, all of which was served to you rather than you being able to help yourself to as much as you wanted. You could then collect a sticky pastry-type dessert on the way back to your tables. Drinks were at your own expense. While what we had was enough, we felt there could have been a bit more choice.

Above, arriving into the island of Poros, and below, a quick stroll on the island

After lunch, we headed back to the top deck where we sat out in the sunshine as we sailed closer to the island of Poros. Poros was to be the shortest island stop of the day so there were no pricey excusrions on offer. We had been told there would be time to wither wander along the seafront or to head uphill to a viewpoint.

In desperate need of something to cool us down, we walked along the seafront buying an ice cream each by which time it was about time to be back on board the boat.

Our final island stop of the day was on Aegina where we had booked the scenic tour of the island. Disembarking the boat, we followed guides to a coach and we soon took off on a clockwise route around the island.

Above, pecan trees out of the coach window, and below, other ‘sights’ on our scenic tour of the island of Aegina

As we would our way along the coast, the driver started to narrate what we were looking at but not stopping and not always finding ourselves on the right side of the bus, it wasn’t always easy to see what we were supposed to be looking at and more often than not it wasn’t anything particularly interesting anyway – houses in residential areas are hardly must see tourist spots!

Views over Aegina

As we headed inland and uphill, the views did at least get prettier and the coach pulled over for a brief moment so we could take pictures from the car park the hill top. Shortly after, the coach pulled in at the car park for The Monastery of Agios Nektarios, a really beautiful church and religious monument of Aegina.

We were given time to go inside the church and look around before re-boarding the coach to complete our tour, driving back downhill towards the seafront and marina.

Stopping at the monastery on the island of Aegina

The coach dropped us in Aegina’s old town, a short walk from the marina where we were taken to a small, local restaurant to sample the seafood. From here, we made our own way back to the boat and with a bit of time to kill, we wandered a bit further through the pretty old town before returning to board the boat one last time.

The sun going down, it was another relaxing and slightly cooler trip back to Athens and we arrived just as the sun was about to set. Finding our coach in the marina car park, we had a long journey back to our hotel as we dropped off almost every other passenger before reaching our stop. It had been a long, but mainly enjoyable day and it had been nice to spend a bit of time in some of the Saronic Islands but the time in each place was often very rushed and I’m not sure the trip was completely worth the money.

If we were to plan it again, we’d maybe look into just doing a day trip out to Hydra ourselves using public transport to the marina and then the ferry there and back but at least doing it this way it was all completely organised for us and we got to see a few more places.

The following day we’d be leaving Athens some more island-hopping adventures, this time in the Cyclades where our first stop would be the island of Naxos!