On Boats, Swimming the Mediterranean, and Finding Peace

I love being on boats. Big boats, little boats, kayaks. Taking the 20-minute ferry ride from Chora Sfakia to the tiny Crete village of Loutro wasn’t nearly long enough on a boat for me. Luckily, I was about to spend a week swimming in the crystal-clear waters on the south side of Crete and getting lots of speed boat rides, too.

This was the second week of my 16-day journey to Crete, and the start of SwimTrek, a company that takes people on swim tours all over the world, making nearly all my decisions for me. I gotta say, having a whole week when my most pressing question was what to eat for dinner was fantastic. Here is their website: https://www.swimtrek.com

And here is where you can see our group featured for their brochure: https://fb.watch/gxgNCAKxGp/

Yes, I plan to do more trips with them. I’m looking at the Red Sea one, and the Komodo Dragon one with my younger son, or maybe Scotland, swimming in the lochs off of Skye. Not doing one for a couple of years, but hey, this trip was three years in the planning.

Our SwimTrek hotel was called “Loutro on the Hill” for a reason. There were fifty steps to climb to get to my charming single room with a comfortable double bed, private bath and private balcony overlooking the ocean. If you’ve ever watched “Mama Mia,” it’s steps like those. Totally worth every bend of the knee, with only light cursing after a long day of swimming and exploring. I’d stay there again in a heartbeat. Here’s the view from my balcony:

This is the hotel from the E4 track that I explored. It’s the one furthest to the left… on the hill. There are shrines like this dotted all over the place. The goats range freely on the mountainsides. They wear little bells, so you get the auditory illusion you might be in Switzerland… but you’re looking at that blue, blue water, and sere landscape. The mash-up worked much better than you’d think, a surprising but ultimately delightful combo like pineapple on pizza, or the movie “Sharknado.”

The first night we had orientation and started to get to know each other. Eight of us were from Dallas, another woman from Poland, five from Britain, and a man from Germany. We had a lovely feast put on by the hotel after we did a quick swim.

Each morning the hotel would give us breakfast, then we’d meet down at the main boat. Our SwimTrek guides, John, and Mike, had our swim plan set out for us based on tides and wind. Then off we went in a speed boat, Captain Kostas at the helm, slowly at first in the harbor, and then full throttle, cutting a white swath through the ocean to our destination along the coastline.

Swimmers were divided into three swim speeds, and we had different color swim caps that matched the group. I was in the “fast” group, and we got pink swim caps. They’d drop the slower swimmers in first, the motor a bit further, drop the medium group in, and then motor a bit further and drop us in.

The swims would be about an hour and a half, going maybe 2 miles or so for us fast people, and then to lunch. A second, shorter swim followed a leisurely lunch at a taverna. Then motoring back to get a shower and dinner. Every single meal was delicious. After strolling back to the hotel, up the stairs and into the room. I was in bed every night by nine, the door cracked to look out at the stars, and to hear the sound of the ocean just below. I’d journal, read a bit, and drop off by ten, and SLEEP FOR A FULL EIGHT HOURS. Hands up those of you that would pay ANY AMOUNT to have that happen for a week.

Yeah, you could say it was perfect.

I’ll regale you with tales of our swims next week, including exploring sea caves both large and small, seeing fish, and exploring incredible ravines.  I also scrambled around an awesome ruin of a Venetian castle right behind our hotel. Here’s a preview of that.

I want to get to what I promised you last week. The two historical things that happened at the little port of Chora Sfakia. If the only thing that happened on the entire trip was that I discovered these two things, it would have been worth the trip to me. Ready?

I was up early in Chora Sfakia the day we were to take the ferry to Loutro, just as dawn broke. Lucky for me, one of the coffee shops was open, so I got my coffee and a bit of breakfast. The grey air of early morning bloomed into pink, and then gold, the sea turned from deep blue to turquoise with little curls of white sea foam. The sky rose from nearly white at the ocean’s horizon to become vivid blue in the upper dome, each layer a dissolving band of color.

Here is an excerpt from my journal as I watched the sun come up: “I marvel at the deep peace that sinks in from my extremities as I listen to the ocean after sleeping deeply. The peace filters in and reaches a core that doesn’t often experience it. It is a sense of completeness, of being enough. Perhaps this is what people seek when they go looking for themselves. The ability to sit alone at breakfast and know that in that moment, they are enough.”

After the wonderful early breakfast with only a few enterprising bees and my sleepy waiter for company, I went for a walk. There is the ruin of a castle overlooking the bay, so I headed that way. I found this plaque on the way. You can read it if you want.

It’s a testimony to the astonishing heroism of the people of Crete during WWII, when Hitler figured out that if he took over the airports at Chania, Reythmno, and Heraklion, he’d have a fantastic spot to attack both Africa and Europe from with his heavy bombers. This was called the Battle of Crete in May of 1941, and I am horrified I’d never heard of it. Massive battles with terrible casualties were fought to keep the Germans from getting those airfields. Greek, British, New Zealand, and Australian troops successfully drove the Germans back at two of them. Only Chania fell to the Germans, so the 16,000 troops there had to make an escape through the steep mountain pass (the very one our bus took), fighting the whole way. Villagers helped by ambushing the pursuing Germans, even though retribution was brutal. The troops made their way to this little shoreline. Over 4 successive nights at 3am, warships arrived and managed to evacuate 11,000 of the hungry, exhausted men, ferrying them to Alexandria. The rest were captured or killed, as were many of the villagers, and the Monks who’d hidden them by day.

Aside from the tenacity, heroism, and gutsiness of this action, I was hit by something else. If Hitler had succeeded, the possibility is real that I might never have been born. My mother lived through the Blitz, you see, and may not have if it had been more intense. And Hitler was right, Crete would have been a fantastic staging place from which to rain hell down on London…  those brave people in 1941 may have turned the tide of the war.

The second discovery about this little strip of land* came later, on my last day before leaving Crete. I went to a wonderful museum (will share it with you in a future post) about Crete history. And there on the wall was a photo of the oldest known footprints of man. 6.05 million years old. The man had been walking next to a pygmy elephant, whose footprints were also captured by the mud turned to stone. Obviously, there’s no way of knowing if this was at the same time, but of course my imagination goes there, that the mini elephant was his pet. And along what shore, you might ask, was this person and his mini elephant walking when their footsteps became immortalized?

At Chora Sfakia.

Mind. Blown.

*truly, both Chora Sfakia and Loutro are TINY. In the winters, only 5 people live in Loutro.

On Two Utterly Charming Beach Towns on Crete

I suppose I could have titled this one, “On Rethymno and Chora Sfakia,” but 99% of you have never heard of those places, unless you live on Crete, of course. I certainly hadn’t before I started planning this trip.

I kind of hope it stays that way, because I want to go back to both and stay longer next time, and I liked that they were basically “local” vacation spots. They still had loads of fab places to eat and stunning little beaches, and things to see, but they were in no way overrun. In fact, in Rethymno was where I used my Greek the most.

One is on the North side of the island, has an old town and an absolutely stunning 500-year-old fortress that spins up images of Knights and Ladies fair, and towns being sacked. The other is on the South side of the island, and is the jumping off point for the ferry that took me and my companions on to our SwimTrek location, which incidentally can ONLY be reached by ferry or walking, Loutro. More on Loutro next week.

We took a packed bus from Heraklion* about an hour to the west to reach Rethymno. The bus station stands on what would be prime real estate in the States, right on a massive curve of the bay. I’m glad the people there just found it to be a convenient location to put the bus.

I chose our hotel for its proximity to the bus station (half a mile) and to the Old Town (right in the middle of it) and the ancient Fortezza (literally built into the side of the fortress). Yes, you read that last bit correctly. Our tiny little house was built into part of the bottom portion of a castle. Really, how many places can you find something like that? It stands on what used to be the main road up to the fortress, about 100 yards uphill.

I think I mentioned a few entries ago that I literally only lost my temper one time the entire 16 days I was gone, which is definitely a record for me. It happened when we couldn’t get the key to turn in the lock of our little house. I know some of my frustration lay in the fact that I really needed to pee. After several text exchanges with the host, who I have to say was responsive in that medium, I was at my wit’s end. He knew of no reason the key wouldn’t turn. I had visions of the key breaking off in the lock and creating even more drama.

In the end, it was my lovely friend Barb who came once again to the rescue. She managed to brute force the key in the lock and get the door open for us. I never touched the door again for the duration of the stay. Barb had the door magic, and I wasn’t going to mess with it.

We had a walk up by the Fortress, and then down to the sea. Then a delightful late lunch at a tiny little 5-table restaurant. One more time I tried speaking in Greek to order. I was corrected, as usual, but the woman serving us couldn’t have been kinder or more attentive. I loved my giant gyros meal in the old house where the family has lived generationally.

Barb and I walked the twisty streets of the old town and had a gelato and then turned in for the night. Our other roommate, Dianne, who has never met a stranger, took herself across the little street to where local musicians were playing, and said it was one of the best nights of the trip for her.

In the morning, we all did separate things. I climbed back up to the fortress, had a cup of coffee while I waited for the Fortezza to open up. Eventually, it did, and the woman in charge waved me on, and said I could pay later on my way out. Yes, I paid on the way out. .

I had the place to MYSELF for over an hour and a half, just wandering the ruins, making up stories in my head. I love a good ruin, and this was one of the most evocative places I’ve ever been. Here are some of the spectacular photos I got. I’d recommend it to anyone.

Then we were back to the bus early, so that we could get a seat, as we had learned the buses could get packed. We were headed back up to Chania, and then onto another bus to take us over the incredibly steep mountains, crossing the island width-wise, and then dropping to Chora Sfakia. We had time between the two to pop into a little grocery store and stock up on bottled water and snacks at a grocery store we’d discovered in our first two days of the trip. There is something so life-affirming in re-visiting a place and knowing where things are. It makes you feel safe, and a little bit that you are a local.

The journey started flat, and we passed a lot of agriculture that thrives in the middle of Crete. The island is pretty much self-contained in terms of producing the food it eats. That also tells you why everything tastes so good. Then the bus started to climb. And climb. And climb. If you’ve driven in mountains, you know switchbacks are an ever-present part of navigating them. The two-hour bus ride had more switchbacks than I’ve ever experienced at one time in my life. The trip confirmed to me that I never want to be a bus driver on Crete. I knew there were mountains in Crete, but had no idea how magnificent they were, rivaling the Rockies in many places. It was just stunning, and I understood at a deep level why this is the place where Greek myth says the mighty Zeus was born.

Finally, thankfully, we arrived in the little seaport of Chora Sfakia, which at first glance, is just the bus stop, a charming collection of rooms and hotels perched on the steep slope rising up from the ocean, a strip of restaurants, and the harbor where the ferries comes in. There is no need for a stoplight, or indeed a stop sign, the place is so small.

But… I was to learn this port was much, much more than those obvious things. Next week, I’ll tell you about the two extraordinary historical things that happened in this little place. They will blow you away.

I checked in at a restaurant, whose owners owned the tiny, perfect little room I was going to stay in by myself overnight. It was just steps from the beach, where I got my first swim in the crystal clear, warm waters of the Mediterranean ocean. There were a few cold spots in the water. I would later learn the cold spots signal that fresh water flowing down from the towering mountains above ends up there. Also, a few fish and spiny urchins. Yet another fantastic meal, this one seafood pasta, lingering at the ocean’s edge in a delightful, open-air terraced dining room. There is something so soothing about a leisurely, beautifully prepared meal with friends, the stars shining in a black sky above, the whisper of the ocean below. The susurrus of the waves caressing the rocky shore said to me… be at peace, stay.

*For full story read last week’s entry, “On Heraklion and the Palace of Knossos.”