Dipping my toes into the charismatic culture of the Cretans, I was ready to hit the road. This time in style. I rented a 4×4 for the day in Heraklion and hit the open road at the crack of dawn for Kapetaniana. A picturesque mountain town offering adventure, nature, and captivating views over the Cretan landscape. I couldn’t wait. Feeling ready for anything, I adjusted my sunglasses in the rearview mirror and I was off on an adventure.
An hour later, I arrived at the picturesque Kapetaniana village in the foothills of the Asterousia mountain range. Itching to explore my new surroundings. First on the agenda was a short whistle-stop to the Asterousia Protected Area Information Centre. Where I could collect binoculars and observation gear. An epic morning of bird watching from the summit of Mount Kofinas was just the ticket. I peeled out into the open air. Wind blowing through my hair and music blasting in my ears. Navigating the daring cliff edges and rocky limestone outcrops towering 1231m over the Libyan sea. When I reached the top, it was a heart-pumping twenty-minute climb for the final stretch to Timios Stavros. A large wooden shrine that marks the summit of the mighty Kofinas.
Bird Watching on the summit of Mount Kofinas
What a sight from the top! I was enamoured with a jaw-dropping 360 view of some of the best Cretan scenery I’ve ever witnessed. On one side the endless fathoms of the Libyan Sea stretch before you. The winding road I had just conquered standing out in a stark white line that wiggled up the side of the mountain. The other is a watercolor of shades as the Cretan mainland expands inland. A million shades of green and blue fading into the distance. As I stood sipping on a refreshing iced tea from my flask, I almost forgot what I had come here to see. Then I spotted the black specks of birds in the distance and grabbed the binoculars.
In the heart of the Asterousia, nature comes together in epic style to provide the ideal environment for a plethora of birdlife. Hilly ridges and rugged wetlands are teaming with over 192 species. Two of the species here are the rare Bearded Vulture and the Griffon Vulture. Both of which can now only be found surviving in Crete. My hopes weren’t high for spotting one of these special creatures. I’m a bird-watching novice and fail to tell a sparrow from a fantail. But, eyeing the clear, blue skies like a hawk. I was not disappointed. I managed to take some spectacular shots and decided to turn back before my shoulders burnt to a crisp on the gloriously hot day. Rolling down the mountain in the powerful 4×4. Kicking up dust and wearing a smile from ear to ear, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into the next part of my day – lunch.
You rarely find a place like this. The perfect combination of adventure, luxury, and views that lit the intrepid fire within. Kapetaniana was just that, and by lunch I found myself relaxing in the restaurant area of the hotel Thalori. Thalori is a combination of the Greek word Thalassa (sea), and Ori (mountain). Thalori is a very special type of hotel that has renovated many stone houses in the area and rents them out as quaint little holiday homes. Like a village within a village perched high on the slopes of the Asterousia mountains. It has a restaurant and pool area, blessed each morning with breathtaking views and fabulous weather. The hotel pool has one of the most incredible vistas imaginable, but the restaurant comes a close second. As soon as I arrived, I spent a good few moments forgetting the world around me. Soaking up the flamboyant views over the mountainside and stretching down towards the sea.
I had to drive back to Heraklion that evening, so I paired my meal with a refreshing virgin cocktail instead. Nevertheless, I had a grand meal complete with the refreshing aroma of fresh herbs and flowering plants all around me. Filling my senses with pure joy. In front, the Libyan sea stretched on as far as the eye could follow. Behind me was a view over Asterousia, and the phenomenal peak of Mount Kofinas. I vowed to return in the winter to see the impressive peak dusted in the winter snow. Another reason Crete was carving a hole in my heart. My two loves came together on this blessed island. Snow-capped peaks under glorious warm skies.
Gorge Walking, Canyoning, and Climbing
Kapetaniana is one of the best rock climbing areas in all of Crete and offers three gorges for the intrepid adventurer. There are also many hiking tracks in the Kapetaniana area and it is perfect for families with or without previous climbing experience. Many routes feature fixed steel cables that run along the route and keep you clinging safely to the rock. Although you should have a head for the heights as it’s likely to spark a spot of vertigo! Of the three gorges, you have Eligia gorge that ends with Eligia beach (5hrs hiking), Volacha gorge (4.5hrs hiking), and notably, Tripiti gorge (3hrs hiking) ending in Tripiti beach, a stretch of incredible pale sands and crystal clear waters. The perfect opportunity for a well earned dip after the hike. For the adrenaline seekers out there, there are numerous canyoning spots in Kapetaniana such as Ai Giannis, Mesorinios and Agia Paraskevi. Complete with technical descents, rappels, and waterfalls to conquer. 4×4 trips in and out of the areas for hiking and gorge scrambles can also be arranged in the village.
My feet were itchy to explore. So after lunch, I decided to ditch the wheels for a spell, and head out into the wilderness on a via ferrata crossing. Eligia gorge is one of the crossings where canyoning equipment is needed. Starting from the village, a dirt road leads into the route and after about an hour descends to the gorge. From there its 3-4 hours of pure awe in the form of colourful rock formations and interesting textures as you traverse through the carve in the mountain. The small group and I had fun posing for pictures clambering between rocks and boulders. The gorge is also full of fascinating wildlife scurrying around in the undergrowth and disturbing the treetops. Their aim was sure to be heard and not seen as the creatures around me were always too quick for the eye and remained a mystery. It’s a wonderful sight and a blessing for the feet when you finally reach the end and are rewarded with the sparkling blue waters of Agios loannis beach where the track ends. Then it was back in a 4X4 for the return trip back to the village for a well-earned snack.
Eligia Beach to Koudoumas Monastery
The words on the wind told me that of Kapetaniana’s seven beaches, Eligia is the local secret. It attracts few visitors as it can only be reached after a 40min ride on a dirt twisty road… so be brave! At the end of it you will find the kind of beach you like. When I got there, I parked the car and popped on my sunhat. Water sparkling like gemstones in the evening sun, cool and refreshing to the touch. It was still pretty cold for early summer, but the evening was still hot and I was brave. So I dove right in. I spent some time splashing about enjoying the bay. Working on my back crawl peering up into the blisteringly bright sky. The pebbly sand was so clean and bare I could see everything. Without another soul was in sight for the entire early evening. Perhaps I was just lucky, or I really had found the most private and tranquil swimming spot in the whole of Kapetaniana. Either way, I felt on top of the world.
Back sitting on the beach soaking in the sun’s rays, I noticed a path on the East side of the beach. I’d read that this leads to even more seclusion and on towards the beach of Agios Antonios. So off I went for more exploring. My new destination was just 20 min far on foot. The beach was quite astounding, its shipwreck and caves too. The view was breathtaking and I could see the three headlands jutting out into the haze. Framed beautifully in silhouette by the dark cave walls. After the beach, it was only a short way to the monastery Koudoumas. I set forth until the pretty little building came into view. It’s red tiles popping against the foliage, blessed with another lovely view out over the ocean. I was heating up after my walk, and couldn’t resist the clear blue water gently calling me in. So once again I hopped down to the beach to splash my feet in the lulling waves. Absolute bliss.
It turned out there were even more curious little caves to explore on the East side of the beach. Curious in my nature, I spoke to some of the locals and discovered that you are allowed to camp on the beach or inside the little cosy caves as long as you are discreet. Perfect for an even more special local experience should I ever get the chance to explore this enchanting place once more. But for now, the day was coming to an end. Kapetaniana is a wonderful place to discover hidden gems. Numerous trails are leading to canyons, secluded beaches, gorges, caves, and all manner of extraordinary beauty to be found. Just follow your nose and you’re sure to find something special around this unique and charming mountain town. Whether it’s on foot, bike, or zipping through the hills in a 4×4, Kapetaniana is one of Crete’s hidden gems.