Heading to a Greek Island With No Reservations

A sure way to make a two-week vacation more exciting? Bring a backpack but no plans.
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A sure way to make a two-week vacation more exciting? Bring a backpack but no plans.

Even my toes are tense as I sit on a rock at the edge of our campsite, waiting for my husband Danny to finish loading his pack so we can finally start walking.

Our fourth day of backpacking around the Greek island of Crete will be our longest yet with at least 11 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain, I have no idea where we’ll be able to sleep tonight, we have only enough food for lunch, we’re running out of money, and the few other people heading our direction left an hour ago, like sensible hikers.

I try to calm down by focusing on my breath, the trees overhead, the sound of the waves lapping the beach 50 yards away. This campsite, in an olive grove just outside the village of Agia Roumeli, is basically paradise. Yesterday was the kind of perfect day we imagined when we decided to take a hiking vacation to Crete’s southwestern coast: an exquisite balance of nature and culture, of hard work and relaxation. We woke up in a tiny town accessible only by boat or foot that looked like something out of a Greek Islands calendar, all white-washed walls and blue shutters. After a morning dip and breakfast in a café, we loaded all our gear on our backs and walked an 8-mile wilderness trail along the coast. Just as we were thinking it might be nice to stop to eat lunch, we passed a tavern on the beach, next to a Byzantine chapel. The tavern wasn’t open for the season yet, but the owner still scrounged us a small Greek salad to share, some crusty bread, and one stream-chilled beer. We ended our walk at this spectacular free campground in Agia Roumeli, also only served by trails and boats. We arrived after 5 p.m., just in time to see the ferry disappear with the swarms of tourists who finished the popular dayhike down Europe’s longest canyon, 10-mile Samaria Gorge. With them gone, we found a sleepy hamlet. We ended the day with a swim in the 70°F sea and a lavish meal at a tavern that served fresh, local fish, goat cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplant.

Yesterday I was having the time of my life. But today, the full weight of our decision to forgo all planning for this vacation crashes over me in waves of anxiety that no glorious yesterday can soothe. My eyes laser into Danny’s back as he applies sunscreen in slow motion. Of course he’s perfectly calm and happy. He’s the go-with-the-flow half of our relationship. This whole no-plans thing was his stupid idea.

Danny has many great qualities. He’s smart, funny, and kind, to name a few obvious ones. But when it comes to our attitudes about moving through time, it’s like the universe brought us together just to annoy each other. I set an alarm on the weekends so I can get to the optimal yoga class, then make a list of the relaxing, fun things I want to make sure to fit into my leisure time. He wakes up whenever, and then decides what he feels like doing. Thinking back, it makes total sense that he did some of his first backpacking trips in Denali, where your only choice is to show up and get assigned a trailless zone to explore; you couldn’t map out your route ahead of time if you wanted to. Even though he was a beginner, he forged in with gusto and had many adventures thanks to his willingness to embrace uncertainty and trust that it would all work out. I, on the other hand, once got named “Queen of Plan Ahead and Prepare” by the conservation corps crew I worked with and spent formative months in Yellowstone, where you sleep in designated campsites you reserve in advance—just the way I like it.

For the nearly 10 years Danny and I have been backpacking together, we’ve mostly done things my way: each day’s mileage and elevation change carefully choreographed in advance, each night’s campsite Googled for beta and waypointed into the GPS. It’s worked out fine. Great, in fact. Thanks to my affinity for planning, we’ve seen sunrise over a volcano-ringed lake in Guatemala, trekked amid lions and elephants in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, and wandered a full week in the Canyonlands’ Maze District without schlepping our water.

But my way has had its downsides, too. The process of planning often stresses me out, especially because I have a hard time getting Danny to provide input on my early-bird timeline. And once we have a plan in place, I can turn into a grump about sticking to it, at the expense of enjoying where we are or adapting to
conditions I could never have predicted.

I know all this, and I know change is good for a person, and I like experiments. So as this trip approached and I sat surrounded by guidebooks and overwhelmed by choices and frustrated that Danny didn’t want to get into the nitty-gritty with me, I was perhaps more receptive than usual to the idea he threw out one night: “What if we just don’t plan it? What if we don’t book any hotels, don’t map out our route, don’t talk to a guide, and just let it unfold as we go?”

My first reaction: That’s insane. The idea of getting on a plane to a foreign country with nothing arranged sounded reckless and terrifying, especially because we knew we wanted to get some wilderness into the trip. On the other hand, if we were ever going to try such a thing, these were nearly ideal circumstances. Our late April/early May time frame was before the Greek high season, so accommodations would be relatively open. The weather was likely to be mild, especially down south. Our flight had us arriving in Athens at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, leaving us plenty of time to find a place to stay without competing with weekend crowds. Danny had studied Ancient Greek in college and was devouring Modern Greek language tapes, so we’d at least have some basic communication skills. Also, I’d recently spent a long car ride listening to stories of a coworker’s serendipitous adventures around the world, and found myself wishing I had the guts to try something like that. Why not go for it now, with the benefit of a competent and more relaxed partner? Life is short.

“Seriously?” I asked.

“Seriously,” he said.

Just as I’m about to get up and start pacing, Danny finally laces up his trail runners and picks up his pack. “Páme! Let’s go!” he says cheerfully. We decided during breakfast that we’re going up Samaria Gorge today. Our other choice was continuing along the coast, on a remote section that would have allowed a night of true wilderness camping, but we definitely want to see the gorge, and unlike at home, we’re finding we don’t actually want to escape civilization. The little towns and from-scratch local food are part of the appeal of this journey as much as the mountain views and high-walled canyons.

The 11-mile hike through the gorge is a popular day trip, but most tourists hike down the canyon and then take the ferry back to town. We’ll be ascending the canyon, so we’ll pass the crowds rather than get stuck in them. And at the top we’ll continue hiking, probably to the tiny hamlet of Omalos, which seems to consist mainly of a few hotels. It’s a great plan considering it was made this morning. The only problem is that it’s 11 a.m. and I can feel our window of opportunity slipping away. Do we have enough time?

After a few kilometers along an old cobbled road next to Samaria Creek, we pass the ruins of an old village, then get into the canyon proper. The creek races blue and clear between towering walls that pinch in to just 10 feet wide. For the first hour we’re nearly alone with the bird songs.

Then we get to a spot where crossing requires a step into about 3 inches of fast-flowing water. I zip through during a break in the downhill traffic, and turn to see Danny sitting down on the far shore. “What are you doing?” I call out.

“I don’t want to get my shoes wet,” he yells back. He looks around for a place to sit, and slowly removes his pack. He takes off one shoe, carefully tucks the laces inside, then sets it aside deliberately. Then he peels off his outer sock and stuffs it inside. Then his liner sock. Then the other foot. Then he stands to figure out where to stuff them in his pack. As I stand watching him, it’s like someone has turned up the heat beneath a kettle. The low buzz of frustration I’ve been carrying all morning pitches up toward a shrill whistle and I want to scream at him, at the canyon, at the world. This isn’t worth it! This is the worst idea! If we had a plan, we’d have enough money right now or we’d at least know where to find an ATM, and we’d know where we’resleeping, and you’d have the right shoes, and we would have started early enough in the day for me not to be worried about all those things. We’d have less gear, or maybe more, but it would be the right gear, not shoes you can’t get wet, or a tent that lets in mosquitoes, or a sleeping bag I sweated through last night. We wouldn’t have to ask strangers for help so often. I wouldn’t be freaking out like this every time it seems like our good luck might not cover our latest bout of stupidity. If we had a plan, we’d be having a better trip. I’M TIRED OF THIS.

Meltdowns didn’t seem to be on the horizon when we landed in Athens, 10 days earlier. The first day was actually quite auspicious. After wandering into a great downtown hotel, we set off on foot with a map and no agenda and managed to nose our way to some of the city’s under-the-radar attractions without even meaning to. Each one brought a primal and childlike feeling of discovery. Look what we found! I’d never been more relaxed. The feeling held as we hopped a ferry to the island of Naxos and spent a few days dayhiking, beach-bumming, and road biking. But by day six, we got antsy for some wilderness. We’d already pinpointed the part of the country most ripe for a backpacking trip in early May: Crete’s southwestern coast, where 6,000-foot peaks tower just miles from the beach, and spectacular canyons carve their way between sand and summit. We’d even allowed ourselves the luxury of buying a guidebook to the region.

We hopped a ferry and two buses to the area we had in mind. But the closer we got to hitting the trail, the more my anxiety returned. Would our luck continue in wild places with sparse towns—and where camping, for the most part, wasn’t even allowed? As wonderful as this trip was turning out thus far, I couldn’t shake my instinct that a good life requires a good plan.

Over the next three days, my mood swung between panic and euphoria. Phew, we found a trail map. Ack, the bus to the trailhead was more than an hour late. Ahh, the crunch of the trail felt good under my boots. Eek, the first hotel we tried was full. Yes, we eventually found a place to stay. And the cycle started anew each day.

So no wonder I’m about to start screaming at Danny while he slowly—really slowly—prepares to cross the creek. But I don’t say a word. Just as he stands up to finally take the first step across, something clicks. Of course I’m tired. I’ve been exhausting myself with this fight for control over my circumstances. The problem isn’t that things aren’t going perfectly. The problem is that I think they ever could.

From this moment on, the trip changes. Or I change. Everything feels lighter somehow.

At about the halfway point up the canyon, just when it starts looking alpine and forested instead of scrubby and coastal, we stop seeing any other hikers and instead have the world to ourselves. As we near the top, the flaky, spiny, white-dusted peaks of the Lefka Ori (White Mountains) dance in and out of view.

The guards at the canyon’s entrance station laugh at our questions about where we can sleep nearby, but the prospect of spending the night searching for a bed doesn’t cause my heart to race. We find a Polish couple admiring the view who agree to drive us to Omalos. The first hotel we try doesn’t take credit cards, and I feel a flash of dread return: We’re running out of cash, due to, um, poor planning. We could poach a campsite if forced, but I’m not eager to try that—plus we still need to eat.

A true travel emergency? No, but it’s the kind of uncertainty that would have sent my shoulders crawling into my ears on any previous trip. But I’m finally starting to trust in this process—and in us as a team. We can handle this. We’re not going to die here just because the scene isn’t vacation-slideshow perfect. And when we eventually find a hotel owner who grudgingly agrees to take our credit card, I’m elated—but not surprised.

The next day, we opt for the most ambitious route back down to the coast: Hike up and over an off-trail summit, then down through truly remote terrain all the way to the sea.

In the morning, as others head downhill into the gorge, we set off in the opposite direction, switchbacking up into the mountains. After a couple hours of hiking through alpine tundra, we summit the rounded nose of 6,302-foot Strifomadi. To the north and south, we can see ocean, and to the east and west, more peaks receding into the distance.

It’s exhilarating, being up here all alone, and we whoop and spin in circles. A herd of bell-jingling sheep comes loping over a ridge below us, baahing and sending us into fits of giggles. It’d be nice to stay up here a while, but we’ve got to keep moving if we want to make it to the coast and stick our feet in the ocean.

We start down, following the path across lingering snowfields to a wide, peak-ringed valley. Then, in a stretch the book says will be remote and dry, Danny realizes he’s out of water. Should we turn around and head back up to the snow zone in search of water? Should we continue to the town a few hours away? Should I give up always needing to be in full control of everything? “What do you think we should do?” I ask Danny.

“Keep going. It’s going to be just fine.”

By the time the town is in sight a couple hours later, we’ve stopped talking much, my feet are burning, and we’re down to the few ounces of water left in my bottle. We trudge down the road, knowing there’s still a long walk ahead to the sea. But we round a bend, and there, under an olive tree, is a spring. It’s like a fountain built into a stone wall, and could easily be thousands of years old. It’s flowing with fresh, clear water. We take off our shoes and chug bottle after bottle. I’m practically giddy with relief and gratitude. I realize that it’s only because I had to let go and trust in the unknown that this spring feels like such a gift.

Eventually, we move again, and meander to the seaside town of Sougia. We walk onto the beach, take off our shoes, and end the hike with our feet in the water just as the evening light paints the whole bay to glory. And instead of hiking more, we decide we’ve had enough.

The next day, we sit still and do nothing but read on the beach. It’s perfect. And something I never would have planned.

Trip Planner

Cost $2,400. Price includes airfare (from NY), food, and lodging for two.

Season April to May or September to October for mild temps and fewer crowds; June for less snow in the high country

GuidebookThe High Mountains of Crete by Loraine Wilson ($20; cicerone.co.uk)

Map Anavasi Lefka Ori and Samaria - Sougia - Paliochora (8€; mountains.gr)