Mamma Mia! A Bicycling Tour on the Greek Island of Crete

Zakthunos memories
Zakthunos memories

Each September I attempt to extend my New York summer by a week or two and  “get” more cycling miles in a warmer place. The venue should have beauty, culture, history and outstanding beaches. The experience would be enhanced if it is a place I haven’t previously visited. When I planned the September, 2009 trip earlier in the year, the economy was still in its sick state so keeping costs within moderate parameters was also an objective.

I had previously enjoyed a bicycle tour of the Greece mainland and one its islands, Zakynthos with Classic adventures.com in 1998 and noticed in their 2009 brochure they were running one on another of its  islands, Crete in September.

Crete had been on my mind since I had appreciated  the beauty of the Greek islands as settings for “ Momma Mia”, “Zorba,  the Greek” and other motion pictures.  The price of the ten day tour which included almost everything (the use of a Trek road bike, most meals, etc.)  was $3500 ($4100 for a single room.  Round trip airfare which was additional from New York to Crete was $830 via Delta, Air France and Aegean airlines. In my opinion, the price of $320 per night represented a real value for a bike tour—it was substantially less than most other bike tours.

The founder of Classic, Dale Hart is a retired college professor of Greek History and gave us many insights regarding the sites we cycled by.  The tour began in Crete’s largest city, Heraklion, and included such highlights as ancient Knossos, the Lassith and Omolos plateaus, the Minoan site of Karphi, the Potami River Valley, the Libyan Sea, the Plain of Messara, the Amari Valley, Palm Beach, Prevali Monastery, Souda Bay,, Samarian Gorge and the Harbor at Chiana. 

cycling into a very old place

cycling into a very old place

Virtually all parts of the island were included in our biking and hiking itinerary. There were ten biking days.  The group was split into two sections.  The “Extreme” people rode about 60-70 miles daily, usually “climbing” about a mile each day. Cyclists could opt for a less demanding route in terms of both mileage and hills.  The two groups were reunited each evening and used the same restaurants and hotels..The less demanding  group was shuttled in a minibus over the
difficult stretches and could take advantage of cultural and historical attractions along the way while waiting to be reunited with the extreme group.

I was a member of the extreme group.  Another tour ran in May.  Bicycling Magazine called the Tour “one of the best 50 rides on the planet”.  Scenery included spectacular and stunning mountain, sea and canyon vistas,  vineyards and olive groves, donkeys, goats, cows, sheep and birds.  Some of the hotels had swimming pools and/or were easily accessible  to Crete’s famous beaches.   Dinners included Greek culinary specialties such as honey, yogurt, grilled seafood , feta cheese, olive oils, lamb tzatziki ( a succulent mix of yogurt, cucumber, garlic and olive oil). moussaka and baklava.  Breakfasts and almost all dinners (usually with wine) were included.

Classic’s support staff of 3 were all members of the Hart family, Dale, his wife Dianne and son Benton (the heir apparent)  They checked the mechanics of each bike daily. One day Benton discovered and repaired a mechanical flaw in my bike’s shifting mechanism which I had never noticed.  They also fixed flat tires and made emergency bike repairs on the road as needed. One of the hard working, capable and friendly Hart family members drove a minibus which carried cyclists’ luggage between hotels.  It was also used   to shuttle tired cyclists or those who had opted for the less demanding routes.

There also were two days with hiking options.  One (which I did) was a memorable 12 mile trek down Crete’s famous Samaran Gorge. The local Cretan population generally gave us a warm reception.  The condition of the roads was surprisingly good—comparable to those in my home county in New York state.  We were fortunate to have had good cycling weather—daily temps in the mid to upper 70’s and virtually no rain.  According to the historical climate data I checked, this is generally typical for Crete at this time of the year.

climbing along a guard rail

climbing along a guard rail

The fourteen members of our cycling group ranged in age from their forties to about 70 and included a mix of couples and solo travelers.  There was a couple from Calgary, Alberta and a solo American woman who has been living in Germany.  The remainder were from various U.SA. locations.

The level of restaurants and hotels was generally good but neither luxurious nor exceptional.

Facilities at this level simply did not exist along some of the outstanding bike routes we took and as I pointed out the price of the tour was by no means excessive.  However  I was never uncomfortable.

Although some of the hotels didn’t have a/c it didn’t seem to be hot in any of them (it may have been in midsummer)  Several times there seemed to be a hot water shortage, but in most cases we were able to get it by either running a the tap for a while or asking the desk to turn it on.

Our hotel for the last two nights was the Almyrida Residence, a modern and new Miami Beach style hotel with ground level and rooftop pools and an adjacent appealing Mediterranean beach.

On the only evening for which dinner was not provided by Classic, ten of us shared an hour long taxi ride to the cobbled streets of the old town of Rethymno for an unforgettable culinary experience—dinner at the wonderful AVLI restaurant, one of Greece’s best.   All of us greatly enjoyed our dinner selections and outstanding Greek wines served  outdoors in a lush garden.

The family support staff

The family support staff

To “work off” some of the excellent menu offerings, the “extreme” bike routes were very hilly and difficult  for most cyclists.  Some of the hills (I should say mountains)  were very steep and long.

There were as many as 15 switchbacks on the way up—at the end (turns) of the switchbacks it was sometimes very windy.  When we finally reached the summit and looked down the view resembled a panorama from an airplane—Our vantage point was so high.  I was impressed by the courage and effort of the cyclists.—all of them were not in the “supercyclist” category, age and genderwise.  Of course, all had the option of demoting themselves permanently or temporarily to the non extreme program (which I did on a very windy day!) They could also take a day off  from the grueling 10 days in a row cycling schedule. (which I also did—spending it with a book and writing this piece on a relaxing and gorgeous Cretan beach).

I still wound up biking about 440 mostly hilly miles in 8 days.  Of the 60+ multiday bike I tours I have done, this ranks among the 3 or 4 most difficult!.

switchbacks above the timberline

switchbacks above the timberline
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