Nothing is repeated in Crete. Enormous geological contradictions and special weather conditions have formed unique landscapes, surprising the visitors and keeping senses constantly alert.
Each route in Crete is unique. Variant sensations, pictures, colors, flavors, sounds accompany visitors at every step.
One can encounter emerald beaches, scrublands, sand dunes, rocky summits, steep slopes, alpine zones, verdant mountains, deep gorges, dry lands, gurgling rivers, scenic ponds, Mediterranean woods, wetlands, fertile meadows, vineyards and olive groves, while the same contrasts are met below sea surface.
Those contradictions favor the development of different ecosystems, significantly increasing the biodiversity of the island.
From the dunes of Lafonissi and Xerokambos to the tropical shores of Kedrodasos and Chrissi, from the hidden beaches in the wild gorges of Sfakia and Asteroussia to the emerald bays of Triopetra and Plakias, from Balos and Elounda lagoons to the palm groves of Preveli and Vai, from piney beaches of Ierapetra to the long organized strands of the northern coasts, Crete offers the ultimate combination of carefree holidays and natural beauty, which can be finely reflected on its beaches.
For millions of years, the geological upheavals are reflected strongly in the intense relief of Crete. While mountains rose, the river water continued its corrosional route through the limestone terrain, forming today's "land of gorges", Crete. With more than 400 canyons, Crete hosts the largest number of gorges in Greece. Many travel agencies offer packages for gorge trekking and there is are several hiking and mountaineering clubs based in Heraklion, Chania, Rethymnon, Agios Nikolaos, Sitia, Ierapetra and Mires.
Cretan rivers meet large faults and steep descents during their course through the canyons, forming hundreds of small and high waterfalls. Crossing gorges of Crete with high waterfalls is possible only by using technical equipment. Appropriate training in canyoneering techniques can be offered by specialist companies on the island. The most popular technical canyons of Crete include the imposing gorge Ha, Tsoutsouras, Kalami, the gorge of Arvi (which after an 80m high fall turns into a dark underground river) and many more.
The existence of numerous caves is inextricably linked to the rugged topography of Crete. People lived in caves thousands of years ago, as evidenced by the prehistoric carvings in the cave Skordilakia by Asfendou. Moreover, today's religious tradition in the caves, which hosts cavernous chapels, is an evolution of the worship of ancient gods inside caves.
Originally, the Minoans worshipped their major deities, such as Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, in caves. Later, they placed the birth and upbringing of the king of the gods, Zeus, in the Diktaean and Idaean caves, turning them into important religious centers. During the Byzantine era, caves which according to tradition hosted Saints, such as Saint Paul, Gerasimos and John Xenos, were converted to important ascetic communities. Many pages of Cretan history were also written in the caves of Crete, such as the massacres in the caves of Melidoni, Milatos, Krionerida, Xotikospilios and Tigani at Gramvousa.
Many caves are of very high speleological and ecological significance. Caves with rich decoration which are open to visitors are the Diktaean Cave by Psychro, Gerontospilios by Melidoni and Sfendonis by Zoniana. Besides the caves of religious or historical value, Crete has more than 4.500 mapped caves and sinkholes, available to each experienced speleologist who wants to enjoy their rich decoration and fauna. Areas that host a large number of caves, ideal for cavers, is mount Stroumboulas by Heraklion, the Geopark of Sitia, the Geopark of Psiloritis and Melidoni area in the White Mountains. The three deepest explored sinkholes in Greece are all located in Crete.
Crete’s most distinctive feature is its large mountain ranges which are home to a number of peaks. Cretan mountains are mainly grouped into three ranges: the Dikti range in Lassithi, the Ida (Psiloritis) range in central Crete and the White Mountains (Lefka Ori) in Chania.
The highest summit is Timios Stavros on the Psiloritis range (2.456 m), however the largest area is spanned by the White Mountains, the highest peak of which is Pahnes (2.453 m). The highest summit of the Dikti range is Spathi (2.148 m).
There are several more important mountains in Crete: the Asterousia range, the southernmost range in Greece; Mount Yiouchtas, the sacred mountain of the Minoans; Mount Kedros by Spili, the rugged mountain of the 100 springs; the Talean range, the towering mountain where the mythical robot Talos stopped to rest; Mount Orno in Sitia area and the pine-covered Thripti by Ierapetra.
Natural Parks of Crete
Crete's natural parks and geoparks showcase a large area of diverse, natural scenery ready to explore by foot, boat or car.
Spend time in Crete's national parks and you'll begin to understand the soul of this place. Our national parks are treasured and preserve our natural heritage, forests, wildlife and landscapes, close to - if not exactly, as it was before people arrived here. There are more protected areas such the Natura and Junicoast regions.
Crete was once covered with dense forests, thus its mountains were called "Idea", i.e. wooded. Unfortunately these forests have almost disappeared due to logging, overgrazing and fires. Even so, the few remaining forests are some of the most beautiful landscapes in Crete and a typical sample of the Mediterranean vegetation that once covered the entire island.
Each area of Crete has its own characteristic trees. The provinces Apokoronas and Sfakia are covered with cypresses, Thrypti has mainly pines, the lowlands of central Crete host arbutus, the humid areas of Kissamos are covered with chestnuts, while the Diktaean and the White Mountains are home to oaks.
The most important cypress woods are met at the National Reserve of the White Mountains, Kroustas, the lowlands of Apokoronas and the mountainous province of Kydonia. The greatest oak wood is located at Rouvas at Psiloritis and it is home to rare animals and plants, including the endemic Cretan wildcat and the orchid Cephalanthera cuculata. Extensive pine woods are formed at the mountain of Thripti, at eastern Dikti, Sfakia, Asterousia Range and southern Psiloritis. More specifically, the pine woods of Selakano, Vorizia and Kato Symi are the largest beekeeping areas in Crete.
Woods of special tree species are also formed in various parts of the island, such as the famous groves of the Cretan Date Palm at Vai and Preveli beach. Also, Tris Ekklisiesnear Malia is the largest forest of holm oaks in Crete, while the area of Tris Ekklisies hosts the largest native forest of carob trees in Europe.
Crete has limited water resources, due to its geographical location and weather conditions. Dams and artificial reservoirs have been built at several sites of the island in order to meet the increasing needs for water supply. After their construction, all of them soon were transformed into very important wetlands, enriching the biodiversity of the island.
The largest natural lake in Crete is located at Kournas near Georgioupolis, where visitors can watch birds from the local watch tower. Small but important natural ponds with water all year round are also located at Tersanas by Chania, at Mohos and Thrapsano while seasonal ponds are met at Orne, Parakalouri, Ziros, Omalos by Viannos, Achendrias, Stroumboulas, various plateaus of the northern province of Mirabello, Gergeri and at several more places. Artificial lakes where one can observe birds are located at Ayia by Chania, at Votomos by Zaros, at the large dams of Bramiana, Aposelemis, Faneromeni, Potami and the numerous small dams in the hinterland of Heraklion.
Because of its small width, Crete has few rivers, starting from the mountains of the island, in the central part, and ending either at the South Cretan or North Cretan Sea. Most of them have water only during the winter months, while on summer they get dry.
On the rugged terrain of Crete, rivers meet large faults and steep descents during their course through the canyons, forming hundreds of small and high waterfalls. Even locals are unaware of the existence of several waterfalls, as most of them are invisible and hidden in the impassable gorges. The vast majority has water from the first months of the year by the end of spring.
The most famous waterfalls with water flowing all year round are the falls of Kourtaliotis near Plakias, Richtis near Sitia and Mylonas near Ierapetra. Impressive waterfalls are formed in winter along the large fault of the Asterousia Range, with the most famous being the fall Lichnistis at Maridaki and the impressive waterfall of Ambas by Paranymfi. A large number of winter waterfalls are also found at Mount Kedros, with the most famous being Selinara, Gre Dafni and Rechtara.
Crossing gorges of Crete with high waterfalls is possible only by using technical equipment. Appropriate training in canyoneering techniques can be offered by specialist companies on the island. The most popular technical canyons of Crete include the imposing gorge Ha, Tsoutsouras, Kalami, the gorge of Arvi (which turns into a dark underground river after an 80m high fall) and many more.
The Mastoras waterfall at the side of gorge Ha is 215m high and it is one of the highest falls in Greece.
Crete is surrounded by about 80 islets. Gavdos, the southermost land and islet of Europe, is inhabited and has many amazing things for you to discover. Chrissi is the most exotic islet of Crete, with crystal turquoise water and white sand, reminding of Carribean. Koufonissi also has very nice beaches and important archeological sites and, fortunately, is totally unknown to visitors. Apart from them, there are other islets such as Thodorou (where cretan ibex is sheltered), Dia, Paximadia, Dionysades and many more.
Plateaus and Plains
Crete is full of mountain ranges, amongst which fertile plains and plateaus are formed. The largest plateau of Crete, the peaceful Lassithi Plateau is hidden between the wild peaks of Dikti Mountains and some smaller plateaus. The Omalos Plateau, in White Mountains, is in the heart of the most mountainous area of Crete. Omalos is the starting point for several canyons of Sfakia, such as Samaria. Psiloritis Mountain also has several plateaus, with Nida being the most important. The largest plain in Crete is that of Messara, located in the southern prefecture of Heraklion. Smaller plains are scattered throughout the island, especially in coastal areas.
Crete is full of karst and geological formations, with caves being the most interesting, but also most fragile. This category hosts some places which have high geological interest and are worth getting known better.
Crete has a rich biodiversity and the best moment to witness this is in the spring when the flora is at its best. Over 1.700 species have been recorded up to date in Crete, many of which are endemic. Some remote areas of the island, especially the White Mountains and the surrounding islets are home to many stenoendemic species and subspecies, i.e. plants that are only distributed in this limited area.
Every year these rare species attract botanists from all over the world. They come to study wild flowers, including impressive native Cretan orchids. Moreover, endemic tulips grow on the White Mountains, on the Dikti range, on the Gramvousa peninsula and in the small botanical paradise of Gious Kampos in Rethymnon.
Crete is also famous for its aromatic plants and herbs that grow everywhere on the island. Many of them have been used since ancient times for their therapeutic properties and they are currently cultivated in many places of the island.
Great Britain, the area of which is 40 times larger than the island of Crete, encompasses almost the same number of species of plants. This is indicative for the variety of species available on the island.
Crete is isolated from other continental regions of Europe, Asia and Africa and this is reflected on the genetic diversity of the island’s fauna. From the proud Cretan ibex, the wildcat and the Cretan shrew to the endemic arthropods and bats, the fauna of Crete hides many secrets about the evolution of species in the Eastern Mediterranean.
On the island there are no animals that could harm humans. The ancestors of the Cretans attributed this either to a labor of Hercules in order to honor the birthplace of Zeus, Crete, or to the blessings of Paul the Apostle, who spent two years in Crete.
Avifauna of Crete is considered one of the richest in Europe, home to over 350 bird species. Cretan mountains host the highest insular population of vultures in the world, while along with Corsica, Crete hosts the last couples of lammergeiers in the Mediterranean.