I'm standing on a slice of paradise in Crete. The sun is burning down out of a blue sky, the sandy beach beneath my feet is stretching to crystal-clear sea, but terror is numbing my senses. Kayak instructor Russ is explaining that we're going to capsize our lightweight Rainbow Lasers, then unsnap the spray skirt holding us in, and eject from the submerged cockpit in a forward rolling somersault.
"I didn't join this trip to become James Bond," says Jim, who's busy squeezing what he calls his "good-living gut" into a canary yellow lifejacket.
"Doing this is the major fear of most novices," Russ says. "Get it over with and you can settle down and enjoy the trip."
He's right. Popping out of the bath-warm sea beside my turned-turtle kayak a few minutes later, I wonder what all the fuss was about. The sky is blue again, the sea looks gorgeous, and I'm raring to spend the next seven days kayaking along the rocky southwest coastline of the Mediterranean's' fifth-largest island.
Dominated by its Venetian fortress starkly outlined above a glitter of tomato-producing greenhouses, our starting point, the popular resort of Palaiochora, recedes in an early mist the following morning as we paddle out in single file behind Russ. All four of us are neophyte kayakers, but as the slowest paddler I'm soon promoted to leader of the pack.
"That way, no one gets left behind, and since no one can get ahead, it gets rid of any competitive behavior," Russ says.
Although I hit the gym twice a week, I'm no Jean-Claude van Damme. Luckily, sea kayaking is a sport where a lithe torso counts more than muscles-from-Brussels. Even so, strokes are awkward at first, and I'm soaked to the skin, baked in the burning spring sun, then soaked again. By the time we beach that evening at Kedrodasos, a deserted cove, I ache all over and I'm wondering whether I'll make it to the end of the week.
The light from a fiery grid of stars helps us pitch our tents on a shell-strewn beach and cook our first castaways' dinner: canned tuna mixed with pasta boiled in water from one of the kayak's 10-liter emergency bladders. Tongues loosened by raki, the local firewater made with grape skins left over from winemaking, we learn that Laure has split with her partner and seeks a new challenge, Jim wants an antidote to city life and Chris is an adrenalin junkie getting his fix. Russ, our fiftysomething instructor from Colorado, confides that he started teaching kayak to escape the ski slopes.
"After years of teaching skiing my feet were a mess — I don't have that problem with kayaking," he says in jest.
That night I drowse uneasily, fazed by the lack of orange street lights and rattled by strips of eucalyptus bark dragging ghostly toenails along the beach. The next morning I'm awakened by someone throwing sand at the tent. Staggering out to pick a fight, I come face to face with my adversary: the wind.
Casting an expert glance at the waves capped with white, Russ tells us to pull on our waterproof anoraks.
"Sounds ominous," Laure says nervously.
A few strokes out from the island's lee, we're battling huge swells and wind gusts, called microbursts, that stop us dead in our tracks or threaten to capsize us.
"Keep together; don't use your paddle like a coffee spoon; keep your body centered and bend from the waist; think of your kayak like a mermaid's tail. Let it become an extension of your body," Russ cajoles over the whack of the water.
Barely more than 3 feet high, these waves seem huge from the cockpit of my fragile craft. I find myself empathizing with the Minoans, whose civilization, which flourished along this coastline from 2800 BC onward, was all but wiped out in 1450 BC by a giant wave produced by the eruption of Santorini's volcanic archipelago to the north.
My father, a keen sailor, says the Med is one of the world's most changeable seas. As if to prove it, a couple of hours later the wind has changed, and we're racing along in a pleasant rocking-horse swell. We're on our own now, cut off from the world by the snow-capped Lefka Ori mountains. No roads descend to this strip of coastline, where rebels have taken refuge during successive Cretan uprisings and the glittering coves and sandy beaches are deserted. "Very few strangers visit this area; this is still one of the quietest and most remote areas of Crete," Russ tells us.
Cowed by these commanding crags, we paddle in silence, serenaded by the slap of water and the wild cry of gulls, to Lissos.
At its peak this ancient Dorian city had 30,000 inhabitants and minted its own coins stamped with the image of Artemis, Apollo's twin sister. Sacked by savage Saracen Arabs sometime in the 9th century, this isolated site, which can be reached only by foot or sea, was abandoned until 1957 when it was discovered by a shepherd seeking water for his flock.
As a cool spring wind herds cloud-sheep over the brooding mountains, we wander among sundered arches and drunken columns, admiring delicate mosaics and gathering fragrant fistfuls of wild thyme for the evening's barbecue.
By Day 4, my palms are covered with tiny, weeping blisters, but I'm getting used to metering my day with paddle strokes. Despite bruised arms, aching thighs and sore buttocks, I've become attuned to the metronomic rhythm of early launch, scenic paddle, midmorning pause for a pick-me-up of bitter black coffee, culminating with stops to visit booming sea caves and atmospheric ancient sites.
To give our wounds a chance to heal, on Day 5 we squeeze into a minivan and climb 4,100 feet to Omalos, a hamlet guarding the Samaria gorge.
Russ tells us that in summer the crowds are so dense in this canyon, said to be one of Europe's longest, that hikers are forced to follow in one another's footsteps. Now, on a chilly morning in early May, tourists are thin on the ground, and we have time to gawk at the Griffon vultures blotting out the sun with their huge wings as they circle over our heads, or admire the wild spring flowers coloring the rugged landscape beneath our feet.
About halfway through the walk, we come to the village of Samaria, abandoned in 1962 when the gorge was classified as a national park. After picnicking in the shade of this ghost town's Byzantine church, we skitter down, through rock falls and swollen streams, to the black-sand beach of Agia Roumeli, where we laze till evening, bathing our bruised and aching bodies in the balmy sea.
Loutro is the final destination of our weeklong trip. Paddling toward this fishing hamlet, a net's throw from Hora Sfakion, where celebrated Cretan revolutionary Daskalogiannis (Giannis the teacher) was born, we procrastinate. Spinning out the moment before our kayak odyssey will come to an end, we stop at Marmara beach, a popular nudist spot at the end of the Aradena Gorge, and linger over thimbles of raki and plates loaded with dakos rusks soaked in olive oil and sprinkled with crushed tomato, in the resort's only tavern.
An hour later we make our final sprint, racing one another to be first to enter Loutro's pristine port, framed by brilliant white houses buried in braids of scarlet bougainvillea.
Handing back my paddle, I feel as though I'm losing a vital body part. Changing gears in my rental car seems bizarre compared to the fluid movements required to propel a kayak. Sweet as an epiphany, a Hans Christian Andersen tale pops into my head. I think I'm beginning to understand what the Little Mermaid felt when she shed her tail.