CRETE CROSSINGS : EXPLORING GREECE'S LARGEST, MOST UNUSUAL ISLAND : On Foot

Liscom is a free-lance writer who lives in Nut Tree, Calif.

Despoina sits on the waterfront. Every day, in the same spot, perched on the same unpainted wooden chair, she savors the tranquillity of the natural harbor and silently welcomes each passenger who steps from the toe of the Pandoflia (slipper) ferry, onto the narrow, rocky beach.

She gazes at the Anopoli trail high above, dangling like paper, serpentine from the mountain crest to the sea. Sixty years ago, walking this trail, she was abducted by a fisherman she knew only by sight. Andreas, in pursuit of a "stolen bride," with the aid of his cronies, carried her off to a mountain cave and hid her out for 66 days until she finally agreed to marry him. Despoina, now a widow, says after she got to know him, she'd have married no one else. She's been here ever since, and I can see why.

For people who love to walk in foreign lands, Loutro, a couple hours' walk or a 40-minute ferry ride west of Chora Sfakion--on the rugged, south coast of Crete--is a spectacular headquarters for inveterate hikers as well as beachcombers and nature lovers. White-washed houses and seaside tavernas tucked around a natural crescent harbor, nestle against a nearly vertical mountain backdrop. Remnants of walls and ramparts framed by ancient stone doorways of several periods--Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Venetian--are strewn about a promontory that protects the village from the west winds. And best of all, the community, with one small hotel (the Porto Loutro), has preserved its rural character with access exclusively by foot and boat. There are no plans for a road.

Throughout town there's a sense of peace drawn from life in sync with the rhythms of the sea and the sun. Pre-dawn stillness is broken only by sounds of mountain-goat bells; and, when I was there, the roosters didn't even crow until after 8 a.m. The sea breeze whispers throughout the night, and it's safe to sleep with doors and windows open. Dramatic sunrises backlight distant peninsulas that fan to the west. Moonlight turns the mountains to burnished ivory. And in the night sky, the Milky Way flies overhead like a sequined banner.

Loutro is the ideal base for day hikes on the south coast or for exploring the Lefka Ori (White Mountains). Here, a network of trails connects traditional mountain villages, pristine coves, nearby gorges and beyond to Samaria National Park, with the grandest gorge of all.

Step out of town and choices present themselves. Share steep, rocky trails with goats and shepherds, climb in solitude where it's possible to pass a day without meeting a soul, or ramble coastal paths overlooking craggy inlets with crashing surf. If that's not enough, for farther flung excursions, depart on the morning boat to Chora Sfakion--a tiny port with a few inns and tavernas, but too little activity to coax me into a stay. There you can hop a bus or taxi to a variety of trail heads and return on the evening ferry.

It is possible to stay in Loutro on a surprisingly limited budget, in a private home or above a taverna, for as little as $10 a day. For $35, I checked into the Hotel Porto Loutro's honeymoon suite, which offered simple luxury with its marble bath, pine floors and furniture and terrace overlooking the harbor speckled with colorful boats.

However, there's scant information for hikers, so it's best to come prepared. I brought an excellent book ("Trekking in Greece: A Walking Guide" by Marc Dubin, Lonely Planet, $15.95) and maps from home, and anticipated few or no trail markers. (I was correct in that assumption.) I also came well supplied with hiking amenities: a couple of plastic water bottles, a good day pack and boots, sunscreen and a flashlight.

To get started last September, I walked the mountainous inland loop, first north, then west and finally south again to the coast, from Loutro via Anopoli, Araden, Agios Ioannis and Agios Pavlos to Agia Roumeli, where the spectacular Samaria Gorge opens its mouth to the sea. I returned to Loutro by ferry. (This was a strenuous one-day expedition, but could be several leisurely excursions.)

On the first leg of the loop, well before dawn, I hit the Anopoli trail with its lily-bordered switchbacks that climb the bare-rock face above town and disappear over a 2,000-foot summit. (There was no sign, but it was the only trail apparent.) Spectacular vistas unfolded with each step while far below, rays of sunlight, like a fan of magic wands, brought first light to Loutro. (Any level of the Anopoli trail makes an ideal early morning pilgrimage with a return to town for a seaside taverna breakfast of fresh orange juice and pastry, warm from the oven.)

Beyond Araden, I climbed to Agios Ioannis, an ancient mountain village of rustic stone houses connected by twisted paths and nearly camouflaged by trees. Goat skins were drying on the clotheslines and men just in from the hunt had freshly killed game on their backs.

Yannis (the only name he gave me) greeted me with a one-gun salute outside his taverna, and abandoned target practice on olive oil tins to join me for a drink of soda in the shade of an olive tree. In broken English, he outlined explicit directions to the coast. It turned out to be a four-hour descent through pine, oak and olive forest with stunning, tree-edited views to the sparkling sea.

At the foot of the trail, I wandered into Agios Pavlos, an isolated, weathered 10th-Century chapel. Pounded by the sea in the winter months, it serves as a cool, fresco-enriched refuge for weary hikers during the summer and fall. I departed refreshed for the next rugged hour along the water to Agia Roumeli, a hot slog, even in mid-September, through calf-high sand--something like the dream where your legs move but you don't cover any ground.

At Agia Roumeli, my solitude was shattered. This is the terminus of the one-day hike through the famous gorge of Samaria. I encountered a flash-flood of international flesh--2,000 gorge-goers a day, even in this less heavily traveled season.

This press of humanity discouraged me from hiking the Samaria Gorge itself. "Besides," said Hotel Loutro proprietress Alison Androulakakis, "there are more intimate gorges in the neighborhood."

To the east, about an hour by ferry and bus, I followed the Imbros Gorge from Imbros to Komatades, a gentle 2 1/2- to three-hour ramble through spectacular cypress forests, past lichen-covered oaks and goat-pruned shrubs.

In the other direction, I explored the Araden Gorge. More adventurous hikers make a day of it, ascending the Anopoli trail and entering the chasm high on the mountain with the assistance of fixed ropes. I chose the cultural route through Livaniana, a tiny, nearly deserted mountainside village about an hour above Loutro. There, I received genial hospitality in a local home and an escort by the eldest son, with a rifle on his shoulder (I didn't ask why), to the gorge's edge. I scrambled to the bottom, negotiated the boulder-littered gorge floor to the sea, swam in the transparent turquoise waters at Marble Beach and sailed back to Loutro on the late afternoon skiff.

When I had the urge to venture farther from Loutro, I hopped the ferry to Sougia, a two-hour ride west along the southwest coast, and hiked to the valley of ancient Lissos to visit the ruins of a Roman "therapeutic temple," discovered only in 1957. The healing spring is capped and diverted near the caretaker's cottage, but there are traces of the old baths and adjoining 3rd-Century BC sanctuary with extensive AD 1st-Century floor mosaics inside.

Opposite the Sougia dock, through a narrow cleft in the mountainside, the trail climbs up a magnificent ravine with overhanging walls, across a wooded plateau and down to the valley, for good swimming and poking around ruin remnants. The round-trip walk takes less than three hours, with time for a simple taverna meal in the village of Sougia and to meet Canary, a pet pelican who took my pocket camera to be a succulent mussel and tried to eat it. "Don't the local dogs scare him?" I asked. "He sleeps with that mutt over there," his master answered.

A long but extra-special day trip northeast from Loutro is to Anogia, a rich center of arts and culture at the base of the Ida Mountains. Known for its fine crafts, especially weaving and spinning, the village has a character and friendliness unique in all Crete.

The afternoon I arrived in Anogia by car, three old soldiers were promenading in the square in traditional costume of balloon britches, high leather boots, and with their faces framed between beard and head gear and mustaches that resembled great, gray wings. Yearning for a photo opportunity, I extended my hand, received a shake that lifted me off my feet and fractured the trio with laughter. True to the old-world Cretan reputation, they regarded the offer to join me for coffee as a personal compliment and responded with delight and pride to my camera.

Throughout the village, craftspeople frequently welcomed photographs without interrupting the flow of their pursuits: The weavers kept weaving, the spinners kept spinning and the boot maker, transforming hand-stretched leather into footwear, continued pounding his tiny wooden nails.

But the best treat of all, as I walked through town were the old timers who would beckon me to a table, ask where I'm from and respond, "Ahhhhhh, America," with a gesture to join them.

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GUIDEBOOK

Crete by Foot

Getting there: From Chania and Irakleion to Chora Sfakion, there are several daily buses or you can rent a car (1 1/2 to two hours from Chania or 2 1/2 to three hours from Irakleion). Parking is free at the port.

From Chora Sfakion to Loutro, about 40 minutes by ferry, there are several departures daily.

Where to stay: Loutro's only hotel, Hotel Porto Loutro, offers 42 rooms, and all but two have sea views. Bookings more than two weeks ahead require a one-week minimum stay. Contact Freelance Holidays, 40b, Grove Road, Stratford upon Avon, Warks, England CV376PB; from the United States, telephone 011-44-1789-29-7705, fax 011-44-1789-29-2017; $45-$60 per night for a double with breakfast. To reserve less than two weeks in advance, no minimum stay, call the hotel direct: tel. 011-30-825-91091. Rates about $30-40 for a double with breakfast. About 300 beds are available in private homes or tavernas and you can book these on the spot, with rates from $10. Because there are no tourist offices in these small towns, it is necessary to ask at business establishments in town to find out about available rooms.

When to go: The season runs May through October. July and August are peak heat and tourist months.

Excursions: Although it's possible to visit Anogia as a day trip by car or taxi from Chora Sfakion it's more fun to spend the night and get a room for $10-12, for a double, in a private home.

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