NEW YORK – When most people think of skiing destinations, Greece might not be the first country that comes to mind, and when it does come to mind, it is most likely the mountainous regions of northern Greece, and not the islands. However, Crete was featured in the New York Times Travel section on January 4 for “the best spring skiing anywhere” which surprised even some of the island’s natives.
When travel writer Biddle Duke, his wife, a longtime Greek friend, and the ski filmmaker Constantine Papanicolaou checked into the Domus Renier hotel in Chania in February 2020, the manager Antonis Michael, after seeing their ski gear, asked, “You will ski? There is skiing here?”
Duke writes that “from the deck of the overnight ferry from Athens, the sight of the massive snow-covered Lefka Ori range rising abruptly behind the ancient harbor town of Chania on the island of Crete, was astonishing and strangely unexpected.”
“Like a growing number of seasoned skiers, when I ski these days it is mostly under my own power, in search of quiet, aerobic exercise and the thrilling payoff of a descent on untouched snow,” Duke writes, adding that “several years ago I began to hear stories that sounded hard to believe — that I could find the best of that kind of skiing on Crete. The spring snow conditions were said to be dependable, the scenery stunning, and you could make long descents within sight of the sea, while spending your nights at picturesque Mediterranean seaside towns.”
“Crete is unlike any place I’ve skied,” the Verbier, Switzerland-based mountaineer and ski guide, John Falkiner, told Duke when he asked him about it.
Falkiner “is something of an expert in this realm,” writes Duke, adding that “a ski oracle, he has devoted his guiding career to sleuthing out the world’s most interesting and worthwhile ski destinations.”
“Guiding well-to-do ski clients on ski-touring ‘safaris,’ he was among the early ski pioneers in Iceland, the fjords of Norway, Lebanon, Japan, Turkey, and Kashmir,” Duke continues, adding that “then, a decade ago, he ‘discovered’ Crete and he’s been guiding skiers from the ancient Cretan harbor town of Chania in the spring on and off ever since.”
“That’s where I want to be in March,” Falkiner told Duke. “The best spring skiing experience anywhere.”
“Skiing on Crete may be little known, but local reverence and respect for the mountains runs deep,” Duke writes. “In summer, the rocky valleys, ravines and summits form vast, blazing hot deserts. In winter, the snow is often meters deep. The mountains of Crete are both the birthplace and burial ground of the greatest god of Greek antiquity, Zeus, and the island’s three ranges are speckled with ruins, shrines, chapels and the cave lairs of Greek mythological figures.”
“Every Cretan lives with the mountains always in sight, snow-covered in winter,” the Cretan ski pioneer Nikiforos Steiakakis told Duke. “But skiing on them was not something we thought of.”
“When, in the winter of 2008, Steiakakis announced his intention to try skiing on Crete, his father cautioned that the fiercely territorial mountain villagers would either shoot him or vandalize his car, or both,” Duke writes.
“He told me I was crazy, I was asking to be killed,” Steiakakis told Duke.
“The road up from Steiakakis’ home in Heraklion to the base of the island’s highest summit, Psiloritis, winds through a handful of villages where sheep farmers and marijuana growers (some of Europe’s most prized weed is grown on Crete) have long protected their turf with a reputation for making outsiders — even coastal Cretans from just a few miles away — feel unwelcome,” Duke writes, adding that “the tough reputation is earned in part from their stubborn and wily resistance to centuries of occupation by the Ottomans and, later, Nazi Germany. For its role as a rebel stronghold, Anogia, a gateway to good skiing, was burned and razed three times in the past 200 years, its villagers massacred.”
Steiakakis “was in his 20s at the time and had skied little up until that point, just a few days on the Greek mainland, which has a long history of skiing, with mountains that rise to more than 9,000 feet, and many ski areas — 25, to be precise,” Duke writes, adding that “he thought his island home might offer a bit of practice in preparation for skiing elsewhere.”
“Instead, what he discovered was a skier’s paradise,” Duke writes, “at least a paradise for skiers who are willing to climb for their turns using lightweight alpine ski touring equipment and synthetic climbing ‘skins’ that attach to skis’ bases and grip the snow for the way up.”
“The payoff: good snow, long descents, little avalanche danger and what is increasingly hard to find anywhere, a lack of other skiers seeking all those things,” Duke writes, noting that Steiakakis soon “connected with other Cretan skiers, and word began to reach mainland ski enthusiasts about the snows of Crete.”
“Steiakakis and his growing group of local skiing friends were so thrilled by their discovery they decided to share it — widely,” Duke writes, adding that “they launched the Pierra Creta ski festival in 2014, a biannual event on the flanks of Psiloritis with a race and group skiing outings all wrapped up in a weekend of uniquely Cretan eating, drinking, music and merry-making. They’ve hosted four so far.”
“More than 200 people showed up in 2019, the last time it was held, because of the pandemic,” Duke writes, adding that “since the Pierra Creta’s founding, its organizers, The Black Sheep, have expanded their efforts — they now run lessons and races for school-age children throughout the winter — and have found support and sponsors, including the Greek Ministry of Tourism, the government of Crete, many of the mountain municipalities, and UNESCO, seeing as Psiloritis and the area around it has been designated a UNESCO Global Geopark. The fifth Pierra Creta is set for the first weekend in March 2022.”
Duke’s full Times Travel article is available online: https://nyti.ms/3zvrtQk.