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. It was February 2020 and, accompanied by my wife, a longtime Greek friend, and the ski filmmaker Constantine Papanicolaou, I had come to Crete to ski. This took even some Cretans, who seemed oblivious to the snowy summits in plain sight, by surprise.
“You will ski? There is skiing here?” asked Antonis Michael, the manager at the Domus Renier, a carefully remodeled five-century-old townhouse hotel on the harbor named after its original royal owners, on seeing our gear when we checked in.
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.
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, said when I asked him about it.
Mr. Falkiner is something of an expert in this realm. 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. 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,” he told me. “The best spring skiing experience anywhere.”
Skiing on Crete may be little known, but local reverence and respect for the mountains runs deep. 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 me. “But skiing on them was not something we thought of.”
When, in the winter of 2008, Mr. 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.
“He told me I was crazy, I was asking to be killed,” Mr. Steiakakis said.
The road up from Mr. 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. 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.
Mr. 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. 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. 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.
52 Places to Love in 2021
We asked readers to tell us about the spots that have delighted, inspired and comforted them in a dark year. Here, 52 of the more than 2,000 suggestions we received, to remind us that the world still awaits.
Soon he’d connected with other Cretan skiers, and word began to reach mainland ski enthusiasts about the snows of Crete. Mr. Steiakakis and his growing group of local skiing friends were so thrilled by their discovery they decided to share it — widely.
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. 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.
The only ski-specific shop on Crete is a very rudimentary affair in a small storefront in the mountain village of Livadia. It has the feel of a community effort with its three owners: Father Andreas Kokkinos, the town’s Orthodox priest; the village president, George Vamvoukas; and Manolis Niktaris, the town plumber who is also an avid skier. The rental equipment on our visit was 1990s era: rear entry boots and skis with step-in bindings. But in 2020, the shop acquired a fleet of appropriate ski-touring setups.
At one time Crete had a ski lift. During the Greek economic boom in the late 70s, a ski lodge and a lift was built with the help of public money on a snowy plateau at the foot of Psiloritis. The tiny ski-area project failed almost immediately, doomed by dwindling funding, poor road access and unreliable electric service. The lift was eventually removed, but the stone skeleton of the lodge remains, an eerie reminder of an idea before its time.
Within the first hour of our first day we began to grasp the magic of skiing on Crete. The road up to the slopes from Chania snakes through a semitropical countryside antithetical to skiing: palm and palmetto trees, citrus and olive groves. The temperature was around 60 degrees. Within minutes we ascended an arid, stony landscape speckled with cedars and junipers, the temperature dropping steadily. Then, quite suddenly, we arrived at the snow line.
When the four-wheel-drive taxi could proceed no farther on the snow-covered road we unloaded and began to climb with our skins. In a few minutes the mostly treeless Lefka Ori range revealed itself: immense, glistening with snow, skiable slopes in every direction.
The skin track snaked up past a little stone shrine, the chapel of the Holy Spirit, only the peak of its roof poking through the snow, then onward up a steep face that leveled off into a broad valley surrounded by long, open slopes. We made our way in a few hours to a summit that shares the chapel’s name. Looking out from there, the skiing possibilities seemed limitless. And, in the distance, were the shimmering seas, the Mediterranean to the north and the Libyan to the south. There was not another soul in sight.
“Here, now,” our local guide, Nikos Kalatzakis, said on cue, “we have found the Holy Spirit.”
It looked heavenly, but we hadn’t yet fully tested the snow, at least not for skiing down. The springlike conditions had felt promising on the way up, but it was mid-afternoon by now and the sun had been on the snow for hours. Surely, I thought, it would be un-skiable mush.
Then came a Cretan revelation: The snow was perfect “corn,” and it would pretty much remain that way every day, all day, for the entirety of our stay.
A skier’s delight, “corn snow” is usually a fleeting phenomenon, happening for a few hours on warm spring days when the sun melts the top few inches on frozen slopes, creating a thin blanket of kernel-size crystals. Almost always, after a certain time of day, the snow melts to a point that it collapses under a skier’s weight, and the fun is over. Not so on Crete. As Mr. Papanicolaou explained from his years of skiing and filming here, “due to the mountains’ proximity to the sea, new snowfalls are so moist that they quickly consolidate into one dense layer that often holds up all day in the spring.”
After several hours of climbing and two spectacular descents, we settled into the Chania Mountaineering Club’s Katsiveli Refuge. The rustic stone structure at the base of Crete’s second highest summit (by only a few yards), Pachnes, came equipped with blankets and mattresses, and a small heating and cooking system.
A basic dinner of rice and lentils seemed hardly enough, but we all collapsed after a cup of the slightly spicy Cretan tea, malotira, made from a flowering plant that grows at Crete’s higher elevations. Cretans have been consuming it since antiquity for its reputed medicinal qualities as an antioxidant and immune booster. We slept deeply.
The following day we skinned to the summit of Pachnes for a long descent, the last section of which was a cruise through a stunted forest of cedar, juniper and oak. We emerged on a plateau above the little fishing village of Sfakia, on Crete’s southern coast, gliding on a road until we ran out of snow. There, we were met by a taxi, arranged the day before.
It was early evening and the route home wound through the tiny village of Anopolis where villagers sat outside in the last of the sunlight fading over the Libyan Sea. Many were dressed in black, the men bearing beards — a common sight in the mountains, mourning traditions that many observe for much of their lives to honor deceased family and ancestors and the deaths from Crete’s defiant struggle against invaders.
The drive was slow. The descent to Sfakia was impossibly steep, one hairpin turn after another. Large furry lumps appeared in the headlights: goats and sheep resting in the road, soaking up the last of the day’s warmth from the pavement.
That evening we wandered the streets of Chania looking for a good meal, poking our heads into the many cozy tavernas, fires blazing, Greek raki flowing. Chania swarms with tourists in the warm season, but in winter and spring it is quiet, only a few voices echoing in the ancient, stonewalled alleys. We ended up in the old town, at a restaurant called Tamam, where the waiter brought snails, grilled sardines and local octopus. Four men, one of them playing a Cretan lyra and the others an accordion, guitar and standing bass, filled the space with haunting, plaintiff Cretan song.
Sitting there, drinking young Greek red wine, the singing men recounting what sounds to a foreign ear to be a tale of Cretan woe and eventual triumph, it was hard to imagine a more unusual and excellent ski day.
On our last day of skiing we skinned to the summit of Psiloritis from the west side with some of the crew that conceived and now runs the Pierra Creta. They’re a joyful bunch, men and two women in their 30s and 40s, their devotion to Crete’s mountains spilling out of them. They’re fit and fast going up, and at the summit, they dug a bench for everyone to sit and pass Tsikoudia, a strong Cretan brandy.
“To friends and skiing,” Simartenia Paraschaki hailed her cohorts, before clipping in and pointing her skis down a 3,500-foot vertical face of perfect corn.
Later, at Father Andreas’ house, which doubles as a taverna, a group of Livadia elders and local skiers debated the future of skiing on Crete. There will be work to do, Father Andreas conceded. For starters, they need public toilet facilities and better parking, he said.
“And lifts?” someone asked, which touched off a heated discussion.
“The experience of skiing Crete is about nature and about freedom, it should stay this way,” urged Dimitris Meliopolis, an instructor from Karpenissi on the mainland, who spends much of the winter and spring teaching and skiing on Crete. “If you want lifts, you can go to many other places.”
“And why would I?” Mr. Niktaris, the plumber and ski shop owner, chimed in. He has never skied anywhere but in the mountains behind his house. “It is so good right here.”
If you go:
You’ll need a knowledgeable ski guide, who knows the slopes on the island’s three mountain ranges, and, ideally, can also advise and organize other details: travel to Crete, hotels and transportation on the island. The Hellenic Mountain Guide Association has almost two dozen mountain guides. Be sure to find one who skis and knows skiing on Crete.
When to go: Late February through March, and intro April. Local skiers are friendly and keen to share their love of skiing on Crete. The Pierra Creta ski race is as much a festival of Cretan ski and mountain culture as it is a competition, and would be a good time to visit. It is scheduled this year for the first weekend in March.
Gear: Bring everything you need. There’s a small ski shop in Livadia, with ski-touring setups, but selection is limited. If you have a layover in Athens, you will find several good ski shops. Klaoudatos focuses on ski touring, with a knowledgeable staff and a complete lineup of skins, touring bindings and boots, maps and backcountry safety equipment for rent.
Where to stay: The harbor town of Chania, with dozens of hotel options, is a charming and convenient base, a short drive from the skiing in the Lefka Ori range. Some hotels close for parts of the winter and early spring. Chania’s historic, polished Domus Renier remains open; double rooms with views of the harbor run about $170 a night. Close to the slopes around Psiloritis, the beautiful stone, wood and stucco Enagron “eco village” in the traditional village of Axos, has sunny, cozy rooms and apartments, and delicious food in a dramatic valley setting.
Travel tips: You’ll need a good car or van. These can be rented on Crete or brought over on the ferry from Athens.
Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to receive expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places list for 2021.