Agrotourism and culinary tourism should be at the heart of the Crete alternative tourism scheme, but somehow much of the world misses out because the island is mostly marketed as a beach destination. Crete has so much to offer travelers beyond sea and sand, and Agrotourism is a niche that can contribute a lot to the Greek economy that’s been hammerstruck by consecutive cataclysms.
Since the 1990s, the EU and the authorities in Athens have invested in building an agrotourism product on Crete, but only with limited success. The value proposition for tourism, agriculture, and food production industries to be interlaced to create an agrotoursm sector has been half-hearted in some respects, and bogged down in beurocratic tape as well. The economic crisis of 2008/9 and the 2020 pandemic have not helped matters.
At the end of the day, Crete and Greece have never achieved foreign recognition and appreciation. Greek brands and businesses have suffered accordingly. Another key to a thriving agrotourism industry for Crete is a focus on rural tourism which has, so far, been underemphasized. That said, great strides have been made in the last few years to add rural tourism to the conventional the “sea, sun and sand” model which Crete and other islands have operated under for decades.
Crete: An Agrotourism Natural
Crete’s agrotourism is finally emerging, giving travelers more opportunity to experience first-hand the agricultural sector and to get in touch with the local inhabitants, sharing their traditions and culture, while practicing sustainable travel.
Crete is a Garden of Eden of agriculture and animal husbandry. The Cretan Diet that is so famous around the world, has its origins in the farm traditions that go back nearly 8,000 years on Crete. Returning to nature, and reliving what traditional Cretan life is all about, is a unique experience that can connect visitors to their own origins.
Today, there are quite a number of agro-resorts, farms, and lodges and working farms that give guests everything from traditional cooking lessons, making pastries, kneading bread, to collecting wild greens, herbs, mushrooms, snails and truffles, and much more. For the naturist, and for those interested in truly healthy lifestyles, Crete’s rural destinations put you at the center of the island’s legendary harvest of olives, the process of the olive oil production, the distillation of raki, vintage, honey production, vegetable cultivation, collection of milk and dairy products processing, not to mention the organic way of raising domestic animals, and more.
Agrotourism villages and even resorts are now “a thing” on the island. A few great examples are listed below, but there are many, many in operation or under development.
Enagron Ecotourism Village is perhaps the most comprehensive way of experiencing authentic Crete. Located near the ancient village of Axos, the resort encompasses a pristine nature area of 60.000 square meters.
The village offers brilliant hotel-like accommodations, but the experience is nothing like either a hotel or a restaurant. At Enagron guests are immersed in the olive groves, the grapevines, the fruit trees, green, vegetables, aromatic plants and herbs, and the organic way Cretan farmers create their amazing products.
The source of the Cretan Diet and Crete traditions is the value proposition here, just outside the capital in Heraklion. Hike these ancient hills, participate or observe the social, cultural, or religious events that take place in the surrounding villages, make cheese with a shepherd, and indulge in a truly mesmerizing thought reboot.
Dalabelos Estate in Rethymno Prefecture is a real working farm transformed into an ecotourism estate by our old friend Vassilis Petrodaskalakis. A slightly smaller operation than Enagron, Dalabelos offers a more intimate connection with nature through the personalized efforts of Vassilis. This part of Crete is magnificent for its unspoiled countryside, and guests of Vassilis get authentic Cretan filoxenia along with an immersive back to nature experience. Dalabelos is another great mix of Crete rural life infused with a bit of Spartan luxury (my term).
The estate is located near the Angeliana village, very close to the beautiful Panormo, on a hill overlooking the Cretan Sea. Clients of the estate get to live a while at a truly eco-friendly, agrotourism complex melded into a quiet country resort. Guests can observe or take part in making bread, traditional confectionery, and even gathering of the perfect elements from the farm that go into making the stunning Cretan diet. Dalabelos Estate is also featured as one of the top wellness retreat resorts in Europe. Readers can save 20 percent or more by booking with Vassilis directly here.
Koutsounari Traditional Cottages, near Ierapetra in Lasithi Prefecture, are an authentic Cretan experience in an idyllic setting overlooking the Libyan Sea. Guests here get to experience the nearby village of Koutsounari, the local traditional tavernas, and partake of one of Crete’s many Blue Flag beaches.
The famous Eleni Nakou, whose inspiration is behind Koutsounari Traditional Cottages, began charting new directions in hospitality in Crete in the early 1960s. Today, these wonderful cottages are one of the most original experiences visitors to Crete can enjoy. All around you’ll find the best the island has to offer as far as laid back Cretan lifestyle, amazing beaches, and nature you’ll never forget.
The elegant simplicity of these wonderful cottages takes me back to a time long ago when living life was not about an obsessiveness with progress and technology. In the old days such novelty took a back seat to enjoying nature, drinking in culture, and the essentials that are the real tapestry we should build a life upon.
Thalori Retreat is Cretan as it gets if you imagine a wonderland of solitude, beauty, and traditions that transport you to a simpler time. Situated in high in the Asterousia mountains in the historic village of Kapetaniana, Thalori is the end result of a brilliant vision. We’ve written several times about Markos and Popi Skordalakis, the owners and visionaries who literally carved a traditional Cretan wonder into this magic place.
The name ‘Thalori’ comes from the Greek: Thalassa (sea) and Ori (Mountain). Guests of the retreat stay in amazing traditional stone houses, they partake of every delicious wonderment from the farm and can immerse themselves in unbelievable adventures. Go fishing with Markos, or horseback riding in the mysterious and picturesque mountains. Take up art residency at Thalori, or take a canoe or kayak trip. Cooking to harvesting, 4 x 4 adventures, bird watching, mountaineering, the list of experiences the team at Thalori have in store is endless.
And Crete’s Wine Culture!
Since the dawn of human history, winemaking has been a part of our culture. And on Crete, these traditions laid the foundations of the art since the Minoans sailed the corners of the known world. History recounts thousands of references about Minoan vineyard cultivation, and many of those ancient varieties are still grown here today. Vineyard owners even practice some of the same methods used since those ancient times. On the farm, or in the heart of downtown Heraklion or Chania, there is no meal served without wine. The only way to truly experience the social and cultural dimensions of wine culture here is to taste first-hand.
Wine tours on Crete are a rapidly growing segment of a wide-open agrotourism potential. Almost every winery on the island has tasting venues, and the key tour agencies have a plethora of experiences. A few excellent ones are:
The Vineyard and Harvest tour by our friends at Cretan Urban Adventures sets you down with a local farmer for a day for a hands-on experience of a lifetime. If you ever wanted grape red feet from stomping grapes you helped harvest, this is a gem you should not miss off the beaten path on Crete. These guys are the best, Rebecca and her team have introduced us to so much of wonderous Crete, we need a book to describe all the experiences.
Manousakis Winery in Chania Prefecture is one of the most famous vineyards in all of Greece. Situated in a garden paradise, their tasting terrace is an incomparable venue where you can treat your senses to some of Crete’s most amazing wines. Alexandra Manousakis has been an author on Argophilia before, and she’s truly a wine legend her on Crete.
Events this season are by appointment only on account of the pandemic situation. Alexandra’s NOSTOS Videano is our favorite no matter what vintage, but there are so many others to love from this fantastic Crete franchise. Ted Manousakis’ Manousakis Winery in Vatolakkos is a “must” for anyone remotely interested in wine and food.
Winery Stilianou in does not advertise wine tasting events, and our friend Ioannis never needs to worry about sales, his wines are almost always sold out. One of the island’s finest organic wineries, this amazing place is all about limited production excellence. Every time I speak with Ioannis, his humble pride in what he’s created makes the man glow, literally. What a superb family effort this is, I can never brag enough about the Theon Dora white or his superb rose.
You’ll get lost finding the winery unless you follow the course of dozens of small road signs Ioannis has set out point to his treasure. Seriously though, just drive past famous Archanes from Heraklion about 15 kilometers out of the capital, then to the small village of Kounavi, and follow the signs through Eden to find Stilianou. Make him give you the tour and learn more about Crete wines in 15 minutes than a viticulture school could teach you.
Winery Nikos Gavalas is another Crete winery on par with any in Europe in my book. I’m no wine connoisseur, but Nikos’ family reminds me of the ancient traditions of Crete back to Minoan times. His great-grandfather planted their first vines back in 1901, and the traditions brought forth by the legendary Minoans were a core value proposition then, as today. Gavalas wine is no longer boiled in earthenware jars and transported in leather bottles to shops and tavernas, but great pride and tradition still make this an emblematic Cretan winery.
You can taste the love, the pride, and the tradition in every sip of my favorite, Nikos’ Fragospito Vidiano, with its aromatic complexity, and crisp but light notes of vanilla. What an amazing wine with any kind of fish or pork. The winery is pretty easy to find if you have your navi on, otherwise, you’ll have to call Nikos or his wonderful daughter Anna (Instagram with Nikos below) about 100 times. The winery is just outside the tiny village of Vorias about 40 kilometers south of Heraklion. The drive there is amazing too, but be sure to consult Google and your navi, really. Oh, and be sure and bring a Stetson cowboy hat (inside joke) and make a friend for life.
Some Crete Culinary Bliss
The Cretan Diet you’ve read so much about is based on ordinary so-called “grandma recipes” bolstered by Crete’s extraordinary agricultural products. While most people think they can take home the healthy benefits straight away, the fact is that Crete tradition and her soil are only really found on this island. Agrotourist can, however, learn to make the traditional recipes, “Grandma’s recipes” as they called, you will be able to make jams, liqueurs, compotes, bread, fresh pasta, pies, and many other Cretan delicacies.
At the core of the Cretan food epoch is the liquid gold, or the olive oil that for millenia, has served as both currency and societal-gastronomic glue that binds Crete culture. Recent efforts to bolster the value of the olive and olive oil industry have been headed by organizations like the Association of Cretan Olive Municipalities (ACOM, or SEDIK, in Greek). A report entitled “Olive tourism! The key to linking agriculture and tourism in Crete,” features Dr. Nikos Michelakis, explaining how ACOM has helped promote more than 50 olive-related attractions in Crete so far.
On the “practice end” local agrotourism operations dot the Cretan landscape. A perfect example sits in the high hills overlooking the fantastic Amari Valley of Rethymno Prefecture, a family run hostel, and taverna called Aravanes is a bit of heaven on Earth. Anyone we’ve sent there will testify, there is no more peaceful, genuine, and relaxing place. Lambros and his family hold onto Crete traditions for dear life, and when you visit they’ll make you want to, as well.
Go pick some grapes, stomp them for the wine and raki to come, feed the animals, make bread, eat a Cretan breakfast on a crisp summer morning looking out over the valley where the god Zeus played as a child. Aravanes is epic in a way you’ll never forget. Get Lambros (below via Instagram) or Tito to take you up on Mt. Ida (Psiloritis) one night. The stars are held up by Crete’s tallest mountain, in case you did not know.
Honorable culinary Crete mentions include Hellenic Odyssey for specialty culinary and specialty tours, the Heraklion for Foodies private tour, and the Cretan Gastronomy Center in amazing Argyroupoli. In upcoming reports, we’ll spotlight more and more of these Crete alternative tourism gems. Trust me, there are so, so many to show you. Oh! And for a genuine Crete nostalgia fix, To Karnagio in Heraklion is right out of a Kazantzakis novel.
Strengthening the linkages between agriculture and tourism in Crete would trigger growth in both sectors, offering many economic, social and environmental benefits to the island.