The combination of mountains, valleys and the sea, creates a landscape that is constantly changing. The landscape alters rapidly from wild and barren to forested and back to wilderness again. Forests of cypress, pines, cedars and oaks; green slopes that are flooded in perfumes. At each and every step, the visitor will appreciate the magnificence of Cretan nature, especially in spring and autumn when the environment is full of wonderful colours and smells.
Crete is isolated from the rest of mainland Europe, Asia and Africa, which is reflected strongly in the genetic diversity of the fauna of the island.Endemics are to be found in all species present: mammals, rodents, amphibians, reptiles – vertebrates and invertebrates alike. From the proud Cretan wild goat, the wild cat, and endemic Cretan shrew, to the stenoendemic arthropods and bats of Crete, the fauna of Crete holds many secrets about the evolution of species. In Crete there are no animals harmful to humans, a fact that Cretans attributed to Hercules or the blessings of the Apostle Paul, who spent two years on the island. The bird fauna is one of the richest in Europe with more than 412 species of birds having been observed. Along the length and breadth of Crete significant habitats exist for these winged predators to live and breed: the Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), the Tawny vulture (Gyps fulvus), the Golden eagle(Aquila chrysaetos), Bonelli’s eagle (Hieraaetos fasciatus), Buzzard (Buteo Buteo) and the Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). Breeding populations exist too of the Insular partridge (Alectoris chukar) and the Red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax). In east Crete is situated the world’s largest colony of Eleonora’s falcon (Falco de Eleonora).
Similarly, the Cretan flora hosts one of the largest numbers of plant species in the world, in proportion to the size of the island. Indicative of the diversity of the island is that the flora of Great Britain, which is 40 times greater in extent than Crete, contains almost the same number of plant species. In Crete, so far, about 1800 species have been registered, with approximately 10% of them being endemic. In some isolated areas of the island, mainly in isolated gorges like Samaria or islets, there are many stenoendemic species and subspecies (i.e. have been detected only in this region). In addition, more than 200 species of plants of Crete are edible or used as herbs. Crete is a paradise for aromatic herbs, growing everywhere on the mountains and on the steep gorge sides.
Forest ecosystems are rarer and mainly exist on the mountains. On the south flanks of Dikti, of Psiloritis, the Asterousia and White Mountains the pine forests can still be found. The central massifs are dominated by the forests of oak (Quercus coccifera) and the holm oak (Quercus ilex); in some places there are forests of deciduous oak (Quercus makrolepis), and also small populations of the Theophrastus palm (at Vai, Preveli Lake, Aghios Nikitas etc).
Mountains, caves and gorges
Crete is a one of the most mountainous islands of Europe with high mountain ranges crossing the island from West to East. They are composed of limestone. The geological upheavals which created basins and plateaus also formed a large number of impressive caves, many of which were used for religious purposes during antiquity. Most famous of them is Zeus cave on Mount Idi, where Zeus was born. His mother, Goddess Rhea, wanted to hide him from his father Kronos who had eaten all his children.
The mountains of Crete make up a section of the Dinaric -Taurus chain, which starts in the Dinaric Alps and comprises the mountains of Albania, Pindus, the Peloponnese, Kythira - Antikythira, Crete, Karpathos and Rhodos, and ends in Taurus in Asia Minor.
On Crete these massifs form three large mountain complexes and in between some lower mountains and semi-mountainous zones. The biggest mountain range is in Western Crete, the White Mountains or Lefka Ori with the Pachnes (2453m) as its highest peak. In the middle of the island Mount Idi or Psiloritis, a single elongated mountain mass whose highest peak is Timios Stavros (2456 m.), the highest point in Crete. In eastern Crete there are the Dikti Mountains with the highest peak of 2148m.
The island has a number of gorges, most of which are located on the White Mountains. Most famous are the Samariá Gorge, Imbros Gorge, Kourtaliotiko Gorge, Agia Irini gorge, Koutsomatados gorge, Platania gorge, the Gorge of the Dead and Richtis Gorge.
The overall coastline of Crete is 1046km long, with extremely beautiful beaches along it. The north coastline consists mainly of long, sandy beaches that are mainly affected by winds. North coast beaches are generally easily accessed and thus, are more popular. However, for the nature lovers there are many pristine beaches of incomparable beauty especially in the south and the west. There generally applies a rule that says that the more difficult to reach a beach, the more beautiful it is. And indeed this rule seems to be valid for the beaches of Crete, taking into account the unique routes to be followed through wild gorges or snake-like paths with breathtaking views to the Mediterranean Sea. The most famous beaches are Grambousa/Balos, Falasarna and Kissamos bay in the north west, Elafonisi, Paleochora, Sougia, Plakias in the south west, Georgioupolis in the north, Vai in the north east and Myrtos in the south.