Omalos, the heart of the plateau, is largely unaffected by the daily dawn procession in summer. Once the hordes have gore it settles back into a tranquil rustic settlement it remains for most of the year. Walk out into the plain in almost any direction and within five minutes you’ll have left all traces of modern life behind, with only the jingling of the occasional goat’s bell or the deliberate piling of stones to remind you of the human presence. Few people live here year-round: in winter everything is deep in snow and deserted. In spring the land is marshy and waterlogged- almost becoming a lake if there’s a sudden melt. Only in summer do most residents move here full-time, coming up from Lakki and other villages on the lower slopes to pasture sheep and goats or to cultivate, on a small scale cereals and potatoes.
Hiking around the area in Omalos is excellent for walking. The paths into the hills surrounding the plateau (a branch of E4 Pan-European footpath crosses the southern edge of the village) are strewn with wildflowers in season, birdlife is profuse year-round and temperatures even high in summer are refreshingly cool. Despite this, as so often in places like this in Crete you’ll usually find that most of the excellent, good value accommodation is empty throughout the season. If you are not planning to walk from Omalos to the Samaria gorge, you can take as spectacular surfaced road that cuts west through the mountains to link up with the Souyia-Hania road just north of Dimitriana and Ayia Irini. You can also walk to Souyia, starting either from the top of the gorge or from Omalos and descending via Ayia Irini gorge or on a slightly toucher, higher route through Koustoyerako. These are alternate branches of theE4, so reasonably well signed- through take care not to miss the point where you turn off the road. Either route is a full day’s walk or both are detailed on the excellent Anavasi 1:25,000 Lefka Ori (White Mountains).
If you are staying on the Omalos plateau for a couple of days you can choose Exari hotel, In the beautiful landscape of Omalos, a traditional construction with 24 bedrooms which operates all year round. All rooms have magnificent view in the plateau and the hotel is equipped according to modern life conditions. Also, nearby the hotel our family has a traditional cheese-dairy, which operates since 1960.
Scaling the peaks
A hike to the wonderful Kallergi Refuge (April-Oct daily Nov-March Sat & Sun; 2821033199 or 6936657954, winter 2821044647 www.eoshanion.gr; 12euro) is a bracing introduction to the high mountains. Perched high over the eastern edge of the Samaria Gorge at 1680m, it’s a fairly easy ascent for 5km from the Omalos plain and once you're there makes an excellent base for other mountain treks. To get to the hut follow the road towards the gorge entrance for 3km, turn left onto dirt track signed to the hut. From there you can peer into the gorge, looking exceptionally impressive from the isolation of the bare stone peaks up, a slash of rich green in an otherwise remorseless landscape of grey and brown. On clearer days both the Libyan and Aegean Seas can also be seen from the hut, while the nights are spectacular, with the whole dome of the starry heavens arranged above you.
The refuge is supervised by the helpful Austrian guardian and mountaineer, Josef Schemberger, who can advise on hikes from the hut including the 5th circular waymarked route to Melindau (2133m) via Mount Psari (1817m) or the 12hours hike to Anopoli via Mount Pahnes (at 2453m just 3m short of Psiloritis for the title of loftiest in Crete: Haniot mountaineers regularly add stones to the cairn on the peak in an attempt to catch up) with an overnight stop.
The Refuge acts as the base for climbing into the highest peaks, and the staff here are the best source of information on doing so. As well as the high-mountain treks from the hut, there are also walks to the west of the Samaria Gorge.
Most impressively, you can tackle the climb to the peak of Mount Gingilos (2080m) beginning from the top of the gorge. Its north face, the one everyone sees, is a near-vertical slope of solid rock; round the back though, you can reach the summit with only a little scrambling. Its hard work and you need confidence with heights, especially if is windy, but no special mountaineering skills are necessary. A large yellow sign points the way from the back of the Tourist Lodge and the path should be easy enough to follow for the two and a half hours to the top. The final ascent is signaled with red paint- stick to the path as there are hidden hazards and even the official route needs hands as well as feet. The rewards are on all-round panorama from the summit and, with luck, the chance to spot some of the rarer animal life that the crowds have driven from the gorge itself.