June 18, 2022

Traveling well is a balancing act

Jesse recounts a last-minute adventure and the discovery of beautiful Balos Beach in Crete.

Traveling well is a balancing act
Jesse Blackwood

Traveling well is a balancing act between embracing uncertainty and coming prepared; it’s living spontaneously and enjoying the serendipity of the moment, but in order to make discoveries and venture into the unknown, it helps to have an idea of what you might like to find.

In the fall of 2019, Maria and I discovered at the very last moment that we had an extra ten days before Maria’s work visa for China would be renewed. We were in Rome at the time, and having just come back from Greece, we decided to return, this time to Crete. The island of Crete, like virtually all of Greece, is a place where myth, legends, and the beauty of the sea and mountains all come together. Of course, we didn’t know how true that would be before we arrived.

We quickly booked our flights and by chance discovered that we could rent a BMW for seven euros a day. I’ll save the longer story for another time. What I want to share here is just one of the discoveries we made. We both love the beach and the beauty of nature so on our first day we started asking locals what area had the best beaches. We were repeatedly encouraged to explore the western part of the island, which is what led us to Balos. We booked an airbnb for that same night and drove most of the way across the island. We did not know that Balos was most easily accessible by boat so when the paved road ended and we began the more rugged ascent along the side of the cliff we double checked our instructions to make sure we were on the right road. We no longer had cell coverage and the gps was telling us we had another seven or so kilometers before arriving at our destination. From what we’d heard, this didn’t seem possible so we turned around and looked for another road. Not seeing one, we were confronted with a decision: would we go forward and risk it with our seven euro a day BMW (for which we had not purchased the insurance), or should we turn back.

We decided to risk it, albeit carefully, and tried to avoid the thick ruts and potholes as best as we could. The subsequent drive is one that I will never forget (the wobbly video below does no justice). The dirt and gravel road followed the edge of the cliff as we drove along the northwestern point of the island. The view was stunning. It was early November so there were no other cars on the road and the only passers-by were a couple of herds of goats. These long-bearded and agile footed creatures lounged in the afternoon sun as they have in this place for millennia. They were in no rush to move as our car approached and I remember thinking that their presence didn’t just add life to the stony landscape but somehow wisdom as well. (I had never realized this while looking at goats in pens and barns. But animals are wise!)

We finished our drive and arrived at the parking where the hike to Balos begins. Let me pause here to say that the pictures do not capture the magnificence of this place. Balos is situated on the northwest side of Crete, nestled between the peninsula of Gramvousa and the small, uninhabited island of Tigani. The protected space between the island and the coast has created a shallow lagoon whose pristine waters are colored by white sand and bits of shimmering choral. The resulting palette of color took our breath away. It would be unjust to compare it to an impressionist painting because the turquoise, blue, and aquamarine waters are not static but something living and inviting. Perhaps it was the fact that as we climbed down the hillside we passed families of goats who were returning to be milked. Or the majestic solitude of that place with just a few other visitors. It was much more than either of us expected. And now that I try to describe it, I find that I can’t quite manage. Like all beautiful things, it woke a sense of wonder in us, and a kind of hunger, a desire to be close, to soak in the horizon, to swim through those crystaline waters, and a sense of humility and gratefulness. It may sound as though I’m being dramatic, we were just ‘going to the beach’. But that is what we found. Or it may be more appropriate to say that beauty found us, the wise goats wandering out of the mountainside, and the gorgeous lagoon, welcoming us, inviting us for a swim.

Jesse Blackwood

Jesse is a writer, tour guide, and teacher at heart. With nearly a decade of experience leading groups around Europe, Jesse’s love for exploring and sharing the beauty of the world is contagious.