The challenge: Find a reasonably priced European hiking vacation for the first week of April. That was the task at hand when my husband, Walter, and I started planning an inn-to-inn adventure with three other couples.

France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and southern Germany were nos, because the Alps would be at the tail end of ski season. Ireland and Wales weren't challenging enough for us — better to save them for when our knees can no longer withstand steep descents.

Then a friend, whose parents are from Greece, suggested the southwestern coast of Crete, Greece's largest island — 250 miles south of Athens in the Mediterranean. Crete's weather sounded promising, with April temperatures averaging 52 to 67 degrees. And the trail, a section of Europe's storied, 6,200-mile E4 route, includes challenging gorges and seaside walks.

The only challenge was that I couldn't tell from the photos online if this region was beautiful enough to justify 12 hours of travel from Minneapolis. I knew that I'd love the views of the sea. But the landscape itself looked dry and scrubby, perhaps even barren.

Those concerns fell away the minute we arrived in Chania, a historic port town on the island known for its Venetian and Turkish architecture. It deserved more than the 15 hours we stayed there.

Feeling the scale

On our first morning, we dragged our roller bags over Chania's cobblestone streets to meet up with a tour van that transported us (and our luggage, which would travel onward to each town we slept in) to the trailhead of the Imbros Gorge, a five-mile downhill walk slicing through rock formations that shoot up 900 feet.

Much of the hike was shaded not just by the sides of the canyon, but by fig and pine and cypress trees. There were boulders and gnarled driftwood and goats balancing on cliffside footholds the size of matchbooks. After the gorge, it was an easy one-hour walk to Chora Sfakion, a summer resort town that was just waking up for the season.

The next day's hike to the town of Loutro was more challenging — and anxiety-producing — than advertised, with narrow cliff walks covered in loose rock. But it was also where Crete really started to show her stuff.

The vistas were the same as I'd seen in the tourism photos, but now I could feel the scale, and take in the way the trail curved so high above the sea that you felt like you were floating. Pops of bright green sprouted up between the rocks. The sea sparkled in the sun. We swam at Glyka Nera, which is Greek for "Sweetwater" and refers to the fresh water that seeps up from beneath the beach's white pebbles.

A man in Chora Sfakion had warned us that it was too cold for swimming this time of year. "Only the Scandinavians swim in April," he said dismissively, which we took as an invitation . The water was the color of a robin's egg, and significantly warmer than Lake Superior in August. Because you can only get there by foot or boat, the beach was empty. We changed into our suits behind the feathery foliage of tamarisk trees. Bliss.

We spent the next two days taking day hikes in and out of tiny Loutro, also only accessible via boat or footpaths. Most of the restaurants were still closed — workers were painting doors and fences to get ready for summer crowds — and the storied Cretan cuisine was not on display. But that hardly mattered. Being in a place that has no cars was special enough.

And the hikes, including an uphill climb through the Aradena Gorge, and a beach walk (more challenging than expected, due to the deep sand) to a seaside Byzantine chapel, were spectacular.

The world stretched out

We ended the trip with two nights at Milia Mountain Retreat, about an hour's drive up from the coast into a hidden corner of the White Mountains. A restored 16th-century settlement of stone houses, this rustic ecolodge is a page out of a novel about the land that time forgot.

Milia was also the best opportunity we had to enjoy Cretan food: salads picked from the garden, fennel pie, rabbit and mushroom tart, desserts made with locally harvested thyme honey and yogurt ice cream.

So-called Judas trees were a tangle of bare branches and bubblegum-colored flowers. A network of hiking trails curved through groves of chestnuts and olive trees, and opened up to vistas that made the world feel like it was stretching out after a long sleep.

It was the perfect end to a trip rooted in slow travel. And a place I will return to again and again in my imagination.

If you go: Hiking Crete

Getting there: We flew Delta/KLM to Athens, connecting in Amsterdam. From there we flew on Sky Express to Chania, Greece; the flight is 55 minutes.

What to do: We booked our trip through the Natural Adventure (, a British company specializing in self-guided walking and hiking trips. We customized our itinerary by choosing our hotels, which they reserved for us. Fees included hiking routes, transportation and luggage transfers to each destination.

Where to stay: Milia Mountain Retreat, an ecolodge near Vlatos (

Elizabeth Foy Larsen is the author of "111 Places in the Twin Cities That You Must Not Miss."