Top Beaches of Western Crete

By Chris Deliso for Travel Intelligence (2005)

It is embraced by the Mediterranean, the Libyan and its own eponymous sea: and Crete, Greece’s biggest and most varied island, reciprocates the affection with rocky outcroppings, hidden coves and sandy beaches that run all along its winding coastline, kissing the lapping waves.

For beach lovers, the western coast of Crete has the most secrets to divulge. Owing to the geographical isolation of large parts of it, this sparsely-populated region (even in summer) is ideal for enjoying solitude in the crystal-clear Cretan waters.

Despite the island’s high profile as a tourist destination, it is still a place for the adventurous; its mountains and gorges will, happily, always stymie overdevelopment, and its beaches will always captivate.

In the island’s extreme northwestern tip lies the mountainous and uninhabited Gramvousa Peninsula. With a sheltered bay and two unspoiled islets in close proximity, Gramvousa is an excellent place for swimming, snorkeling or just lounging in the summer sun. While it is possible to navigate the peninsula’s one dirt track by car, this can only be done with a four-wheel drive vehicle (it’s not uncommon to encounter motorists with tire blow-outs on the way), as the road is rocky and very narrow. For this reason, most people opt to take a day trip via boat, leaving early in the morning from Kisamos (just before the peninsula, on the main road from Chania) and returning in the evening.

Following the coast down from Gramvousa, one finds after a few kilometers the long, lonely Falasarna. Almost four kilometers of pure sand and shallow, warm water, Falasarna is an excellent beach getaway. Although there is no village in the immediate area of the beach, a handful of rooms-for-rent are located nearby. From the beach here one stares in vain at the western horizon in search of land; but behind the setting sun lies nothing but the Mediterranean. The nearest land is the boot of Italy, too distant to emerge even as a shadow.

Yet at Falasarna the past does creep up on you, in the form of crumbling ruins – an ancient acropolis and a temple, standing in thickets behind the far end of the beach. The rugged coastline south of Falasarna is mostly uninhabited too, dotted by little coves often not accessible by car. But with a good vehicle ready for the tortuous turns and imperfections of an authentic Cretan ?B? road, one can make it all the way south without ever getting too far from the sea.

Five kilometers south of the sublime Monastery of Chrysoskalitissas, the island abruptly terminates in the oft-sung sands of Elafonisi. In the afternoon sun, the light sparking over its translucent green waters, and its islets speckled with white and pink sands, seem like some mirage out of the tropics. The vivid visual contrasts of Elafonisi are only augmented by the sensory: the water, which is very shallow for a long way out, is intermingled with cold currents and sudden bursts of warmth.

Elafonissi is a beach that even normally apathetic Greeks respect; you often hear it mentioned when mainlanders mention their ideal island destinations. As with Falasarna, there are a few places around that rent rooms for the night. But for the majority of people who don’t struggle with the poor area roads to get there, the ferry ride from the beach to Paleochora – southwestern Crete’s main village – provides quick access back to “civilization.”

As befitting its capital status, Paleochora is full of well-maintained rooms for rent and waterfront restaurants. A decidedly laid-back atmosphere pervades; it seems there is something eternally and indescribably 1972 about the place.

Paleochora’s main beach spreads in a semi-circle in front of the town, offering not very secluded but still low-key lounging. This is until late August, of course, when the Meltemi winds blow up from Africa, and formidable cresting waves entice windsurfers to try their luck.

Lying as it does on the western edge of a rippling set of cliffs and mountains that stretch for almost 50 kilometers east, Paleochora’s road access can seem onerous. Three ‘major’ roads, full of nasty curves and inclines, leave the town for all points north. But for those wishing to keep exploring the south coast, the only options are to hike or, more easily, hop on the ferry – a fantastic journey that offers breathtaking views of the clouds envelop the southern cliffs, and one that takes about three hours until its termination point in Chora Sfakion. Along the way, there are several tiny coves accessible only by caïque (a small fishing boat), as well as the glistening getaway of Loutro, an oasis of white-plaster houses set in the folds of the cliffs.

While Chora Sfakion is a remarkable little village in its own right, one that seems to slide out of the mountain right down to its canopied dock, there are no real beaches here and so one must continue on another 15 kilometers eastward, to the enchanted beach of Frangokastello (literally, Frankish castle), so named due to the presence of a magnificent 13th-century Venetian castle situated right above the beach. It has been restored reasonably well and is free to explore. On balmy summer evenings, performances of traditional Greek music and theater are held here.

The sheer existence of Frangokastello speaks volumes about the temperament of Crete’s natives. The castle was created during the Venetian occupation of the island (after the Western powers dismantled the Byzantine Empire during the Fourth Crusade in 1204), to combat the rebellious Cretans, whose resistance was centered on the mountainous and forbidding region of Sfakia to the west. The idyllic setting of the castle on the peaceful, sandy beach belies its violent history as a battleground under both Venetian and the later Turkish rulers. Local legend even has it that an inexplicable moving shadow across the beach every May is really the somber annual procession of the ghosts of Cretan soldiers massacred by the Turks in the bloody uprising of 1828. It’s hard to discern such karma, however, in the placid warm waters of Frangokastello today.

While a few rooms-for-rent, as well as seafood restaurants, are to be found along the flat main road above the beach, travelers pressing ahead will encounter some of the most spectacular scenery in Crete. After some twists and turns and white-knuckle driving, one plunges through tunnels and the Kotsifou Gorge and onto the hilltop villages of Selia and Myrthios, from where can be seen the long, enveloping contours of Plakias Bay below. As with Paleochora, Plakias is not exactly deserted; the village has a lively if contained tourist scene in summer, but its main beach is more than big enough for the demand. The natural protection of the jutting eastern headland makes Plakias Bay one of the best places for serious swimmers in all of Crete.

Across this high and rocky headland which separates Plakias from the small tourist resort of Damnoni extends another beach set in a still gentler bay. If the plethora of staked umbrellas dissuades, seekers of quietude can just hop over the next hill, or swim around the rocks, to a tiny cove named by locals “One Rock Beach”, after the large boulder standing a few feet offshore. Here, the waters are calm, nudity is commonplace, and tiny fish of a hundred vivid hues skirt and dance through the swimmer’s fingers. And it’s not completely unknown here to find Belgian snorkelers cursing while extracting needles from their fingers, after a long day of ripping out purple sea urchins from the rocks. Apparently, they make great lamps.

That said, the bashful scorpion fish that blend in with and hide in the submerged crevices of cleft rocks tend to be left alone.

Finally, some 15 kilometers east of Plakias comes the little revelation of one of Crete’s most photographed beaches – Preveli. One could argue that in Preveli, the always ambiguous division of western Crete from the rest of the island is realized. This remarkable stretch of sand, split in half by the icy-cold Megalopotamos River and flanked by palm trees and forest, lies beneath the flowering, well-kept monastery of the same name. During World War II, Preveli?s monks granted retreating Allied forces safe passage by sea to Egypt – a brave act which would result in a revenge attack by the Germans. However, numerous important icons, texts and letters survive, and are on display inside the church.

Clambering down a seemingly never-ending set of twisting stairs, one arrives at the beach of Preveli. Although it is small enough, and crowded in summer, Preveli offers its fair share of adventure. There is the river, its source receding in thick forest up beyond the beach, to be hiked. In addition, there’s the jagged Preveli coast, where curvature and rocky outcroppings have conspired to create a washing-machine mixture of rolling waves and roiling currents, a whirling cauldron that has occasionally terrified even the most athletic of landlubbers. But one runs less a risk of being swept out to sea than in being swept away, if one is so lucky, in hard-to-find sandy sea caves which require much dexterity to enter and can challenge, given the right company, the human capacity for the sensual.