The best beaches in Crete, Greece
Elafonísi Beach comes as an exotic shock. The almost tropical waters (sheltered by the islet of the same name) boast white sand tinged pink by coral, aquamarine waters, salt-encrusted rock pools and bright-red starfish. The water is incredibly warm, calm and shallow and the islet itself is a short wade across the sand bar.
Koureménos Beach is one of Crete’s top windsurfing spots. Not surprisingly, it can be windy (a funnel effect creates ideal windsurfing conditions; nearby Hióna Beach is far more sheltered), but it’s a fine, long sand-and-pebble beach, with several tavernas and places to stay – even a bar – directly behind. There’s also quite a community of camper vans in summer, and an excellent windsurf centre, too.
While Mátala was once known for its cave-dwelling hippy community, now the town never feels anything less than touristy. That said, the beach is excellent, the atmosphere is boisterous and you’ll never be short of somewhere to enjoy a cocktail at sunset; with the caves lit up at night, the beach is an impossibly romantic setting. If the crowds get too much you can scramble over the hill to Red Beach, which, with its reddish-gold sand, nudists and scruffy, seasonal kantína, does its best to uphold Mátala’s traditions.
Vái beach, Crete © Shutterstock
The palm-lined beach at Vái makes for a thoroughly secular contrast to the spiritual tranquillity of nearby Toploú monastery; as you lie on the fine sand in the early morning, especially in early spring or late autumn, you could almost imagine yourself to be on a Caribbean island. In summer the beach fills to overflowing, but even then, for a couple of hours at each end of the day, you should be able to enjoy Vái the way it ought to be.
Mýrtos is a charming, white-walled village with a long shingle beach. Even in August, when the place can get pretty full, the pace of life remains slow, the atmosphere pleasantly laid back. Apart from topping up your tan, swimming, renting a boat or lingering over a drink, there’s not a great deal to do in Mýrtos, but the surrounding countryside offers a couple of important Minoan sites, as well as the opportunity for mountain hikes.
Just 3km beyond Horafákia is Stavrós and its near-perfect beach, an almost completely enclosed circular bay. The sea is dead calm with gently shelving sand underfoot, making it ideal for kids. It’s an extraordinary-looking place, too, with a sheer, bare mountainside rising just 100m away from you on the far side of the bay. It’s also the site of a cave, whose entrance can just about be seen from the beach, in which there is an ancient sanctuary. Stavrós beach is often crowded, but even so it’s a great place to bask for a few hours, and there’s also a far less visited patch of sand facing directly out to sea.
The most popular way to escape Ieráetra’s often stifling summer temperatures is to take a boat trip to Gaidhouronísi, some 10km offshore. A real desert island a little over 4km in length, with a fine cedar forest, some excellent sandy beaches, a couple of tavernas and the fabulous “Shell Beach”, covered with discarded shells from countless generations of molluscs.
For peaceful lassitude the beach at Frangokástello is among the best spots in Crete, with fine sand and crystal-clear water (with good snorkelling opportunities). If you want company you’ll find it around the castle, where the best part of the sand is sheltered and slowly shelving; for solitude, head west along the shoreline. There are beaches to the east too: follow the coastal path for ten to fifteen minutes and you’ll arrive at the top of a low cliff overlooking perhaps 1km of beautiful, deserted sand and rocks.
Frangokástello beach, Crete © Shutterstock
From the sea, Sweetwater Beach appears as a long, extremely narrow slice of grey between sheer ochre cliffs and a dark, deep sea. Closer up, the beach seems much larger, but there’s still a frightening sense of being isolated between unscaleable mountains and an endless stretch of water. The beach takes its name from the small springs that bubble up beneath the pebbles to provide fresh, cool drinking water – you can dig a hole almost anywhere to find water (take care not to pollute the groundwater with soap).
Gávdhos is the largest of Crete’s offshore islands. Its attraction lies in an enduring isolation that its inaccessible position has helped to preserve; if all you want is a beach and a taverna to grill your fish, this is the place for you. Kamaréles – the beach at Tripití, the most southerly point of Europe –is pebbly with little shade, but the water is brilliantly clear and a snorkeller’s paradise, with plenty of aquatic life. When you need a break, you can do what everyone else comes here to do: climb the famous three-holed rock, sit in the giant chair, and dangle your feet off the edge of a continent.
Top image: Luoro, Crete © Dmitry Laudin/Shutterstock