Reading the Cretan geography has always been a challenge, as I tend to think of a territory from a north-to-south point of view. Due to its particular shape, though, it’s more practical to go the other way, from east to west. My bad habit remains, but I’ll try to take a strip of southern land and show you the best of it. As some Cretans say, many jewels of the island are in the south, bathed by the Libyan sea.
The small capital of Sfakia finds its place between the high mountains and the stunning sea. It’s the must-go area go if you are staying nearby and you need a bank or the post office (unless you want to drive for about 50 km – as we did – going through the White Mountains because their ATM was out of order… but that’s another story; take it into account and plan accordingly!).
Tavernas and traditional restaurants dot the seafront promenade, and there are some good and cheap options for accommodation as well.
To visit some of the most famous southern beaches of Crete you must reach the port of Chora Sfakion. There are ferries departing daily to visit Loutro, Agia Roumeli, Sweetwater, Marmara and the island of Gavdos.
Chora Skakion is undoubtedly a milestone of Crete as far as its history and independence.
Pay a visit to the Cave of Daskalogiannis, a hideout in the cliffs where the Cretan rebel planned his revolutionary moves, as well as the nearby village of Anopolis.
The road goes west, ascends the mountainside, and takes you to a small town 600 m height above sea level. Here you can see the statue of Ioannis Daskalogiannis, leader of the revolution against the Turks.
About 14 km from Chora Sfakion lies Frangokastello, a tiny village famous for the impressive Fortezza right in front of the sea. In this lonely and relaxed seaside town, there are no other attractions than the castle and a fine sand beach, ideal for children, with shallow waters but a bit windy on occasions. It’s the perfect place to disconnect from everyday life, enjoy the local food and get to know the traditions of the island.
Even though it seems rather impressive when you look at it from distant roads, or even turning your head up while on the beach, nothing much remains but its huge walls and the corner towers.
The Venetians built the fortress between 1371 and 1374 trying to deter pirate attacks and to bring order to the area of Sfakia, whose inhabitants are still known for their rebel character and indomitable spirit.
A curious legend lives among the walls of the castle. During an important battle fought at Frangokastello, in May 1828, hundreds of Sfakiots led by the Greek patriot Dalianis, in an attempt to spread the War of Independence from mainland Greece, occupied the castle but were killed by the Turks. Here imagination fuels the legend, locals claim that around the anniversary of the battle, shadows of the armed Cretan soldiers seem to march towards the castle. They’re known as Drosoulites (the dewy ones), because they appear in the mist at dawn. A phenomenon that has been more than once explained as meteorological.
Where to stay
In the need for some utter disconnection, we spent about five days in Frangokastello and chose a family accommodation. We were incredibly happy to discover a host which was also an amazing cook… So much so, we never looked for a restaurant in town. His name is Yorgos and we definitely had a great time with his family.
One of the perfect examples of the southern coast of Crete is Loutro, with pristine crystal waters, a laid-back atmosphere and not much to do: hiking, swimming and splurging in local tastes. Enjoy the calm waters of this bay or visit one of the many fish tavernas that populate the seafront.
Loutro is easy to reach by ferry from Chora Sfakion; however, there’s no shortage of hiking opportunities for those in search of a little adventure. The hiking trail from Chora Sfakion to Loutro takes about two hours and there’s a rest stop in the beautiful Glyka Nera (Sweetwater beach). This is such a wonderful place that many people just decide to stop there and never make it to destination. If you head west, instead, the road gets tougher, mostly during the hot summers. In that direction you can reach Marmara, Agios Pavlos and, after a while, Agia Roumeli.
However, if you decide that Loutro has all you need, just lay your beach towel on the smooth pebbles and chill until it’s time to sail back to Chora Sfakion. For lunch try the local fish. Notos is a small taverna almost at the end of the promenade, they serve incredibly tasty local dishes at very convenient prices.
If you approach the south from Rethymno, you will go pass through a few spectacular gorges to reach the seaside. We chose to drive through the narrow Kotisfou Gorge, the bends of the road produce stunning landscapes as you move forward, forcing you to pull over to take pictures and admire the landscape. There’s wonderful church perched on the side of the mountain once you’ve passed the gorge; the scene is worth the drive.
There are several beaches near Plakias, other than the more crowded Plakias itself. Most of them are divided by rocky promontories offering dramatic views. Dhamnoni is a fantastic long beach of yellow sand with incredible crystal waters and a secluded angle for naturists. Other pretty places to spend the day include the beaches of Amoudhi and Skhinaria, groups of divers often visit these for their submarine landscapes.
Elafonisi is what I consider the real Pearl of the South. At least for me, there is nothing like knowing I’ll be spending a day in Elafonisi. The first time I was there, it left such an impression on me that I never disregard a possibility of seeing it again.
How to reach Elafonisi
Though there is more than a road to reach this southern tip (Google maps suggests three), locals will recommend you to go through Topolia gorge. Even when it can get dangerously narrow at times, the views are gorgeous.
And if you do not suffer from vertigo, let those jaw-dropping heights surprise you and the wild nature of Crete inspire you. If you do – like me – take vertigo seriously, take a deep breath and relax. After you have visited once, it will all look less dramatic the second time.
Once the gorges are over, the beauty of Elafonisi extends in front of you. The sandy landscape turns into infinity. The most amazing blue mixes with the pinkish shades of the sandy beach. A perfect place where it’s impossible not to feel great. And, on a personal level, I dare say this is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Definitely my favorite place in Greece.
Where to stay
After a long ride from Kissamos to Elafonisi, we decided to spend the night and enjoy another full day on the beach. We had dinner in Glykeria, a fantastic taverna which served us some very tasty local lamb. We spent the night at Elafonisi Resort, a pretty array of bungalows among fantastic olive groves.
Just a tip: if you happen to drive around Elafonisi at night, open your eyes wide… chances are you encounter a deer or two wandering in the darkness. It was impossible to picture them, but they were a feast for the kids!
More about the South:
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