Western Crete has some wonderful golden sand beaches as well as mountain villages, monasteries, caves, and archaeological sites to discover.
Here are some of the highlights of Western Crete that we haven’t covered elsewhere.
Where other caves on Crete are filled with myths and legends, the Melidoni Cave is filled with the spirits of the people who died there, and is one of the most chilling memorials on Crete. In 1824 when the Cretans were fighting for their independence from the Turks, 300 villagers hid inside the cave from approaching Turkish forces. When asked to surrender the villagers refused.
At this the Turkish commander blocked the cave entrance to stop the air supply. The villagers created new air holes in the network of passages, which the Turks were equally quick to seal. The Turks then opened the entrance slightly and began bonfires whose smoke choked every person to death. A memorial in the centre of the cave marks the spot where the bones of the people were gathered together years later and buried.
Without this background the cave would merely be an interesting natural phenomenon, comprising one large chamber at the foot of a staircase carved out of the rocks. This can be slippy and is also very poorly lit, so take a torch if you can.
The cave is still living, with stalactites and stalagmites still being formed, so don’t touch them or it might ‘kill’ the new formation. New areas of the cave are still being explored. You’ll find the cave near the village of Melidoni, about 30 km (18.6 miles) east of Rethymnon.
The site of the city of Ancient Eleftherna is one of the most impressive on the island, on a ridge in a valley high in the hills and between two villages. Don’t stop in the village of Eleftherna itself (although you can reach the site from there after a long walk) but go on to Archéa Eleftherna (Ancient Eleftherna) from where the remains are more easily reached.
Like Lató, Eleftherna was a major Doric city, and later a Roman settlement before falling into ruin. Not too many remains can be seen, but the setting is superb. The site is close to the town of Margarites and about a 30-minute drive southeast of Rethymnon.
The beaches along the north coast of western Crete include some long stretches of golden sand, with several busy holiday spots among them. East of Irákleio, the first two main resorts are Balí and Panormo, the latter being smaller but having the better beach. It is only west of here though that the beaches really come into their own.
East of Rethymnon, and in the town itself, are some lovely stretches of sand, with more to be found if you carry on driving west towards Chania. Look for the sign for Petres Bridge where there is access to a beautiful long beach with a few cafés, sunbeds and parasols. There is parking and more facilities opposite the turning for Epískopi, with more golden sand running for miles.
One of the most attractive resorts is Georgioúpoli, where the wide and sandy beach is backed by dunes and the town itself has not lost its character despite being popular with visitors. Kalíves, closer to Chania, also has a good sandy beach. Plataniás is a large, lively resort west of Chania with a booming nightlife scene in summer.
One of the main towns between Rethymnon and the south coast, about a 40-minute drive south from Rethymnon, Spíli is the ideal place to break a journey and is a town of minor delights. It huddles beneath mountain slopes, and its back streets show a busy hill town a world away from the holiday resorts on the coast.
In the centre of the town on a small square up some steps from the main street is a delightful Venetian fountain, comprising a row of 19 small lions’ heads spouting water into a stone trough.
The monastery at Préveli is one of the loveliest in the whole of southern Crete, for its setting, its appearance and its revered role in Greek history. It only dates back to the 17th-19th centuries, comparatively modern in Cretan terms, but in its isolated setting and with its grounds decorated with palm trees and pomegranate trees, no photographer can resist it. Its walls have been accurately described as ‘lion-coloured’, and inside the walled enclosure is a chapel, the cells where the monks still live, and peaceful courtyards.
One of the monastery’s cellars has been effectively turned into a small museum, a long and narrow vaulted room whose alcoves and cabinets contain icons, vestments, bibles and other religious items. One display tells the story of the monastery’s main claim to fame in modern times: its role in the Battle of Crete. The monks here during World War II risked the wrath of the Nazis by providing shelter to Allied troops trapped on Crete after the evacuation, and subsequently aided the Cretan resistance movement.
The magnificently-adorned chapel has an elaborate gold and red Bishop's Chair, an ornate pulpit, icon-covered walls and, in the centre, a cross said to contain a piece of the True Cross.
In the courtyard nearby, an old fountain exhorts visitors to wash their sins, not merely their face.
For those who want to bathe more fully, there are several good beaches nearby, including Préveli Beach and Palm Beach, both accessible by following the main road heading east from the monastery. Preveli is about an hour’s drive west from Ayia Galini, and a 50-minute drive due south from Rethymnon across the island.
With its long, wide beach backed by tamarisk trees, Plakiás is a terrific south coast retreat for those who want to get away from it all without completely leaving civilisation behind. There are a few hotels, bars and restaurants, and the resort certainly bears no resemblance to what it was twenty years ago, but it’s still attractive with a long promenade, a more remote feel than many other resorts on Crete, and plenty to do.
A long curve of sand sweeps away at the eastern end of town, and there are more good beaches if you continue along the coast to the west. There are hill walks to the north, and a walk to the monastery at Préveli too, while drivers can enjoy two of Crete’s most dramatic gorges, Kotsifóu and Kourtaliótiko, to the northeast. Plakias is an hour’s drive west from Ayia Galini and 50 minutes from Rethymnon.
The Venetian Fortress at Frangokástello is one of the largest on the island. Its remote setting adds to the strange feeling that it has about it, being built here in 1371 to help protect the south coast from pirates and other raiders. It was also to be used to keep the unruly local Cretans under the thumb of the Venetians.
Its imposing nature is somewhat undermined when you arrive, to discover that today it is a mere shell, with nothing inside those sturdy walls. Still, it is in a lovely spot with good beaches nearby and marshland where wildlife flourishes.
A ghostly legend lingers at Frangokástello. Local people call them the Droussoulites, or Dew Shades, because they are said to appear with the morning dew on 28th May each year. In May 1828, the Greeks raised their flag at the castle, in defiance of the ruling Turks. In the subsequent battle, 385 Cretans were killed, and it is their ghosts that the local people claim can be seen every year marching towards Frangokástello.
Samaria may be more famous as the longest gorge in Greece but the Ímbros Gorge offers a delightful walk, more easily accessible, and not as crammed with other walkers. The gorge is about 20 km (12 miles) east of Samaria, and while lacking that gorge’s dramatic features, still offers a good half-day’s walk through some of southern Crete’s spectacular scenery.
The entrance to the gorge is just south of the village of Ímbros and runs for about 6 km (4 miles) towards the sea, stopping just short. It can easily be done by anyone reasonably fit, and the rock formations, deep sides, and abundant wild flowers are superb, especially in the late spring.
Tour companies in nearby towns offer organised trips, which are worth considering as a one-way walk, even if you have your own car, needs a little organising.
The main town of the Sfakiá region of southern Crete is a beautiful, small harbour town with an atmosphere all its own. Sadly all that many visitors see of it is at the end of the Samaria Gorge walk, after which boats bring them to Chora Sfakion to catch their coaches home.
Anyone who spends a few days here will be captivated by its lazy charm and lovely setting, and the peace that descends when the day's visitors have left. The focus of the town is its small harbour, on one side of which is a line of cafés and restaurants, a great place for lunch or dinner. Beyond here the streets of the town start to rise, some steeply, hemmed in as it is by the lower slopes of the Lefká Óri, or White Mountains.
It was through these mountains that Allied Troops were evacuated after the Battle of Crete, arriving exhausted at Chora Sfakion to await the rescuing ships. Today there is only a small pebble beach, but there are better beaches along the nearby coasts, good walks in the mountains, and a relaxing get-away-from-it-all feeling.
The largest of Crete’s offshore islands, Gávdos is also the most southerly point in Europe, the spot marked with a concrete sculpture of a chair. It will take a bit of a hike to get to that point on the island’s southern tip, but a visit here will certainly show you a part of Crete that few people see.
With a resident population of only about 50 people, there’s not much by way of facilities, but you might find a few rooms to rent and many people camp there in the summer. There are also one or two small cafés in summer, which do simple food.
Beaches are good, if you don’t mind the walks to get to them as there is no public transport, and while Gávdos might seem like heaven to some people, it ‘s not a place for everyone. If you do want to visit you can get there by boat from Paleochora or Chora Sfakion.
With its blue and white buildings set around a cove against a stunning mountain backdrop, Loutró is one of the most picturesque villages on the island. There is nothing much to do here, which is where its attraction lies for many visitors. You needn’t waste time looking for the road to Loutró as there isn’t one. You either need to walk from the nearest road a few kilometers away, or do what most people do and take the boat in and out.
This tiny coastal village is little more than a waterfront strip which has several tavernas and rooms to rent. There is a small strip of pebble beach, which suits some people, though the more energetic ones walk to the better beaches nearby.
Walking is one thing Loutró is good for, with hikes both into the mountains and along the coast in either direction. In summer the place does seem to be overwhelmed by visitors, vastly outnumbering local people, but in comparison to most places on Crete it’s still an idyllic retreat.
To the immediate east of Chaniá, the Akrotíri peninsula is often neglected by visitors, but it contains some lovely hill scenery, ancient monasteries, and some of the most peaceful spots on the north coast — this despite the fact that Chaniá’s airport and ferry port are both located here.
The easiest way of getting here from Chaniá is to drive east out of the town centre towards the airport, and follow the occasional signs for the Venizélos Graves. These are on a hillside in a small park, with terrific views over the city. Crete’s premier politician and one-time Greek leader, Eleftherios Venizélos, lies buried here, and nearby is the grave of his son, Sophocles.
Further out on the peninsula are three monasteries — Ayía Triádha, Gouvernétou and Korakíes. Ayía Triádha, with its orange-coloured walls, is particularly beautiful and should not be missed. The others are a few kilometres beyond up a winding road.
On the far side of the peninsula is Soúdha Bay and the town of Soúdha. On the outskirts of this is the beautiful and peaceful Allied War Cemetery, where lie hundreds of soldiers who died during World War II. The headstones look out over the water, the young men buried in the soil of the island they tried to defend. (Also see our page on Maleme and the German War Cemetery).