Váï — For an exotic Caribbean vibe – this is where Mars’s “taste of paradise” Bounty bar advert was filmed in the early 1970s. Also known as Finikodassos (Palm Forest), this gently curving golden sand beach is backed by Europe’s largest natural palm grove – some 500 densely clustered trees in an oasis fed by a stream – which have stood here for more than 3,000 years. According to (spurious) legend, the palms grew from date stones discarded by Saracen pirates and washed up by the sea. They are, in fact, a species of palm (Phoenix theophrasti) native to much of southern Greece and known to the ancients. Happily, they seem to be immune to the depredations of the Rhyncophorus ferrugineus weevil which has killed most of Greece’s other palms – the trees here secrete a goo which envelops and suffocates the creatures.
After the beach, visit Toploú Monastery (Apr-Oct daily, 9am–7pm, winter Fri only), a 15th-century fortified retreat, housing a fine collection of Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons. The largest landowner in the region, Toplou counts Váï Beach among its properties.
From the popular north coast resort of Sitía, public buses run several times daily to Váï (14 miles/23km distant) near the island’s northeastern tip. From Váï’s car park (€3 fee charged), it’s a 2-minute stroll to the beach.
Paleóhora – Arguably the best beach on the southwest coast – or rather two beaches, bracketing the lively resort here: long, sandy Pahiá Ámmos stretching west, and compact, all-pebbly Halikiá on the east.
Four public buses daily from Haniá, 75km away, a 90-minute journey. Otherwise, arrive by daily small boat (schedules at anendyk.gr) from the resorts of Hóra Sfakíon, Loutró, Agía Roúmeli and Soúgia to the east.
Falásarna – In the far northwest corner of Crete, some 7m/11km from the nearest proper town (Kíssamos), Falásarna consists of a resort area – very scattered accommodation, shops, eateries –ensconced in olive groves and greenhouses, with narrow access roads leading down to discrete sandy patches divided by headlands, along some 2.5mi/4km of scenic coast. About halfway along this, ‘Big Beach’ is the Big Deal locally, about 1300yd of thick blonde sand lapped by appealingly green sea, though be warned that it can get very windy. The next best option is some ways north, a much smaller cove with parking, near the prominently signposted Alea and Sunset accommodation spots.
From Kíssamos, paved roads wind over the hills via Gramvoúsa village to the Falásarna area; bus service takes a longer (1hr 40min) route via Plátanos village, only a few times daily in season. Come with your own wheels.
Elafonísi – You’ll have seen it on posters or brochures long before you arrive, so will have no trouble recognising it – a low islet tethered to the most southwesterly point of the Cretan mainland by a sandspit tinted pink from all the ground-up shells in it, the two cradling a shallow lagoon with tropical-turquoise water. The open sea south of the spit actually proves more swimmable. Although parking is, surprisingly, free, sunbeds and brollies on the beach are not, and those wanting to just spread a towel/mat or pitch a beach tent are urged briskly by wardens to remove themselves from the vicinity of the concessions.
There’s just 1 daily morning bus from Haniá in season, plus boat trips (dept. 10am) from Paleóhora; otherwise it’s your own car. The easiest road in (with the remotest petrol station) goes via Élos. If you’re based in Paleóhora, you can vary the return by following more direct roads via Sklavopoúla and Koundoúra; despite threatening appearances on the map, the first 12km of uphill dirt road to Sklavopoúla from Elafonísi hamlet is passable with care in an ordinary car – allow 40 minutes in first or second gear. Your reward in Sklavopoúla are 2 frescoed, unlocked 15th/16th-century churches to see (the path down to them starts by the kafenío).
Soúgia – The little beach resort of Soúgia lies about 45miles/75km southwest of Haniá. The twisty drive there is eminently scenic, over hills green with olive and juniper groves, past the occasional village and the western outliers of the Lefká Óri (White Mountains), with pines flanking the final approach. The water is warm, and clean beyond the surf zone, though getting in is easier on the feet towards the west end of the beach. Except in southerly conditions, the beach is generally wind-free, with Gávdos islet on the horizon.
Soúgia is among the last genuinely ‘alternative’ spots on the Cretan south coast, with a seasonal colony of tents and caravans at the east end of the almost mile-long beach. A relative lack of accommodation means that ‘conventional’ tourists are still just in a minority.
There are perhaps two buses daily between Soúgia and Haniá. Lots of people arrive on foot from Paleóhora, but the most enjoyable way of showing up is by ANENDYK ferry, which plies between Hóra Sfakíon and Paleóhora (and Gávdos islet) all season long – details at anendyk.gr.
Mýrtos – Mýrtos was, along with Váï and Mátala, one of the original Cretan hippie meccas of the 1960s and 1970s, and despite gentrification still retains some of that ethos. Even when the rest of eastern Crete is wind-buffeted, the kilometre-long, fine-pebble beach here at the base of Mt Díkti’s foothills stays protected.
There are five daily buses Mon–Fri from Ierápetra, eastern Crete’s second town, just 11 miles/17km east, but only two on Saturday and none Sunday. Mýrtos is conveniently just off the most direct route between Ierápetra and Iráklio, so it’s very easy to just drop in for a few hours whilst touring.