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Crete's Best Beaches

With hundreds of miles of dramatic coastline, Crete serves up an almost endless supply of beaches. Many are soft and powdery, some are action-packed with water sports, and others are blissfully untrammeled. The very best bookend the island: palm-shaded Vai to the east and Elafonisi to the west, where white sands ring an islet just offshore.

Lovers of sand and surf quickly discover that there are really two distinct types of beaches on Crete: the highly developed strands on the north coast and the rugged getaway beaches on the south coast. Northern beaches stretch along the flat, sandy coastal plain between the island's major cities and are easily reached by the east–west national highway, as well as by an extensive bus network. Most are packed with umbrellas and sun beds and backed by hotels, including some of Greece's most luxurious resorts. Beaches on the south coast are tucked into coves and bays, often at the end of poor roads; a rental car is a must to explore the south coast beaches.

Good to Know

All you need on Crete's north shore beaches are a bathing suit and towel—everything else, from beach lounges to umbrellas and snorkeling gear, are available for rent at most.

Beaches at Rethymnon and Malia are even equipped with lifeguards, a rare species in Greece, making these sands especially safe for kids.

On the south coast, equip yourself with a good map to find tucked away coves and remote beaches.

Matala

At this scrappy, low-key resort near the Palace of Phaistos, a place on the sandy beach comes with a remarkable view—a cliff face at one end of the sand is etched with seaside caves that have sheltered everyone from ancient Romans to 1960s hippies.

Sun beds and umbrellas are available for rent, but you're welcome to stretch out on your own towel next to them.

For a more idyllic experience, make the 1-km (½-mi) trek across the adjoining headland to Red beach, named for the clay cliffs that surround this remote cove, where the sound of goat bells from herb-scented hillsides mixes with the sound of the surf.

A couple of buses a day serve Matala from Heraklion.

Vai

A beautiful palm forest and soft sands put this beach at the eastern end of Crete on just about everyone's list of top Greek beaches.

Such assets, of course, don't go unnoticed, and it seems that just about anyone who steps foot on Crete beats the well-worn path to Vai sooner or later (the beach is about 150 km [90 mi] east of Heraklion).

Crystal clear waters are sublime for swimming, snorkeling is rewarding, and concessions provide food and drink. Best of all, a short hike across a hill at the south end of the beach leads to a delightful strand that is blessedly uncrowded.

Elafonisi

A Robinson Crusoe–like atmosphere prevails at this expanse of white sands and crystal blue waters, on the southwest coast about 80 km (48 mi) from Hania.

Sand dunes back the beach and a sandy islet just offshore is reached by wading through the warm waters.

Civilization in this remote part of Crete doesn't extend much beyond a small shop selling snacks.

In high season, a public bus makes the trip here from Kastelli Kissamou, about 40 km (25 mi) away (usually one bus a day in the morning, one return bus in the afternoon).

Sougia and Paleochora

The hour-long drive or bus ride across the White Mountains from Hania is breathtaking and spectacular.

Both these nearby, low-key beach towns provide all the right ingredients for a getaway—tavernas, rooms to rent, and long stretches of unspoiled sand washed by the warm surf of the Libyan Sea.

Updated: 01-2014

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