Updated: Mar 30, 2019
Day 3: The South-west Coast
Following an agreeable Cretan breakfast of yoghurt, honey, coffee and fruit, we drove south from Rethymno on our third day on the main road in the direction of the town of Plakias. After the village of Armeni, the drive became gorgeous – the mountainous interior of the island makes even the most routine drive an absolute pleasure of winding roads, plunging cliffs and verdant valleys – with one or other of the coastlines almost always on the horizon.
The Kourtaliotiko Gorge was particularly spectacular, and demanded a photo stop. The tiny Agia Nikolas Monastery here is also worth a stop, with a stunning location near the top of a high pass leading down to the south coast – whose waters are part of the Libyan Sea. In fact, this gorge leads all the way down to Moni Preveli Monastery, east of Plakias, which took about 90 minutes in total from Rethymno. Always plan for things to take longer than they should here – roads are rarely fast when you stray away from the north coast. Preveli is, after Arkadi, probably western Crete's most holy site and it fully justifies a visit. It's famed for its part in the resistance against the Turks and also during WW2, when it acted as a shelter to Allied troops stranded on the beach below it. It's a splendidly-located place high on the cliffs above Preveli beach and with views out to the sea beyond, it rivals and even betters Arkadi for atmosphere. The beach 300m below is quite a hike – it's only accessible by foot, and coming back up is a bit of a lung-buster. But it's well worth the effort, as you descend to an (at this time of year) almost completely deserted beach, fed by the fresh water from the Kourtaliotiko Gorge, and it's possible to hike up the gorge some distance. There are a couple of swimmable pools in the river if the beach is too crowded in summer (which it does get). We had it all to ourselves for an hour though and enjoyed the Spring sun with a cold drink from a little taverna on the beach.
However, we had a full itinerary in front of us and didn't linger as long as we'd have liked. We passed by the rather touristy town of Plakias without stopping. It seemed pleasant enough but didn't appear to have too much to detain us – it's a base for tourists though and is one of the best bets on the south east coast for amenities. Its long, wide, sandy beach and shallow waters make it a family-friendly destination without being very noisy. Our next stop, about thirty kilometres further west along the coast, was Frangocastelo. It's a scattered village but with one major attraction – its castle, which stands sentry over it, looking more than a little incongruous. It's a huge, imposing structure which can be seen for miles, but like Fortezza in Rethymno, is basically just a shell. It was built by the Venetians in 1371 to deter pirates – some would call that overkill – and one can't imagine any soldiers stationed here seeing much action. The beach nearby was also practically deserted, save for a few strung-out looking hippy types, looking for serenity no doubt. They'd have found it here.
Our main aim for the day was up next. We stopped at the village of Hora Sfakion and parked the car just 3km beyond it, where a footpath began along the cliffs to the inaccessible-by-road hamlet of Loutro, a 90 minute hike further on. The hike was pretty taxing – up and down a quite precipitate footpath and on a stony surface in rugged surrounds. For a reasonably fit adult, it was no problem, but anyone less fit, or with young children, wouldn't be advised to attempt it – especially in the heat. It was only in the low 20s, but the lack of shade made the walk tiring. After about half an hour we reached the rather stony but pleasant Sweetwater Beach (Glyka Nera), named after a freshwater stream that feeds the sea here.
It's a perfect place for a rest and would have been ideal for a swim later in the year as it had beautiful crystal-clear waters with a lovely mountainous backdrop, but the waters were a little cold still. Another hour or so of very scenic clifftop hiking took us to Loutro, which is one of the very few settlements I've visited in the world unconnected to roads. The only way in and out is on foot or by boat, and so the village has an extremely calm and relaxing vibe. It's basically just a few whitewashed houses scattered around a harbour, some of which are guesthouses. There are a handful of tavernas and bars, a shop, and a church – and that's about it.
If you want relaxation, and to escape the crowds – this is undoubtedly the place to come. For many, the lack of things to do other than sunbathe and swim might be a deterrent, and a couple of hours was enough for me, but it was a truly special place and I definitely would like to have seen more of this coastline. The footpath we took was part of the European E4 coastal route, and it hugs the coastline of much of southwest Crete; it's undoubtedly a stunning section of the island, very little of which is reachable by car, so Loutro is far from the only village of its kind in this part of the world – just the most well-known. The most famous of all the hikes in Crete ends only a few kilometres west of Loutro – at the village of Agia Roumeli, which is similarly isolated. That walk is the mighty Samaria Gorge, and I'd have loved to write about that for this guide, but unfortunately it was not open while we were there. It opens in late May usually – because the path follows a riverbed, which obviously needs to be dry, which it generally isn't in early Spring. Suffice to say I was disappointed by this news, but I suppose it's a reason to go back.