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Western Crete in a Week (Part 3/3) - The Beaches: Falasarna, Elafonisi & Balos

Updated: Apr 1, 2019

Day 5: Falasarna & Kissamos

Waking up in a little stone cottage in the hills above Kissamos was just what the doctor ordered – a bucolic delight. A breakfast of fresh Greek yoghurt and honey, melon and grapefruit and a strong coffee on a balcony looking out over grassy hillsides to the azure blue seas of the Kissamos Gulf beyond wasn't a bad way to kick off the day. A stroll around the village of Meridiana took about five minutes – just a cluster of houses with not so much as a shop, I met more goats than people. A workman who I bumped into smiled and spread his arms wide, indicating the superlative view, and I could only nod in agreement. It's a special part of the world.

The westernmost part of the island is quieter and more deserted than what we'd seen so far, and is in fact the least populated part of Crete. Developers haven't made it this far – partly because there are few beaches suited to large resort hotels, and partly because the most famous ruins and archaeological sites are elsewhere. The big town in the region, Kissamos, is a large, straggly port with a decent little centre containing a few old buildings and a respectable seafront, including a handful of cafes, bars and restaurants, but it's not really a place to linger, and I wouldn't recommend it highly as a base. There's a soap factory on the edge of town, visible from the seafront, which rather spoils the view. On the plus side, there are some budget hotel options here, and it's a place to avoid the crowds – it's a world away from the hustle and bustle of Chania – and it's also surrounded by places of breathtaking beauty to which you can do excursions. This is what we planned to do for the final three days of our trip – namely, to visit the three 'unmissable' beaches of western Crete – Falasarna, Elafonisi and Balos.

Falasarna was our target for the day, and it took us only twenty minutes to drive there from Kissamos. We had hoped to see more on this day, but when we laid our eyes on the beach, which we did from a height as the road descended from high above it, it became clear we wouldn't get too much else done. The sun was out, and the view over Falasarna Bay was simply stunning. The broad, sweeping bay of sparkling turquoise blue stretched away to Koutri Cape, past Petalida Island and beyond – next stop Malta, over 1000km west. The descent from Platanos – about 10km south of Kissamos – was via series of hair-pin bends, making the scene even more spectacular.

When we got down to the beach it was practically deserted – which is a major reason to come to Crete at Easter, as we did. It's a beach of such almost indescribable beauty that it's unthinkable it could be so quiet in the season. We strolled over some dunes to some half-buried rocks that provided shelter from the slight breeze and proceeded to do nothing for a few hours, which we hadn't done until that point, so probably felt it was deserved. Of course, I got itchy feet soon enough and decided to try out the waters for a spot of snorkelling. There were some promising rocks and pools in the distance and I fancied there might be a few fish there.

The water was cold, but certainly not to cold to swim – it might be for some, but being used to the near-freezing waters of the North Sea as a child it didn't bother me. I wasn't wrong about the fish either – there were quite a few shoals amongst the rocks and I snorkelled happily for half an hour or so. The air temperature was somewhere around 24-25 degrees so extremely pleasant, and not too hot to go for a walk – which we did about 3pm after we'd had enough lazing around. We walked a couple of kilometres north from the main beach to Ancient Falasarna, along a stony cliff path past olive groves, past a mysterious stone 'throne' which has archaeologists scratching their heads, and to an ancient Roman site.

Memorable for being again quite deserted – there was literally not another person around – this small site was quite impressive, containing some well-preserved teracotta baths. Continuing past the site takes you to Koutri Cape and past some rugged coastal scenery – long-distance walkers can continue from here to explore the Gramvousa Peninsula, a nearly unpopulated peninsula in the far north-west of the island. It's about a six hour hike from here to Balos beach, of which more later. If you do attempt this hike, take plenty of food and water – there is no habitation from this point on. All that remained for us for the day was to find a good meal, which we did at the top of the hill back to Platanos – the Mouraki restaurant providing great sustenance and an even better view back down over Falasarna Bay and of the setting sun. My fried squid and roast lamb tasted that much better with it.

Day 6: South to Elafonisi

There always has to be one cock-up to almost ruin an otherwise perfect day – on at least one day of every trip. This was the day for that. Inevitably, it was car-related. Things started off uneventfully enough, but we soon came very unstuck a few kilometres south of our village, and it came about because I was trying to take small roads to get down to Elafonisi beach in the south so as to do a loop rather than going the same way there and back. Suffice to say – don't trust Googlemaps here. It's a recipe for disaster.

country track, western Crete
Wrong way down a one-way track - don't trust Google here

We went down several dead ends and roads that petered out into nothing – one of which involved reversing for half a kilometre to get back to the road. Once back on track, we drove past the spectacular Topolia Gorge, stopping for pictures, then paused at Agia Sofia Cave, which was a brisk twenty minute climb above the road along a scenic and pleasant path. You can really only visit the mouth of the cave, but it's quite spectacular with some decent rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites. There's also a colony of bats to keep an eye out for.

South of Koutsamatados, a pleasant hamlet for a break with a little taverna selling snacks, we entered an area known as the Innechora - “The Nine Villages”. The drive became beautifully scenic as we took in traditional little places like Perivolia, Elos, Vathi and Milia. The latter has actually been turned into an eco-village, and tourists are encouraged to come and stay in one of the faithfully-restored old houses overlooking a verdant cleft. There's a five kilometre unpaved road up to it but it's well-worth the very pretty drive. Part of the fun of Crete is getting from A to B and there isn't much point in rushing it – you just have to accept things take time. We finally got down to the coast at about 3pm, but we'd driven less than 50km.

There was one final stop before Elafonisi though – Chrysoskalitissa Monastery, Moni Chrisoskalitissis, Greece. Set, like many monasteries in this country, on a spectacular rocky promontory, the little whitewashed church building and museum containing assorted religious parephenalia is worth a stop and is lovely and peaceful. We finally made it down to Elafonisi, another ten km south east – the last point on the western coastal road. From here, only the E4 coastal path connects with Koundoura, another ten km beyond. It's an isolated part of the world, and I'd love to come back as I said in a previous blog and walk this rugged coastal path, at this time of year preferably. Falasarna is really something. A long, pink beach (so coloured because of crushed seashells), surrounded by gentle dunes, would be pretty enough, but it's topped off with the proverbial cherry – a small island lies offshore, creating a shallow lagoon, perfect for bathing in warm waters, which can easily be waded across.

Pink-fringed sands of Falasarna beach, south-west Crete
Pink-fringed sands of Falasarna beach

Little shoals of fish swim around your feet and nip your ankles. It's a tremendously relaxing, pleasant place, and though there were more people here than Falasarna, you could hardly call it crowded. A prime piece of pink sand can be yours and you don't need to surround yourself with wind breaks to stake out your territory – not at this time of year anyway. It was an almost-perfect beach experience for me. We stayed until the sun began to descend, and wished we'd arrived earlier. The drive back to Kissamos along the western coastal road was winding and pretty, but much faster than getting to Falasarna. There didn't appear to be a huge amount to stop for – there are few settlements here – but again, the walking would be superb here, and the E4 path hugs the contours of the coast, being undoubtedly incredible.

Day 7: Balos & Around

There is a place, in your dreams somewhere, perhaps, certainly not a place that could ever exist, that you imagine the perfect beach. It's different for everyone, of course. Some people envisage palm trees, hammocks, coconuts. A beach shack selling cold beer and fresh seafood. Others, an empty stretch of virgin sand, not a soul around, azure ocean. Still others, a crescent of white pebbles surrounded by high rugged cliffs and lapped by crashing waves. An island like Crete is bound to contain some A-list beaches, and we had already seen several. But Balos, appropriately on the final day, took the prize for the absolute best, hands down...and it was as if I had envisaged it in a dream. Like all worthwhile things, it involved struggle to achieve it. For Balos is like no normal beach and you have to put in the effort to reach her before you are rewarded with such beauty.

The road northwest of Kissamos quickly degenerates into a rough stone track, and for twenty kilometres, one is forced to drive at a snail's pace down the Gramvousa peninsula in the direction of Balos. Unless one is lucky enough to own a Jeep. Everyone else can just sit back and enjoy the view. It takes about an hour to do the 20km, and that must be infuriating on a sweltering summer day in a line of traffic. As it was, the hour passed relatively quickly, which was helped by the stunning view over the Gulf of Kissamos towards the equally deserted (and even bigger) peninsula to the east, Rhodopou.

These harsh, barren twin peninsulas are the last truly undiscovered parts of Crete, and the eastern Mediterranean in general, and are only really explorable on foot – prime territory for real explorers. We passed a few herds of sheep, farmers, goats, and the odd cyclist or walker. Finally we arrived, and yet there was still a lengthy walk – half an hour or so from the car park down the cliff-path and to Balos itself. It was blowing a gale at the top, but we rounded a corner and were suddenly protected.

A few moments later, and Balos came into view. It literally took my breath away. So perfect, it looks like it's been designed by an artist. A sweeping bay reveals a sea that's several shades of blue, from navy to aquamarine. Rugged cliffs give way to pristine white sands, and in the middle of the picture is an island, shaped like a flattened cupcake, separated from these sands by a shallow lagoon. The lagoon on the left is protected on the left side from the open ocean by a line of black rocks; on the right, it gives out to the sea, but there is another island, an odd piece of land on two perfectly flat levels, a truncated L-shape, with a castle on the higher ground. Again, it looks uncannily surreal and as if designed by hand. This is Gramvousa Island, and castle.

It was the last piece of Cretan land to surrender to the Turks during the Ottoman occupation. - some twenty years after everywhere else. Only accessible by boat, we didn't make it there. But we did descend to the beach, and made the most of it by swimming, sunbathing, snorkelling and lazing and strolling to our heart's content for the rest of the day. There are some places you don't want to leave – and this is definitely one of them. Again, coming here at this time of year, out of season, cannot be recommended highly enough – there were so few people there as to make it seem ridiculous, considering how jaw-droppingly beautiful it was. By about 4pm, there was a bit of a nip in the air and most people had gone, leaving us more or less alone. This was a truly special place to be, alone.

Hiking back up to the car park was quite hard work, but the views made it seem anything but a chore. I'd think getting back up there in the height of summer heat would be a tricky proposition. We just had time for a short walk along the coastal path to the east from which we got a great view down to the church of Agia Sostis – about as isolated a church as I've ever seen – way down on the beach below us. All we could hear was the wind whistling, and, far away, the waves crashing on the beach.

Agia Sostis Monastery, Balos, north west Crete
View down to Agia Sostis Monastery

It was a perfect way to end the day, and trip. Western Crete had been a perfect destination for us – unexpectedly quiet, inexpensive, relatively undiscovered, and ruggedly, often spectacularly, beautiful. I hadn't expected this, and I am quite sure our whole impression would have been different had we been exploring it in the summer months. We saw a lot in a week, but there is a lot we didn't see – most obviously being the Samaria Gorge, not open until May. I will certainly go back one day and see more of Crete. We had only seen a half of it - and despite our best efforts, I'm sure we only saw a fraction of that half. It's an island that deserves - no, demands - your attention. Just go to the right places - and at the right time. If you've been taking notes, you know the score. Antio Sas until next time, Crete.


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This article is part of a series. If you've enjoyed this and haven't read the other two parts, go here:

Part 1/3: Rethymno, Bali, Anogia & Arkadi

Part 2/3: Chania, Mili Gorge, Loutro & Moni Preveli

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