Not long ago, Elafonisi Beach was a secret known to very few locals on Crete. Then, in 2014, it was named one of the world's top 25 beaches on TripAdvisor. That's when any resemblance between this beach on the southwest coast of Crete and a slice of paradise came to an end.
Today, this beautiful sandy beach is the target destination for everyone from young backpackers and svelte sun worshippers to families with buckets and spades. Go in the high season and you'll find this once empty beach, connected by a sandbar to an island nature reserve, crowded and covered with beach loungers. You can also blame Instagram and Pinterest for that.
But, if you go very early — in the season or on the day — you can still enjoy the remarkable pink sands, the wild flowers and strange rock formations in relative peace.
Here's everything you need to know:
What's So Special About Elafonisi?
Elafonisi is actually an island, separated from the southwest coast of Crete, by a shallow, warm lagoon and a sandbar that is submerged under about one meter of water at most during high tide. The beach on the mainland and on the part of the sandbar that is never submerged is populated by hundreds of beach chairs and umbrellas and thousands of tourists in the high season.
But visitors can wade out to the island to enter another world. It is an internationally classified nature reserve and, because beach chairs and umbrellas are not permitted — plus there is no shade — fewer people make their way to it. Even in the busiest season, it is possible to find quiet little coves and pockets of sandy beach occasionally popular with nude bathers.
The island is a mile long, ending in a rocky outcrop and weird, freestanding towers of rock formed by wind and water (Did we mention Elafonisi can be windy? more on that later). It's home to more than 100 rare plants including summer flowering sea daffodils—white cups, resembling normal daffs in shape, surrounded by spiky white petals. Even rarer, the winter-flowering bulb Androcymbium rechingeri (so rare it doesn't even have a common name) is found no where else in the world. To protect it's rare plants, specific walks are laid out on the island, and, of course removing any plants or animals from the island is forbidden an punishable by big fines.
The wide, shallow lagoon is a shelter for rare loggerhead sea turtles. You'll be lucky to spot one, because they are very shy. But if you do, give them a wide berth as they are a protected species.
If taking pictures of rare wildflowers is not your thing, bring your camera — or your charged up smart phone — anyway, as well as something to protect you from the evening chill. The views from the island as the sun sets into the western sea are spectacular.
Beach & Water
The island is a nature lover's paradise but there must be something about the mainland beach itself that draws so many visitors to itself every year. There are four reasons, actually:
- Pink sand: The sand here — most of the time — is composed of the remains of tiny pink shells the line the sea floor. When Elafonisi is pink, it is very pink — especially around the lagoon and along the sandbar to the island. But be warned: not everyone finds the beach pink when they arrive. Wind and the motion of tides, plus the season and the microbes these tiny shelled creatures eat influence how or even if the sands will be pink when you arrive.
- Sand as soft as dust: In a part of the world where shingle or pebble beaches are the norm, Elafonisi stands out for its soft, powdery sand.
- Warm, shallow waters: The water to the right of the sandbar is calm, shallow and ideal for children, making this part of Elafonisi popular with families.
- Windsurfers heaven: The prevailing winds blow pretty steadily making this a great beach for windsurfing. Windsurfers populate the waters to the left of the sandbar, away from all the families and toddlers splashing in the shallows.
Considering how remote Elafonisi is — 75 kilometers southwest of Chania over difficult and occasionally hair raising roads — it is a pretty well organized place. There are sunbeds and beach umbrellas, two small beach bars, toilets and even lifeguards in season. There's also a hut where you can rent kite surfing kit.
Don't get complacent about finding everything you need, though. Most visitors report that the "WC's" are dirty to the point of abysmal. The beach bars, one on the beach and the other in one of the free parking areas, are small and basic; too small, in fact, to serve the hundreds of tourists disgorged from the tourist buses that arrive throughout the day.
If you don't arrive early, you may have difficulty finding beach umbrellas or sources of shade. Bring cover ups and sunhats, just in case. And if this is a family visit, with children who require an endless supply of drinks and snacks, plan on bringing a good supply of those as well.
Food & Drink
There are two, basic beach bars near the beach. Canteen Kukurakis on the edge of the eastern parking area, has snacks, ice creams and cold drinks, plus toilet facilities of a sort. Further up the unpaved road, away from the beach, Panorama is bar with a similar offering, plus alcoholic beverages. When the beach is crowded, you can wait a long time to be served at either. Nobody recommends the very average food at Panorama but this bar is worth a daytime visit because, as its name suggests, it has a terrific view.
Stop here for a drink on the terrace and take in a wide-angle view of the beach, the lagoon and the island beyond.
If you are looking for more substantial food (and cleaner restrooms), the Taverna Kalomirakis Family that is part of the Elafonisi Resort is popular for its seafood and traditional Greek food and has received a certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor. It's 850 meters (about half a mile) from the beach, so about a ten minute walk. Travelers also recommend Innachorion, a restaurant with rooms about 1 kilometer from the beach (two thirds of a mile) for a traditional Cretan meal.
A mini-market just across the road from Innachorion is a good place to pick up snacks, drinks, basic groceries, suntan lotion and beach toys on your way to the sand.
Where to Stay
Because Elafonisi is somewhat remote — the town of Chania is at least an hour and a half or more by car — you might want to stay overnight. After the last crowds from the tour buses leave, it's actually a rather quiet place, ideal for a family vacation.
The awkwardly named Elafonisi Resort by the Kalomirakis Family, caters well for family groups with rooms above their taverna and in several other buildings scattered around an olive grove and among their citrus trees. The rooms have kitchenettes and air conditioning.
When to Go
It's a beautiful beach, but it's often crowded. The beach is exposed to strong winds in the spring, so if you go early — April and May — the wind blown sand can be unpleasant. During the height of the summer season, the beach is crowded until the day trippers and coach tours leave. The ideal time is the early autumn. In September and October both the weather and the waters of the lagoon are likely to be gentle and warm. Exploring the nature reserve on the island is still possible in November, but you may have to wade through cold, knee deep water to get there.
How to Get There
- By Car: The routes from Crete's bigger towns on the north coast are narrow and winding. They alternate between mountain roads beside some of Crete's scenic gorges and gentler stretches through olive groves. In some places there are no safety barriers. If you have a head for heights, don't mind blind hairpin turns, and are willing to take the time (90 minutes to two hours from Chania), the roads over Crete's central mountain ridge to the beaches on the southwest coast are incredibly scenic. But if you do go by car, either stay overnight or leave when there is no chance of darkness falling. These are not roads you want to tackle at night.
- By Bus: Supraregional public buses serve Elafonisi and other West Cretan villages from Chania. You can find the time-table for Elafonisi here during the high season, when buses are running. If no buses are are running, nothing will appear among the various complicated timetables — so there's little use searching out of season.
- By Coach Tour: Several companies run frequent coach tours of the western villages that include Elafonisi along with other sightseeing spots. Organized tours from Chania or Rethymno are operated by Elafonissos Travel and Odeon Travel.
- By Boat: Boats from Paleochora, along the coast to the east, run beach excursions, leaving at about 10 a.m. and departing Elafonisi at about 4 p.m. Because the waters around Elafonisi are shallow, boats will drop you off at a landing stage, about a 10 minute walk from Elafonisi beach itself. Like a lot of travel suppliers on Greek Islands, the boatmen of Paleochora are mostly independent businessmen and schedules tend to be informal and changeable. The best way to arrange a boat trip is through one of the travel agencies in the bigger towns of Western Crete. Paleochora, by the way, is the only place with boat excursions of Elafonisi. Since Paleochora is pretty much as hard to reach as Elafonisi itself, these boat trips are only worthwhile if you happen to be staying nearby.