A Visitor's Guide to Elafonisi Beach in Crete

White sands connect Elafonissi Beach to its island nature reserve.

Paolo Cordelli / Getty Images

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Elafonisi lagoon

Elafonisi lagoon, Greece

Not long ago, Elafonisi Beach was a well-kept secret known to very few locals on Crete. Or at least it was until 2014 when it was named one of the world's top beaches. Now more than seven years later, 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. But, if you go very early in the season you can still enjoy the remarkable pink sands, the wildflowers, and strange rock formations in relative peace. 

Things to Do on Elafonisi

While most are familiar with the famous beach on Crete (spelled Elafonissi), Elafonisi is actually an entire 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 mainland Crete and a portion of the sandbar that always stays above water populated by hundreds of beach chairs and umbrellas and thousands of tourists in the high season. 

Walk Across the Ocean: Visitors looking to dodge crowds and see some stunning scenery can leave the crowded shores of Elafonissi and wade out to sea. Thanks to the low water level, travelers can walk along the sandbar all the way to the island of Elafonisi. The small island is an internationally classified nature reserve and is like another world with its gorgeous pink sand, clear water, and lush vegetation. There's little to no shade on the island and because beach chairs and umbrellas are prohibited, 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. 

View Rare Flora on a Hike: The island is a mile long, ending in a rocky outcrop and weird, freestanding towers of rock formed over centuries by the wind and water. It's home to more than 100 rare plants including summer sea daffodils that look like white cups surrounded by spiky white petals and bloom in the summer. Even rarer is the winter-flowering bulb Androcymbium rechingeri. This bloom is so rare it doesn't even have a common name and is found nowhere else in the world. To protect its rare plants, specific walks are laid out on the island, and, of course, removing any plants or animals from the island is forbidden and punishable by big fines.  

Watch for Sea Turtles: 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.

Enjoy a Fabulous Sunset: If rare wildflowers and wildlife aren't enough to get you to visit Elafonisi, then maybe a picture-perfect sunset will. The views from the island as the sun sets in the western sea are truly spectacular and visitors would be remiss to skip a sunset here. Just bring a layer to protect you from the evening chill after the sun sets.

Elafonissi Beach, Crete
Paolo Cordelli / Getty Images

What to Expect From the Beach

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:

  1. Pink sand: Most of the time the sand here is composed of the remains of tiny pink shells that 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, the motion of tides, the season and the microbes the shelled creatures eat influence how pink the sands will be during your visit.
  2. Sand as soft as dust: In a part of the world where shingle or pebble beaches are the norm Elafonisi stands out for its incredibly soft, powdery sand.
  3. Warm, shallow waters: The water to the right of the sandbar is calm, warm, and shallow. Those conditionares are ideal for children, making this part of Elafonisi popular with families.
  4. Steady winds ideal for windsurfing: 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.

What to Expect From the Facilities

Considering how remote Elafonisi is, 75 kilometers (47 miles) southwest of Chania, Crete over difficult and occasionally hair-raising roads, it has surprising well-organized amenities. 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 a kitesurfing kit.

Don't get complacent about finding everything you need, though. Visitors have report that the toilets 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. In fact, they are too small 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.

Aerial view of Elafonisi lagoon. You can see beach chairs and umbrellas on the sand
Posnov / Getty Images

Where to Eat and Drink

There are two basic beach bars near the beach. Canteen Kukurakis on the edge of the eastern parking area has snacks, ice creams, toilet facilities, and cold drinks. Further up the unpaved road away from the beach is Panorama. It's a simple bar with a similar offerings as Canten Kukurakis, plus alcoholic beverages.

When the beach is crowded, you will have to wait a long time to be served at either of these bars. Few recommend the very average food at Panorama, but this bar is worth a daytime visit because of its terrific panoramic views. 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), head to the Taverna Kalomirakis Family. It is part of the Elafonisi Resort and is popular for its seafood and traditional Greek food. It's a bit further afield, located around a half a mile from the beach, or roughly a 10-minute walk. Travelers also recommend Innachorion, a restaurant with rooms about a kilometer (2/3 mile) from the beach 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.

The Best Places to Stay

Because Elafonisi is quite remote—the town of Chania is at least an hour and a half or more by car—you might want to stay overnight instead of just visiting for the day. After the last crowds from the tour buses leave, it's actually a rather quiet destination, ideal for a family vacation.  

The Elafonisi Resort by the Kalomirakis Family caters well to family groups. It has 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.

The Best Time to Visit

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. The beach is exposed to strong winds in the spring, so if you go early in April and May, you'll likely have powder-fine sand blowing in your face which can be unpleasant. No matter when you visit the beach will likely be crowded but during the height of the summer season, the beach is packed until the day trippers and coach tours leave.

Elafonissi Beach
Evgeni Dinev Photography / Getty Images

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 passing along some of Crete's scenic gorges and gentler stretches that go through olive groves. In some places, there are no safety barriers on the road so drive with extreme caution. If you have a head for heights, don't mind blind hairpin turns, and are willing to take the extra time (90 minutes to two hours from Chania), the roads that pass 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 in Elafonisi or leave the beach well before sunset. 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 timetable for Elafonisi buses at Reythmons official website. Keep in mind that the buses only run during the high season. If it's the off-season nothing will appear among the variously 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 Palaiochora and along the coast to the east run beach excursions. They leave around 10 a.m. and depart from 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 the Greek Islands, the boatmen of Palaiochora 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. Palaiochora, by the way, is the only place with boat excursions to Elafonisi. Since Palaiochora is pretty much as hard to reach as Elafonisi itself, these boat trips are only worthwhile if you happen to be staying nearby.


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A Visitor's Guide to Elafonisi Beach in Crete