The wild and wonderful south coast of Crete hides the kind of lovely, laidback little resorts that make you want to linger there all summer long
Head for Crete’s wild and wonderful south coast to discover a world apart from the Venetian-chic hotels of Chania and Rethymnon, the opulent enclaves of Elounda and the relentless, happy-hour ambience of cheap and cheerful north coast resorts such as Malia and Hersonissos. The 1960s are still fighting a last-ditch rearguard action in this part of Crete – you may even meet visitors who were conceived on these out-of-the-way beaches in their anything-goes hippie heyday, and who bring their own kids back every summer.
Start by hopping on a bus (or, if you’re mob-handed or just have a bit more to spend, taking a taxi) from Chania to sleepy Paleochora, close to the southwest tip of Crete. The journey takes about two hours and a taxi costs about €60. Overlooked by the scant remains of a 13th-century castle, which was destroyed by the great corsair Barbarossa in 1539, Paleochora sits on a headland between a long, crescent of yellow sand and shallow water on its west side and an even longer stretch of pebbly beach on the east. There are plenty of affordable places to stay here (try Anonymous Homestay, in a quiet side street), as well as a main street lined with unpretentious restaurants, and in high summer there’s an equally unpretentious nightlife scene, with at least one open-air disco and a couple of music bars.
But moving on is tempting, and the way to do it is by boat. Small passenger ferries shuttle along this stretch of coast, between Paleochora and Chora Sfakion, leaving daily in summer and calling at Sougia, Agia Roumeli and Loutro.
Like Paleochora, Sougia still has an alternative feel, though the opening of the smart little Syia Hotel in 2008 may herald the shape of things to come. Its clean modern lines give it an almost Scandinavian look, and there are large studios and two-room apartments, all with kitchenettes, starting at €70 – which is a bargain, given that they sleep up to four people. Less sophisticated, Aretousa Studios has clean, bright and comfortable self-catering doubles, triples and studios starting at €40, and there are at least a dozen more similarly-priced guesthouses and pensions in the village.
Sougia’s big attraction is its beach, and only the steep and winding road that links it with the outside world has saved it from big-style development. This huge stretch of pebbles and sand has enough space for everyone, including the contingent of naturists who occupy the discreetly concealed cove at the east end, smirkingly known to locals as the ‘Bay of Pigs’.
A few days in Sougia can easily turn into a week, a week into a fortnight, a fortnight into a month and before you know it, summer’s over. Resolve to move on before you get so relaxed you can’t move. East of Sougia, the White Mountains rise like a rampart, cutting off this stretch of coastline from the rest of Crete, so that the only way to travel on is by boat.
Next stop: Agia Roumeli, at the foot of the famous Samaria Gorge. A steady flow of summer walkers has turned this tiny place into a miniature tourism boom town, with half a dozen tavernas and a scattering of basic guest houses. Most visitors stay just long enough to catch their breath after the all-day walk down the gorge and down a cold beer before shipping out to Chora Sfakion and the coach back to their hotels. But Agia Roumeli is a pleasant enough place to stay overnight, with a sand and pebble beach and deep, clear water.
There are two ways of carrying on east from Agia Roumeli. Gung ho types can follow a steep and demanding walking route (part of the E4 European Mountaineering Trail) that starts a mile or so east of the village, zig-zagging up the dizzy ‘marble staircase’, then winding through mountain pastures, over the narrow Aradaina Gorge, and down again to the sea by another steep zigzag path to Loutro, a tiny village beside a blue bay that looks quite tear-jerkingly inviting at the end of a long day’s walk. The less energetic can go by boat.
If getting to Loutro is an adventure, arriving is even better. Crumbling and almost deserted until the 1980s, Loutro has been revived by tourism. Some may find it ever so slightly artificial, but it is undeniably pretty, and the total absence of cars and noisy nightlife is a boon. There’s a tiny patch of gravelly beach in front of the village, a slightly remoter stretch known as ‘Sweetwater Beach’ because of the freshwater springs that rise through the pebbles a little further away, and another pebbly patch at Finikas, over the headland to the west of the village. Every second building here has a ‘Rent Rooms’ sign (expect to pay €25-30 for a double), but the peach is Porto Loutro, with its simple, cottage-style rooms and apartments (some with kitchenettes) with en-suite facilities, air-conditioning and private balcony or terrace.
When you can tear yourself away from Loutro – which is hard – there’s a rusty, landing-craft-style shuttle ferry to take you across the bay to Chora Sfakion. From here, several buses daily take you back to Chania – which, compared with where you’ve just been, feels like a return to the big city.