Western Crete and the Islet of Elafonisi

According to our guide book, Elafonisi makes the Top 10 in three categories: Islands and Boat Trips (that’s a single category), Areas of Natural Beauty, and Beaches.

Elafonisi cave shrine 2

Elafonisi from the cave shrine

If the guide book hadn’t called it an “islet,” I wouldn’t have known. The sandbar connecting it to the mainland was above water the whole way. I guess that’s not always the case.

I loved today! We enjoyed a lovely country-road drive, glimpses into local life, and gorgeous Mediterranean scenery—and all of it mostly to ourselves.

Western Crete Coast - Jen Funk Weber

The oh-so-gorgeous western Crete coast. Look at that water!


Barb: Driving rural Cretan roads with views both far and near.

Mike: Little towns with roads running right through them.

Jen: Locals leading livestock on roads: old men with donkeys and young, modern men with sheep.

The Day

We drove SSW, winding through hills, down the west coast of Crete, stopping along the way to enjoy the views, both near and far, and to take pictures. When it comes to traveling, I think this is the tip-top favorite thing to do for all three of us. Guide books are full of specific places to see (museums, archaeological sites, beaches) and things to do (take a boat ride, dine out, get drink, shop), but this—just driving through the countryside and taking in the scenery and local life—is what makes my heart and mind soar.

Local Color

I’m a huge fan of color, as most of you know.

We saw several older women in babushkas carrying canes and collection bags poking around in the greenery beside the road. I thought maybe they were searching for some sort of edible greens, like the fiddleheads that grow on roadsides in AK. I don’t know what they were doing, but several different women in several different places were doing it. Nope, we didn’t get any pictures.

A couple of handsome, 20-something, modern men herded sheep down a curvy mountain road. We, in our car, and another truck scooched around the herd, but not before a small group panicked, broke away, and had to be shepherded back. The guys handled it with good humor. Seems to me they need a couple of herding dogs.

Greek shepherd dudes, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Because there was time to do so, I took a surreptitious photo.

An older man in a classic Greek watch cap led a donkey by rope along the road, and later in the day, an even older man with deep grooves in his face, rode a donkey along the edge of the road against traffic so that he was right beside Mike’s and my windows. The man leaned over, peered into the car, and grinned, as though expecting to have his photo taken. I imagine that happens a good bit in the summertime when tourists flood the roads and beaches. We are much too shy (polite?) to take photos of strangers, but boy did I want to capture that vision. And I did, in my memory. And now here, in words.

Sights and Sounds

These roads are narrow, twisty, and hilly. In some places, they are single lane even though they serve two-way traffic. We are sharing them with local workers only, but in the summer, thousands of tourists make this drive to the beach. The guide books talk about how dangerous the roads are, and that’s easy to understand, what with the lack of enforced road rules.

Which brings me to another common sight: roadside shrines. These mark places where someone has either died or had a close call, narrowly escaping death. There are a ton of them, which confirms the guide books’ claims that these roads are dangerous.

Grand roadside shrine, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

The grandest of roadside shrines

Goats and sheep grazed everywhere. Most of the animals wear bells, so there’s a clanging cacophony in the air even when animals aren’t readily visible.

Sheep on the road, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

See the sheep? Yeah, you gotta watch!

It’s olive-harvesting season, and Crete is jam-packed, coast to coast, with olive trees.

Endless olive trees, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Coast to coast olives on Crete

We’re seeing nets laid out under trees to catch the olives when they are shaken from the branches. Branch-shaking tools look like weed whackers, but instead of plastic strings on the end, they have forks to catch and cradle branches.

We saw pickup trucks heaped with olive-filled burlap sacks, as well as stacks of these sacks piled outside buildings. More than once, we had to slow down, wait, and/or skirt around people folding nets out on the road after harvesting.

Truck loaded with sacks of just-picked olives, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Truck loaded with sacks of just-picked olives

Piles of olives, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Piles of olives


And then there was the destination: the island of Elafonisi.

This is an only-slightly-developed beach area with a nice, sandy beach; dunes sporting pretty greenery; and gorgeous, turquoise water. It’s obvious why it’s so popular with locals and tourists in summer, but I would hate it then. I’m not a beach person in the way that most people are beach people. Now, however, I think it’s fabulous!

10 Things About Elafonisi Beach

1. Windy. Strong wind made for blowing hair and shivering which I combatted with a tightly bound hood. A babushka would have been so much better, though I suspect the fashion statement is pretty much the same.

Elafonisi beach, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

What do you mean I look like a dork? Why are you looking at me when there’s this gorgeous beach all around?

2. No people until the end of our visit, and then just a few.

3. Lighthouse.

4. Cuttlefish bones. Nail file, anyone?

5. Cave shrine. Apparently, 600 women and children were slaughtered by the Turks here not too long ago. I don’t know what the specific conflict was, but I do know that Greece has been occupied by many people, including the Turks, over the years.

Elafonisi cave shrine, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Actually, according to my own definitions, this qualifies as a chapel.

6. Rock formations. These make for more interesting scenery and photos, and they’re fun to climb on. Combined with the sandy beach, there’s something for most everyone here.

Rock formations and turquoise water at Elafonisi, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Great rocks, great water

7. Turquoise water. Mmmmmmm. Mediterranean blue. This is one of my favorite things about Greece. It amazes me not a little that the water around here is so crazy beautiful despite the presence of people for thousands of years. I would expect more pollution and destruction, yet the water and coast seem to be holding their own.

Turquoise water at Elafonisi, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Turquoise water at Elafonisi Beach. Cheers to Mike for tons of photos to choose from!

Turquoise water at Elafonisi, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Turquoise water at Elafonisi, Crete – Jen Funk Weber

8. Pink sand. There’s not a lot of this—and signs ask visitors to please not take any away—but it really is pink, and it’s beautiful!

Pink sand, Elafonisi Beach, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Pink sand on Elafonisi Beach

9. Shell-sand pockets. Sand that’s made of tiny shells. I could spend hours picking through a few handfuls.

Shell sand, Elafonisi Beach, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Shell sand at Elafonisi Beach

10. Wiper grass. Ha!

Wiper grass, Elafonisi Beach, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Wiper grass on Elafonisi Beach

The Rest

On the way back to our hotel in Kissamos, we stopped at a few sites mentioned in our guide books.

Elos: a Turkish aqueduct that is now incorporated into someone’s house. I hope no one turns on the water!

Turkish aqueduct at Elos, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

See how the Turkish aqueduct (the arched bridge-like structure) connects to the house on the left?

Milia: a “traditional-living” village. Here are a handful of folks who live a subsistence lifestyle off the grid and invite tourists to come unplug, relax, and eat healthfully for a few days.

Milia traditional-living village, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

A pretty building at Milia traditional-living village

Polyrinia: This is the site of an ancient acropolis, aqueduct, and Venetian fortress, but it turned out these things are a hike away from the town, and it had already been a long day, so we canned this idea and walked around the tiny village instead, strolling through narrow walkways that feel like hallways inside people’s homes. Again, we marveled at houses stacked on each other and ancient ruins. And again, residents waved and nodded, thinking nothing of strangers walking through their personal, not-at-all-private spaces.

Walking paths of Polyrinia, Crete - Jen Funk Weber

Walking in Polyrinia

Such a wonderful day driving along the western Crete coast!

Crete coast - Jen Funk Weber

Switchbacks along the western Crete coast

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