Crete's beaches come in all shapes and sizes. In the west, white-sand lagoons are bathed in refreshing Mediterranean waters. In the south, there are islets ringed by pink-tinted powder. In the east, party towns like Malia give way to lively beaches that are just perfect for sizzling off the hangover from the night before.

    Crete is excellent for even the most dedicated beach bums among us. You can drive across the whole length of the island in just a couple of hours, and get from north to south within 50 minutes. That means all sorts of options are always within reach, no matter if you're searching for a vibrant resort beach with deckchairs or a long-lost cove to call your own for the afternoon.

    1

    Balos

    Discover a hidden lagoon that could easily be in the Caribbean

    Balos is a beautiful lagoon that hides between 2 rugged headlands on the western side of the island. You can easily get there by boat or car from the Venetian city of Chania. Often compared the Caribbean, it's got gleaming white sand and dashes of turquoise water, all framed by the rocky escarpments of uninhabited Gramvousa island.

    If you're feeling adventurous, there's a rustic track that leads through the goat fields to Balos from the town of Kissamos. Hop on a bicycle and hit that trail to really push the hamstrings. A small shack offers cold orange juices as a reward at the end, right before the marked Balos Beach Trail that'll take you straight down to the sands.

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    2

    Falasarna Beach

    Wild waves and ancient ruins in far western Crete

    Falasarna Beach is an example of the sort of wild and wonderful stretch of shoreline you find on the wind-buffeted western end of Crete Island. The scenery greets you the moment you pull your car – which is by far the easiest way to arrive – into the bay, only a short drive from Kissamos. You'll hairpin down precipitous roads overlooking tomato plantations and olive groves. The beach itself runs between headlands and coastal mountains haloed in clouds.

    The ruins of a 1,500-year-old Hellenistic harbor keep the history buffs happy. Find them huddled under the limestone crags at the north end of Falasarna. Closer to the middle of the beach are a few charming Tavernas serving seafood and Cretan pies. And then you get the widest part of the bay, with rows of sunbeds for rent.

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    photo by Maurizio Ceol (CC BY 3.0) modified

    3

    Frangokastello Beach

    A village beach hidden below a castle

    Crowned by a formidable Venetian castle, Frangokastello Beach is a photogenic strand on the far south side of the Chania prefecture. You can arrive by car, which takes around 1 hour along the White Mountain roads, located south of Georgioupoli.

    Because it's hidden down on the shores of the Libyan Sea, Frangokastello is often pleasantly deserted. Expect just a few beachcombers, lazing families, and history fans to be sharing the sandy space with you. To escape even those, you could go around the dunes to Orthi Ammos. It's a short walk to the east but has shimmering white-sand hills that rise straight from see-through seas.

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    photo by Marc Ryckaert (CC BY 3.0) modified

    4

    Red Beach

    Rust-colored cliffs on a dramatic stretch of Cretan shoreline

    Just as the name implies, it's the orangey-red tint of the sand at Red Beach that makes it such a favorite. It huddles under steep cliffs a little to the south of the lively resort town of Matala. You can't rely on the rental car to get you there, though. Instead, it will have to be a water taxi or – better yet – a sturdy pair of walking boots and some determination. The trail from Matala takes around 25 minutes to hike. It’s also a beautiful intro to the rugged character of Crete's south coast.

    The northern corner of Red Beach is a well-known nudist spot, with bikini-less bodies bathing under the shade of huge limestone boulders. A cedar tree-shaded shack waits in the middle of the bay, touting cold beers throughout the day.

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    5

    Matala Beach

    Watch some of the best sunsets on Crete

    With its high cliffs and vibrant harbor, Matala has been a mainstay among Crete's beaches ever since hippies and yogis came back in the 1970s. These days, the atmosphere is a little more refined. Sleek cocktail joints and seafood restaurants open around the beachfront, boutique B&Bs dot the little fishing village, and there's a cosmopolitan crowd sunning themselves on the shore.

    Matala Beach is a mix of soft sand and pebbles, with a few large rocks hidden under the water. Waves can be common thanks to prevailing westerly winds in the summertime. Also, keep your eyes peeled for locals diving into the Libyan Sea from the cliffs to the north.

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    6

    Vai

    Walk past palm groves

    The soft contours of eastern Crete take over at Vai, an arch of taupe sand that faces the isle of Peristerovrachoi. It sits at the end of a dusty coastal track some 10 minutes' drive north of Kouremenos. The setting is wonderful for laying down your mat and soaking up the sun, with a few swims in a calm, shallow bay thrown in whenever you need to cool off.

    Lending an almost Caribbean vibe to the place is the Vai palm forest, the largest of its kind in Europe. Without a single hotel pool in view, it's excellent for escaping the buzz of the nearby resorts. Don't forget the snorkels – reefs and rocky islands make for excellent fish spotting.

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    photo by Marc Ryckaert (CC BY 3.0) modified

    7

    Preveli Beach

    A gorgeous beach where a river meets the sea

    Preveli Beach is consistently rated as one of the loveliest in Greece. The beach isolated in its own little nature park, located nearly an hour's drive south of Rethymno. Clusters of date palms and a creek roll through the center. There are no hotels or villas to be seen, just a solitary taverna at the end of a rocky walking path.

    Lazing on the coast is – of course – a great way to while away a day on Preveli Beach. Adventurers can also venture into the gorge of the Grand River, which begins at the cove. It's dotted with palm forests and wild swimming spots.

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    8

    Elafonisi

    Leave your footprints in pink sand

    Not so much a beach as a whole island and isthmus, Elafonisi is located on the extreme south-western edge of the island. The star of the show is surely the pink-tinted sand. It comes from the breakdown of colored coral in the reefs of the Mediterranean Sea.

    High winds can often roll across the whole of Elafonisi. Thankfully, a series of undulating dunes clad in sea oats offer plenty of protection. At high tide, the sandbars that link to those can be submerged, so you might need to wade across the turquoise streams that flow through the bay.

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    9

    Stavros Beach

    Dance the Zorba on this taverna-dotted lagoon beach

    Stavros Beach occupies an inlet on the northern tip of a headland that pokes out from the city of Chania. The beach should be really easy to reach from Chania Airport and the resorts of northern Crete. Though the runways are only a 15-minute drive away, the place is chilled and typically Greek.

    The harbor town that backs Stavros Beach is famed as the filming location of the 1964 film Zorba the Greek. The locals still invite taverna goers to dance the Sirtaki to this day, but it's wise not to try that after too many ouzos. Nearby, the remains of centuries-old Venetian quarries add a little dash of history into the mix.

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    10

    Livadi Beach

    Swim in the Mediterranean under high coast peaks

    Under mountains blanketed in scrub and olive trees, little Livadi Beach offers a refreshing swim midway between Rethymno and the city of Heraklion. It's linked to the vibrant resort town of Bali, where there are stacks of romantic hotels with views of the Med, along with family-friendly B&Bs and eateries.

    A couple of palm-thatched umbrellas shade lines of sunbeds on the beachfront itself. You can rent them from the taverna owners for a couple of euros. When the sun dips low to the west, expect the throng of beach shacks to get lively with hungry beachgoers.

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    photo by Kostas Limitsios (CC BY 2.0) modified

    Joseph Francis | Contributing Writer

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