1. The wild sub-tropical landscapes
Rolling sand-dunes painted red by the sunset; forests of wild palm trees endemic to Crete (Phoenix theophrastii); clusters of cacti loaded with ripe prickly pears. One of Europe’s southernmost coasts seems to have gazed enviously across the Libyan Sea and borrowed some of its landscapes from northern Africa.
Here you are at the edge of a continent, and it can certainly feel like it. Everything is a little bigger, a little wilder. Walk (or roll!) down the vast sand dunes of Aghios Pavlos and Pachia Ammos or meander through the prehistoric seeming landscape of Preveli where a river emerges from a gorge into the sea, flanked by palm trees.
2. The long, long beaches
Crete may be one of the most popular destinations for tourists in the summer but on the south coast of Rethymno there is plenty of legroom. Driving along the winding roads (with a jeep if possible, scooters are best avoided) one feels here as though heading into the wild in a land far removed from mass tourism.
Between the seaside village of Aghia Galini in the east and the beach of Peristere to the west there are numerous long, broad beaches to discover. Some are sandy, others covered in smooth, gray pebbles, but all are lapped (or occasionally pummeled) by deep, clean waters.
Three imposing rocks jutting out of the sea give Triopetra its name, a beach that could fit 15,000 people but is rarely frequented by more than 100. A perfect place to unroll one’s yoga mat and meditate to the sound of the sea. Forgot your swimsuit? Walk far enough and no one will notice.
Ligkres is famous for its sunset while wild Aghios Pavlos also offers ample space to get away from it all. Here at the top of the cliffs you can see as far as the island of Gavdos, Greece’s southernmost point.
Preveli, is very popular but worth a visit for its incredible natural beauty and a swim where the river Kourtalioti meets the sea.
Overall southern Rethymno is great for those looking to find a remote stretch of sand away from thumping beach bars and jabbering crowds. That said, for those looking for resort-style amenities the beaches at Plakia and Aghia Galini have you covered.
3. The home-style cooking
Forget the sushi and haute cuisine of the luxury restaurants and hotels in the north. Here it is all about simple food made with fresh, local ingredients (and when we say ‘local’ we mean ‘from the garden right behind you’). Think dishes like fresh beans cooked in tomato sauce, or organic goat with root vegetables.
Here you’ll also see a fisherman pull his catch from the waters of the gulf and take it straight to the kitchen, as happens in Aghia Fotia, a taverna seemingly untouched by time built right on the shore.
As you sit at your table it might be one or two of the younger members of the family who come to take your order. Or perhaps the head cook herself will pull you into the kitchen, excitedly lifting lids off pots as happens in the exceptional ‘Sideradiko‘ in Spili.
In the same area you will find Giannis’s taverna, while it is also worth making the trip to Selia to eat at ‘Iliomanolis‘.
All are family-run restaurants where everyone from 90-year-old grandmothers to 5-year-old grandchildren pitch in, and where much of the produce is grown just out back. Incredible food for incredibly reasonable prices.
4. The treks and trails
While the beaches of southern Rethymno will keep you more than occupied, there is more to this landscape than just the seafront, and opportunities for activities like hiking and birdwatching abound.
The Kourtaliotiko Gorge is one of the most beautiful in Crete and walkable via a trail that runs 2km along the side of the river until reaching the beach of Preveli and its palm grove.
For a trail with a more barren, wind-swept beauty, try the hike from Agia Fotia to the beach of Triopetra.
Meanwhile horseback riding is also available with trails cutting through olive-groves and crossing streams, while for children donkey rides are also available.
For a walk through a charming village try Spili, where you can refresh yourself after a walk through the stone-paved alleys with the water from the Lion Fountains, an impressive row of 25 carved lion heads. Or visit the Preveli Monastery which played an important role in Crete’s revolutionary war in 1866.
5. The feasts
That middle-aged man holding a lyre and gazing into the middle distance from countless roadside posters may not mean much to you, but he is capable of keeping 1000 people dancing on their feet from 11 at night to 10 the next morning.
That is often how long traditional festivities last in this region and they take place with notable frequency in the summer to celebrate the feast-days of local saints.
In August the biggest such ‘panigyria‘ take place in the villages Mixorouma, Kerame, Aktounta, Akoumia, Spili and Lambini. Cretan folk music may not feature heavily in your everyday playlists, but it is still very much worth attending one of these events where you can mingle with the locals, and those who have left for bigger cities but still return every summer.
Here you will see three (or even four) generations of Cretans all dancing together for hours on end, while traditional hospitality will ensure that you are treated as a long-lost cousin. Indeed after enough raki (and there will be plenty) you may even begin to believe it…
Make sure to accompany your drinks with grilled meat or the traditional ‘gamopilafo‘ (literally ‘wedding rice’), a dish made of rice and goat which is traditionally served at celebrations.
Truly an experience not to be missed, and one that may well be one of the most memorable of your trip.
From Athens Internaional Airport to Hania airport (50 min) and then a 90km drive to South Rethymnon. Alternatively take a boat from Piraeus port to Hania port in Souda (9 hours) before driving.
Agia Fotia: Agia Fotini, Kerames, +30.69.3712.4600
Iliomanolis: Kanevos • Tel: +30.2832 051053
Sideradiko: Spili • Tel: +30.69.7369.7116
LANDMARKS ON THE MAP
Preveli Museum: April- May: Monday- Sunday, 09.00-18.00, June to October: Monday- Sunday 09.00-13.30 & 15.30-19.00, Τel: +30 28320 41444,
Plakias horse riding center: Tel: +30.28320.31196, +30.28320.32033, Mobile: +30.69.4201.1620,