Two women peeling fava beans at a table at Iliomanolis Taverna in Crete

Come to south central Crete for a holiday among gorges and rivers, valleys and hillsides full of olive groves, and beaches bordered by cliffs, hills, or a palm forest, with striking views of islands and hills across bays in the Libyan Sea—plus restaurants featuring fresh, traditional Cretan food in the birthplace of the Mediterranean diet.

Sea daffodils in the sand dunes, sea, hills, and sky, Plakias, Crete

Don’t miss Taverna Plateia in Myrthios, high above the quiet coastal resort town of Plakias. Choose a table that hangs over the hillside, beside glass balcony walls that make you feel like you’re sitting in the sky. Gaze at the stunning view, with hills covered in olive trees and Plakias nestled next to a wide bay and the endless sea. When you descend into Plakias, you’ll find that the long, wide expanse of sand to the east is more appealing than the convenient but narrower family beach near the center of town. An imposing cliff separates it from the rugged hill at its edge; below the cliff, nudists enjoy the best view of hundreds of white sea daffodils in the sand dunes.   

view of sea, hills, and sky from Plateia Taverna in Myrthios, Crete

Before wandering among the dunes, enjoy the always excellent food, reasonable prices, and good service that go with the view at Taverna Plateia. Choose from a wide selection of appetizers and salads, many vegetarian dishes, Greek specialties such as octopus with red sauce, onions, and potatoes, grilled pork chops and hamburgers, and a children’s menu. I can’t count how many times I’ve eaten the tastiest chicken thighs and fresh fried potatoes there (served with a small green side salad and tzatziki), village bakery bread with their own local olive oil and a fresh tomato and oregano sauce, perfect tzatziki, mild, creamy feta cheese from nearby Sellia, and a fresh Greek salad so big four of us couldn’t finish it. After 40 successful years without advertising, the owner says his goal is to do things right for those who appreciate the sights, smells, and flavors in his restaurant. Just don’t go in the winter: like many in the area, Plateia closes from the end of October through the end of April so the staff can take care of their olives and olive trees.

chicken thighs, fried potatoes, small salad, tzatziki, and lemon at Plateia Taverna

If you are looking for local olive oil and olive wood products, try two of the most attractive, distinctive shops in Plakias: the Creta Earth Traditional Products shops owned by Giorgos Papadakis. One features olive wood bowls, cutting boards, and spoons handmade in the Cretan mountain village of Amari to highlight the distinctive color and grain of the wood, as well as colorful handwoven rugs and placemats and a variety of ceramics from several other Cretan villages. The Creta Earth store next door might be called a Cretan gourmet shop, since it offers a variety of tempting Cretan goodies: olive pastes, vinegars, baked goods, preserves, halvas, honey, sea salt, olives, herbs, and sweets, including the best loukoumia (Turkish delights) I’ve ever tried. Creta Earth also sells its own locally produced Kotsifali and Yatiko wine and raki and their own brand of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), some of it bottled with chili, oregano, & black pepper, or with garlic. Their organic early harvest EVOO is especially flavorful.

Creta Earth shop in Plakias, with olive oil and wine bottles displayed

Arm yourself with some Cretan goodies, then head to one of my all-time favorite sunset spots, Schinaria Beach, for an evening picnic in a mostly sandy cove embraced by protecting arms of rock. The beach is at the end of a meandering single-lane drive with dramatic views of valleys of olive groves, barren hilltops, and rocky slopes. A steep dropoff from the beach into the sea produces substantial waves our kids love to play in when there is a westerly wind. On the other hand, on a calm day we saw more fish there (from finger size to large foot size) than anywhere else in the area. Around sunset, climb onto the sharp boulders off the far left edge of the beach to admire the way their jagged darkness frames a panorama of gradually fading layers of hills beside the sea as the sinking sun changes their coloring and illumination.

jagged boulders, sea, layers of hills in the distance, setting sun, and sky

Combine lunch with a bit of exploration by driving north through the striking little Kotsyfou (Blackbird) Gorge on the way to another of our favorite restaurants, the family-run Iliomanolis Taverna in Kanevos, where potted geraniums, herbs, and ornamental red peppers stand out against a background of evergreens and rocky hills. There you’ll find a variety of tasty, affordable, fresh Cretan dishes, including dakos (grated tomato and the Iliakis family’s own homemade mild, soft white mizithra cheese on rusks); horta (wild greens) with zucchini, green beans, and potatoes; and meats and vegetables stewed in homemade tomato sauce (beef, chicken, pork, meatballs, stuffed zucchini flowers and grape leaves, and briam, a vegetarian stew with potatoes, zucchini, and onions). Every day but Monday (and some winter months), Maria Iliakis and her daughter prepare 25 to 28 large casseroles full of traditional homemade entrées using fresh, locally produced meats and vegetables and their own olive oil. Kyria (Mrs.) Maria says the food is handmade “as my grandmother made it,” using a knife rather than a food processor, for the Greeks and tourists who come in search of real food. “What people eat here, we eat”: if it’s not good enough for Kyria Maria’s grandchildren, it’s not good enough for her customers. (Off season, it's best to check when they're open by calling 28320 51053.)

Tables, plants, and view of hills and sky at Iliomanolis Taverna

For a more active exploration of a gorge—although not on a full stomach--the fit and energetic can drive to the parking lot near the Preveli Monastery and hike down the trail and countless stone steps to the beach. We managed the hike even when our children were just 6 and 9, pausing frequently to admire the view of the deep blue sea and the rare palm forest along the river that forms a small pond of cold mountain water before running over the beach into the sea. (The less adventurous can drive to Ammoudi and take the shorter path over the hill from there, or take the easiest route via tourist boat from Damnoni or Plakias.) Relax in the small forest of tamarisk trees next to the beach, swim to a wide sea cave to the left of the beach, then wade back through the river and walk into the palm forest to rinse off in the fresh water where children build dams, splash, and swim near small cascades and little rapids between boulders farther inland. 

palm forest by a river at Preveli, Crete

Explore the area! On your way to different beaches, appreciate the varied landscape of Crete. Wave to the locals; they’ll smile, wave back, and say “yah soss” (hello). At night, stop to admire the stars in the darkest place you can find. On a clear night before moonrise, remote parts of southern Crete reveal the most and brightest stars I’ve ever seen around the cloudy haze of the Milky Way. Life in Greece today is no vacation, but a vacation in Crete is still magnificent.

olive groves, hills, sea, and sky in south central Crete

Advice, if you go: September and October are great vacation months in Crete, since many of the crowds have left (except, perhaps, at Preveli), the restaurants and lodgings have not yet closed for the winter, the sea is fairly warm, and the weather is comfortable. Although there may be some rain, it tends to pass quickly and comes with spectacular skyscapes summer tourists miss. If strong winds are forecast, keep in mind that Cretan beaches are generally calmest and clearest in the mornings, and choose the most sheltered beaches, given the wind direction, with the help of a detailed map. (One option on a windy day is two picturesque little coves with small, rocky beaches and lovely views, down rough stairways/paths from the main road between Plakias and Souda Beach.) Plakias and Schinaria (also written Schoinaria but pronounced more like Skeenaria) offer a shower, umbrellas, and lounge chairs, with food and drink nearby; Preveli has some food and drink. 

small cove, sea, boulders, hills, and sky between Plakias and Souda Beach

An incomplete, introductory sample of noteworthy sites to visit