Gavdos, Chrissi, Koufonissi: take the ferry to the exotic paradises of Crete
Crete has about 100 rocky islands scattered around it, most of which are located across the shores of Lassithi Prefecture. Their names, imaginative and ‘elegant’: Psyllos (flea), Psira (cootie), Kolokytha (pumpkin), Pontikaki (little mouse), ect. Most of these islands are dry and have nothing to offer, but many of them are wildlife reserves and some host ancient settlements of great importance. Some are accessible to visitors, some not, and only one of them is inhabited today: Gavdos, of course. We present to you Crete’s most popular exotic getaways!
Gavdos, the island of Calypso
Gavdos is said to be ancient Ogygia, the island of witch Calypso. You want to know why Odysseus (aka Ulysses) stayed there for so many years with her, away from the family troubles in his homeland? Take the ferry from Paleochora or Sfakia, turn off your cell phone, forget the concept of ‘time’, get rid of your clothes and ‘urban’ preconceptions to find out for yourself.
The island is magical. They say it has strong magnetic fields that -according to local legends- ‘cured’ the Russian nuclear scientists who came to live here after receiving a large dose of radiation in the Chernobyl accident. They still live here, in a handmade eco-settlement and worship god Apollo (!), along with several other interesting persons who settled in Gavdos, looking for peace, refuge, or inspiration for their art. The island is packed with campers during the summer –and especially in August- but for those who are not into the hippie style of vacation, there are several rooms to rent.
In Gavdos you will meet the nicest ‘weird people’, who will help you forget about ‘normality’ and social conventions; you will swim in one of the most beautiful beaches of Europe (Ai-Giannis) and you will burn your heels while walking on the hot sand dunes. You will enjoy long sleeps under the cedar trees while listening to the song of cicadas and you will see one of the most striking sunsets of your life by the lighthouse, the highest point of the island. The taste of the local lamb dish (tsigariasto), brilliantly cooked in the little tavern in Kastri, will haunt your senses when you’re gone and the view from the bar ‘Sorolop’ that overlooks the beach of Sarakiniko will win a place in the pantheon of your most beautiful memories. The island has already ‘charmed’ many people who come back every year and even stay for months. As for the few permanent residents (about 50) they wouldn’t change Gavdos with anything in the world, even when the last tourists leave and they are left alone, gazing at the shores of ‘populous’ Crete across the sea.
A few things you should know:
- The two main beaches of Gavdos are Sarakiniko and Ai Giannis, where most people camp. Sarakiniko is more ‘civilized’, as there are several taverns, mini markets and bars –nothing loud and crazy though, just tables on the sand and relaxing music. Ai Giannis, a beautiful beach with sand dunes and cedar trees, is located west of Sarakiniko. The only sign of civilization there is a tavern, 15 minutes walking through the sand dunes! For this reason, more hippie-like campers prefer this beach for camping.
- You will find wi-fi in Kastri, the capital of the island!
- A day trip the beach of Trypiti is a must. You will start the route in Vatsiana and in about 45’ of walking through a lovely green gorge you will arrive at a dry lake and the beach of Trypiti. There you will find a gigantic chair –emblem of Gavdos, placed there by the Russian nuclear scientists!
- Apart from the ‘natural’ toilet –located more or less everywhere- you can depend on the generosity of tavern owners, where you might also find outdoor showers!
- In Gavdos you won’t need many clothes. The laid back atmosphere of the island ‘requires’ simplicity. Plus, this is a heaven for nudists and will probably see more naked people than dressed. However, do not forget you sunblock and a good hat, because the sun in this ‘southern extremity’ really burns!
- From Ai Giannis you can walk in the sea to the west, to reach the equally impressive beach of Lavrakas.
- Sorolop bar, overlooking Sarakiniko, has a special architecture and history: it was built by the exiles of the Metaxa dictatorship with materials found on the island. Aris Velouhiotispassed by here…
- If you are lucky you might see dolphins on the way to Gavdos with the ferry. If you are very lucky, you may even see whales!
- Tune your radio to Gavdos FM and take the public bus of the island at least once- if you manage to figure out when and how to catch it!
- You can find the ferry schedule from Sfakia (Chora Sfakion) and Paleochora to Gavdos here.
Chrissi, the wind-bitten
You take the ferry from Ierapetra and as you approach the island, the sea takes all possible shades of blue, green, and cyan. This is just a preview. Because when you arrive at the northern beach of the island (the ferry will leave you at the southern beach and you have to walk through the dunes to reach it) you will see the exotic card-postal waters right in front of you! The sand is white, the waters are like cyan crystal and the cedar trees look like natural sculptures. Plus, the sense of isolation you get on this island –especially when the last tourists leave with the last ferry- is totally revitalizing. Away from the lights of civilization, Chrissi offers the best star gazing at nights and spectacular colors at dawn. Walk the island– you will discover more lovely beaches, especially to the east, and fossils stuck into the rocks. You will be impressed by the countless shells in the sand and everywhere, but don’t be greedy with your ‘souvenirs’. In fact, we would ask you to leave them in place. Some years ago the shells you see were hundreds more, until visitors filled bottles with them to take back home. The result was an impoverishment of the island’s natural beauty. Same thing for the cedar trees…they are considered to be natural monuments, thus cutting their branches and making any kind of fire on the island is out of the question! The island is also known as gaidouronissi, meaning ‘donkey island’, but you will see no donkeys there!
A few things you should know:
- Locals (from Ierapetra and around) simply call Chrissi ‘the island’.
- The taverns of the island are opening and closing all the time (mainly due to legal issues). As far as we know, they are now all closed. That means you should bring your own food and water, or you can buy them from the ferry until 17.00, when the last one leaves.
- Camping on the island is prohibited. Many still take the risk and stay at night (for obvious reasons). If you get caught though, there is a fine.
- In some parts the color of the sand is pink from the numerous broken shells.
- If god Poseidon is in a good mood, you will enjoy the beach without wind, and you may even see dolphins on the way!
- If the wind is strong, the island can become unpleasant, and don’t forget to buy dramamines for the ferry!
- Ferries depart from Ierapetra every day at 10.00 (10.30 or 11.00) and return at 17.00. As for the tickets, if you are a group you can try to bargain the price.
Koufonisi, a paradise for the few
The deserted– exotic landscape of Chrissi, without the cedar trees but instead with remains of ancient glories…that’s what you will find in Koufonisi –if you manage to get there! This little island is located across the settlement of Makrygialos and is also known as Lefki, meaning ‘white’ in Greek, probably because of its impressive white sand and limestone that covers its surface. In Minoan times it was an important production center of Tyrian purple (a purple-red natural dye) extracted from sea snails and a site for sponge fishing. This little piece of land accommodates a well-preserved ancient theatre and other Hellenistic and Roman ruins excavated by archeologists. Beautiful Lefki became the object of dispute between the ancient cities of Itanos and Ierapytna (ancient Ierapetra) who claimed it. Everyone wanted this little dream island. In the end, Itanos won. Today the island is free of disputes and burdened only with natural and historical treasures. Its untouched landscape is a paradise for the few, as unfortunately (or fortunately, when it comes to the preservation of its pristine beauty) there are no ferries that take visitors there and your only chance to go is by renting a private boat -and we warn you, the price is high! If you have your own boat you should be cautious as the island is surrounded by many invisible reefs.
A few things you should know:
- If you don’t have your own boat and you want to go to Koufonisi, convince your friends to come with you. The only private boat with a permit to take visitors is in Makrygialos and organizes day trips for €350. The boat has a capacity of 10 persons. (tel. 6976683166).
- There aren’t many trees on the island, just some salt cedars. So, do not forget your umbrella, hat and shoes to walk on the hot sand dunes.