Off the southwestern tip of Crete and about 75 kilometers from the town of Chania, lies Elafonissi, an island that is within walking distance from the mainland, sometimes without even getting one’s toes wet. The island, which is not to be confused with its namesake Elafonissos in Peloponissos, is a protected nature reserve and boasts one of the finest sand beaches in the country. More than that, Elafonissi is the only Greek contender in a Tripadvisor list of the world’s 25 best beaches for 2014. This is to be expected: blindingly white sand with pink hues, turquoise-white lagoon-like waters that ripple as they pick up the breeze, Elafonissi is an exotic place, a flat morsel of land with sporadic vegetation against the stark bareness of the Cretan mountains. If it weren’t for the car park on the mainland, the umbrellas, beach bar and sun beds, one could mistake it for paradise. Luckily, the island itself is a protected zone, so there is none of that once you walk across the shallow water.
Most of the beach action occurs on the strip of sea between the mainland and the island, not in general a place for a quiet swim or for quality time with one’s significant other, but the water is shallow, warm and therefore perfect for a family day trip and for kids honing their swimming skills. Elafonissi is almost a mile long and there is surprisingly much to explore lengthwise, including a fair number of small coves (naturists love them), sandy beaches and interesting rock formations towards the tip as the island stretches out into the sea and into the sunset. But tread carefully: the island is home to 110 plant species as well as being a protected area for Androcymbium rechingeri, which is as rare as it sounds.