Our family holiday in Crete was approached with some inner caution on my part – an Australian will always be hard to please when it comes to beaches. We rented a villa just outside the old port town of Rhethymeno, which is everything you want from Greece: winding narrow cobbled lanes, old men on the kerbs drinking coffee, bakeries serving spanakopitas packed with wild leaves and salty feta, and a beautiful twinkling harbour, all encased in that special light that lends grace to colour, making it more vivid, more pure.
Though our first attempts at finding a decent beach were rather disappointing, a few days in we found a beach perfectly adequate for our needs: close to home, clean enough, and serviced by a fun bar called Mambo whose DJs played great summertime tunes at sunset that set the kids dancing on the terraces while my husband and I enjoyed a glass of wine.
But we still wanted to explore the island and hoped to find somewhere spectacular – a beach to lose yourself on, to liberate your spirit with, like the best wild Aussie beaches do. And so we headed out early one morning to make the 43-kilometre journey across the island to the south coast, to find Preveli Beach, which was described in my guidebook as one of the most famous and beautiful beaches in Crete.
We got to the beach car-park around 10am, and I figured we had a few hours before the heat of the day became too much for my young children to manage. The car-park is high above the beach – it’s a 20-minute careful walk down a steep and rocky path to get there. But the amazing view lures your steps with the promise of its paradise (it was the walk back in the heat with the kids that worried me). In fact, I had to keep stopping to take in the stunning sight of the pristine sands and the slow ambling of a few people on the shore, a river coming through a forest of palm trees dotted with the pinks and whites of oleanders, and, just before the dark green of the river met the turquoise of the ocean, a small lagoon where children were absorbed in play in its shallow waters.
Once we made it down the cliff we gratefully had a cool drink at the small canteen and the kids stripped off and ran to the lagoon. Later we hired a pedal-boat and cruised down the river, quietly absorbing the surrounds. It felt like Eden: beautiful, serene and otherworldly. We took turns jumping from the little boat into the crisp water. The kids nestled on rocks and squinted into the sunlight, and it seemed to me they were transformed by the lushness of nature into their essential selves – at ease, blissful.
We had real potato chips fried to order in olive oil and sprinkled with a herby salt for lunch, and the kids had one last swim before the one o’clock heat broke me from the revelry and I hurriedly crammed our stuff into bags to make it up the hill before we all fried. Little River, our boy, fell into a sun-induced sleep on his father’s shoulder on the way up and Phoebe nearly fainted with exhaustion, but we made it and at the first taverna we stopped for some more great food – beetroot salad with pinenuts and chargrilled chicken, eaten outside in the dappled light of a vine-covered terrace.
Phoebe and her dad went off to explore the stream nearby, their feet bare, large sticks in their hands. I saw my daughter crossing the rocks, intense with concentration, light sparking off the water and dancing around her like a shimmering aura. My little boy slept on the grass beside our table, mouth open, arms spread wide with trustful relaxation. I soaked it up, that moment of perfect happiness.
Read more about family holidays in Crete, including things to do with kids and the best family-friendly places to stay.