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Vai Beach, Crete: Stunning Palm Forest and Ancient Ruins


Gorgeous Vai Beach, Crete features the largest palm forest in Europe and is surrounded by fascinating ruins and good hiking. Combining beauty with history, it remains a very popular destination despite its relatively remote location tucked away on a lightly populated peninsula in the far eastern corner of Crete.

Named for the Greek word for palms (“vayia”), Vai Beach first rose to prominence in the 1970’s as a hippie enclave filled with those looking for a new hangout as Matala Beach and Preveli Beach (another, smaller, palm beach) became too busy and mainstream for their tastes.

Palm trees at Vai Beach crete

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By the early 80’s the entire place was overrun with backpackers and hippies, leading to widespread damage and turning it into one large trash dump.

Thankfully, local authorities soon decided that enough was enough and designated the palm forest a protected area. The resilient Phoenix Theophrasti trees soon recovered and today Vai Beach’s beautiful location, perfect sand and ecofriendly practices have earned it Blue Flag status – a far cry from those days spent covered in camp litter and marijuana-scented urine.

Vai Beach Crete  Map

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Vai Palm Beach

The prototypically ideal Mediterranean beach, with a long curve of soft sand backed by palm trees and tall rocks at either end. The small, sheltered bay even features a picturesque little islet. So, yeah, Vai Beach is pretty.

Sunbeds on Vai beach crete

The water is clean and usually fairly calm, perfect for swimming or just cooling off in between skin-roasting sessions. Of course, if you’re not as fond of direct sunlight as some you can also rent umbrellas (2 sunbeds and an umbrella for the day for €10). It is also possible to just lay your towel down under some of the trees behind the beach.

As we mentioned earlier, Vai Beach is Blue Flag certified, meaning it is clean, well-equipped and environmentally friendly. There is a large parking area back of the beach (nicely out of sight behind some trees), a restaurant, water sports available for rent, boardwalks to make it easier to get across the hot sand, public toilets and outdoor showers to wash the salt and sand off.

Change room and shower at vai palm beach
Vai Beach shower and change room

Adrenalin junkies can enjoy a variety of water sports, including banana boating, jet-skiing and wakeboarding. And be sure to climb the short set of rocky stairs at the south end of the sandy beach next to the restaurant to reach an amazing viewpoint.

View from hill above Vai Beach Crete in Greece

And if you’ve really been hoping to do some public making out, well, Vai Beach has the perfect spot for that as well. Just try to bring a partner to make things a little less awkward.

Sign that says this is a good kiss spot

Check out our complete list of The Best Beaches on Crete

Vai Palm Forest

This enormous swath of beautiful palms is the main reason Vai Beach is so popular. The entire forest covers roughly 25 hectares and includes anywhere from 4,500 to 6,000 trees depending on who you ask, making it the largest palm grove in Europe. Providing both scenery and shade, the warm, dry climate of eastern Crete is perfect for them.

Although some people like to claim the forest originated from date stones discarded by either Phoenician or Arab pirates, scientists and historical records have confirmed that the Phoenix Theophrasti (or Cretan date palm) is actually endemic to Crete and have been there since ancient times.

Palm trees in Vai Palm Forest

Walking through the forest you’ll usually pass a small, picturesque lake (sometimes it disappears in dry season) and a wide variety of birds. It is a common migratory stop for birds travelling between Europe and Africa. Just like it is for tourists, incidentally.

One of the main factors in the rising popularity of Vai Beach was a Bounty chocolate bar commercial filming there in the early 1970’s. Bounty bars contain coconuts so they figured this fantastic palm forest would be the perfect place to film coconuts falling from the trees.

Sunbeds at Vai Palm beach

One problem, though, Cretan palms produce dates, not coconuts. So they came across the world to find the perfect palm grove, then still had to artificially hang coconuts from the trees. Nonetheless, the ad was a huge hit and led to a massive tourist boom at Vai Beach for the next decade.

Things to Do Near Vai Beach

Walk to Psili Ammos Beach

Sensational Psili Ammos is just a 5-minute walk over a small hill south from Vai Beach. Its name means “fine sand”, which is exactly what you will find there, along with clear turquoise water and, usually, far fewer people than at its more famous counterpart.

It is a good place to go for a bit of solitude, with usually just a few seabirds and the occasional nudist for company. There are no facilities, trees or shade so bring your own supplies and umbrella.

Wander the Ancient Itanos Ruins

There are a few small, remote beaches along the coast north of Vai Beach as well as the impressive ancient ruins of Itanos. Surrounded by a set of 3 tiny bays, the remains of this ancient city offer a fascinating look into Greek history.

Erimoupolis Beach near Itanos ruins
Secluded bay near Itanos ruins

In its day, Itanos was an important commercial centre and one of the most modern and dominant cities of ancient Crete. It even had its own coin and was famous for the purple Tyrian dye produced on Koufonisi Island.

Today, very little of that is recognizable but you can still make out the remnants of many walls, some old temples and an early Christian church.

Itanos ruins near Vai Beach

Some of the ruins are now underwater, also, making it a pretty cool place to snorkel. While there is some Vai Beach snorkeling opportunities this is a far better choice.

Explore the Toplou Monastery

Also known as the Monastery of Panagia Akrotiriani or the Great Monastery, Toplou Monastery is one of the most famous and important monasteries in Crete. Covering 800 square metres over 3 floors, there are 40 rooms and, supposedly, exactly 100 doors. Unfortunately, at this point only 99 have been discovered, a conundrum which has surely caused many sleepless nights among the more OCD monks.

Touplou Monastery through an arch

The defensive walls are 10-metres high and the thick main door rolls on wheels and is protected from above by an attacking hole known affectionately as “the killer”. The 33-metre bell tower protected the monastery from unpleasant surprises and there is even a well inside which likely came in quite handy during the many sieges Toplou Monastery was subjected to over the years.

From a spiritual perspective, there is a basilica dedicated to John the Theologian and Virgin Mary, as well as numerous important 18th century icons and some well-maintained 14th century frescoes. The museum also hosts a large variety of other historic items, from bibles and crosses to flags and official seals.

Find Solitude on Maridati Beach

Just 7 kilometres south from Vai Beach you can tackle the rough, dirt road to this gloriously secluded little hideaway. Generally quiet, Maridati Beach is much rockier than Vai Beach but the water is still beautifully clear and it is scenically hemmed in by two rocky points.

Woman walking on Maridati Beach

The 1.5-km dirt path in from the main road in is quite scenic as well, passing through “The Valley of Colours”, a lush valley split by a small river and boasting a grove of tamarisk trees. There is a small tavern near the beach but not much else in the way of facilities.

Check out the Roussolakos Ruins

A bit further south yet, you’ll reach the old village of Paleokastro (literally “old castle”) and Chiona Beach. Just back from the sand are the ruins of the ancient Minoan settlement of Roussolakos. Most of it is in pretty rough shape but you can still make out several of the buildings, including the important Temple of Diktaian Zeus (dedicated to the Cretan version of this famous Greek god).

Many believe Roussolakos was the location of the famous battle between Talos and the Argonauts and most of the artifacts discovered here can now be found in the Sitia Museum.

Go Wind Surfing on Kouremenos Beach

Kouremenos Beach is huge, measuring roughly 1.5-km-long. Its fine sand and clear, shallow water are backed by pretty tamarisk trees and hemmed in by Cape Tenta to the north and Cape Plaka to the south. There are a couple of beach bars, sunbeds and umbrellas for rent and showers to wash off the day.

View of Kouremenos Beach from above
Kouremenos Beach from above

So, yes, it is a nice beach in its own right. But rather than lounging in the sun, most people come to Kouremenos for the wind surfing. A geographic anomaly resulting from a combination of thermal conditions and being particularly exposed to the “Meltemi” winds means it is basically always windy. The variety of areas and consistent wind makes Kouremenos one of the best places in Europe for wind and kite surfing.

Sign for windsurfing on Kouremenos Beach

There are several places to rent equipment or take lessons and a wide range of conditions to suit all skill levels. The sandy bottom and flat, shallow water near shore are perfect for beginners while farther out you can find small, sharp waves to work on more advanced techniques.

Have a Drink on Sitia Harbour

As the main urban centre in the province of Sitia (both by size and name), the town of Sitia features a deep, sheltered bay filled with fishing boats (and even the occasional ferry, cruise ship or super-yacht).

Restaurants around Sitia harbor

It is a beautiful place to go for a stroll, stop for a drink or settle in at one of the terrific seafood restaurants lining the malecón. This lovely harbour is the main benefit of basing yourself in Sitia while exploring the area.

To find out more, check out Sitia: Guide to a Traditional Cretan Beach Town

Hike the Zakros Gorge

Hikers, don’t despair, we haven’t forgotten you. This is Crete after all – you are never too far from another phenomenal gorge hike. In this case, Zakros Gorge offers a pleasant downhill stroll from Ano Zakros (Upper Zakros) through a highly photogenic gorge to Kato Zakros (Lower Zakros), finishing up next to some of the most important Minoan ruins in Crete.

It known as “The Gorge of the Dead” because the Minoans traditionally buried their dead high up in caves along the gorge. Of more modern significance, however, Zakros Gorge represents the final Greek section of the epic (and absurdly long) European E4 long-distance hiking trail. Running for over 10,000 kilometres from Tarifa, Spain to Cape Greco on the eastern coast of Cyprus, you will need to set aside either a couple of hours for the Zakros section, or roughly a year and a half if you want to complete the whole thing.

Person hiking down Zakros Gorge near Vai Beach

You can start the walk in the village of Ano Zakros or save about an hour by skipping the (slightly less scenic) first part and parking at the official trailhead about 4 kilometres to the east. The trail is well-marked, plus it is, you know, a gorge, so it’s pretty hard to get lost.

In Kato Zakros you will find the aforementioned Minoan ruins, a nice beach and several great little tavernas where you can rest up, fill up and wash down the dust with a cold beer or two. From there you can either walk back up the gorge, hire a taxi to take you back to your car or wait for one of the occasional buses that run between Kato and Ano Zakros. The schedule is usually posted on a board next to the beach.

Where to Stay: Vai Beach Hotels

If you wish to stay close to spectacular Vai Beach, there are plenty of accommodation options in Sitia or the villages located 10-20 km to the south.

Sita Beach City Resort and Spa

Vai beach hotel in Sitia

Close to the city centre, only a 5-minute walk to the old town and malecón with access to a private beach, the Sitia Beach City Resort offers 3 pools, a spa and rooms with sea, pool or garden views. Sitia is only 30 minutes from Vai Beach and is a great central place to stay to explore all the area has to offer.

Click here for Sitia Beach City Resort and Spa prices

Olive Coast Suites

If you want to be closer than Sitia, a great choice are the Olive Coast Suites only 8 km from Vai palm beach. The apartments have kitchens and living rooms for a comfortable stay and come with views of either Kouremenos Beach or the olive groves.

Click here for Olive Coast Suites

Hotel Marina Village

A good choice for families is Hotel Marina Village in Paleokastro village, only 800m from Kouremenos Beach. The grounds have a snack bar, a tennis court and a seasonal swimming pool with a children’s section.

Click here for Hotel Marina Village prices

Camping in Vai Crete

Unlike in its hippie heyday, camping is no longer allowed at Vai Beach in any way, shape or form. Fires are also prohibited.

When to Go to Vai Beach: Weather

Like most of Crete, the Vai Beach weather means a very mild climate year-round thanks to the surrounding Mediterranean Sea. Summers are warm (some would say hot) with almost no rain. Most precipitation comes in the winter months, although that is still pretty minimal compared with many coastal cities.

Crete is one of the most southerly islands in Europe and compared to most of the continent the weather remains bearable all year, with the daily average temperature in Vai Beach only dropping as far as 10 / 12 (low/high) in January. Which is why Crete is one of the best places to visit in Europe in winter.

Sun beds at Vai Beach Greece
A quiet, but sunny and warm, day in November

Vai Beach gets very crowded in July and August so it is best to visit in the shoulder seasons if possible. May-June and September-October are perfect for good weather and fewer tourists. It will also be far less crowded early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

How to Get to Vai Beach in Sitia

There are many ferry connections to Crete, some of which stop in directly at Sitia. FerryScanner has one of the best ferry networks in the world and is the most user-friendly site we’ve come across. It is the site we use to book all our own ferry trips.

By Car

Public transportation on Crete can be tedious so we highly recommend renting a car so you don’t miss out on any of the best spots. Plus, it is nice to be able to set your schedule. We find that Discover Cars usually has the best deals in the area.

Definitely the best way to reach Vai Beach is by car, as there are no major towns or villages nearby. However, it is easily accessible by car as there is a paved road that goes right there. There is also a large paid parking space south of the beach.

Driving Times to Vai Beach in Crete

Sitia to Vai Beach: 25 km / 30 min

Lerapetra to Vai Beach: 85 km / 1.5 hrs

Agios Nikolaos to Vai Beach: 90 km / 1.75 hrs

Heraklion to Vai Beach: 150 km / 2.5 hrs

Rethymno to Vai Beach: 230 km / 3.5 hrs

Chania to Vai Beach: 290 km / 4.25 hrs

White car
Our tiny rental car we had for our 5 weeks of exploring Crete

By Bus

It is theoretically possible to get to Vai Beach, Crete by bus, although the greater the distance the more complicated it gets.

The nearest city is Sitia, with a few buses running to Vai Beach daily in high season (fewer in the shoulder seasons and possibly none in winter). The trip takes about an hour and costs €4 per person.

There are regular buses from Agios Nikolaos to Sitia that take close to 2 hours and run about €8.

Finally, there are many daily buses from the port in Heraklion to Agios Nikolaos – 1.5 hrs / €8. So to get all the way from Heraklion to Vai Beach you are looking at 3 buses, €20 and 4.5 hours of driving time plus likely a couple more hours waiting on connections. An all-day undertaking, and too much work for a day trip, but worth it if you are planning to stay for a few days (or more).

Where to Eat: Vai Beach Restaurants

Palm Beach Vai

The Palm Beach Vai restaurant combines a spectacular sea view from the hill overlooking the beach with tasty traditional Greek food and reasonable prices.

Vai Crete restaurant on rocky hill above beach
The Palm Beach Vai restaurant above the beach

SeaSide Cafe

There is a snack bar at the back of the parking lot that is a little more hit and miss but is very convenient.

Snack shop at Vai beach Crete

Other Options

Further away there is the Maridatis Tavern on Maridati Beach, described above down a rough 1.5 km road. There are a variety of restaurants on Kouremenos beach, and if you make it to Paleokastro, the closest village to Vai beach, check out Finistrini restaurant for traditional food.

Other Gorgeous Beaches Around Crete

If you love Vai Beach, you should probably check out some of the other beautiful Crete beaches.

Preveli Beach

Palm trees and river at Preveli Palm beach

Home to the other magnificent palm forest on Crete, popular Preveli Beach is one of the most beautiful and photogenic spots on the entire island. The palm forest is hemmed in by steep cliffs and from above you can see the trees, the river, the beach and the lagoon that splits the beach in two. A definite must-see.

Balos Beach

Up in the extreme northwestern corner of Crete, you’ll find Balos Beach, the most photographed beach in all of Crete. It can only be reached via rough dirt road or on a boat tour but is still well worth the journey for the spectacular viewpoints and beautiful turquoise water.

Man looking down at Balos Beach from viewpoint

What sets Balos Beach apart, however, is the narrow sandy isthmus connecting mainland Crete to tiny Cape Tigani. This isthmus divides the area into a warm, shallow lagoon on one side (south) and a relatively sheltered bay on the other (north).

You may also want to check out our Ultimate Guide to Balos Beach

Elafonisi Beach

Lounger and straw umbrella at Elafonisi Beach in Crete

Rivalling Balos Beach for sheer beauty, Elafonisi Beach is tucked away in the southwestern corner of Crete about an hour from Kissamos. The narrow, pink sand isthmus separates two great beaches and shallow swimming areas, features sand dunes and leads to an island with caves, a church and phenomenal views.

You may also want to have a look at Elafonisi Beach: Is it Worth Visiting?

Seitan Limania

Seitan Limani Crete

Not far from the major city of Chania, Seitan Limania features a small but incredibly photogenic rocky gorge leading to a miniscule beach sheltered by tall cliffs on each side. It only gets a few hours of sun each day but is worth a visit for the view from the top alone (although we would highly recommend taking on the rugged 10-minute descent to explore more closely).

Find out how to visit at Seitan Limania: Guide to Crete’s Most Unique Beach

Matala Beach

Another beach that started out as a hippie enclave, today Matala Beach still retains much of that relaxed vibe. With a nice, sheltered bay ringed by welcoming tavernas, the north end of the beach features sandstone cliffs filled with ancient caves. They are worth exploring (€2 per person) for both the historic implications and the interesting views.

Vai Beach Summary

Despite its former popularity, not nearly as many tourists make it all the way to Vai Beach, Crete as to the beaches found closer to Heraklion and Chania. While there is a more accessible palm forest at Preveli Beach, Vai Beach palm forest is considerably larger and generally less busy.

Never mind all that, though, the bottom line is that Vai Beach is dazzling. With a good mix of beach, beauty and history it should be added to any Crete itinerary that allows enough time to make it out to this fascinating corner of the island.

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