Off the goat track

Michael Hanlon beats a path to the secret, secluded world of western Crete

All I could think was, I'm glad this isn't my car. We had been on the trail for an hour, and another mile of the most atrocious roads I have ever seen would surely do for our little French runabout - designed to cruise the boulevards of Paris, not tackle the kind of terrain that Range Rovers and Shoguns normally only dream about.

We were looking for the fabled beach of Elafonisi, in western Crete. Our map - the best available - clearly, and mendaciously, showed a "road" across the mountains, from the little port of Paleohora where we were staying, to the pink sands and lagoons of Elafonisi, just a dozen miles to the west. It is reputedly one of the best beaches in Greece.

"This road's not bad," I remarked cheerfully as we sailed through a whitewashed village, locals waving knowingly. "Stupid thing to say," said my wife, as the Tarmac gave way to gravel, which jarred the senses and threatened the paintwork. Soon it gave way to stones, and then, as we passed the point of no return, the road melted into a boulder-strewn hillside, only the absence of thyme bushes marking out a path across the limestone. Sometimes the road/goat track disappeared altogether, and one of us would have to get out and try to build a driveable surface with rocks.

Eventually, we came to a crossroads. "It's over there!" I said, pointing to a thin strip of blue between land and sky. So down we went, along the roughest path so far. It was a dead end, with a large pile of rubble at the bottom.

The rubble turned out to be a house. Its inhabitant, and his dog, came out to greet us. He had a strange look in his eyes, the look of someone who after spending hours, weeks, years, searching for elusive beaches, had given up and decided to stay put. I asked for directions, in Greek not so much rusty as in need of a serious MOT. Eventually we were put on the right track, and after another, oh, 20 miles or so, reached the beach. It was as beautiful as its reputation suggested, but full of Germans. They had sensibly opted for the good road looping to the north, leaving the mountainous short cut well alone.

The largest in the Greek archipelago, Crete, the island of King Minos, fierce, knife-wielding resistance fighters and Zorba the Greek, has been on the mass tourism circuit for more than two decades. Easily reached by inexpensive charter flights from all over northern Europe, the island boasts endless night-clubs, bars and lobster-red packagers not knowing or caring where they are so long as the sun is hot and the beer is cheap.

Fortunately, however, most visitors never get further than a few narrow, overdeveloped coastal strips, leaving much of the island pretty much untouched. Especially in the wilder western half and the often inaccessible south coast, it is still possible to find a deserted beach, an isolated village and genuine Cretan philoxenia (hospitality) even in scorching August.

But spring or early summer is the time to go. In May, June and early July, the island is still green. Fields of olive trees interspersed with chestnut forests, scented thyme hillsides and everywhere a kaleidoscope of pink, red and orange as the wild flowers have their couple of months of glory before being frazzled by the August sun. Go west from Chania, a lovely, crumbling Venetian port, and at this time of year you can feel that the island belongs to you alone. We stayed for a few days in the tiny hamlet of Falasarna at the base of the magical, uninhabited Gramvousa peninsula - one of the two prongs jutting up into the Aegean from Crete's western tip.

Falasarna has a wonderful beach - a mile of silver-white sand, shallow turquoise waters and a couple of even lovelier coves just round the corner should you want a strand to yourself (though you may have to share the view with some goats). It also has an excellent hotel and three or four ridiculously cheap tavernas. A mile farther on, the ancient city of Falasarna lies uncovered, free of heritage signs and interpretation centres - just ancient walls perched on craggy cliffs, fields of wild herbs and killer sunsets. The entrance to the site is marked by a mysterious stone "throne" - a carved limestone seat designed apparently for a giant. Old Falasarna was once a harbour. But the geological upheavals that have defined the landscape of the eastern Mediterranean have thrown the western end of Crete 25ft up in the last two millennia, leaving the ancient coves and cliffs along this part of the coastline stranded high and dry.

The far west is agriculturally the richest part of the island. In contrast with the arid east, where only goats can scratch a living from the dusty slopes, the milder, damper climate of western Crete allows a rich variety of agriculture. Nine small villages (the Enneachora) cling to the mountain slopes inland. Chestnut forests provide a lucrative autumnal crop, and along the coast, farmers grow tomatoes and bananas in huge polythene greenhouses.

In Kefali we started exploring a grand, but ruined, old house. There was no roof, but despite this it was inhabited and the elderly owner was in. He told us that the house was built by the Ottoman governor of the area when the island was under Turkish rule. When the Turks were kicked out at the turn of the century, the house passed to his family, who had owned it ever since. Even older was the church next door, built in the 12th century; its flaking frescoes bear nearly 800 years of clearly-legible graffiti - Latin from Venetian travellers, Greek ancient and modern, and Islamic defilements of the Virgin Mary.

Back in Paleohora, we found our way to the open-air cinema, and watched a scratchy old print of Zorba the Greek, marvelling how little, in some parts at least, this lovely island had changed in the past 40 years. The next day we found the perfect cove where Zorba danced, and swam beneath the brooding cliffs.

The most sensible way to reach Crete is on a non-stop charter flight to Iraklion from one of several British airports. These can be booked on a seat-only basis for around pounds 150-pounds 230 from operators such as Airtours (0541 500479), First Choice Flights (0161-745 7000) and Thomson (0990 502580). Michael Hanlon paid pounds 169 for an Airtours charter flight from Gatwick to Iraklion booked through Flight Call (01273 506668). Flights are still available for this summer; Airtours, for example, has a night flight from Manchester to Iraklion on 15 July for pounds 199. National Tourism Organisation of Greece, 4 Conduit Street, London W1R 0DJ (0171-734 5997).

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