I originally spied Matala in a travel guide on Greece. Located on the southern shores of Crete, the photos of the town immediately got my attention. The sandstone cliff along one side of the waterfront contained a honeycomb of caves. Intrigued, I added the town to my itinerary immediately.
After spending a day-and-a-half in Athens, wandering around the Plaka and visiting the Acropolis, my friends and I left for the islands. I booked a cabin for us on an overnight ferry and we were soon on our way. We watched the sun dip slowly into the sea as we left the shores of the mainland.
We docked in Heraklion bright and early. From there we had to take a bus to the other side of the island. There was a small café on the docks, and we sat for a while to caffeinate and collect ourselves. Fortunately for us, a nearby museum was open. The Heraklion Archaeological Museum affords a compelling sojourn through the ancient history of the area, featuring art, jewelry and pottery from Phaistos and Knossos. I delighted in the Phaistian pottery, much of it black with vivid designs in white and a faded brick red. The second largest city in Minoan Crete, Phaistos (20 miles north of Matala) was discovered by modern surveyors in 1853 and thoroughly investigated by archaeologists. It was an unplanned visit but certainly a welcome one. After we traipsed through town browsing in many shops and for lunch stopped at a snack cart and enjoyed a genuine gyro. Everything tasted good there.
Late in the afternoon we boarded our bus and were on our way at last to the groovy cave beach. This small, natural harbor in the Bay of Messara has an abundance of history and mystery. In legend, Zeus was said to have arrived on shore in the form of the bull with his conquest Electra. The origin of the artificial caves inspired much speculation over the centuries, but most now believe they were carved by Romans or early Christians as hiding places or tombs. Ruins lie in the waters of the bay, a treasure for intrepid snorkelers. The town became an enclave for hippies in the 60s, where Joni Mitchell wrote “Carey” while living in one of the caves. One of my colleagues had been there during that time. He was excited I was following in his footsteps.
Upon arrival, we found a pension just outside of town. Its pathway was lined with honeysuckle, the scent wafting in the sultry evening air. Our room even had a tiny little balcony overlooking the hills that guarded the approach to town as well as a small garden below us.
The beach is a few minutes walk from anywhere in this charming little town. It’s lined on one side by the intriguing caves and on the other a plethora of restaurants, bars, shops and snack bars. The sandy beach was sparsely populated, as it was still a few weeks before high season. The clear water beckoned. This small Mediterranean alcove is a wonderful place to bask in the warm sun. Floating lazily, rather than exerting oneself, seems to be encouraged.
There are certainly other ways to enjoy the town. Had we stayed longer we may have opted for some horseback riding, biking or snorkeling. Instead, after our swim, we walked among the many shops peppering the main road followed by a quick trek back to the room for a change into dry clothing. It was time for dinner.
With many fine establishments to choose from, we favored one with an expansive covered deck overlooking the water. Retaining the Greek names of the places we patronized proved difficult after a few glasses of wine. As was the case everywhere we ate, the food was fantastic. Tzatziki was incredibly rich pretty much everywhere (more garlicky than many American versions, with less dill -- infinitely superior). Simple salads of tomatoes and cucumbers were fresh and lightly dressed with herbs and oil, and topped with a large slab of feta. No lettuce. Swordfish steaks were a favorite along with grilled calamari. The grape leaves will ruin you for all others.
After dinner, bars and a nightclub kept the festivities going. My friends regaled me with their adventures. We checked out a couple of bars along the strip and mingled with other tourists, one of whom recommended we explore Red Beach, just over the hill behind town. We made it back to the room quite late, enjoying a nightcap on the balcony, sipping ouzo on the balcony under the Big Dipper.
The next morning, the sound of a scooter roused me from sleep and soon we were ready to set out again. After our standard breakfast of Greek yogurt and fruit, we set out for Red Beach. The hill seemed to this non-hiker as a small mountain. I recommend wearing something more suitable than flip-flops for the ascent. At the top of the steep climb (80m above sea level), the view of the bay is breathtaking. Climbing down to the beach, we were greeted with more caves (some of which were inhabited by individuals willing to rent an umbrella for the day) and luxurious sand. One of the top nude beaches in Greece, the scene was convivial and relaxing. Some visitors liked to frolic or play games, while many were content just sunbathing or (like me) reading under their sunshades. Eventually, the warm, turquoise water beckoned. It remains the most amazing place I ever swam. The water is so crystal clear that you can watch your shadow undulating on the sand below. And the view from out there was spectacular. It was tempting just to float there for eternity. We spent most of the day there and never even made it into the caves. Not that it mattered. I still dream of Red Beach.
Kristine England is a freelance writer based in Portland, Maine. She is an avid traveler who also enjoys good food, spirits, and conversation.
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