Forget that for a hot moment it lit up my Instagram like a brand new Kardashian curve: Kommos Beach in Crete is cool on all counts. The first time I saw this overlooked Greek beach I very nearly rolled like a human boulder from a church’s back door into its crashing electric blue surf. That’s because my archaic insistence on using paper maps had put me on the wrong side of a village I was trying to find. When I finally pulled up to a small Greek Orthodox chapel in the hope of asking someone for directions, I didn’t realize I would be on top of a bluff with swirling waves a couple hundred feet below.
That view had me swooning: a glorious expanse of liquid sky blue fringed by a wide arc of white-gold sand, ringed by pine green and beige mountains behind. In the distance, the uninhabited island of Paximadia seems custom-made to fire up your wanderlust. There are very many beaches in Europe that are, well, nice but also rather manicured and small. Here, petite just doesn’t apply. Kommos feels like a slice of heaping nature at the end of the earth and it’s not something you can resist.
At least, I couldn’t. The church was closed and nobody was around. So I started hiking down a path when I realized it wasn’t a path, just a rocky hillside so steep that I had to summon my doughtiest inner mountain goat to make it to the bottom without falling flat on my face first.
When I did emerge from the sun-crisped bramble to find myself facing the sand, the surf was too rough to take on. So I resolved to return the next day. When I did, I found a dusty parking lot (with free parking), considerably calmer surf and the ancient ruins of a Minoan trading post that flourished 4,500 years ago. Perhaps more.
Like many people, I had thought of the ancient ruins of Crete mainly in terms of the famous (and super touristy) Bronze Age archaeological site of Knossos, just outside the modern city of Heraklion on Crete’s north coast. The legendary home of King Minos and the mythical Minotaur steals all the thunder, so to speak, but to the detriment of greater awareness of Crete’s wider cultural legacy in Greece and beyond.
When I rented a car and drove south from Knossos to the town of Matala, I did not expect to see another ruined Minoan palace along the way, but I did: called Phaistos, it was one of the largest cities of Minoan Crete. It’s beautifully situated just a few miles from the northern shore of the Libyan Sea. The Minoan ruins at Kommos constitute what was once the palace city’s port.
According to the Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations, in the later Bronze Age particularly “Crete became a familiar anchorage for voyagers from the coasts of Asia, Africa and Europe, accepting, adapting and transmitting an adventurous blend of cultural impulses.”
Beholding these ruins, perched as they are a few meters above the sea, reactivates the sense of wonder that Minoan culture has long held for scholars of the ancient world. While it’s true there are other evocative seaside ruins around the Mediterranean—Leptis Magna in Libya and Salamis in Cyprus come to mind—none combine ancient pedigree with natural setting to quite such dramatic effect as here at Kommos.
This patchwork of stone was once the busy harbor and customs clearing house of one of the earliest civilizations, and though for now you can’t walk among the ruins you certainly get an eyeful. Claire Lyons, a curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, once told me that “ruins evoke the contrast between what is lost and what is retained, and between civilization and nature” and that “there is something quite poetic about them in that sense.” And how: at Kommos you are almost standing inside one of the most epic poems of all time: a place referred to in The Odyssey itself: “a small rock holds back the great waves,” Homer wrote.
And yeah, those waves might be the best part. Again, this is no kiddie beach: the sweep of Órmos Mesarás Bay is stunning. There is a smattering of lounge chairs at the easternmost extremity of the beach, in front of a little cafe, but for the most part the beach is devoid of manmade intrusions.
Is it a sexy beach? Well, there is some toplessness as is the norm at many European beaches but overall the vibe is just relaxed. What I like best, beyond the eminently swimmable warm waters, is that you can sit yourself down amphitheatrically on the sand with the Minoan ruins behind you and the sea stretching out all the way to north Africa in front. Where else on the planet? Nowhere: Kommos is the coolest beach in the world.