If you’re taking a trip down to the Greek Islands but looking for something a little different than the gorgeous geometric architecture and the barren, brush-filled hills of the smaller islands, the small coastal town of Plakias on the southern side of the massive island Crete is worth the trip past the Cyclades.
Plakias is affectionately known as “the town you’ll keep coming back to,” and aptly so – its often-older clientele (maybe only older because I visited during the end-of-season) will tell you it’s their 15th or even 20th summer on the island. You’ll find most of these eccentric regulars at the Youth Hostel Plakias, which is the “southernmost hostel in Europe” and attracts those clients you may consider young at heart. While the crowd is older than your typical backpacker hostel, the hostel creates a community that seamlessly integrates generations of new visitors to Plakias.
Youth Hostel Plakias is run by a Bavarian-born, long-haired man named Uli who lived in Berlin before taking over the hostel (and presumably during the winter off-season). I would learn from a talkative regular named Martin (an older Brit who has been visiting the island once or twice a year for 14 years) that Uli is the third manager of the hostel. Its original manager was “no hospitality professional” but ran the place impeccably for 30 years before his retirement. Only a week after his last day, the beloved manager was carrying a supply of wooden planks on his scooter when he crashed and slipped into a coma for a year before passing away. The hostel would have been his life for the three decades of summers before, requiring work from morning till night with no days off.
The original manager left the place in the hands of a professional – an Australian who would run Youth Hostel Plakias for only two years before abruptly quitting. The owner, who does not participate in the daily affairs of the hostel, ended up contacting Uli, a hostel regular, who has run the place ever since. While some of its frequents felt envy that they were not contacted about running the hostel (it’s likely that many of them would have loved to take over), everyone agrees that Uli has done his job well – I found him welcoming and informative, trusting and kind.
At only €10 a night (€9 in the slower months), Youth Hostel Plakias holds a charm and comfort that cannot be matched for the price. Set in an olive grove, there are hammocks strung up between the trees, 8-bed bungalows for the tenants and an enclosed outdoor bathing and toilet facility. The main room and reception opens into a covered patio, always bustling with an outgoing, welcoming group of tenants. In addition to the older regulars, a few young seasonal workers hang out at the hostel, new friends coming in and out of the town like a revolving door and those who return to work another season seeing familiar faces each year.
I befriended one of the seasonal workers, a late-twenties Australian whose uncle lives on the island, who told me about the Plakias alumni’s tendency to try to “out-Plakias” each other. The area holds a wealth of secret hiking paths and beaches, monasteries and other wonders for its visitors to explore and fall in love with, and the regulars often brag about their knowledge of the area. A boisterous American woman from Virginia named Amy told me she loves to “take newbies on adventures” around the island in her rented car. Martin, mentioned earlier, loves to tell the first-timers Plakias lore. He had overheard myself and my companions, a German couple named Felix and Mirjam whom I had been traveling with since Ios, talking on the bus down to the town and greeted us on our first night: “I guessed you would be staying at the hostel and was so excited on the bus to know it was your first time here!
Uli, or maybe the managers before him, has a map up on the wall of reception with many of the island’s activities and step-by-step (though sometimes confusing) directions on how to get there (the island isn’t known for named roads, and you will likely be traveling through olive groves and fences to get where you want to go). On our first day, Felix and Mirjam and I headed to the hostel-favorite “One Rock Beach.” It was a 45-minute walk from the hostel, and we were warned that, “if you make the wrong turn, the walk is two hours, and no one ever makes it there on their first try.” After a collaborative effort, our group was able to find the beach without problem, making the correct choice at the six-way intersection and appropriately breaking into a resort to get through to the beach (that’s where the two hour detour could have began).
One Rock Beach is relatively private – you have to scamper down some rocks to get down to the nude-friendly, pebbly beach with a large rock sticking out in the middle of the water (hence “One Rock”). The waves get quite large between the cliffs lining the side of the beach and crystal-clear water, and on our first day, a playful group of naked 60-somethings held a photo-shoot in the waves, clawing like kittens and rolling around on their backs.
After a long afternoon at the beach, we headed back to celebrate one of the seasonal worker’s birthdays with the entire hostel at a local restaurant (unfortunately I don’t know its name) that arranged our food and drinks for a flat fee. It was one of the best meals of my time in Greece – the saganaki, trio of dips and beet salad appetizers stealing the show from the main courses.
My favorite activity of the week was a four-hour “River Walk,” a trek uphill literally inside the river (more like a large creek) that runs through the island. Although one of the girls with us complained about the lack of a real path – “I can’t believe they recommend this! You actually have to walk in the river!” – the rest of the group thoroughly enjoyed the challenging climbs up the waterfalls and delicate walking in flip-flops over sometimes-slippery rocks. The creek is well shaded and the water cool, keeping you consistently refreshed, unlike the island’s less strenuous walks in a sun that harsher here than in the rest of Greece (not that the rest of Greece lacks in sunshine). The trek gets harder as it goes, and many of the climbs were a challenge for the shorter travelers in our group. The end of the hike leaves you at a main road on top of the hill, where you can reward your efforts at a taverna with lovely food (the ice cream and homemade baklava were a favorite) and a panoramic view of the town below. The walk was the perfect adventure in the midst of a week of relaxation in the islands.
Other highlights of Plakias include the local grapes you can buy from truck beds parked around the town, which are almost always just picked that day and generally about €1-2 for a kilo (which I could finish in a matter of hours), the wood fired pizza at the restaurant Kri Kri (get the farmer’s pizza – a vegetarian’s dream) and even the bus ride from Rethymno (sit on the same side as the driver for views of the gorge and to keep yourself out of the sun, per Uli’s instructions in an email sent after my booking). You can hike to a nearby monastery or explore other beaches on the southern side of Crete – activities I was unable to do in my short time there.
I found Plakias to be my favorite destination in Greece, with something for the adventurer in me and for the weary traveler in me who just wanted to sleep on the beach (which I managed to do for four hours one too-hot afternoon). I hear it is highly worth checking out the rest of Crete, but in my limited time there I wanted to take some time to get to know Plakias rather than just run around trying to see everything.
And yes, I do hope to return.