Vai, or more specifically the palm forest of Vai, is one of the most popular sights in Crete and one of the most beautiful and special places in the whole Mediterranean.
Vai draws thousands of visitors each year. They come not only for its wonderful palm forest, but also for the large sandy beach spread out at its foot.
Vai was “discovered” by hippies who were turned out of Matala in the early 70s and sought a new refuge in the area. By the early 80s, Vai had become a permanent campsite and been transformed into vast rubbish tip.
In the 1980s Vai was decreed a protected area and cleaned up. Today it is considered one of the most beautiful parts of Crete and the beach has been awarded a Blue Flag by the European Union.
How to get to Vai
Vai is located 24 km east of Sitia and about 6 km from Palaikastro. The road from Sitia is generally good and you will have no trouble negotiating it.
Sitia is about 2 hours’ drive from Heraklion, and Vai is another 30 minutes further. From Sitia, take the road to Moni Toplou (Toplou Monastery) and continue another 8 km past the monastery to the palm forest.
If you are coming from Rethymno, it will take you 4 hours to get to Vai, while it is 4.5-5 hours’ drive from Chania.
Shortly after Vai is ancient Itanos or Erimoupoli, where excavations have brought many finds of the Minoan and Hellenistic periods to light. It’s worth stopping here if you’re not in a hurry.
Vai - Map
Is Vai the only palm forest in Crete?
Vai is not the only palm forest in Crete, but it is certainly the largest. You will find another beach with a smaller palm forest at Preveli, near Plakias.
There is a small palm grove without a beach at Agios Antonios near Tsoutsouros, while there are also a few clumps of palm trees in Martsalo Gorge, south of Matala.
The Vai palm forest
You really must visit Vai if you’re in Crete, especially in the east of the island. It’s just like a tropical beach, with its palm trees and small islet in the middle of the bay.
The palm forest of Vai now covers an area of approximately 250,000 square metres, making it the largest palm forest in Europe. You will hear different stories about how palm trees came to Crete:
- According to the commonest story, Arab pirates came here in their ships, ate the dates they had brought with them and threw the stones on the ground. From these dates grew about 6,000 palm trees, of which 4,500 are still growing today.
- A different legend has it that the forest was created in a similar manner by Phoenician sailors who colonised this part of Crete.
Forget these stories. Scientists have proven that the Vai palm trees are an endemic species known as Phoenix theophrasti, or Cretan Date Palm.
There have been palm trees in Crete since ancient times, as historical sources, including Pliny, attest.
The name of the area, Vai, comes from vayia, the Greek word for palms.
No matter how the palm forest came into being, the trees have found Vai an ideal spot to grow in, as the local climate is warm and dry.
The beach and palm forest of Vai is also fascinating for its biodiversity, as many migrating birds stop here on their voyage to and from Africa.
The Vai forest is protected by the Forestry Service, the European Union and the relevant conventions. It is designated an “Aesthetic Forest”, one of 19 in Greece, and an “area of special protection” under Protocol 4 of the Barcelona Convention on protected Mediterranean sites.
Camping is forbidden in Vai, as is lighting fires and any other activity which may endanger the environment, flora and fauna of the beach.
Vai beach has fine golden sand and pebbles at its north end. You can leave your car in the car park behind the forest, which costs 2.5 euros (2009 prices).
The beach is 200 m from the parking area and is fenced, as is the forest, in an attempt to protect the area. The beach is fully organised, with sun loungers, straw umbrellas and wooden walkways for easy access. It costs 6 euros to rent an umbrella and lounger, but the palm trees offer free shade to anyone quick enough to spread their towel underneath.
Naturally such a popular place as Vai has thousands of visitors each summer. If you come in July and August, be prepared for the crowds. If, on the other hand, you visit Vai at the beginning or end of the tourist season, you will enjoy the scenery and sea far more.
At the side of the beach, near the steps to the viewing platform, is a restaurant and a cafeteria with chairs and tables set out in a pretty, flat space among the palm trees.
The cafeteria is the only one near the beach, and its prices are normal for Crete in spite of the fact that it has a virtual monopoly. There are also toilets on the beach and outdoor showers for washing off the salt after your swim.
You can also try watersports at Vai, including banana boat, jet-skiing and wakeboarding.
If you feel like a walk, climb the steps at the side of the beach to the viewing platform, which offers a panoramic view of the whole area and the beautiful palm forest of Vai. Here you can take wonderful pictures and see the small neighbouring beach, 5 minutes’ walk north of Vai.
If you decide to go for a walk in the palm forest, you will see - if you’re lucky - a small lake formed by rainwater among the trees. This phenomenon is more frequent in early summer or in September.
Hotels in Vai
There are no hotels or apartments for rent in Vai. You can, however, stay in one of the hotels in Palaikastro, 10 kilometres south of Vai, or in Sitia if you want to be more centrally placed.