Koufonissi is a small island in the South Cretan Sea, 3.5 miles south of Cape Goudouras and 10 miles southeast of Makrigialos. The island is roughly six kilometres long and 5.5 kilometres across. It has an entire surface area of 5.25 km². Koufonissi is the largest of a cluster of 5 islands: Koufonisi, Makroulo, Strogilo, Trachila and Marmara. The ancient name Lefki (meaning white), was given by the glint of white limestone and marl in the sunlight. Instead, the current name, Koufonissi (meaning Cave-Island), is related to the many pits and caves shaped by the sea and rain. According to a second stronger version, the name comes after the many rats of the island, which are called "koufa" by locals.
The island is uninhabited now, but is full of ruins that indicate human activity from the Early Minoan times to post-Byzantine years. The locals like to call Koufonisi as Delos of Crete, after the significant antiquities that have been found.
The island has beautiful sandy beaches, it is mainly covered with fine sand and the scenery is not very different from an African desert. Visitors can admire the beauty of white rocks next to the blue of the sea and enjoy the tranquility of nature in turquoise waters. The landscapes alternate from the steep rocky shoreline, to the caves of yellow marl and the endless dunes. The prevailing vegetation is low, bushy, steppic and with many species, rare in the Greek and Cretan area. Characteristic species are Helianfhemmum stipulalum, the Lygeum spartum (grass of North Africa), Austragalus peregrinus (characteristic of the southern Mediterranean) and the rare Erodium classifolium, located at the northernmost point of its spread.
It is worth visiting the picturesque church of Saint Nikolaos, the guard of seamen. It is a small beautiful Christian church in the north part of the island. Until 1976 shepherds used the island a sheep run, but there is no reference for permanent habitats in recent years. It is impressive that until late 1970s, large quantities of grain were grown on the island. Today Koufonissi is a haven for fishermen during windy days.
In the last years the wealth of the history and the environment of Koufonissi has been recognized and studied. This knowledge and the beauty of the island are now offered to visitors as a gift that demands respect and protection. There are boats running to the islet from Makrigialos port. If you have a private boat, note that you should be very careful because the island is surrounded by many reefs.
Walking through the island is easier and faster, if you follow the existing paths and the distance does not exceed one hour of walking. The visitor should have drinking water, and everything needed for one day in a warm, dry place without shade and without any infrastructure.
Koufonissi was an economic and cultural center from the Minoan until the Greco-Roman Times and was claimed by all major cities of the region. As recorded on the inscription of the Magnites currently embeded on the facade of the Toplou monastery church, there was a great dispute between Itanos and Ierapytna about Lefki island. In 132BAD the island was owned by Itanos.
At the middle of the southeast shores of Lefki or Koufonissi island, at 75m altitude, we meet the ruined lighthouse of the island. There was found a temple, which unfortunately has suffered from predatory looting from the authorities (in 1920) in order to build the huge lighthouse, only 5m from the eastern short side of the temple where the entrance would have been, even though another stepped entrance was found on the north side.
The desert region bears the place name Elia by a centuries-old olive tree, the only tree in the area and is one of the 4 total olive trees (!) that we meet throughout the island. The existence of this secret desert does not seem in any beach of the island shows how close the island is located to the African climate and continent.