Vai palm forest lies in a beautiful valley, by a sandy beach, just north of ancient Itanos: 28 km from Sitia, 8 from Palaikastro and 6 from Toplou. Covering 200 stremmata (50 acres), it is made up of the native Theophrastus palms – the largest palm grove not only in Greece but in all of Europe.
An important palm forest also exists at Preveli, with smaller clusters elsewhere, like at Agios Nikitas. This particular palm tree is also in the SW Aegean islands, Cyprus and Turkey.
Many theories exist about the origins of the forest. Some say it was formed by the Phoenicians (an erroneous belief springing from the old story that they founded Itanos, back in the day), or it is the result of discarded pips left by the Egyptian soldiers of Ptolemy Philomater, or the allied troops of Mithradates of Pontus or even by Saracen pirates and invaders. Be that as it may, it is certain enough that the development and survival of the forest is due to the arid climate and the presence of groundwater in the valley. It is also clear that palm was found in Crete in the past: both Theophrastus and Pliny remark on it, and it is shown on coins and vase-paintings.
Apart from the palms, there exist other plants here of African origin; this unusual mix shows that the area enjoys something of a frontier character, and is a border zone between two different ecologies. The region is also on a major migration flight path for birds. In terms of its setting, the soft lines of the horizon, the harmony of the rise and fall of the low hills and small plains, the slopes with their vineyards and olive groves, exotic colours and dazzling light – all make it a remarkable place to experience. Add to that the nearby presence of ancient cities and a historic monastery (Toplou), and the sum is an unusual combination of cultural, historical and environmental value and interest. Because of its particular significance and beauty, Vai is protected by the Greek state, the European Union and International conventions.