Greece is a living museum of archaeological wonder. Each of its islands harbouring secrets more fascinating than the next. Crete has many surrounding islands and islets, and one of the most special and fascinating is the isle of Spinalonga. A once mysterious island whose story is finally waiting for you to discover.
There are a few ways to get to the Island. Our hotel concierge offered a boat trip from Agios Nikolas, (8,5hrs trip) | 10:30 – 19:00 including lunch onboard and a longer cruise around the Bay of Mirabello with an opportunity to swim in the gloriously clear turquoise waters of Kolokytha Bay. The other was from Plaka, (7hrs trip) | 10:00 – 17:00. Taking in the charms of Plaka village and Selinary Monastery, with a 20-minute cruise to the island.
*Tours will start from 1/4/2020 for the summer (winter upon request)
Discovering the mysterious Island
We chose the route from Agios Nikolaos, so we could enjoy the extra time on the boat crossing and lunch on our cruise. Ready for the day by 10:00, which says more about our excitement for the adventure and less about our organisation skills, we were in the lobby waiting for our private taxi and snacking on Loukoumades we had brought back the day before. The drive to Agios Nikolaos took just an hour, and we headed to the harbour to take in the sights and catch our boat for the crossing. We could see the mysterious island looming in the distance just waiting to be discovered.
We boarded the boat and plowed at top speed across the gulf, the island looming forebodingly before us. The old ruins of a village came into view amongst the wilds of nature that begged to take the island back as their own. We alighted our vessel and entered through “Dante’s Gate” where the patients would be led onto the island. Sparking images back to Dante as he entered the seven circles of Hell. Our guide started in full flow giving us all the fascinating history of Spinalonga and its haunting past.
The ‘Isle of Tears’
Known locally as the ‘Isle of Tears,’ Spinalonga has a long and tempered history. Ending as the last active Leper colony in the entirety of Europe. From the shore, it can be viewed floating forlornly amid the azure and sparkling waters of the Mediterranean. Beckoning curious visitors to come aboard and discover the mysteries within.
Back in the 16th century, the Island had a unique set up that made it a convenient ‘natural defence mechanism,’ and in 1579 the Venetians rose a powerful fortress on the ruins of an old acropolis. So impenetrable, the island succeeded as a mighty stronghold until 1715, when it finally fell to the Ottomans 40 years after the rest of Crete was seized. For almost two centuries it fell under the ruling of the Ottoman Turks. But as the 1900s circled to a close, it was abandoned and left to ruin.
Isolated for over a century, Spinalonga became a refuge for people suffering from leprosy in 1903. The disease was thought to be highly contagious and mostly regarded with horror by the residents on the mainland, and so sufferers were banished to the island to live in quarantine until a cure was found. It then became classified as an International Leper Hospital for sufferers near and far. The last of the Lepers left in 1957 and the island was once again abandoned and looted. With many pieces of its historical architecture adorning the luxury hotels in Elounda. For years it was forgotten, the island lay shrouded in mystery across the Gulf of Mirabello as if it never existed.
The history of the disease on the Island had long since faded and all knowledge of it was destroyed by the Greek government. Then in the 1980s, new interest was sparked. In 2005, visitors were newly engrossed in the shocking history of Spinalonga when Victoria Hislop released her bestselling novel, ‘The Island’. A story of family, love, and shocking secrets. A dramatic telling of star crossed love and betrayal in the heart and soul of the Leper colony on Spinalonga.
“This, she speculated, might be a place where history was still warm, not stone cold, where the inhabitants were real, not mythical” Victoria Hislop, “The Island”.
These days fascination runs rife amongst tourists and the obscure island of the lepers has become a popular hotspot. The second most popular archaeological site in Crete after the Palace of Knossos, and is one of the top sights in Greece along with the Acropolis in Athens.
Visiting Spinalonga is like taking a step into the past, soaking up a piece of history as you walk the old abandoned streets, the old church, hospital and disinfection room. When you close your eyes and listen, you can almost hear the laments of sorrow and joy from its former inhabitants. It evokes a sense of wonder to breathe in the salty sea air, tread the old paths of the former fortress and imagine how life once existed in this desolate cemetery. A veritable ghost town where the last residents lay, finally at peace on the rocky outcrop with a serene view over the Gulf for eternity.
Cruising the Gulf of Mirabello
After the tour of Spinalonga, we headed back on the boat to continue our cruise around the beautiful Gulf of Mirabello. We visited the cave of the legendary Pirate Barbarosa who pillaged his way into Grecian history. Then we sailed over to witness the sunken ancient city of Olous. Which was in a word, breathtaking! We vowed to get our scuba diving skills up to scratch and return to Greece someday just to swim among those ethereal ruins. Once we could pull ourselves together from practically feeling like we’d stumbled upon the ancient city of Atlantis, the next stop had us laughing like school kids. We briefly dropped by to see the adorable Cretan Kri Kri goats. They were just going about their lives, eating, lounging and playing, but they were ever so funny.
After all the excitement, we had reached Kolokytha Bay and were more than ready for a dip in the crystal waters. The sun had been relentless all day and I was fast on my way to an awkward t-shirt tan. The water felt crisp and cool as I dived in. So clear I could see the tiny shells on the bottom and the rocks of the island in the distance. Before long, the sun had moved across the horizon and we were ready to pull ourselves back onto the boat to dry off and tuck into a hearty lunch and the final part of our journey back to the village of Agios Nikolaos.
The village of Agios Nikolaos
Agios Nikolaos is a small town bursting with colour, charm, and bustling life, yet still manages to somehow bestow a relaxing vibe as you walk here and there around the many waterfronts. The picturesque port town is built atop three hills on top of ancient remains from a bygone era. The main attractions in Agios Nikolaos are all its three water-based wonders – The port, the beach, and the lake. It was the lake that piqued our interest. A unique feature of the quirky Cretan village named “Voulismeni.”. It is said to be bottomless and was once investigated by the celebrated ocean researcher Jacques Cousteau. It is also legend that the goddess Athena once bathed in the lake, and every Orthodox Christian Easter day at midnight, the townspeople celebrate with fireworks. It’s a great time to witness this spectacle if you’re traveling around Easter, but it was a blisteringly hot summer afternoon and we rather fancied a refreshing frappe in one of the open-air cafes on the serene lakefront. The perfect end to our day of exploration.
At 18:00, our taxi returned and we headed back to Heraklion. The ideal chance for a nap in the car before spending the evening tasting some more of the delights in the city.
If you’re staying longer in the region around Spinalonga, the surrounding villages are worth a visit. Agios Nikolaos has a fantastic traditional market that takes place every Wednesday morning. Vibrant, bright, full of colourful fruits, vegetables, pulses and goodies to make any stomach rumble for breakfast. Save room in your suitcase for a little shopping in Agios Nikolaos as they offer some of the best freshly produced local honey, herbs, spices and olive oil.
If you’re looking for a quieter resort that still packs an alluring draw. Plaka is the place. Thanks to its stunning setting along the Mirabello bay and fantastic seafood. Close to Elounda with 2 or 3 buses leaving every day, the charming fishing village has wonderful views of Spinalonga Island and the surrounding Mediterranean. There is a wonderful fish tavern directly next to the seashore that serves some of the freshest and most delicious seafood dishes on the island.
Just over an hour from Heraklion, Elounda is home to some of Crete’s most luxurious resorts. But it still holds its charm as a quaint little fishing village. It’s worth a few days of relaxation to take in the sparkling waters of the Mirabello Bay and basque on the sandy municipal beach. It’s the perfect base to explore the surrounding islands and villages of Spinalonga, Agios Nikolaos, and Plaka. Whilst the pull of this sweet small town is the beckon of luxury and the mystery of Spinalonga Island, Elounda and its surroundings also has some of the best food in all of Crete, perhaps even the whole of Greece! If you’re a foodie, be sure to add Elounda on your list of hotspots.