Island of discovery

Venturing into the past during a sunshine escape to Crete


The boat trip from the little stone quayside at Plaka to the island of Spinalonga takes less than ten minutes. But what a lovely ten minutes this turns out to be.

First we join other tourists clambering on to the small boat which will take us from the shores of this unassuming village on the northern coast of Crete to the rocky islet on the horizon: there’s a feeling of cheery bustle as we all take our suitably distanced positions on board.

As we cruise out on to the water, the atmosphere remains distinctly upbeat; we drink in the salty air and exchange casual holiday chit chat — a lovely young couple near us do an engaging sales pitch about their previous trip to the island of Milos. Meanwhile a gusty breeze offers welcome respite from the roaring heat of the midday sun.

How different our mood from those who once took this same journey from Plaka to Spinalonga — the same short distance, yet the voyage must have felt leaden and endless. It was also likely to be a one-way ticket.

The island — just 21 acres in size — has been variously occupied throughout its history: not least as a military stronghold during Venetian (and later Ottoman) rule.

But that’s not the source of its sadness. For after the Turks were booted out in 1904, Spinalonga was repurposed as a leper colony. By 1913, after Crete became part of Greece, anyone afflicted with this once distressingly disfiguring and incurable disease was sent here. To die.

Spinalonga is a thought-provoking place to visit on any occasion. But it acquires an added resonance since we are holidaying in Crete as Covid continues to stalk the planet.

And so, exploring the ghostly streets and abandoned houses of Spinalonga, where the inmates —numbering 400 at one point — crafted a community, it’s hard not to find our own points of reference with the pandemic.

Today it’s profoundly moving to walk around the crumbling remains of buildings which testify to the life that existed here until the leper colony closed in 1957. Signs still exist locating “disinfection bays” for those beleaguered arrivals.

Yet, strangely, it is also a place of beauty. As we stand on the shoreline, looking back to the mainland and considering how many had once gazed longingly this way, the sea is an inviting shade of Hollywood teal. Meanwhile the surrounding bay is buzzing with motorboats — doubtless driven by those enjoying a life well lived.

In some ways this area is a snapshot of the contrasts which abound in Crete. A place where, as a holiday maker, you can do as much or as little as you choose.

Long and narrow, Crete stretches for 160 miles, the largest of the Greek islands. So, unless you intend to move every few days, it’s better to base yourself in one place for a short stay and take in what you can in that area.

You can fly into one of two airports; our own plane lands at Heraklion on the eastern side of the island, before we check into the gloriously Cretan five-star St Nicolas Bay hotel, less than an hour’s drive away.

This sprawling property has something of the upscale — super upscale — kibbutz about it. Rooms and some ultra-luxe villas are scattered over a hillside punctuated with flower-strewn cobbled lanes and surrounded by olive groves and lemon trees.

You can enjoy some very splendid isolation; our villa even has its own path and steps into the sea. Or the gorgeous little private beach, overlooked by a tiny church, is perfect for some well-earned relaxation after a wander around the six acres of gardens.

A small crescent of golden sand speckled with sun loungers, the shallow water is smooth and untroubled thanks to the fact the cove is sheltered and protected.

Time seems to drift away in a repeated routine of swimming and sunbathing — which we refer to fondly as sizzle and dip. And if you tire after a few lazy breast strokes, it’s easy to get out of the water via stone steps at the end of a small pier

The hotel’s bar sits alongside. We come to sit here at night listening to a soundtrack of mellow (not altogether Greek) tunes, sipping ouzo and listening to the murmuring of the waters as we inhale the citrusy scent of the night air. It’s an effort to drag ourselves away, if truth be told, despite feeling we must explore further.

Yet only a mile away is the fishing port of Agios Nikolaos, which also manages to bustle and slumber simultaneously from its home on a hilly peninsula around a supposedly bottomless lake — according to legend, at least.

Lake Voulismeni connects to the sea by a small inlet, where countless cafés, restaurants and bars line the waterfront. Ample reward for the bracing 40-minute walk along the coastline from our hotel.

Another day, we make the half-hour journey to Malia, a beachside town best known as a classic 18-30 party destination. During mid-afternoon, it’s a pleasant enough place to mooch around, with countless souvenir shops trading fake designer gear and miniature Greek statues, an ancient past fashioned in pot and plaster.

But I’m thirsting for some genuine ancient history so we journey a further mile or so east out of town to the archaeological site of Malia. Knossos is deservedly the best-known Minoan site on Crete, but the island has several which you can still visit, including this spot.

Here we find the remains of a once important Minoan city, which housed the third largest palace on the island.

The main palace was destroyed in 1450 BCE, either by an earthquake or by attack. Today, the stillness is magnificent. With the Selena mountain range soaring behind and insects buzzing and chirruping like electric cables as the only sound, it’s a timely reminder of how we pass through this planet.

My husband is far less crazy about archaeological ruins: on a previous trip to Crete we spent ages driving to the much larger palace of Knossos, only for him to wait outside and drink Diet Coke in the shade of a wilting tree. But today there is worthy pay-off — Potamos beach.

On the long crescent of sand which juts unevenly into the sea with curly coves hemming the shoreline, we have lunch. Crete’s rich soil means there’s fresh food in abundance, including juicy tomatoes the size of footballs and salty cheeses.

My particular undoing is sarikopitakia — triangular feta cheese pies. We eat, stare out to the horizon and soak up the peace.

The beauty of a trip to Crete is that you never feel as if you’ve “done” the island. Even after half a dozen trips, there’s always more to go back to, more to explore.

And we pledge to come back once again. To indulge in the freedom we took for granted pre-Covid. A liberty that many before us have also assumed, not least the poor souls fated to live out their lives on Spinalonga. And to appreciate the simple things under the Cretan sun.


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