On my second full day in Crete, I took a bus to Agios Nikolaos then another to Elounda then a boat from there to the famous island of Spinalonga. It was built as a fortress by the Venetians in the 1500s, occupied by Turkish Muslims 1700-1900 then operated as a leper colony from 1903-1957, not spoken of for many years til it was made famous by Victoria Hislop's novel in 2003 leading to tourists wishing to visit.
The bus ride from Ag Nik was fabulous - views out across the bay to mountains in the distance, glittering blue sea. The whole day was characterised by stunning views. Crete alternately reminds me of Malta (but a bit more fertile / more vegetation, drier, less humid) and The Italian lakes. The bay between the mainland and Spinalonga particularly reminded me of the Italian lakes, I think it's a lovely hot climate turquoise sea with mountains rising up high not far inland.
In the afternoon, I took a walk around the Spinalonga peninsula, connected to the mainland by a Causeway. There is a 7 km trail around the peninsula but I did not have time to hike it entirely, so I just hiked 30 minutes out and back again. To be honest it wasn't great underfoot - even worse than the trail yesterday with lots of loose stones and rubble and sharp spiky bushes on either side scratching at my ankles. I got some lovely views but didn't mind turning back half an hour in to descend the way I had come.
The peninsula is covered in very old stone walls, remaining from the ancient Greek city of Olous that once sat atop the peninsula, now totally fallen into ruin and some of the ruins are beneath water in the bay.
I visited Spinalonga the island in the morning. A lot of information online had recommended taking a guided tour of the island, to get the best out of the experience. I guess it's always true that when you are taken around by a knowledgeable tour guide, you will learn more about a place than simply exploring it on your own. However, I was glad that I did not do a guided tour. For me, the benefit of having a knowledgeable guide telling you stuff is cancelled out by the frustration of being in a group, taken around, going where somebody else tells you to go, when they tell you to go there, unable to explore freely on your own. Although I may miss out on some of the facts, I much prefer going at my own pace free to go up a random flight of steps if I want to and find moments of calm and silence to soak in the atmosphere alone, I don't think you can get that when you're with a group because there are always other people nearby taking photos, talking, or just being there.
The island was very atmospheric, having read quite a bit about it before I came I could really imagine the awfulness of being banished here as a leper in the early 1900s when conditions were awful - no running water, squalid, desolate, isolated from family and society. It seems conditions approved later on but even so it must have been awful to be stuck on this Island within sight of the mainland but unable to get there.
I also liked Elounda, as a laid back resort with stunning views. It has the usual touristy shops and bars but in a setting of spectacular scenery, with a lovely row of restaurants along the waterside, and a couple of nice beaches. I can see how this would be a nice place to stay, if you we're looking for a relaxed holiday with eating out and lying on a sun lounger in a beautiful setting, if you weren't planning on visiting other places, as it's not that well-connected by transport and it's quite out the way.
It felt a long day & a lot of travelling. The buses were only around an hour in total, but with waiting for buses & in between buses, it was over 2h door to door each way; buses are only every 2h between Elounda & Ag Nik so I don't think that helped as I couldn't arrive and leave at exactly the times I would have wanted to. I'm really glad I made this trip in spite of all the travel as it was such a beautiful place to visit and the island was so interesting.