With a few more nights left on our final destination, the largest of the Greek islands, Crete, we would today be heading to the east of the island on another organised excursion on which we would eventually get the chance to explore the former leper colony of Spinalonga Island.
Our island base in the city of Heraklion was the first pick up of the day for the trip meaning a rather early start followed by a long morning sat on board the coach as we picked up passengers from the many popular coastal resorts east of us – multiple stops at hotels in the resorts of Gouves, Analipsi, Heronissos and, of course, Malia.
Having never been to Crete before, this did at least give me chance to size up the different towns and resorts and see which I might consider should I return to Crete for a more relaxing break one day!
Pick ups done and our tour guide for the day on board the coach, we finally got on our way towards out first stop of the day, the picturesque town of Agios Nikolaus. Along the way our guide explained that the coastal town’s main attraction was its lake which is now joined to the sea via a canal and that the bridge spanning the canal is the most photographed place in town.
Having not had anything except a small bowl of cereal for breakfast hours and hours ago, we were rather hungry by the time we arrived so after being dropped by the small port, we spent the first part of our free time in the town looking for a cafe or bakery to grab a pastry or sweet snack from.
Mission accomplished, we made our way to the pretty lake where we sat eating our pastries before walking back towards the seafront.
After walking along the seafront, we returned to the port and taking photos with the canal bridge before wandering through the town eventually finding ourselves at a small but popular pebbly cove.
Then, taking photos with a couple of unusual sculptures which our tour guide had pointed out to us on the way in, we made our way back to the coach.
Next up was the town of Elounda from where we would later be taking the boat to Spinalonga Island. First though, some free time to get some lunch. We chose a small cafe overlooking the front offering reasonably priced sandwiches and toasties and opted to sit inside to take advantage of some aircon for a bit.
After lunch, we had a quick walk around town before meeting back up with our guide and the rest of the group in time to make our boat’s departure time.
It was a short trip across the sea to Spinalonga Island, our guide giving us some background information along the way and I was surprised to learn just how recently it had been an active leper colony – the last inhabitant not leaving the island until 1962.
After docking at the island, we joined the short queue to buy entrance tickets and, at the advice of our guide, made our way around in a clockwise direction. While there were some information boards along the way round, we felt there could have been more along with a suggested route as there were a few paths leading off the main one up to view points and other buildings along the way.
We chose to stay on the main path to ensure we’d complete the full loop in the hour time frame we had before needing to be back on the boat but as this turned out to be more than enough time, we then used our tickets to re-enter and take some of the paths to see other parts of the island.
It was definitely an interesting place to visit and a bit different from the ancient archaeological sites we’d mainly seen on our trip to Greece.
On our way back to Elounda, our boat docked out at sea for anyone who wanted to do a spot of open sea swimming. Luckily, I’d remembered my swim suit so took a quick dip to cool off.
Once back in Elounda, we were given a bit of time to get any refreshments we needed for the trip back then it was back on the coach to once again drive through the various resorts dropping off passengers until we finally reached Heraklion again.
We spent the evening again wandering up into town for dinner followed by a walk along the main shopping street looking for souvenirs and an ice cream from one of the many delicious-looking dessert stores in town.
Tomorrow would be our last full day of our holiday and we had yet another excursion planned, this time into the centre of the island on a jeep safari and then with late flights home meaning we’ had most of the following day to spend have most of the day to spare, we planned to spend the following day in Heraklion and the surrounding area exploring a bit more.
Arriving into the port of Heraklion quite a few hours later than planned due to ferry delays, we made the short walk to our city apartment block which would be our island base for the next 4 nights. With darkness already descending outside, we walked into the town centre to grab something to eat from a Greek fast food-style restaurant before returning for a quiet night in.
Wanting to see as much of Crete as possible, we had chosen Heraklion due to its central position on the north coast of Crete and had made plans to take excursions to different parts of the island from here over the next few days.
First up was a trip to West Crete. We were met by a company representative at a pick up point close to our accommodation the next morning and driven to a main road where we joined a coach load of people already on board.
Being the most westerly pick up point that day meant we were last on – the positive of that being we hadn’t had to get up too early and hadn’t spent hours sat on board making stop after stop picking up more passengers, the negative that it was a full coach and the last few seats were at opposite ends of the bus from each other.
Taking the last seat in the middle of the very back seat between two sets of strangers wasn’t ideal, especially as it seemed they’d been some of the first to board and had therefore been up since the early hours. Unable to keep there eyes open, I found my shoulders regularly becoming cushions for them to rest upon!
It was still a couple of hours drive from Heraklion to our first stop in the city of Chania. The journey was broken up with a convenience stop at a roadside cafe and our guide kept us entertained with an informative commentary as we travelled.
Once in Chania, we were given a decent amount of free time to explore although it was lunch time and when we factored in finding somewhere to eat, this did drain into our time to explore quite a bit.
From the coach park, we made our way through the pretty narrow streets at the back of the town and then out to the main square where a former Mosque (now used as an exhibition space) stood right on the water’s edge. We made our way around the sea wall out towards Chania lighthouse in the distance, from where there were impressive views of Chania’s beautiful Venetian harbour.
This turned out to be a longer walk than we’d anticipated forcing us to turn back just before reaching the lighthouse itself and make our way back to the seafront. Lined with shops an restaurants, the promenade was bustling with seas of tourists enjoying the sunshine and pretty views.
We chose one of the many restaurant cafes to sit out at and ordered some toasties and drinks and then it was time to walk back towards the Venetian fortress which was our maker for finding the coach again.
An hour later we reached the second stop of the day, Lake Kournas. For those who could hold out for food, our guide had recommended eating here at one of the restaurants with a rooftop patio overlooking the lake but apart from hunger, we had had another reason for wanting to eat in Chania – we wanted to hire a pedalo during our free time at the lake!!
This was a really pretty spot with the bright blue water of the lake surrounded by mountains.
Not wanting to hire the boats for the full hour being advertised, we took our guide’s advice to haggle with the vendors for a deal on a shorter amount of time and we soon found ourselves clambering into a pedal-powered boat and setting off for the middle of the lake.
As well as being a lot of fun, this was a great way to get some beautiful views of the lakeshore.
Once back on dry land, we wandered along the shore, looked in some of the souvenir stores and grabbed an ice cream from one of the cafes before it was time to board the coach again.
It was just half an hour to our final stop of the day, another town with a Venetian port, Rethymnom. Here, we again wandered through pretty back streets past shops, restaurants and cafes and out onto the seafront with its Venetian-style harbour.
Whether it was because it was early evening – and therefore quieter – or not, but I liked Rethymnom more than Chania as it felt less touristy. We spent the last few minutes enjoying the atmosphere around the pretty harbour before boarding the coach one last time.
As we were last pick up that day, we were first drop off at the end. Instead of being dropped back in Heraklion itself, we once again found ourselves at the side of a busy main road where we were met by a driver to take us back into town.
The day had finished slightly earlier than we’d expected giving us plenty of time to walk up to the main square in Heraklion where we found an Italian restaurant for a pizza dinner before returning to our apartment.
The ferry was much larger than the one we’d taken from Athens to Naxos and this time, there were no set seats, we could sit anywhere in the economy area. With a lot more options for food – multiple cafes and a fast food burger restaurant, we spent most of our time on board trying to decide what to get for a snack.
Once we’d arrived at the main ferry port in Santorini, we quickly found our pre-arranged transfer to our hotel which was just down a (rather steep) hill from the town of Fira. All checked in, we made our way into town having to stop multiple times to get our breath back as we climbed one hill after another in the blistering heat!
Not really knowing exactly where we were going, we wandered along the streets deciding to just see what we’d find. And what we found were people and plenty of them! The streets were crowded making it difficult to pass through many of the narrower streets or get near any of the stores – not that that really mattered as many of them were touristy souvenir stores all selling the same thing at slightly differing prices.
As one of the streets lead us out to a view point, we could see one of the reasons for the number of people around – three large cruise ships were docked near the island. After the peace and quiet of Naxos, it was a bit of a shock to the system to find ourselves fighting for space on Santorini and it didn’t endear me to the town of Fira at all.
Still, the views from the lookout points were pretty and we had plenty planned to see more of the island over the next few days so I was sure my opinion would change over time.
After a disappointing dinner – a pizza that tasted like the kind you buy frozen at a supermarket – we returned to our hotel to spend the last hour of sunshine cooling down in the pool followed by a relaxing night in ready for the next day.
We were up bright and early the next morning to ensure we had time to grab some breakfast in town before walking to the old port. Deciding McDonalds might be a safe bet, we were surprised to find it didn’t have any breakfast options instead selling burgers and fries even at 8am! Luckily, we came across a bakery nearby where we found plenty of bread and pastry options.
After gobbling these down, we began our descent down the clifftop town of Fira to the old port, navigating almost 600 steps and trying to avoid the hoards of poor donkeys and mules carrying tourists back up. It took a long time to make it all the way down and I was thankful that there was a cable car option to bring us back up to the town at the end of the day!
At the old port, we met our tour guide for the day and boarded our pirate-style boat which would be taking us out to the nearby ‘caldera’ – Santorini’s volcano on the island of Nea Kameni.
It didn’t take very long to sail there and once we were docked alongside the many other boats also taking trips there, we had some free time to make our way to the top of the island, enjoy the views, see some volcanic activity and make our way back down again.
The walk to the top of the island, which is made completely of black lava, was easier than we had expected and the views of the volcanic landscape, the crater at the top and out across the sea from the island really were beautiful.
On the way, we could see steam rising from the ground due to the volcanic activity still going on there.
Back on the boat, our guide gave us a bit more information about the island as we made our way to the second stop of the day, the island of Palea. We wouldn’t actually be stopping on the island itself, instead, the boat docked a short distance out from where we could see the waters change to a rusty orange colour where the islands’ hot springs were. We had the chance to swim out from the boat to the hot springs – an opportunity I jumped at although, not literally, as many people decided to jump into the sea from the side of the boat, I chose to climb down a ladder into the water! ‘Noodle’ float aids were supplied to anyone who wanted them.
It was an easy swim out to the hot springs and the water did feel noticeably warmer once I reached them. As I was one of the last off the boat, by the time I reached the hot springs, it was almost time to swim back again.
This was a lot more difficult as we were swimming again the current and I was relieved when I finally managed to grab the ladder off the side of the boat and begin my climb back aboard!
It didn’t take long to dry out in the warm sun and breeze as we set sail for our final stop of the day, the island of Thirassia. Here, we had more free time to spend. The main town was at the top of a cliff up a steep zig-zagging path similar to that in Fira on Santorini island but there were plenty of restaurants – both sit-down and fast food places – in the port area for anyone that didn’t want the trek up. Having found somewhere to purchase drinks and sat by the sea to eat the picnic lunch we had brought with us, we decided we didn’t have the time or inclination to walk up to town so after climbing the first section of stairs to take some photos of the view, we made our way back down to the port again grabbing an ice cream and walking along the coast a bit until it was time to board the boat again.
Although we had no more stops to make, the day was not over yet as we took the scenic route back to Santorini sailing up to the town on Oia at the north of the island and making our way down the east coast of the island back to Fira enjoying the views of the white-washed houses and blue-domed churches on the cliffs above.
Once back on dry land, we took the cable car back up to Fira town and had a much more enjoyable meal – chicken souvlaki – at another one of the restaurants in town before returning to our hotel for another late evening dip in the pool.
For our final full day in Santorini, we had a coastal walk from Fira to Oia planned.
Heading into town, we quickly picked up the coastal path and began the 10km-or-so walk. Despite the 30-something degree heat, the beautiful views, especially in the town of Imerovigli with its white-washed hotels and houses built into the cliffs, kept us going and made some of the more brutal hills worthwhile in the end!
When we reached Oia, almost 6 hours later, we were exhausted and decided to treat ourselves to a sweet treat of crepes covered in hazelnut sauce and with a dollop of ice cream from a local cafe.
Feet rested and fuelled up on sugar, we then spent some time exploring Oia.
With its mainly wider streets and white footpaths and buildings, first impressions of Oia were a lot more favourable than Fira. It was busy but didn’t feel quite as crowded. We found a viewpoint for its famous three blue-domes churches and grabbed photos, saw the castle from a distance and walked to some windmills too. We had originally planned to stay in Oia until sunset but had read that it got ridiculously busy around this time of day and could be extremely difficult to get a bus back to Fira at the end of the night. So instead, we decided to catch the bus back to Fira late afternoon, grab dinner there then watch the sunset from somewhere along the coast path near there.
The buses were already busy, even in the middle of the afternoon but we managed to get a seat on the second one that came along and were soon back in Fira. After dinner in Fira’s main square, we took a stroll to one of the many viewpoints over the coast to watch the sunset.
The next day we would be taking a ferry to our final island stop of Crete but as our ferry wasn’t scheduled until 4pm, we still had plenty of time that morning for some sightseeing. We had decided to use public transport to head to the south of the island and see the archaeological site at Akrotiri.
Having arrived back to chaotic scene at Fira bus station the night before, we should have been prepared for what would await us this morning. The bus station was more like a large car park with buses coming and going while people stood around here there and everywhere, walking out behind reversing buses and in front of buses about to pull away not knowing where they should be going. None of the bays were labelled and none of the buses or routes seemed to be numbered. Instead, whenever a bus pulled up and parked, the driver would just yell out its destination and there be a mad scramble to get on before all the seats went!
Despite the chaos and disorganisation surrounding us, we somehow managed to board the bus to Akrotiri. Once there we took the short walk to the archaeological site and spent some time exploring the ancient ruins.
While interesting to see, the museum didn’t take us very long to go round. It is possible to take taxi boats out from the small, pebbly beach at Akrotiri to visit Red Beach and White Beach, two popular Santorini attractions but unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time if we were going to make our ferry to Crete.
After my initial reservations, the island of Santorini definitely grew on me. It’s certainly very beautiful but I feel tourism has spoilt it slightly and the complete contrast to the slower paced Naxos island we had just come from made the busy, crowded streets of Fira a shock to the system at first. If I was to return I think I’d consider choosing a different part of the island than Fira to stay in and would definitely choose a quieter time of the year than the middle of August to visit! But there was plenty to enjoy and I was glad to have finally ticked it off my list of places to go!