Dia Island is a small island – a mere 5 km long and 3 km wide – just 6 nautical miles from Heraklion, the capital of Crete, in the center of the island’s north coast. Its petite size means it can easily be expired on a day trip. Lovers of history and of natural beauty both will find this a fascinating day trip destination.
How to Get to Dia Island
Dia Island makes a fascinating day trip from the Heraklion region. There are day excursions from the port of Heraklion as well as from the ports of Gouves and Hersonissos. It is one of many fantastic destinations within easy reach of the Cretan capital, and can be included as part of a driving excursion around Crete, which is the finest way to see the island. If you are arriving at Heraklion Airport – Nikos Kazantzakis, you can pick up your car hire directly at airport. From there, you can get directly on the highway and start exploring. If you are arriving by ferry, a car rental can be waiting to meet you directly in the port.
The History of Dia Island
This tiny island is packed with fascinating history. Its strategic location just off the port of Heraklion made it very valuable for partially shielding the harbor from the strong winds that can strike the north coast of Crete. For ancient navigators, from the Minoan era and also through Byzantine and Venetian times, Dia Island served as a valuable marker that the port of Heraklion was approaching. Moreover, in Minoan times there was also a harbor settlement here.
The fascinating history of Dia was largely brought to light by the great oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. In searching for historical evidence of the mythological lost continent of Atlantis under the seas off of Cretan shores, he made a marvelous discovery: Not surprisingly, the waters beneath these ancient ports yielded a number of shipwrecks – seven, in fact. But more interesting still was the discovery of ruins of magnificent “Cyclopean walls” – not unlike those found near ancient Mycenae. It was hypothesized that these belonged to a great port that had sunk in the volcanic eruption of Thera, which reshaped Santorini and effectively brought the most thriving period of the Minoan civilization to an end.
Mythology, too, plays an important role in Dia island. Zeus, as is well known, was born in Crete and had sheltered in the Dikteon-Andron cave to hide him from his father Cronus, who would devour him. He was given milk from Amalthea, sometimes depicted as a goat. The goats were her children, and as the Cretans hunted them, Zeus became angry and planned to destroy the island, striking the sea with his lightning bolt to conjure a great dragon. But then, he relented – Poseidon reminded him that the Cretans had protected him when he was an infant in the cave, covering the sound of his cries from Cronus, by beating on their shields. Zeus then struck the monster with another bolt of lightning just before it reached the coast. The dragon became Dia, with its two small islets.
Things to See and Do on Dia Island
Such a small island, and yet in and around Dia there is much to admire. To the east is the tiny islet of Paximadi, and to the west the islet of Petalidi. Dia itself has a marvelous topography. The highest peak is 220 meters, and some sections of the shore are bordered by great cliffs, some over 50 meters in height. A series of small bays lines the south of the island – Aginara – “Artichoke”, Agrielia, Kapari – “capers”’, and Panagia -the Holy Virgin. The island has one port – Agios Giorgios – and you’ll also find here the church of Analipsi. The port offers a wonderful perspective of Heraklion and its gulf across the way.
Dia Island is a marvelous nature preserve. The wild Cretan goat – the Ibex or, as it’s locally called, the Argrimi or Kri Kri – a marvelous creature. Rabbits abound in the shrubby landscape of the island, and the majestic Eleonora Falcon nests here.
Beaches Around Dia Island
Right across from Dia Island is Heraklion, which- centrally located – is the prime location for taking off for some of Crete’s most magnificent beaches. The north coast of Crete often welcomes the famous Meltemi – a treat for windsurfers.
Ammoudara is one of the popular windsurfing beaches near Heraklion, a long beach just to the west. If you’re looking for calmer seas but want to stay on the north coast, then you can drive just 4 minutes west of Heraklion.
If you are ready for more driving – and driving itself is really one of the pleasures of Crete so that you can take in the dramatic scenery – then you may want to head down to the south coast.
The beaches of the south coast of Crete, on the Libyan Sea, are legendary for their unspoiled, dramatic beauty. Perhaps the most famous among them is Matala, and for that we have the hippies of the 1960s and 70s to thank – they came here in great numbers then and some even lived in the caves on the cliffs.
Preveli is another fine choice – the Kourtaliotikos Gorge, with the river running through it, leads to this splendid beach. The banks of the river are lined with palm trees. If you are fond of palm trees though, then you may want to take a day trip to Vai. On cape at the very northeastern point of the island, Vai is the largest natural palm forest of Europe – of course, with its own spectacular beach. The drive is two and a half hours but is absolutely gorgeous.
Activities Around Dia Island
If you enjoy windsurfing or are already a windsurfer then you might want to head to the Heraklion Windsurfing Club. A wonderful destination – with children or without – is the CretAquarium, part of the Thalassocosmos (“sea world”), devoted to Marine Science and Education, one of the largest such facilities in the Mediterranean.
Learn about aquatic ecosystems, and the wonderful creatures of the Cretan seas, like the beloved Caretta-Caretta – the loggerhead sea turtle, which is a protected species.
Cultural Excursions Around Dia Island
A visit to the Heraklion region is not complete without seeing Knossos. This great palace of the Minoans – the advanced Bronze – Age civilization of Crete (the same culture that had the small port settlement of Dia across the way) is one of the prime archaeological destinations of Crete.
It was vividly restored by Sir Arthur Evans in the beginning of the previous century. Little imagination is needed to conjure up the life of the ancient Minoans in this splendid and dramatic palace with its famous frescos. The originals of these frescos are now in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, where you’ll also see other magnificent findings from the site.
Dia Island, Crete
Dia Island makes a wonderful addition to your tour of the Heraklion region, giving some historical context for this fascinating region and also enhancing the appreciation of Crete’s natural beauty and status as a unique habitat.