Eastern Crete is a revelation. This less visited part of Crete is an unusual and delightful mix of luxury resorts and unspoiled nature, authentic charming villages, and fascinating history.
Elounda and Spinalonga, Crete
The region of Mirabello Bay is one of the loveliest in Crete and in fact all of Greece. This is home to some of the most famous and exclusive luxury hotels and resorts, on account of the idyllic natural setting, a curved and rugged coast dotted with dramatic cliffs and pristine blue flag beaches. The water glitters with the hues of precious jewels. Spinalonga is a small and storied island with a poignant history.
The area has been developed with restraint and excellent taste, with respect for the natural surroundings.
Where are Elounda and Spinalonga?
Mirabello Bay – named by the Venetians – is one of the loveliest of Crete. A coastline of around 30 km curves around the sea, punctuated by the small and wonderful city of Agios Nikolaos – capital of the region and Crete’s smallest city, behind Heraklion, Chania, and Rethymnon. At the bay’s northern end, about 10 km north of Agios Nikolaos, is the Lagoon of Elounda, formed by Korfos, nearly an island, attached to the mainland by a tiny strip of land. Off the shore of Korfos is the Island Fortress of Spinalonga.
How to get to Elounda and Spinalonga
Elounda is an hour east from Heraklion’s Nikos Katzanzakis international airport, and it’s a stunning drive. The car rental center is directly at the airport so you can get on the road right away.
Alternatively, you can take public transportation from the airport to the KTEL bus station of Heraklion, and from there take the bus to Agios Nikolaos, which takes about an hour and a half- click here for a schedule. From Agios Nikolaos, you can transfer to a bus to Elounda – see here.
The History of Elounda and Spinalonga
The ancient city of Olous was very near Elounda, and in fact it’s still close. Ancient Olous sank, and its ruins can be seen at the bottom of Mirabello Bay’s clear waters. Olous was for a time in conflict with the Dorians, who built ancient Lato, the ruins of which can still be seen, overlooking Mirabello Bay.
Spinalonga was fortified in ancient times in order to protect the port of Olous.
This gorgeous era was virtually abandoned in the 7th century because of the frequent raids of Arab pirates. Only in the 15th century was it once again inhabited, this time by the Venetians. They made salt pans in the lagoon. The area became more commercially viable. In response to the continued threat of pirates as well as the threat of the Ottomans, the Venetians began fortifying the island in the second half of the 16th century, ultimately turning it into one of the most important and formidable fortresses of the Mediterranean basin.
Does the name sound Italian to you? Venetian documents suggest that the origin of the same is from the Greek “Stin Elounda” (“at,” or “to” Elounda).
The Fortress was captured by the Ottomans in 1715, and was inhabited by Ottoman families until the very beginning of the 20th century.
The island entered the phase of its history for which it is now best known. It was a leper colony from 1903 to 1957, and was the setting for the 2005 novel “The Island”, by Victoria Hislop.
What to See and Do in Elounda and Spinalonga
The Elounda region is full of natural beauty, glorious beaches, interesting cultural excursions, and adventurous activities.
Enjoy a Beach Holiday – Gorgeous Beaches around Elounda and Spinalonga
Elounda’s main beach is lovely, and fully serviced with sun loungers and umbrellas, cafes and tavernas nearby.
Just across from the small island of Kolokytha is a beach of the same name, alternatively called the beach of St.Luke for the church close by. The beach is not organized and has the shade of just a couple of trees. Mornings and later afternoons can find it relatively secluded, but it fills up in the middle of the day with visitors arriving from organized boat trips.
Driros Beach is just across from Spinalonga island. It’s shaded with pine trees and has lovely sands. There are many watersport activities.
The clean pebbled beaches of Plaka has magnificent waters and a lovely view of Kalydon island. Plaka itself is picturesque with lovely old houses and traditional tavernas.
Activities around Elounda and Spinalonga
This is such an amazing coastline. Explore this section of Mirabello bay with an excursion by boat. There are many private boat excursions that can be arranged for a very special experience, including seeing some of the underwater ruins.
This is a great place to try scuba diving – there are well-equipped facilities with experienced and patient instructors. You can even have one-on-one instruction. It’s a magical experience.
Of course, we’re here for the coastline. But the inland area is spectacular- green and unspoiled with sweeping vistas of olive groves and mountains. The village of Fourni is one of the prettiest traditional towns of Crete – quiet and not touristy. Explore the beauty of the Cretan countryside on horseback. There are wonderful horseback riding excursions for riders of every skill, even absolute beginners
Cultural Excursions around Elounda and Spinalonga
Spinalonga island is a protected site under the auspices of the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sport.The whole of the islet is gloriously fortified and a site of great natural beauty. The poignant and inspiring chapter of its history as a leper colony is fully explored through exhibits and text in the atmospheric stone rooms of the former facilities.
Ancient Lato, a city of the Minoan period, flourished after the Dorians arrived. This was one of the most important Doric city-states, and is one of the best preserved sites of the classical and Hellenistic eras in Crete (5th – 1st centuries BCE).
Explore Elounda and Spinalonga
This wild and beautiful region, dotted with picturesque villages and hidden coves, is made for exploring. Make an itinerary for the highlights, but leave plenty of time to drive around and make discoveries of your own.