Known as ‘The Island of the Living Dead’, Spinalonga is an eerie yet strangely uplifting place. At just 85 acres in size, this small barren island offers a loaded history with stories of great hardship.
But you will also find a deeper understanding of an often misunderstood disease and find a testament to the enduring resilience of human nature. If you're spending some time in Crete, it's well worth considering a trip to the island.
Spinalonga is best known for the leper colony that resided on the island between 1903 and 1957. Around 1000 people suffering from the disease were sent here from all over Greece to reduce the spread of infection.
Spinalonga was one of the last active leper colonies in Europe, but it only really found fame when it was rediscovered by popular culture in 2005 through Victoria Hislop's insightful novel, 'The Island,' and later by Greek television.
It now sees around 1200-1500 visitors per day over the summer as the second most popular archaeological site in Crete (the first being the Minoan city of Knossos).
As you arrive on Spinalonga you are confronted by the imposing Venetian fortifications and Dante's Gate. Passing through the 20m-long tunnelled entrance you will notice the inscription above reads ‘leave hope behind’. A fitting message for the many souls that never left this place.
The island, though now mainly ruins, is an evocative place where visitors stroll silently through the streets, and passionate guides tell the story of a community born from a sense of common humanity and unwavering hope.
Inside you will find ruined and renovated houses that have been turned into museums with photographs and information on the former inhabitants. The so-called ‘Disinfection Room’ still holds the large barrel that was used to hose down visitors coming to and from the island.
Further along, there is the hospital, the theatre, the Church of St George and it's cemetery, and the easy 1.5km path around the island’s perimeter.
Although it’s true that Crete isn’t short of Venetian fortresses to visit, Spinalonga’s unique position and evocative history make it one of the most interesting.
Positioned within the natural harbour of Elounda in the prefecture of Lassithi, it was in its heyday one of the most powerful sea fortresses in the Mediterranean. It was so impenetrable in fact that it remained under Venetian rule long after the Ottomans occupied the rest of Crete, right up until the year 1715.
Once Crete was back in Greek hands the island again provided a last stronghold but this time for its Turkish settlers. Struggling to persuade the Turks to leave, the Greek government decided to start sending Crete’s lepers to the island - a move that quickly provided the desired results.
The long-term bacterial infection Leprosy, or Hansen's disease as the patients preferred it to be called, caused awful deformities making sufferers targets of ridicule and often violence.
Once it was discovered to be infectious rather than hereditary, patients were separated from their families and sent to live in poor conditions in remote areas. The heavy stigma surrounding the disease meant anyone with a white rash was targeted - including those that simply suffered from psoriasis.
Though Leprosy affects the nerves, respiratory tract, skin, and eyes of the patient, it is not fatal and patients lived for many years with the disease. The infected islanders of Spinalonga started to receive government income and soon provided a lucrative business for locals in nearby Plaka.
With little else to spend their money on the islanders were considered wealthy and nearby locals capitalised on this by providing food, medicine and other goods and services - often at heavily inflated prices.
In 1936 a young law student named Epaminondas Remoundakis arrived on the island and started to better organise infrastructure, farming and medical care. Over time this changed the whole island's dynamic, creating a pleasant and thriving community for the people of Spinalonga.
Developments included a theatre, a cinema, a school, a coffee shop, a barbershop, and the church of St. Panteleimon complete with a non-infected volunteer priest.
People fell in love, there were marriages, and over 100 children were born and left the island to live a ‘normal’ life on the mainland - just 10 of them later contracted the disease.
When a cure for leprosy was discovered in 1948, people were excited to leave the island but soon found everything they had once known had changed or disappeared. Families had moved to escape the harsh stigma associated with relatives of lepers, and townspeople often didn’t accept that the cured no longer posed a risk.
Soon people were returning to the island to once again live in peace and harmony in a community that supported each other. It was far from a prison, but instead a sanctuary from the misinformed. As a source of national shame at this point, the government once again intervened, forcibly removing the last people from Spinalonga in 1957 - the island remains uninhabited to this day.
You can get a day tour to Spinalonga from all over the island of Crete. Coaches will pick you up from your hotel and transport you to the port of Agios Nikolaos.
Boat tours from Agios Nikolaos to Spinalonga start from €20 per person, including a swim stop at Kolokitha Bay. This cruise to Spinalonga from Agios Nikolaos lasts for 4.5 hours with around an hour and a half of free time to explore the island.
From Agios Nikolaos the boat journey lasts for around 1 hour, departing in the morning with a stop for a swim at the beaches on the Kolokytha Peninsula.
You can also catch a boat from Elounda or Plaka to Spinalonga. From Elounda harbour it takes about 20 minutes to reach the island, and from the little village of Plaka, just north of Elounda, the journey is just 7 minutes.
The boat from Elounda costs €14 (€7 for children), while the boat from Plaka costs €12 (€6 for children). Boats leave every 30 minutes in peak season, this way you can spend as long as you like exploring the island. Buses to Elounda are frequent, but Plaka can be harder to get to by public transport.
The tour and boat prices do not include the cost of the entrance ticket to the Spinalonga archaeological site - €8 per person must be paid separately on arrival (with discounts for concessions).
There is a cafe, toilet and souvenir shop on Spinalonga but food is very expensive on the island - make sure to bring snacks, water and sun cream.
The crossing from Elounda/Plaka is protected and there is a very low chance of choppy seas or seasickness.
Spinalonga has been officially renamed to ‘Kalydron’, but everyone will know what you mean if you ask for trips to Spinalonga.
The site is open daily from April-October (8:30-18:00). In the peak months of July-August visit early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat and crowds.