From Plaka, a pretty town north of Agio Nikolaos in eastern Crete, the island of Spinalonga looks invitingly close. Just a hop, skip and a paddle away by sea kayak—or so it seemed.
Spinalonga is a spit of land situated at the mouth of Spinalonga Bay. Strategic since antiquity, in 1579 the Venetians erected a gargantuan fortress befitting of their superpower status, and indeed, its protectors defied Turkish conquest for several decades longer than any other Cretan garrison. The fort finally fell to Ottoman rule in 1715.
On a warm October day our energetic group of four Americans and four Greeks sought to kayak over to Spinalonga Island. From there, we would head down its bay, a short portage, then down Poros Bay to Agio Nikolaos. At most, the trip was fifteen kilometers.
From Plaka, a local fisherman can probably make the voyage to Spinalonga Island in about twenty minutes. It took me about two hours.
I should point out that I had never kayaked. My initial hour was spent on land just trying to get a grasp of this sport and its paraphernalia. We donned life jackets, colorful wetsuits and learned how to put on a “skirt.” This is a sturdy cloth worn around your waist: when seated in your kayak, you attach the skirt’s hem to the open perimeter of your seat so that water doesn’t enter the boat. Next were some rudimentary rowing lessons. We sat on the beach, pretending we were at sea, and went through the motions of manipulating the oars.
I reasoned that, being a first-time kayaker, I should buddy up with another novice, Pia, in a two-seater. Wrong. Pia and I didn’t know when to paddle, how to coordinate our rowing or even which direction to face when a strong wind blew. Not but fifteen minutes after setting out to sea, one moment we were dry, the next moment we were wet. The boat capsized so suddenly we didn’t even have a chance to shout the proverbial “Man Overboard!” Sobered by the incident, we took our friends’ advice and got our own kayaks, and discovered that individual navigation was superior to teamwork, at least when the team was clueless in the art of kayaking.
When I learned that Yiannis capsized in his kayak, too, I was beginning to fear our excursion would match the disasterous pre-Games rowing test events for the Athens Olympics which took place in August, 2003. The new rowing center at Schinias was vulnerable to the maltemia, the summer winds, which created whitecaps and forced Olympic officials to call off the opening day of competitions. Later, winds still dominating, the United States rowing team actually capsized. What a photo that made for the Greek press! Within a day of their arrival the entire German rowing team, heretofore ranked number one, fell ill with food poisoning and immediately retreated back to Germany. I prayed our rowing adventure would not suffer similar afflictions.
Finally, we all made it to Spinalonga Island, some of us quite wet and all of us looking a little goofy in our loudly colored outfits, especially the kayak mini-skirts. The tourists stared, mostly at Miltos. While our skirts laid flat, his undulated with a flamboyant pink hem akin to an Argentine tango costume that got shrunk at the cleaners. For some reason, he kept it on during our visit to Spinalonga which prompted endless guffawing.
After Crete formally united with Greece in 1913, Spinalonga became a leper colony and remained so until 1957. The island is larger than expected when you peer at it from the Crete mainland. One can easily spend several hours strolling its pathways and perimeters. The elegant Venetian architecture—curved arched portals, for example—contributes to Spinalonga’s beauty, yet a haunting feeling pervades, perhaps attributable to the cemetery whose open graves bear the assumingly impaired bones of the prior inhabitants.
My afternoon kayaking was far more successful once I got the hang of it. And the disappearance of the winds helped appreciably. Our group soared along pretty much all together instead of scattered leagues apart as we had been during the morning. The scenery in Spinalonga Bay is breathtakingly spectacular. Mountains in the distance on a blinding shiny blue sea devoid of any other seafarers except the eight of us. The rock cliffs on the coast mesmerized me: they were wavy, in layers, like slabs of thick uncooked bacon stacked on top of one another, truly of postcard caliber. One area we paddled to appeared as if we were sheltered inside a cave, but actually we were in an open area on the sea.
I eagerly recommend sea kayaking in Spinalonga Bay. Beginners can complete the journey from Plaka to Agio Nikalao, with a pit stop on the island, easily in one day. You will feel thoroughly exhilarated by the hearty aquatic workout and gain yet another reason to place Crete at the top of your Magnificent Mediterranean Islands List.