Have you read the book of Victoria Hislop “The Island”? This world best seller describes the lives of the lepers during the early 20th century in the islet of Spinaloga, which is located across the village of Plaka in eastern Crete, in a close distance to Elounda in the prefecture of Lassithi. If you rent a car in Crete and you want to explore the island, an excursion to this place with the fascinating past is something you should not miss. Especially if you spend your summer vacation in Elounda, it is only a few-minutes’ drive to get to Plaka by car and then by boat to Spinaloga.
From the 16th until the 19th century, the islet was a Venetian Fortress. During the 19th century and the Cretan revolution against the Ottoman rule, Spinaloga was the refuge of many Ottomans families that feared Christian reprisals.
The island was subsequently used as a leper colony from 1903 to 1957. It was one of the last active leper colonies in Europe, as the last inhabitant left the island in 1962. The leper colony was established on the islet to isolate people suffering from Hansen’s disease from the healthy population. The cure for leprosy had not yet been discovered, and the contagious disease horrified people. The lepers were quarantined in leper colonies outside towns, isolated from their families for the rest of their lives. Spinaloga was the ideal place for a leper colony, as it was close to the coast, permitting the easy transfer of patients, food and supplies. There were also many empty houses there after the departure of the Ottoman inhabitants in the 19th century.
Despite the poor and hard conditions on Spinaloga, people there tried to live a normal life. They were married on the islet and had children, some of whom grew up there without ever catching the disease. They took care for one another, worked to improve their lives, ran their own café, bakery and barber shop. They also had their own church and school, and after a few years, doctors came to make research in order to find the cure for the disease, which has discovered after 1950.
Today, the island, which is uninhabited, is a popular tourist attraction on the island of Crete. In addition to the abandoned leper colony and the Venetian fortress, Spinaloga is known for its calm pebbled beaches and shallow waters, ideal for families. The island can easily be accessed from Plaka, Elounda and the capital of Lassithi, Agios Nikolaos. Tourist boats depart from all three towns on a daily basis. There is no accommodation on Spinaloga, so inevitably you can make only a day-excursion. Boat trips from Elounda take approximately 25 minutes, while trips from Agios Nikolaos last almost an hour. From Plaka, the route lasts only a few minutes.