Spinalonga has not been used as a leper colony since 1953, but the island still has a haunting aura that touched us all. Today it looks much like a ghost town, but the Greek government is restoring the island for tourists, which I think might ruin the current atmosphere. It is already one of the most popular sites on Crete. Spinalonga sits at the entrance of Elounda Bay and the Gulf of Mirabello, a perfect location for a defensive fortress. The Venetians built the fortress on Spinalonga in the 16th century, and it held out from the Turks until 1715, 30 years longer than the rest of Crete. The Turks used the island for smuggling, and after the war of independence it became a leper colony for Crete. There is a trail circumnavigating the island, and the guides did a good job of describing life there for the afflicted, their families, and the medical staff. The cemetery, with its different types of graves, was especially macabre.
We returned to Agios and sailed for our final port, Iraklion, where we docked overnight. This capital city of Crete has over 100 thousand residents and a nice airport. We were not scheduled to fly back to London until mid-afternoon, so the Hebridean Spirit staff scheduled a tour for us at the nearby ancient Minoan city of Knossos, only 3 miles from Iraklion. The Minoans that built the palace at Knossos had one of the most advanced civilizations of the ancient world. We've all heard tales of the ancient mythological minotaur in the palace maze, which would give anyone nightmares!
Like many visitors to Knossos, I had mixed feelings. It is certainly a very important archaeological site, and the number one tourist attraction on Crete. However, the Minoan palace at Knossos is also one of the most reconstructed archaeological sites, and although it is interesting to see how the site must have once looked, it is a little difficult to distinguish the original from the reconstructed. Everyone in our group had the same sensation, and one couple who had visited 20 years before felt that too much reconstruction had been done since their previous visit. The big question is, "How can one accurately reconstruct a palace that was built in 1700 BC?"
Even with the reconstruction, the site at Knossos is impressive. Sir Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist, first uncovered the site in 1900 and spent 35 years and over 250 thousand GBP of his own money to excavate and reconstruct portions of the large palace. The site is quite large and will take about 3-4 hours to adequately explore. You will also need a good guidebook or a local guide, because even with the reconstruction, there are no identifying signs. Some of the reconstructed items such as paintings and columns are quite evident; however, the complicated design of the palace, some of the original drainage system, and ancient storage vessels were the most impressive to me. The queen's apartment of the almost 4000 year old palace even included a bathtub and "toilet" that used water poured by hand to flush.
As in the beginning of our trip, Hebridean did a wonderful job of ending our cruise. The cruise line had started out with a welcome aboard champagne breakfast at the airport in London, and ended on the right note also. Instead of just dropping us at the airport on our last day, we got to tour Knossos with the guides, followed by a light lunch at an outdoor cafe in Iraklion. Since all the passengers also had a late first-class lunch on the charter flight home, this was a nice touch, and a perfect ending for our wonderful Greek cruise.
It had been a marvelous all-inclusive vacation, touched by rains and wind the first couple of days, but those days were forgotten as we were blessed by sunny skies and calm waters the last half of the cruise. Everything on the ship was first class, and the Greek tour guides who joined the ship in Corfu and accompanied us on the entire cruise were knowledgeable and entertaining. My mother and I loved being among the "American minority" on the ship, and we learned as much about the geography, culture, and cuisine of our allies from the British Isles as we did about Greece. If you love all-inclusive small ship cruising to interesting ports with interesting people, the Hebridean Spirit might just be for you.
Greek Cruise Travelogue Pictures - Corfu, Kefalonia, Olympia, Pylos, Methoni, Santorini, Crete