We chose a Greek holiday to escape disease and lockdown, but before long we were being taken by small boat to a lonely isolation unit – a place with an air of sadness and despair for those testing positive.
Our sweating skipper told us through his face mask that we were nearing the tiny, rocky outcrop off the main island of Crete, a desolate place set aside by the authorities to house those showing symptoms. The island has a basic hospital, a church and a few ramshackle accommodation units for the sick. And, of course, a cemetery for those who never recover.
Thankfully, Spinalonga, off Crete’s north-east coast, is not the Greek government’s answer to keeping its islands Covid-free, but a tourist attraction made famous by Victoria Hislop’s hit novel The Island. It stopped being a leper colony in the 1950s.
Travelling there today feels particularly surreal. As the sun beat down, we stepped off our boat and joined other tourists for a visit with strict social distancing measures. We kept apart just as healthy visitors had done when briefly landing on the island to take goods or offer services to the lepers in the first half of the last century. Now it is an intriguing mix of ancient Venetian fortress, Ottoman ruins and deserted cottages where the lepers once lived.
Spinalonga is just a short hop across the sparkling waters of Mirabello Bay in this exclusive part of Greece, beloved of the rich, famous and those intent on privacy. As Sky News journalists, my wife Laura and I have covered the coronavirus crisis constantly for months. I was anchoring the channel’s coverage from Rome when Italy went into lockdown in early March. Laura did Sky’s first report way back in January about a “mystery illness” in a Chinese city.
Now we wanted a holiday where, along with our two young children, we could fly, flop and (almost) forget Covid-19 for a fortnight.
We chose Greece because of its low rates of Covid – fewer than 500 deaths have been recorded in the country. Quarantine restrictions were brought in when cases started rising, but now all of Greece – apart from the island of Mykonos – has the UK Government’s green light once again. Cretans, though, are far from complacent.
At the beautiful, secluded Elounda Gulf Villas, we were welcomed, almost apologetically, by Anthi Kadianakis, who owns and runs the exclusive hotel with her sister and their mother. For nervous travellers, it offers discreet, boutique villa-style accommodation but with all the facilities and amenities expected of a luxury hotel.
You can mix with the other guests at the hotel as much, or as little, as you wish. We stayed in an executive spa villa overlooking the sea, with its own infinity pool, gym, sauna and – much to the children’s wide-eyed amazement – a private lift. Wearing a visor, Anthi talked us through the measures they have taken – reduced housekeeping, staff in masks at all times, social distancing and strict hygiene. “We don’t like the phrase ‘social distancing’,” she told me. “We prefer to call it ‘physical distancing’.” The social aspect remains, and the hotel prides itself on its impeccable service or “professional friendliness”, as Anthi likes to describe it.
It has been the most challenging season in the hotel’s 20-plus years. “Safety has to be our first priority,” Anthi told me. “We want guests to feel safe and secure, but not in a way that we convert the hotel into a hospital!”
For Cretans such as Anthi, the restrictions on hospitality don’t come naturally. This is an island where traditional families always leave a spare chair at the dinner table for any friend who might just happen to pass by.
The UK is the hotel’s main market, and it has been running at about 35 per cent capacity. Normally in the peak summer months, it would be full.
The poolside hotel restaurant offers stunning views over the bay and (with plenty of space between the tables) serves delicious modern European cuisine and Cretan classics to families like ours – Brits who are mildly concerned about travelling abroad but are determined to get their annual fortnight in the sun.
Chatting to other guests at the hotel’s delightful little beach club, it was clear that this was the ideal place to be pampered and leave any Covid concerns behind. The kids’ club, the spa and even the resort’s golf buggies are regularly disinfected. The staff are brilliant if you want to glean tips on things to see and do locally.
Like so much tourist accommodation on Crete, Elounda Gulf Villas is relying on last-minute bookings. Luckily, much of Greece remains – for now – a good option for British holidaymakers when so many European countries are struggling with a second wave of the virus.
For visitors, a holiday in Crete in the current circumstances is almost surreal. There are no fights for a sun lounger, the roads are almost empty, and finding the perfect table at a taverna is never a problem.
Our holiday rep, Tanja, who works for Kuoni, has lived on Crete for more than 30 years. She has never seen a summer this quiet. “It’s definitely not the same,” she told me. “Speaking to guests while wearing a mask means they can’t see my smile and the love and enthusiasm I have for this place.”
We were keen to avoid buses, so hired a car and explored in our own little bubble. We spent a day on gorgeous, uninhabited Chrissi Island, the “Maldives of Crete”. The coastguard even patrolled the ferry before we set sail for the uninhabited island, checking everyone was wearing a face mask.
We joined the Greek youngsters at the hip Voulisma beach and explored the old town of Kritsa, nestled in the mountains, where sadly the shops and restaurants were noticeably quiet. Koutsounari beach, with its fine pebbles and crystal-clear waters, was a little busier, the Taverna Psaropoula full of locals devouring, like us, what must be the island’s best calamari.
Having decided to continue our theme of private villa-style accommodation but in a hotel setting, our other week on Crete was at Eleonas Country Village, in the more remote heart of the island. The hotel’s entrepreneurial owner, Manolis Saridakis, has built a variety of stone cottages all a short walk through immaculate grounds to two swimming pools and a restaurant serving home cooking that even the locals seek out. It is perfect for families, and while it has been a terrible season for bookings, repeat visitors have meant he has stayed open. Low-interest-rate loans for the tourism industry have helped, money lent by the Government on the condition that hotel staff were kept in their jobs.
We explored Matala beach, where hippies once lived in the caves. Folk singer Joni Mitchell joined them for a while, singing under “a starry dome…beneath the Matala Moon” in her 1971 song Carey. And we spent a day on magical, sweeping Kommos beach, where turtles breed and the sun sets to the trippy beats from the bar on the water’s edge.
In 1957, there was a breakthrough and the lepers of Spinalonga celebrated the discovery of a cure, and their place of incarceration was closed down. In 2020, as the hunt for a vaccine and treatment continues for Covid-19, Crete is pretty much unbeatable as a holiday spot to spend some time waiting for that day to come.