“Sand, cedar trees and all day out in the open” this was the answer to a question about how people pass their time on “The Island”. The island in question being Donkey Island or more recently Chrissi Island. A small desert island, a short boat trip away, from the south coast of Ierapetra, in the Libyan Sea. “The Island” is a protected area of intense natural beauty and its attraction is plain to see, with white sandy beaches, shell beaches, natural cedar groves and sparklingly clear turquoise water. Another attraction is that it is a “desert island” devoid of inhabitants, buildings, electricity or even fresh water. In times gone by people could put up a tent and spend a few days camping wild, swimming, sunbathing, fishing, snorkeling and just relaxing. Nowadays, however, wild camping is strictly prohibited.
This is difficult for the “locals” of Ierapetra to accept. They grew up on the Island, experienced it in its simple and natural state before the introduction of parasols and sunbeds. And long before the boats started bringing thousands of tourists daily, eager to enjoy the experience of spending time on a desert island. Indeed it is the locals’ great love for and closeness to Chrissi Island which caused them to shorten its name to the familiar term “The Island”.
This love for “The Island” and this feeling that it belongs to them, not in the sense of ownership, but in a noble and generous kind of co-ownership sense, cannot be stopped simply because new rules are being applied. It is not possible to stop feeling that it is theirs, because it has always been there close to Ierapetra, they have always visited it and they have always loved it. The Ierapetritans are the ones who respect and take care of “The Island” when the authorities are not available.
But what exactly is Chrissi Island? The following description, as seen through the eyes of a local, says it all: to walk barefoot in the silky, soft, white sand, to take a breather under the shade of gnarled and wizened, centuries old cedar trees, to plunge into the calm, clear turquoise sea then dry off on the shell beach of the north coast, to welcome any little breeze that you can catch to help ward off sunstroke. But when Aeolus, the Greek God of winds makes his presence strongly felt, to desperately search for shelter of any kind.
To indulge in a clay bath in Vagges. To watch the sun setting, behind the mountains of Crete. To get lost in Chatzivolaka forest in the darkness of night and actually love being lost. To see the Golden Beach painted silver when the moon is full. To eat and drink like royalty, by candlelight. To experience the full extent of the friendliness and hospitality of the locals and discover something else, beautiful and interestingly different, with every new visit.
Donkey Island (the local name of Chrissi) is however, not for everyone. Despite the fact that it is renowned as being an exotic paradise, a natural wonder, a place once seen never forgotten, there are those who hate it. Namely, people who cannot stand the sun and the intense heat, the stinging of the sand on their skin as the wind blows it fiercely from time to time. Usually these people are not aware of what Donkey Island is nor of what to expect when they get there.
Chrissi Island is nothing more than a little dot on the map of Greece, almost lost in the vastness of the Libyan Sea. It is situated in the southeastern most corner of the country, eight nautical miles off the south coast of Ierapetra. In the past commonly known as Donkey Island, it is probable that the more attractive and modern day name of Chrissi Island (Golden Island) was given, to make it more attractive to tourists. Certainly it is a prettier and more appropriate name, given the stunning beauty and outstanding colours on the island.
When the weather is good the tiny oblong strip of land that is Chrissi Island, is just about visible from the coast of Ierapetra. You just have to know what you are looking for and where to look. It has been standing there for 350,000 years, a direct result of the underwater eruption of the volcano which gave birth to it and at the same time petrified many of the forty nine different species of shells which used to live in the sea around the island.
The beautiful white sandy beaches on the “Island” were once completely covered in tiny little, pale, glimmering shells, which gave it an appearance of being almost pink. These however, are now becoming scarce. This is mainly due to the continuous, thoughtless and forbidden, habit of the daily visitors, of taking some away with them as souvenirs. The twelve species which have survived, form the largest part of the sandy, exotic, Belegrina Beach, which is located on the north coast.
The “Island” is famous for its rare, and wholly natural, cedar forest, which occupies an area of 350 hectares and covers the most popular eastern part of the island that altogether, is only a mere 5.5km in length. The landscape closely resembles that of Lebanon and is truly a wondrous sight to behold.
Some of the trees surpass a height of ten metres and are over two hundred years old! Their trunks are strangely gnarled and twisted and the branches create the most atmospheric and artistic shapes and designs, perfect for unusual photos. Their strong, old roots protrude intertwined, from the soft, silky sand creating impressively beautiful sand dunes.
The main obstacle while on the island, is the lack of drinking water. There are only two sources of water in this unexpectedly windy and arid place, neither of which provide water that is drinkable. Therefore visitors must either have the foresight to carry their own water with them, enough for the length of their stay, or visit the only tavern on the island, where they will be charged quite excessively for bottled water. The two wells which have been drilled, now only provide muddy water. One can be found in the cedar forest and the other is about half an hour’s walk away, towards Chatzivolaka, next to the quaint little 13th century church of Saint Nichols, the patron saint of sailors. Note that the Name Day of Saint Nicholas is the 6th of December and every year on that day a huge festival takes place in the little church. Sailboats of all size and description bring worshippers from Ierapetra and surrounding areas to take part in the celebrations.
Upon arriving in Ierapetra you will see huge signs everywhere advertising “Tickets to Chrissi”. There is however, no need to rush into the first place to buy your tickets as these can be bought from any number of tourist offices throughout the town and even at the port just before going on board. If you arrive by bus the port is only a short distance away from the bus station on foot and the way is clearly signposted.
The boats for Chrissi Island operate from the middle of May till the end of September. They depart at either 10.30am or 12.30pm and the journey takes around 45 minutes. The tickets perhaps seem a little overpriced but the price does include the return journey. In no time at all you will arrive at the beautiful, little, flat, sandy, desert island.
As the boat approaches Chrissi Island, the dark blue of the deep sea slowly changes to increasingly lighter shades of blue and turquoise. As you get closer there is a little island to the left of Chrissi called “Mikronisi” and the boat passes through the narrow channel between the islands. Passengers disembark on the south side of Chrissi and to the west there is a tourist kiosk and the only tavern on the island. For the time being this is the only place to find, water, food and toilets.
From this point on you are on your own and free to do whatever exploring you feel like. The boats wait at the island for five hours before they embark on the return journey. The only supplies required are sunscreen, hats, beach towels and most importantly water. It is advisable not to carry a lot of things since you have to traverse the island, over hot sand in the heat, to get to the other side where the better beaches are. This is not difficult to do and you will often see families with babies in prams and little children walking along the path. Wooden walkways have been laid out across the island most of the way to the other side and it is well signposted. It is practically impossible to get lost but, if that happens just shout out and someone will no doubt hear you and come to your aid. It is after all a very small island.
Although Golden Beach is the most well known and appealing, there are several other beaches to choose from should the weather not be advantageous on the north side of the island. It would be advisable to check which way the wind is blowing before you decide which direction to set off in. In the south there is the Three Vagges, in the east Kataprosopo and in the northeast Fokiospilia, these are the best bays on the island for swimming and the most idyllic.
In the northwest of the island where the sand is flatter and easier to walk on, there are beautiful hiking trails, where you will see wild lilies blooming, and Volakes the famous red and black rocks after which Chatzivolaka is named. You may even be lucky enough to see some of the few remaining wild rabbits, or even some partridges although this is increasingly less and less likely. On your travels you may even stumble across vaulted tombs from the Roman era!
Even further to the west, beyond the old lighthouse, the traces of a Minoan Settlement can be seen, patiently awaiting the completion of archaeological research.
Article : Ilektra Fatourou
Photos : Hercules Milas, George Patroudakis