Aghios Nikolaos tends to elicit strong reactions, depending on what you’re looking for. Until the 1970s, it was a lazy little coastal settlement with no archaeological or historical structures of any interest. Then, the town got “discovered,” and the rest is the history of organized tourism in our time. For about 5 months of the year, Aghios Nikolaos becomes one gigantic resort town, taken over by the package-tour groups that stay in beach hotels along the adjacent coast and come into town to eat, shop, and stroll. During the day, Aghios Nikolaos vibrates with people. At night, it vibrates with music, the center down by the water is one communal nightclub.
Somehow, the town remains a pleasant place to visit, and it serves as a fine base for excursions to the east of Crete. And if you’re willing to stay outside the center, you can take in only as much of Aghios Nikolaos as you want, and then retreat to your beach or explore the east end of the island. And anyone who’s come as far as Aghios Nikolaos should get over to Elounda at least once: It’s some 12 km but in addition to taxis there are buses every hour back and forth. It’s slower paced and less fashionable than Aghios Nikolaos but all the more pleasant for being so.
The focal point in town is the small pool, formally called Lake Voulismeni, just inside the harbor. You can sit at its edge while enjoying a meal or a drink. Inevitably, it has given rise to all sorts of tales, that it’s bottomless (it’s known to be about 65 mt deep; that it’s connected to Santorini, the island about 104 km to the north; and that it was the “bath of Athena.” Originally it was a freshwater pool, probably fed by a subterranean river that drained water from the mountains inland. A 20th-century channel now mixes the fresh water with sea water.
Definitely make time to visit Ceramica. You will see many reproductions of ancient Greek vases and frescoes for sale throughout Greece but seldom will you have a chance to visit the workshop of one of the masters of this art, Nikolaos Gabriel. He also carries a line of fine jewelry, made by others to his designs. Across the street, Xeiropoito sells handmade rugs. Pegasus, on the corner of Koundourou, the main street up from the harbor, offers a selection of jewelry, knives, icons and trinkets, some old, some not. You’ll have to trust the owner to tell you which is which. For something a bit different in women’s clothing, step into Vendemma.
For something truly Greek, what could be better than an icon, a religious or historic painting on a wooden plaque? The tradition is kept alive in Elounda at the studio/store Petrakis Workshop for Icons. Papendreou, on the left as you come down the incline from Aghios Nikolaos, just before the town square. Georgia and Ioannis Petrakis work seriously at maintaining this art. Orthodox churches in North America as well as in Greece buy icons from them. Stop by and watch the artists at their painstaking work, you don’t have to be Orthodox to admire or own one. The store also carries local artisans’ jewelry, blown glass, and ceramics.
Almost everyone who spends any time in Aghios Nikolaos makes the two short excursions to Spinalonga and Kritsa. Each can easily be visited in a half day.
Spinalonga is the fortified islet in the bay off Elounda. The Venetians built one of their many fortresses here in 1579, and it had the distinction of being their final outpost on Crete, not taken over by the Turks until 1715. When the Cretans took possession in 1903, it was turned into a leper colony, but this ended after World War II. Now Spinalonga is a tourist attraction. In fact, there’s not much to do except walk around and soak in the atmosphere and ghosts of the past. Boats depart from Aghios Nikolaos harbor and Elounda as well as from some hotels. It’s not especially romantic, more like an abandoned site, so visitors are left to populate it with their own imaginations.
Although a walk through Spinalonga can resonate as a historical byway, if you have time to make only one of these short excursions, I advise taking the 12 km trip into the hills behind Aghios Nikolaos to the village of Kritsa and its 14th-century Church of Panagia Kera. The church is architecturally interesting, and scholars regard its frescoes, dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, as among the jewels of Cretan-Byzantine art. They have been restored, but their impact still emanates from the original work. Scenes depict the life of Jesus, the life of Mary, and the Second Coming. Guides can be arranged at any travel agency or at the Municipal Information Office in Aghios Nikolaos. After seeing the church, visit the village of Kritsa itself and enjoy the view and the many fine handcrafted goods for sale.