Chrissi island (GR: Χρυσή meaning «Golden») also known as Gaidouronisi (GR: Γαϊδουρονήσι meaning «donkey island»), lies 8 nautical miles south of the town of Ierapetra in the open Libyan Sea. It is a flat island very famous for its tropical blue water that cover all possible palette hues of blue and green, the protected forest with large cedar trees and the thousands of broken shells that make the sand pinkish. Local people commonly call it “the island”, as there is a special relationship between them, lost in the depths of time. Many years ago, Gianni Agnelli, the chairman of Fiat automotive industry, wanted to buy the island to make it a tourist attraction but, fortunately, the locals rebelled and the island remained free.Chrissi takes its name after the golden sand that covers the entire island and comes from shell debris. The tropical beaches are crowded by many visitors who come by the excursion boats that leave Ierapetra in the morning and return in the afternoon. Chrissi has been declared as an area of natural beauty and it is strictly prohibited to camp and spend your night there. You must keep away from the fragile cedar forest, which has been signed with ropes. Lastly, collecting sand and shells is strictly forbidden.
Given the island’s size, the vegetation is quite diverse and consists mainly by Lebanese cedars, junipers, lentisc, thyme, health and rockroses and sandy shore vegetation, comprising 1/20 of the Cretan flora. Many of the species are endemic and are therefore protected by international laws and directives. The cedar forest of the island, which covers almost it’s one third (approximately 35 hectares), is considered unique, both because of its expanse and structure. The forest’s density is roughly 28 cedars per hectare while their average height is 3-7 meter tall and their average age is somewhat 300 years old. Cedars have their main roots spread across an area which is more than two times the tree’s height, while a huge amount of smaller roots forms an extensive web that keeps the tiny sand in place.
In the sea around Chrissi, the diversity and abundance of animal species are astonishing, as the depth of the water is limited. The sea bed around the island up to a depth of 20 meters covers about 30 square km, area which is more than six times the size of the island. Most of the island’s animal species have a Mediterranean distribution, while none of them pose any hazard to humans.
Some decades ago, when the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus Monachus) was not threatened by humans, it could be seen coming out of the water and basking in the sun, on the island’s beaches. Today it rarely appears and mostly the name Fokiospilo (seal cave) on the northwestern coast reminds us of its once common presence. The sea turtle Caretta Caretta has been also observed many times on the island, but without any records of nesting.
Up to date, more than 120 species of birds have been reported, the vast majority of which are migrant species that find in Chrissi a place to rest and feed themselves before their long journey to Africa. More recently, partridges, hares and rabbits have been transferred to the island by local people but nowadays hares have become extinct and there is a systematic effort to remove the remaining rabbits as well.
The most popular beach is located on the north side of the island, where you can get after a short walk from the harbor, crossing the magnificent cedar forest. After 10 minutes you’ll meet the main beach of the island, called “Pelegrina” or Golden Beach. Pelegrina is full of broken shells, the water is crystal clear and has sparkling light blue colors, strongly reminiscent of the beaches of the Caribbean. It is slightly organized with umbrellas and a canteen where you can get snacks and beverages. The water is shallow and has great clarity.
If you walk west of Pelegrina, the next beach you will find is called “Hatzivolakas”. It is calmer and the seabed is rockier. Nature here shows off its glory, with large fragile cedar trees, over 200 years old, surrounding you. West of Hatzivolakas, archaeologists have detected traces of a Minoan settlement that flourished because of trading Tyrian purple (porfira), the red dye used by ancients and Byzantines, which was extracted by the gastropod Murex brandaris. Nearby, you can visit the small chapel of St. Nicholas, the old salt pan and the lighthouse of the island.
Alternatively, if you walk eastwards from Pelegrina, you will find yourself in “Kataprosopo” beach, which looks the islet of Mikronisi “face-to-face”. Mikronisi is located east of Chrissi and offers shelter to thousands of seagulls. The beach is less impressive than those of the north side, but more secluded. The water here is shallow and does not exceed 5m in depth (all the way to Mikronisi), making the area ideal for snorkelers.
For the last centuries Chrissi was basically deserted, while much earlier there were small settlements. On the western and eastern side of the island, broken pieces of pottery have been found, a fact that indicates activity during the Minoan times. In the northwest there is a chapel of St. Nicholas, possibly built in the 13th century. Northeast of the chapel and near the shore there is an even older salt pan and the only house on the island, which is built on ancient ruins that include a small building and a small port. South and southwest of St. Nicholas there are some wells and a few carved graves. The largest one dates from the Roman times. At the Byzantine era the main source of income for the island’s inhabitants was fishing, salt export and “porfira” a scarlet dye produced from shells for the cloaks of Europe’s royalty. Later, pirates forced the inhabitants to flee Chrissi for safety in Crete and used the island as a hide-out. Many pirate and merchant ships have sunk in the area.
The island is almost flat with an average height of 10 meters. The highest spot is to the East on “Kefala” hill and is 31 meters high. On that spot there is a forest lookout, with a view of the whole island. From a distance the island seems like a thin line of land in the middle of the sea. Its greatest length is 5 km, while its average width is 1 km and its perimeter is 14.5 km.
Basic rocks of Chrissi were created by the solidification of lava, ejected by an underwater volcano millions of years ago. While walking around the island, visitors will be impressed by the colors of the rocks (reddish brown, greenish gray and black). The larger part of the island though is covered by sand. On the flat areas the ground is relatively solid and consists mainly of fine reddish sand, covered by moss and lichens. At the areas where the sand dunes are, the sand is gold and course. The sand is basically supported by the complex underground root system of the cedars and their leaves, which actually touch the ground.
From the middle of April until the end of October, daily scheduled cruises depart to Chrissi from the port of Ierapetra. In the wonder of the Libyan Sea, the journey is usually in the herring of seagulls, while occasionally dolphins play within sight. After almost an hour’s sailing, the boats approach the southern coast of the island, which is normally more sheltered. Passengers disembark at the beach of “Vougiou Mati”, where there is a small wharf and the reception area. After disembarking, the majority of the visitors take the 10 minute walk to the famous beach of “Pelegrina” at the north coast of the island, where they spend the most of their stay. However, within the day trip, the visitor has enough time to walk around the island and bathe in its crystal clear green-blue waters!