Almost everyone who spends any time in Ayios 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 Ayios 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 12km (8-mile) trip into the hills behind Ayios 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 Ayios Nikolaos. After seeing the church, visit the village of Kritsa itself and enjoy the view and the many fine handcrafted goods for sale.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.