Those who know me best know that I am unable to resist a kitschy tourist trap when I see one. I can’t help it: the minute I know it’s there, all of my mature appreciation of art and culture flies right out the window, and all of my thoughts are consumed by an almost primal desire to do something dumb for the sake of the doing it. I can’t even claim that it’s done ironically: I genuinely enjoy exploring tourist traps. I love finding joy in roadside attractions, in things that may be more expensive than they’re worth but are nevertheless enjoyable, in things that, while on the surface a dedicated traveler may consider a waste of time, I consider an experience. I’m reclaiming my joie de vivre one wacky, weird thing at a time.

Which is how I came to be a patron of the Doctor Fish spa.

How could something so…relatively…cute be so flesh-hungry?

It is, as the name suggests, a fish spa. I had never heard of such a thing before, and had never even seen one in America, (although some people have informed me that they do indeed exist). The premise is this: the unsuspecting tourist, lured into the spa by the employees looking for anyone who’ll bite, is asked to first rinse their feet off in a sort of shower. Once they’ve rolled up their pants and handed over their sneakers, the tourist awkwardly climbs up onto a padded bench and unceremoniously dips their legs into tank containing twenty or so relatively small fish. For the next fifteen minutes, your legs are suspended in water, as these fish nibble the dead skin away. After your time is up, you awkwardly waddle back to the shower, wash your feet, and go about your day. The end result is supposed to be that, now all the dead skin on your calves and feet has been eaten, your skin has been exfoliated and is silky smooth. Bizarre? Yes. Hygienic? Possibly. The jury is still out. Just weird enough for me to want to try it? Of course.

To some, a nightmare. To me, an adventure. But also a bit of a nightmare.

For months, I had seen the store, as I had to walk past the place in order to get to Heraklion’s pier. I would walk down the main thoroughfare, glancing at it wistfully. Every time I asked my family if they’d like to try it out, they looked at me as if I had asked if they had wanted to try some sweet bread. It wasn’t easy, as I walked up and down this street often, buying souvenirs for friends. Each time I passed by the fish spa, the employees working the crowd would lock eyes with me. They knew. They could see it in my eyes that I wanted to enter, and they used that to their advantage. But alas, I couldn’t cave to my desire to stick my feet in a bucket of fish. I had places to go, people to see. The fish spa…would wait.

And then the end of my Summer arrived, and I found myself full of the usual bout of end-of-vacation blues. I didn’t want to leave the crystal-clear Cretan waters, the sunshine, and the like. I didn’t want to give up gyros and freshly cooked lamb. I was in a slump, and only one thing could lift my spirits: a final high note, one last ride, one final experience that would be the cherry on top to my Summer. The fish spa’s hour had come. That afternoon, my family and I headed to the fish spa, not quite sure what we were in for, but aware enough that we were going to have…a time.

Let me start by saying, don’t wear a dress to the fish spa. Climbing awkwardly up a bench that’s just a little too high for you, only for you to need to scoot down the bench to your allotted tank, makes a dress a hindrance. Secondly, definitely go with other people. Bring friends, family, distant cousins, acquaintances you made on your cruise, your yiayia, what have you. It is so much more fun going with people than by yourself. Not only does it distract you a little from the agonizing tickling sensation around your feet, it is the highest form of entertainment. I have three or four videos stored forever in my phone, which I watch sometimes when I’m feeling down, of my mother on the verge of screaming as the fish tickle her relentlessly. My brother mocks her mercilessly, bragging about how the fish’s tickling hasn’t troubled him in the slightest, while my sister and I have cast aside decorum and burst into uproarious laughter. Two random strangers in the video stare at us like we have grown three heads. It’s one of my favorites.

Pictured: my friends and family suffering at the behest of my whimsy

I was aware the feeling would not be…comfortable, but I wasn’t prepared for how strange it would feel. The farther up your leg the fish latch onto, the easier it is. They’re tolerable, those fish, the chill dudes of the tank. I liked them. They didn’t activate my fight or flight response. The fish that latched on to the top or sides of my actual feet were on thin ice. There was definitely a strong sense of discomfort produced by their presence, but those weren’t the ones that sent me into peels of tickle-induced laughter. That honor went to the little bastards who targeted my toes. If you’ve ever wanted to know just how strong your stoic endurance can last, buy yourself a fifteen-minute session at a fish spa, and see how long you can keep a straight face. Extra points if you can keep yourself from squirming. I think the hardest part of the whole thing was forcing my legs to stay still, instead of kicking them about like instinct demanded. But I survived, as did my poor mother, who vowed to never visit a fish spa again.

I’m suffering, but I’m also living my best life

I didn’t stick around for a manicure, which was one of the many other spa services Doctor Fish offered, but the next Summer I visited Crete, I went back to the spa twice. What can I say? There’s a satisfying kind of schadenfreude that comes from bringing your friends to a torturous fifteen minutes at the fish spa.

Oh, and my skin? Perfectly exfoliated. Beauty isn’t pain…it’s a swarm of tickling fish.


By Katarina Kapetanakis 

Beautiful beaches are not at all unusual on the island of Crete. The whole coastline is a widely varied, but exceedingly beautiful paradise. From seaside fishing towns with tiny sandy shores, to imposing jagged rocks that loom over you as you take a dip in their coves, Crete’s beaches are a marvel to those seeking a vacation that is out of the ordinary. However, if you’re new to the island, picking a beach to go to can be a bit like playing roulette: you’re never sure what kind of beach you’re going to get until you arrive at the water’s edge. And if you aren’t accustomed to relaxing, you may not know where to go or how to do it. Let’s say you want something refreshing, something totally out of the ordinary. Something so unique and out of your usual comfort zone that you simply must experience it for yourself. So, come with us. Take a drive down, (or rather, up and down) the coastal highways of the island. Ninety minutes or so from the Wine Dark Sea villas, waits an adventure to another part of the island, a beach that, for many, acts not only as an escape to nature, but as a portal to another time…

Matala beach.

Pass through the bucolic mountainside dotted with ubiquitous olive groves, and several small villages. After several minutes you reach the pass leading to Matala beach. As you approach, you drive through a single boulevard entrance into the village, you find yourself face to face…to face…to face…with a giant dead tree that has been carved into multiple faces. It’s mystical, almost like it belongs in some popular fantasy franchise, though you’re not sure you know which one now. It sticks out, and yet, you can’t help but think that perhaps it’s perfect for the bizarre yet calming energy Matala gives off. It’s a message, you see: non-conformism rules this tiny beach town, uniqueness is king, and there are nothing but good vibes ahead of you. The motto of the village is plastered right on a seaside cliff, painted there decades ago when the town was a hippie paradise: Live for Today. You’re going to like it here, you think, as you approach the beach.

A strange town centerpiece

After walking down the hill from where you’ve parked your car just at the edge of the beach, take a look around. You’ll notice almost immediately discovers the cove of that dot the rock wall, and you can’t help but feel a sense of intrigue. Approach the worker selling tickets to these caves, and they’ll be happy to tell you: they are Roman catacombs, dotting the cliffs and intersecting with each other like a honey comb, and they are open to the public. Take some time, explore these caves. Marvel at the sound of the waves washing over the tombs of those closer to the ocean. Wonder what it would be like to be buried at a place as peaceful as this. Take some photos for posterity.

When you finish, exit the caves and take a moment to gaze into the water below. Note the incredible crystal blue color. Let yourself get excited: Matala beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and as you can see, the multitude of people already on the beach and enjoying the water agree with you. But take a moment to breathe it all in, the water, the caves, the painted cliffside. The energy, the mythos of it all, is infectious. You can’t help but picture Jason and his Argonauts trying to escape the bronze automaton Talos, stepping over the beach towards the Argo. The incredible invocation of mythology is palpable in the air. Let it infect you. Let the line between history and mythology be blurred. Then jump into the beautiful wine dark sea, and let the water wash over you. You will be cold, temporarily, but the clearness of the water combined with the alien world that shines just below the surface, of rocks and fish and ruins, will warm you with excitement. Explore it all. Soak it in. After all, you can’t find beaches like this at home. Swim out. Swim far. Climb some rocks, jump off of them. Feel alive.

A coastline dotted with caves. Can you make them out?

A swim in the cool Aegean waters will refresh the soul as one allows the bright sky and hot sun to renew the body with with its life giving energy, but a day at the beach brings hunger. You’re in luck, though. Tavernas are scattered all over the beach, overhanging the dramatic land forms, which allows for all the senses to be fed. Music echoes out from porches overlooking the sea, and smells seep out from the verandas to lure you into their restaurant. Pick the one that enchants you the most, the one that smells the most delicious. Take your seat on one of the blue chairs at a blue table, overlooking the blue Aegean, and allow the wind to kiss your sun warmed face. The joy of eating a Greek salad, with feta cheese and copious tomatoes, drenched in olive oil, while listening to the lapping waves on the beach, 20 feet from your table, is a joy worth remembering for a lifetime. And of course, the varieties of seafood offered hit the spot: you can’t help but consider this a perfect day. Like most tavernas on Crete, don’t expect to eat without making friends with the waiter or the owner, who usually feels compelled to come by and say hello and ask about ones’ trip and origins. Enjoy a dessert of watermelon, at owner’s insistence, the perfect refreshing sweet for a refreshing day. Share a drink or three of Raki, the Cretan “grappa” drink made from grape skins. It’s strong, so one must be moderate if driving. Sitting and watching the lights and colors change in the sky as the meal progresses, is a memory not soon forgotten.

A proud seaside taverna

Explore the village corners and shops where every angle and corner is a painting or photograph waiting to be made. Bright colors and flowers evoke the age of “Flower Power”, and you learn that Matala was and still is a hippie town. Perhaps this is contrary to the way you live most of your life, but here and now you can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be a carefree flower child. Someone tells you that John Lennon once camped out in the catacombs you visited at the start of the day; consider how the history of this place is so alive, and how it has been a place of peace and beauty since the dawn of antiquity. Let it amaze you. Buy a colorful t-shirt with a fun hippie print on it, a memory of the time that you let yourself be completely free. Perhaps grab another drink at one of the colorful bars in the town square. Leather goods and trinkets hang everywhere and saturate the sights on a village walk. Let yourself be tempted to try the ‘fish spa,’ where visitors place their feet in tanks of small fish that nibble away at your dead skin. Maybe succumb to the temptation. After all, if there was a place to try new things, to live to your absolute freest, well….you’ve come to the right place.

A perfectly framed Aegean sea beckons


By Katarina Kapetanakis