The Sporades lie close off Greece’s eastern coast, their hilly terrain betraying their status as extensions of Mount Pílio, right opposite on the mainland. The three northern islands, Skiáthos, Skópelos and Alónissos, are archetypal Aegean holiday venues, with wonderful beaches, lush vegetation and transparent sea; they’re all packed out in midsummer and close down almost entirely from October to April. Skýros, the fourth inhabited member of the group, lies well southeast, and is much more closely connected – both physically and historically – to Évvia than to its fellow Sporades. These two have less obvious attractions, and far fewer visitors.
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Skiáthos, thanks to its international airport and extraordinary number of sandy beaches, is the busiest of the islands, though Skópelos, with its Mamma Mia! connections, extensive pine forests and idyllic pebble bays, is catching up fast. Alónissos, much quieter, more remote and less developed, lies at the heart of a National Marine Park, attracting more nature-lovers than night owls. Traditional Skýros sees fewer foreign visitors, partly because it’s much harder to reach, though plenty of domestic tourism means no shortage of facilities. Between Skýros and the mainland, Évvia (classical Euboea) extends for nearly 200km alongside central Greece. Although in spots one of the most dramatic of Greek islands, with forested mountains and rugged stretches of little-developed coast, its sheer size and proximity to the mainland means that it rarely has much of an island feel; mainlanders have holiday homes around numerous seaside resorts, but foreigners are very thin on the ground.
An indented coastline full of bays and coves to moor in, relatively steady winds and the clear waters of the National Marine Park, also make the northern Sporades, rightly, a magnet for yacht flotillas and charters. Many companies have bases in Skiáthos, in particular.
ALÓNISSOS is the largest and only permanently inhabited member of a mini-archipelago at the east end of the Sporades. It’s more rugged and wild than its neighbours, but no less green; pine forest, olive groves and fruit orchards cover the southern half, while a dense maquis of arbutus, heather, kermes oak and lentisc cloaks the north. In part thanks to its marine park status , some of Greece’s cleanest sea surrounds Alónissos – the beaches rarely match those of Skópelos or Skiáthos for sand or scenery, but the white pebbles on most of them further enhance the impression of gin-clear water. Remoteness and limited ferry connections mean that Alónissos attracts fewer visitors than its neighbours. There is, however, a significant British and Italian presence (the latter mostly in all-inclusive hotels), while Greeks descend in force all summer.
The National Marine Park of Alónissos-Northern Sporades
Founded in 1992, the National Marine Park protects monk seals, dolphins, wild goats and rare seabirds in an area encompassing Alónissos plus a dozen islets speckling the Aegean to the east. None of these (save one) has any permanent population, but a few can be visited by excursion boats, weather permitting. Pipéri islet forms the core zone of the park – an off-limits seabird and monk-seal refuge, approachable only by government-authorized scientists. Peristéra, opposite Alónissos, is uninhabited, though some Alonissans cross to tend olive groves in the south; it’s little visited by excursion craft except for a brief swim-stop at the end of a cruise. Well-watered Kyrá Panayiá, the next islet out, has a tenth-century monastery whose old bakery and wine/olive presses, restored in the 1990s, are maintained by one farmer-monk. Nearby Yioúra has a stalactite cave which mythically sheltered Homer’s Cyclops, plus the main wild-goat population, but you won’t see either as kaïkia must keep 400m clear of the shore. Tiny, northernmost Psathoúra is dominated by its powerful lighthouse, the tallest in the Aegean; some excursions stop for a swim at a pristine, white-sand beach.
Hiking on Alónissos
Although its often harsh, rugged landscape might suggest otherwise, of all the Sporades Alónissos caters best to hikers. Fifteen routes have been surveyed, numbered and admirably signposted: many provide just short walks from a beach to a village or the main road, but some can be combined to make meaty circular treks. The best of these are trail #11 from Áyios Dhimítrios, up the Kastanórema and then back along the coast on #15 (2hr 30min), or trails #13 plus #12, Melegákia to Áyios Konstandínos and Áyios Yeóryios (just over 2hr, including some road-walking to return to start). Island resident Chris Browne’s comprehensive walking guide, Alonnisos Through the Souls of Your Feet, is available locally; he also leads guided treks (alonnisoswalks.co.uk).
The Mediterranean monk seal
The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) has the dubious distinction of being the most endangered European mammal – fewer than 600 survive, almost half of them here, the rest elsewhere in the Aegean or around islands off the coast of West Africa.
Females have one pup about every two years, which can live for 45 years, attaining 2m in length and over 200kg as adults. Formerly pups were reared in the open, but disturbance by man led to whelping seals retreating to isolated sea caves with partly submerged entrances. Without spending weeks on a local boat, your chances of seeing a seal are slim (marine-park cruises are far more likely to spot dolphins); if seals are spotted (usually dozing on the shore or swimming in the open sea), keep a deferential distance.
Monk seals can swim 200km a day in search of food – and compete with fishermen in the overfished Aegean, often destroying nets. Until recently fishermen routinely killed seals; this occasionally still happens, but the establishment of the National Marine Park of Alónissos-Northern Sporades has helped by banning September–November fishing northeast of Alónissos and prohibiting it altogether within 1.5 nautical miles of Pipéri. These measures have won local support through the efforts of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Monk Seal (mom.gr; see Patitíri and around), even among Sporadean fishermen, who realize that the restrictions should help restore local fish stocks. The society has reared several abandoned seal pups (bad weather often separates them from their mothers), subsequently released in the sea around Alónissos.