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.
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.
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.
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 (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.
The second largest of the Greek islands after Crete, ÉVVIA (Euboea) – separated only by a narrow gulf from central Greece – often feels more like an extension of the mainland than an entity in its own right. At Halkídha, the old drawbridge spans a mere 40m channel where Évvia was mythically split from Attica and Thessaly by a blow from Poseidon’s trident. Easy access from Athens means that in summer Évvia can seem merely a beach annexe for Athens and the mainland towns across the Gulf.
Nevertheless, Évvia is an island, often a very beautiful one, and in many ways its problems – long distances to cover, poor communications, few concessions to tourism – are also its greatest attractions, ensuring that it has remained out of the mainstream of tourism. Exceptionally fertile, Évvia has always been a quietly prosperous place that would manage pretty well even without visitors. The classical name, Euboea, means “rich in cattle”, and throughout history it has been much coveted. Today agriculture still thrives, with plenty of local goat and lamb on the menu, along with highly rated local retsina.
Évvia divides naturally into three sections, with just a single road connecting the northern and southern parts to the centre. The south is mountainous, barren and rocky; highlights are low-key Kárystos and hiking the nearby mountains and gorges. The centre, with the sprawling island capital at Halkídha, is green, wealthy and busy with both industry and agriculture, but for visitors mainly a gateway, with the bridges at Halkídha and onward transport to Skýros from the easterly port of Kými. In the north, grain fields, olive groves and pine forest are surrounded by the bulk of the island’s resorts, most dominated by Greek holiday homes.
So narrow that you sometimes spot the sea on both sides, mountainous southern Évvia is often barren, bleak and windswept. The single road from the north is winding and tortuous – most people who come here arrive by ferry, and though Greeks have holiday homes in numerous coastal spots there’s really just one attractive resort, at Kárystos.
Heading south by road you’ll pass what maps mark as Lake Dhýstos; these days it has been largely reclaimed as farmland, and there’s barely any water. Atop conical Kastrí hill on the east shore are sparse fifth-century BC ruins of ancient Dystos and a medieval citadel. At STÝRA, 35km from Lépoura, three dhrakóspita (“dragon houses”) are signposted and reachable by track. So named because only dragons were thought capable of installing the enormous masonry blocks, their origins and purpose remain obscure. The shore annexe of NÉA STÝRA, 3.5km downhill, is a dull, Greek-frequented resort, worth knowing about only for its handy ferry connection to Ayía Marína. Much the same is true of MARMÁRI, 20km south, except here the link is with Rafína. Both have plenty of food and accommodation should you be stuck waiting for a bus or ferry.
Leaving Halkídha to the north, the main road snakes steeply over a forested ridge, with spectacular views back over the city and the narrow strait, and then down through the Dhervéni Gorge, gateway to Évvia’s northwest.
Northern Évvia’s north and west coasts are home to most of the island’s resorts – none, however, that is particularly attractive or sees many foreign visitors. On the whole they consist of long, exposed pebble beaches, backed by scrappy hamlets of second homes and small hotels. Heading clockwise from Loutrá Edhipsoú, you come first to AYIÓKAMBOS, with regular ferry connections to Glýfa on the mainland. OREÍ and NÉOS PÝRGOS, next up, pretty much merge together into a single resort; the former with good restaurants around its harbour, the latter quieter, but with only a tiny beach. PÉFKI is another small, pleasant resort with extensive beaches either side. At Psaropoúli, steeply below the town of VASILIKÁ, there’s a vast, barely developed bay of grey sand and pebbles. PARALÍA AYÍA ÁNNA, by contrast, is a substantial resort on a couple of kilometres of brownish sand, with showers and loungers at the resort end, and plenty of empty space beyond. Finally, at the tiny hamlet of KRÝA VRÝSSI, there’s a lovely brown-sand beach with the ruins of ancient Kirinthos at its southern end.
Undulating green countryside, some fine rural monasteries and a labyrinthine old town notwithstanding, the real business of Skiáthos is beaches: by far the best, if also the most oversubscribed, in the Sporades. There are over fifty strands (plus a few more on satellite islets), most with fine, pale sand, though still barely enough room for the legions of visitors; Italians and Greeks in summer, Brits and Scandinavians in spring and autumn. The main road along the south and southeast coasts serves an almost unbroken line of villas, hotels, minimarkets and restaurants; although they’ve not impinged much on Skiáthos’s natural beauty, they make it difficult to find anything particularly Greek here. But by hiking or using a 4WD vehicle, you can find relative solitude, refreshing vistas and charming medieval monuments in the island’s north.
Although almost all the island’s beaches are sandy, some of them are very narrow. On the south coast every one will have loungers and at least one bar or taverna, often pumping out loud music; most have watersports too. If you want to get away from it all, the harder to reach sands on the north coast offer more chance of escape. These (listed clockwise from town) are our favourites:
An islet in the bay opposite Skiáthos Town, with excursion boats shuttling back and forth from the old port three or four times daily. A favourite of locals, it has two spectacular sand beaches, each with a taverna.
The prettiest of the beaches on the Kalamáki peninsula, fine-sand Vromólimnos is a bit of a walk from bus stop 13, and hence a little quieter than many south-coast sands – it still has several cafés from which to enjoy the sunset views, though, and a busy water-ski operation.
Huge stretch of sand – at the end of the bus route – which is arguably the island’s finest beach, and certainly one of its busiest. Wooden walkways traverse the sand to a series of kantínas, there’s a harbour for excursion boats and every imaginable form of watersport including snorkelling and diving with Skiathos Diving, one of the island’s best outfits (skiathosdiving.gr). Behind the beach a small salt lake, Strofyliá, sits in the midst of a grove of pine trees – all of it a protected reserve. There’s horseriding, too, in the forested dunes to the north, with Skiathos Riding Centre (skiathos-horse-riding.gr).
Reached by a short track over the headland from bus stop 26 at Koukounariés, Big Banana is announced before you arrive by the thumping bass tracks from three competing beach bars. It’s beautifully sandy but absolutely packed, with a young crowd and a clubbing atmosphere, plus ski boats, kayaks, pedaloes and more.
In the next cove beyond Big Banana, this beach is almost entirely nudist yet still thoroughly commercialized, with a café and loungers occupying almost every centimetre. Like its neighbour, it is named not for the appendages on display but for its perfect yellow crescent of sand.
About 600m from bus stop 25 in Koukounariés, Ayía Eléni is a stunning, broad, sandy beach looking west towards the mountainous mainland. It is bigger and more family-oriented than the neighbouring Banana beaches, with a couple of beach bars and pedaloes and kayaks to rent.
Dunes and a protected pine forest back Mandhráki, a sandy beach with views of Mount Pílio and an exceptionally friendly snack bar serving souvláki, salads and omelettes. One of the island’s least developed, it is accessed either by a walking path from bus stop 23 in Koukounariés, or a driveable track that follows the coast round past Ayía Eléni beach.
From Troúlos village, a side-road leads 3.5km north through a lush valley to Megálos Asélinos, a large and exposed beach of gritty sand. There’s a big taverna where many excursion boats stop for lunch, but it’s a lovely, unspoilt spot at the end of the day when they’ve all headed home.
A small cove set steeply below Kástro, Kástro can be very crowded in the middle of the day when the tour boats arrive, but is delightful early or late – though it loses the sun early. There’s a wonderfully ramshackle snack bar with a shower of cold river water.
Famous beach nestling near the northernmost point of Skiáthos, and only accessible by taxi- or excursion-boat from town. With steep cliffs rising behind a white-pebble shore and an artistic natural arch, it’s undeniably beautiful; three sea-grottoes just east rate a stop on most round-the-island trips.
SKÓPELOS is bigger and more rugged than Skiáthos and its concessions to tourism are lower-key and in better taste, despite a boom in recent years fuelled by the filming here of the Mamma Mia! film. Much of the countryside, especially the southwest coast, really is as spectacular as it appears in the film, with a series of pretty cove beaches backed by extensive pine forests as well as olive groves and orchards of plums (prunes are a local speciality), apricots, pears and almonds. Skópelos Town (Hóra) and Glóssa, the two main towns, are among the prettiest in the Sporades, their hillside houses distinguished by painted wooden trim and grey slate roofs.
SKÓPELOS TOWN (Hóra) pours off a hill on the west flank of a wide, oval bay: a cascade of handsome mansions and slate-domed churches below the ruined Venetian kástro. Away from the waterside commercial strip, the hóra is endearingly time-warped – indeed among the most unspoilt in the islands – with wonderfully idiosyncratic shops of a sort long-vanished elsewhere, and vernacular domestic architecture unadulterated with tasteless monstrosities.
Away from the main roads there’s plenty of walking on Skópelos. Long-time resident Heather Parsons battles to maintain paths and leads spring/autumn walks along what remains (skopelos-walks.com), as well as publishing a hiking guide, Skopelos Trails. Among the better walks are those east of Skópelos Town, where three historic monasteries, Metamórfosis, Evangelistrías and Prodhrómou (all open approx 8am–1pm & 5–8pm daily), stand on the slopes of Mount Paloúki. Near Glóssa there’s a beautiful 45-minute trail to the renovated village of Palió Klíma, via the island’s oldest settlement, Athéato (Mahalás), slowly being restored by outsiders, and the foreigner-owned hamlet of Áyii Anáryiri.
Despite its natural beauty, SKÝROS has a relatively low profile. There are few major sites or resorts, and access, wherever you’re coming from, is awkward. Those in the know, however, realise it’s worth the effort, and there are increasing numbers of trendy Athenians and Thessalonians taking advantage of domestic flights – and making Skýros Town a much more cosmopolitan place than you might expect – plus steadily growing international tourism. The New Age Skyros Centre, pitched mostly at Brits, has also effectively publicized the place. There are plenty of beaches, but few that can rival the sand of Skiáthos or film-set scenery of Skópelos. There’s also a substantial air-force presence around the airport in the north, and a big naval base in the south; almost all the accommodation and tourist facilities cluster around Skýros Town in the centre of the island.
A position bang in the centre of the Aegean has guaranteed the island a busy history: it was occupied from prehistory, with a truly impressive Bronze Age settlement currently being excavated, was a vital Athenian outpost in the Classical era, and an equally important naval base for the Byzantines and under Venetian and Turkish rule, when it was an important staging post on the sea-lanes to Constantinople.
Skýros has a particularly outrageous apokriátika (pre-Lenten) carnival, featuring its famous goat dance, performed by groups of masked revellers in the streets of Hóra. The leaders of each troupe are the yéri, menacing figures (usually men but sometimes sturdy women) dressed in goat-pelt capes, weighed down by huge garlands of sheep bells, their faces concealed by kid-skin masks, and brandishing shepherds’ crooks. Accompanying them are their “brides”, men in drag known as korélles (maidens), and frángi (maskers in assorted “Western” garb). When two such groups meet, the yéri compete to see who can ring their bells longest and loudest with arduous body movements, or even get into brawls using their crooks as cudgels.
These rites take place on each of the four weekends before Clean Monday, but the final one is more for the benefit of tourists, both Greek and foreign. The Skyrians are less exhausted and really let their (goat) hair down for each other during the preceding three weeks. Most local hotels open for the duration, and you have to book rooms well in advance.
Skýros has a race of native pony, related to the breeds found on Exmoor and Dartmoor. They are thought to be the diminutive steeds depicted in the Parthenon frieze; according to legend, Achilles went off to fight at Troy mounted on a chestnut specimen. In more recent times they were used for summer threshing; communally owned, they were left to graze wild ten months of the year on Vounó, from where each family rounded up the ponies they needed. Currently only about 150 individuals survive, and the breed is threatened by the decline of local agriculture, indifference and cross-breeding. To be classed as a true Skyrian pony, the animal must be 98–115cm in height, and 130cm maximum from shoulder to tail. They’re elusive in the wild, but you can see (and ride) them at the centre opposite Mouries restaurant.