Skopelos, Skiathos, Alonnisos - The Sporades Islands in Greece

Three of the most beautiful, verdant islands in Greece - Skopelos, Skiathos, and Alonnisos - are easily accessible from Athens, Volos, or Thessaloniki.

All three islands, Skiathos, Skopelos and Alonnisos, are mountainous and craggy, covered in pines and olive groves and cypress (this means shade!), and feature some of the finest beaches in Greece. This entire area of the Aegean once had a terrible problem with pirates, but today the islands are set upon by tourists, at least in high-season, and unless you have an advance booking you’ll probably sleep on the beach.

Skiathos and Koukounaries, the "best beach" in Greece

Skiathos got a jump on the others with the package tour business from the U.K., in the early 80s. It is also fortunate enough to have its own airport, a short distance from town. The town is active and loud in the summer, especially by the sea, where all the ticket shops for ferries and hydrofoils are located. I remember when it was calmer, but those days are long gone. The construction of tourist accommodation was, at one point, positively manic and it has done the town no favors, frankly. But a blistering night-life was developed in Skiathos, too.

That said, it is a beautiful island, green, dotted with monasteries and a beautiful old castle, first Byzantine, then Venetian, on the northern end, which makes for an excellent hike (figure on about 3 hours).

But what made the northern Europeans come in the first place was soaking up the sun on fine, even exquisite, beaches. They are scattered all around the island: Lalaria, in the north; Megalos Aselinos in the west, and in the south, the nuggets – Troulos, Tzaneria, Vromolimnos, the famous Banana, and the unbelievable Koukounaries. Remember that in Greece you are quite likely to find naked people sharing the beach with you. There are plenty of ‘family’ beaches, so if that is your preference, just ask in town.

Skopelos: Plums and the Sendoukia graves

This was my island. I lived here for a year. I think it’s the most beautiful island in Greece, or at least in the top ranks. It is filled the plum trees, olive groves, pines, monasteries, donkeys, and it's rugged and rolling and peaceful.

You arrive by boat, which chugs into the harbor with horn blowing, then pulls a 180-degree swivel, and backs right into the pier. As the cars drive off, look up, and in front of you is a multi-tiered town of whitewashed dwellings, slate roofs, stone lanes and winding stairs, all of which wiggle through the town until reaching the top. On Skopelos you don’t have to hike to the castle, it is situated right there on the northern side, elevated, overlooking the sea and the quay, which is lined with cafenions and bars and awning-covered tavernas.

Skopelos, too, is dotted with churches and monasteries, some of which you can visit and enter. And never was I as happy as when I loaded up my backpack with oranges, water, camera and notebook, and took off into the hills for a day of wandering. The really interesting monasteries are on the east side of the bay: Prodhromou, Evangelistrias, and Metamorfosis. All three can be visited.

And of course the famous Sendoukia tombs can be seen, walking northwest out of town; they are dug right out of the island’s rock, and sitting next to them you’ll see the lid, also from the rock. Nobody is sure who occupied them. I have heard Neolithic-era settlers, Minoan-era colonists, and early Christians. Who knows.

Or you can follow the goat trails down to the western side of the island, around Panormos bay or the ever serene Agnondas, which is an alternative docking harbor during gales, and has fantastic fish tavernas sitting right on the water. This is also the side of the island (the "long side") where the best beaches are located. I was always partial to a gorgeous little cove called Milia. But closer to the town road is the popular Stafylos beach and Valanio.

Skopelos is not as noisy as Skiathos in the summer, though there are always discos and dancing places popping up. Still, it’s crowded in August, so beware. If it gets too much, head up the coast thirty miles to Glossa, perched on the cliffs overlooking the Aegean; it is the first stop for ferries coming over from Skiathos.

Alonnisos: Monk seals and quiet

Alonnisos was not a swinging island when I lived next door, and it isn’t now. At least there is a road traversing the length of the island these days. But it’s green and shady and the water is very clean and beautiful.

The original town, Hora, was at the top of the hill from where the boats dock now. But a severe earthquake struck the town in 1965, and everybody moved to what is now called Patitiri, the harbor town. It’s not very pretty. But the people are great and the island is, as mentioned, quite a few notches down in mania and noise as compared to Skiathos or Skopelos in August.

Alonnisos, along with some of the neighboring little islands (Peristera and Peperi) are inhabited by the elusive monk seal, an endangered species that you’ll probably never see. But they’re out there, and the Greeks have been trying for years to aid them in their revival.

Alonnisos does not have the beaches that the others boast of. Sand beaches, anyway. But who cares! The rocky coves are fine. Put on some sandals and go. It’s a lovely place to take a nap in the afternoon, under a shady pine while the limp tide makes almost imperceptible sounds on the smooth stones as it washes the shore.

Sporades: How, when, where

If you look on a map of Greece, find Athens, then run your finger north, in a straight line, and it will hit Skopelos. These are the Sporades Islands. You will notice a large bay due west from Skiathos. At the top of it is Volos. And finally, looking north again, you will see three "fingers" sticking out into the sea from the mainland; that is the Halkidiki, and tucked into a bay above the western most ‘finger’ is Thessaloniki.

You can get to Skiathos or Skopelos from all three place. Coming up from Athens you would get off at Agios Konstantinos, and grab a boat or hydrofoil from there. Thessaloniki (or Salonika) has the fewest connections.

And the best time to visit is after September 15th. The water is still wonderful and warm, and the tourists facilities will mostly be up until mid-October. Alternatively, anytime from late April through end of June. The sea will still be pretty cold, but the wild flowers will be bursting out of the hills, the days will be warm, and the Greeks will be in good spirits after a long break from the madding crowds of the previous summer. Enjoy.