Thursday 22 August 2019

Spirit of the Sporades: A little-known Greek Island chain to beat the crowds

Lesser known than some of the more popular Greek archipelagos, the Sporades is ideal for carefree island hopping, says Fiona Webster

The Sporades archipelago. PA Photo/iStock.
The Sporades archipelago. PA Photo/iStock.
The Marpunta Resort in Alonnisos. PA Photo/John Athimaritis.
Fiona sailing the Sporades. PA Photo/Jonathan Williams.
The Skiathos Princess Hotel. PA Photo/John Athimaritis.
The Skiathos Princess. PA Photo/Christos Drazos.
Mrs Tassia making cheese pie at Tassia's, Alonnisos. PA Photo/Jonathan Williams.
Skiathos harbour. PA Photo/iStock.
Guests disembarking a sailing boat at Kyra Panagia island. PA Photo/Fiona Webster.

Fiona Webster

Sipping chilled rose by a sandy beach as clear blue water laps at your feet, it really doesn't get any better than this.

Sporades means 'scattered', and this understated archipelago does look that way; there are 24 lush green islands casually dotted in the Aegean Sea, with just four inhabited: Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonissos and Skyros.

More rugged and less well known than busier Greek archipelagos, it's retained an authentic character and isn't yet overrun by tourists. You can also fly direct to the main island of Skiathos and be at your resort in just 20 minutes. Not that I'm in a hurry - in Greece no one rushes and after supper by the sea just hours after landing, I feel the same.

Mamma Mia! This is why Meryl came here

The islands date back to Palaeolithic times, when settlers from Crete allegedly arrived in the 16th century BC, kindly bringing wine. The Romans came in 190 BC, and since then, visitors have included pirates from Turkey, exiles from Venice and, more recently, film crews - the movie Mamma Mia! starring Meryl Streep was filmed in Skiathos and Skopelos in 2007. You can see why they all came; the islands are stunning.

I decide to tread in Meryl's footsteps and head for Skiathos' Princess Resort where she stayed during filming.

Skiathos harbour. PA Photo/iStock.
Skiathos harbour. PA Photo/iStock.

The Princess is perfect for families, with a creche for children aged six-months to four-years-old, and a Kids' Club for four to 12 year olds. The resort is enclosed with its own private beach and is close to Skiathos town, where you can try the cafes at the pretty harbour and see the hillside church - both made famous in Mama Mia!

The Princess has activities for adults too, like swimming, diving, riding, dancing, cookery, yoga, Pilates and painting on the beach. Its 131 rooms, including 32 suites, are spacious and comfortable, with fridges, flat screen TVs and Wi-Fi. The family rooms on the ground floor have pools for private dips.

Breakfast is served 'til 11am, so there's no hurry to get up for the array of local fare on offer, and dishes cooked to order. For supper, you can eat in the oceanside restaurant, but we opt for the gazebos on the beach, where we dip our toes in the sea, then sit down at a candle-lit table laden with fresh giant prawns, salads and more local rose.

Discover every island is different

But don't just stop at Skiathos; the other islands are all different in character and well worth seeing.

We hop on a ferry (€11), which you can book in advance (letsferry.gr) or at Skiathos harbour. Ferries are more comfortable than you might remember if you ever backpacked, and now boast luxury lounges and cafes, making them more like a mini cruise than a mere journey.

The Skiathos Princess Hotel. PA Photo/John Athimaritis.
The Skiathos Princess Hotel. PA Photo/John Athimaritis.

Our vessel stops at different islands on the way, including Skopelos, where the hillside harbour is dotted with white-washed houses and terracotta roofs.

An hour-and-a-half after leaving Skiathos, we are docking in Alonnisos, a hilly island in the middle of a marine park. It measures just three miles by 12 and is lined with pine tree-lined cliffs, coves and beaches.

We're staying at the Marpunta Resort, part of the Santikos Collection, where the 104 rooms are actually little individual whitewashed houses set in the hillside to resemble a traditional Greek village.

The Marpunta's facilities include restaurants, bars and activities like scuba diving. My first visit is to the pool, where the morning aqua Zumba class looks a little too active for me. Opting for the beach, I am soon tempted into the water.

A hotel minibus runs into Skiathos old town. Here, narrow lanes of houses painted purple and pink lead to a hilltop bar, where we sip Greek beer and drink in the views of the island and the Aegean.

Dining combines traditional and modern

The food at both the Princess in Skiathos and Marpunta in Alonnisos is fabulous. Menus are made up of fresh local ingredients prepared by respected chefs and their teams.

Fiona sailing the Sporades. PA Photo/Jonathan Williams.
Fiona sailing the Sporades. PA Photo/Jonathan Williams.

Our supper starts with a crisp green salad with olive oil and feta cheese, then tzatziki, aubergine, crispy samphire, sun-dried tomatoes, sardines and taramasalata - all home-made. Next is calamari, slow-cooked octopus, chicken, pork scallops and prawns in a tomato sauce.

Drinks are equally tempting; we try Tsipouro - a clear spirit which comes in pure and anise flavour. Sample with care, because it's 42% proof!

There are several board options at The Marpunta, including one where you can eat out three times a week at restaurants participating in the property's scheme. We try Tassia's Cooking, run by glorious granny Mrs Tassia, famous for her scorpion fish and cheese pie. She proudly invites us into her kitchen, rolling up her sleeves to expertly batter the pastry with a rolling pin and letting us have a go, with far less success.

The best views are from a boat

It's worth seeing the islands on a boat tour, which the hotel can arrange for you. You can sail to uninhabited islands like the Adelfoi Islets (also known as the Two Brothers) to swim and enjoy nature for €25, including refreshments for half a day.

We try a full day boat trip €55 through the marine park and soon spot dolphins bobbing and diving alongside us, like a welcome flotilla. We land at Kyra Panagia island and trek up the hillside to a tiny monastery, where the two monks are making olive oil.

Back on board the Planitis boat, we sail to another island, where we drop anchor and several of us dive over the side to swim and lie back into the heavenly cool water, watching birds swooping overhead.

As we clamber back on board we are met with plates piled high with cold roast chicken, pizza, pasta salad and pineapple. The Planitis' friendly crew members, all Alonnisos locals, bring round beer and wine and tell us more about the Sporades, as they top up our glasses. This is why you come to this part of Greece - to relax and taste island life.

As we sail back to Alonnisos, a motorboat speeds by, with a monk in the back standing and waving. A surreal moment, but one that sums up the quirky character of this lovely archipelago.

How to get there

Olympic Holidays (olympicholidays.com) offers a 10-night island hopping holiday for £1,959/€2,148pp (based on two people travelling), including five nights at the Skiathos Princess Hotel, Skiathos (B&B), and five nights at the Marpunta Resort, Alonnisos (B&B). The package includes return flights from London Gatwick airport, transfers & baggage.

Read more:

20 Best Greek Islands: From Santorini to Sifnos with our ultimate travel guide

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