Island hopping and tortoise spotting in the Sporades

October 9, 2009

The Sporades, an archipelago off the east coast of mainland Greece, caught my attention this year. A ‘so bad it’s good’ film has put the spotlight on Skopelos, a tiny pinprick in the Aegean with pine-clad vertiginous peaks that’s about as green as the Greek islands get. Luckily the terrain has deterred the Greeks from building an airport here, and after a white knuckle landing at Skiathos (the runway, flanked by the sea at both ends, is the shortest I’ve ever seen!) and a speedy hop by ‘flying cat’, we’re in peaceful Skopelos.

The stunning view of Skopelos from our villa

Travelling in late September means that the temperatures are in the mid twenties, ideal for walking and snorkelling. Our villa – booked through my client Greek Islands Club – is perfect: nestled on its own on a hill, it faces west and overlooks the amphitheatrically-built Skopelos town and harbour – the views and sunsets mesmerising. It’s not long before we settle into island life buying Barbouni (red mullet) straight off the boats in the morning for dinner, before tackling the island’s hilly trails. My keen birdwatcher partner is in heaven when he spots bee eaters, Bonelli’s eagles, Eleonora’s falcons and wind chats. We hit the picturesque beaches in the afternoon – a favourite was Limonari, just far enough from the town that it wasn’t too busy with some good snorkelling and a nice taverna serving hearty Greek dishes.

Before long, we’re off to Alonissos which offers an altogether wilder and more remote experience, with its crystal clear waters, heather-clad hills and beautiful rugged bays with very few people. It’s just as lush here as Skopelos and the walks are impressive – overwhelming wafts of thyme and heather; fig, mulberry, pine and almond trees aplenty and an excellent guide in Chris Browne who knows the island inside out. This time, we’re lucky enough to stay right on the beach at the charming Fisherman’s Cottage with its wonderful views of Peristera, an uninhabited island well worth exploring by boat if you like secluded beaches all to yourself. The nearby idyllic fishing villages of Steni Vala and Kalamakia satisfied our yearnings for fresh fish.

One of the cats on Alonissos drops by to say hi

Alonissos is home to Greece’s only National Marine Park primarily set up to protect Europe’s largest colony of one of the most endangered mammals in the world, the Mediterranean Monk Seal. Day trips into the park by boat are possible, although don’t expect to see any seals! Dolphins are more common though, and after pausing at the renowned ‘blue cave’, the boat stops at a charming monastery with a solitary working monk. One of our more unusual spots here – the monk, his cassock covered in dust, was working a cement mixer when we arrived! On our last day we discover an ancient resident – a great big wild tortoise plucked out of the undergrowth for inspection by my partner. An Alonissos veteran, it would seem that she sets the pace on this sleepy, beguiling island. Sarah Belcher

An ancient resident of Alonissos slows us up