The smallest of the Sporades islands offers relaxation along with inspiration
By Haris Argyropoulos
Skiathos, the westernmost and smallest of the Sporades island group, off the coast of the Pilio peninsula in central Greece, is best known for its contribution to modern Greek letters, notably by Alexandros Papadiamantis — the austere and influential 19th-century writer in whose novels it figured prominently. Papadiamantis provided lyrical and lucid portraits of the island’s harsh country life, marked by an inclination toward religious tradition but also deep psychological insight.
His descriptions of rural life no doubt helped put this pine-clad island of 48 square kilometers on the tourist map decades later, attracting large numbers of Greek and foreign visitors, who now conjure a much happier picture. Its trendy image has largely worn off in recent decades — possibly receiving a boost since the filming there of scenes for “Mamma Mia!” a few years ago. But Skiathos is sure not to lose its diehard fans, who belong to all age groups, attracted by the pine forest that touches the water, the golden sandy beaches as well as the cosmopolitan and youthful atmosphere that are all strongly reminiscent of the Saronic island of Spetses.
On both islands, the old harbor area is the hot spot. At the port entrance, a promontory with ruins of an old fort and neoclassical school buildings mark the landscape. Like Spetses, the houses spreading over the rolling hills create a scenic picture and the coastal road leads to the old shipyards which provided the basis for the growth of the island’s large merchant fleet starting in the 18th century. Skiathos, too, made a valiant contribution at sea to the War of Independence in the 1820s and continued to prosper until the arrival of the steam ships.
The organized beaches and the upmarket hotels are mainly found along the forested southern coast. The highlight is Koukounaries — also known as “Chryssi Ammos” (Golden Sand), for good reason — which was voted one of Greece’s five best beaches last year. The thick pine forest which surrounds it, shadowing the water in places, adds to a rare turquoise color, while the adjacent Strofilia lagoon is an important and protected wetland that provides sanctuary to many rare species of avifauna.
On the eastern side of Koukounaries are two beaches, Banana — which is nudist-friendly — and Aghia Eleni. On the northern side you will find the exotic and less crowded Mandraki (or Xerxes’ harbor, as the Persian king’s fleet is said to have anchored here on its way to face the Athenians), with its huge sand dunes, and even further, the isolated beach of Elia. Lalaria, accessed only from the sea, is the best beach on the untrodden and mystic northern side, next to Kastro — a fort perched on the steep rocks in a breathtaking landscape. Built in the 15th century for fear of pirates, the enclosure now features a restored traditional house, small chapels and a few ruins.
Behind the old harbor in the main village is the old town: narrow alleys, no cars, low windows, bougainvilleas, open doors and courtyards, two-story houses with internal stairways. The smeel of foodcooking wafts out while grannies sit on the stairs watching children play.
Bourtzi, the small promontory with the ruined fort that separates the old from the new harbor, is an ideal place for a walk. The breeze and the trees make it one of the coolest places on the island. There is a cafe and a small open-air theater.
Skiathos, thought to derive its name from the Greek word for shade (“skia”), has its highest summit at 438 meters and several gulleys and springs. Below the summit known as Karaflitzanakia, 5 km from town via winding forest roads, is the old historic Monastery of Evangelistria — one of the island’s loveliest spots.
How to get there
Athens Airways flies to Skiathos from Athens (tel 801.801.4000, http://www.athensairways.com). Ηigh-speed boats run from Aghios Constantinos (150 kilometers from Athens on the highway to Thessaloniki) and the journey takes 90 minutes (tel 22350.31759). There are also connections from Volos (high-speed one hour 25 minutes, ferry two hours 15 minutes, tel 24210.38888). Operators: Hellas Speed Cat, tel 210.496.6377; Hellenic Seaways, 210.419.9000. There are bus connections to most beaches as well as car and moped hire facilities.
Where to stay
Area phone code: 24270. Skiathos Palace (tel 49700, http://www.skiathos-palace.gr), an old, established hotel in Koukounaries with some of the best views on the island; Esperides (tel 22245, http://www.esperidesbeach.gr), historic hotel in Achladies Bay, big pool; Skiathos Princess Hotel (tel 49731, http://www.santikoshotels.com), five-star; La Piscine Art Hotel (tel 21350), in the center but quiet; Orsa (tel 21376), old family home with good views; Marousso guesthouse (tel 21568), traditional style near the center; Skiathos Sunset Villas (tel 24006), for up to eight people.
Where to eat
Bakaliko: on the beach toward the airport, family taverna with traditional cuisine, old grocery decor; Amfilyki: excellent cuisine, especially fish and seafood, opposite the health center, sunset views; Agnantio: on the way to Evengelistria Monastery, traditional homemade dishes, popular with VIPs; Anemomylos: guide books rate it as the best gourmet restaurant on Skiathos, on a hill above town; 1901: in a restored old mansion, serves traditional and imaginative modern dishes; Psaradika: at the end of the old harbor.
What to see, do & buy
The Musical Instruments Museum exhibits 500 of 1,600 pieces collected from all over the world; the Papadiamantis Museum is housed in the building where the writer was born; Diolettas (tel 49469), boat rental and watersports; Heliotropio (tel 22430), jeep safari; Dophin Diving Center (tel 22520); horseback riding and painting lessons holidays (tel 49548, http://www.yvonne-ayoub.com); buy Alypiakos wine, olive oil and spirits from Evangelistria Monastery; visit the women’s cooperative shop at the port for their made-to-order traditional loom products.