Sporades: the Greek islands best for hopping without the crowds

Greece experienced a record-breaking summer in 2023 – not for the extreme temperatures recorded in several parts of the country in July – but for the 32.7m visitors it received across the year and its best-ever summer. Visitor arrivals in the first eight months of the year were up by almost 20 per cent on the previous year.

It is one of only a handful of European countries that saw visitor numbers surpass pre-pandemic levels, with notable increases in tourist arrivals on the islands of Crete, Rhodes, Kos, Corfu and Zakynthos.

However, there was friction in places. The “beach towel revolt” saw locals protest against overtourism, reclaiming access to their beaches and nature on the island of Paros, Naxos, Rhodes, Crete, Aegina and on the mainland in Attica.

So where to go this year if you’re yearning for that irresistibly warm philoxenia, so unique to Greece, but want to escape the crowds? The beauty of the country is that you can go back time and again and find a different experience across the mainland and 200-plus islands – and there are still those quintessential champagne beaches and sapphire waters without the crowds of Santorini or Mykonos.

There are many folklore stories about kings, queens and gods whose epic battles end in the creation of a new place. The same can be said for the Sporades (meaning “scattered”), a collection of islands a few miles off the mainland, north of Athens.

Legend has it that two Titans fell out, hurled some rocks at each other, and a cluster of 24 islands was born. “It’s ironic that after such a violent encounter, one of the most peaceful places in the world was created,” local guide Michael Evans (and Mamma Mia! extra) told me during my stay.

Just four of the Sporades are inhabited: Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnisos and Skyros. More rugged and less Instagrammed than other islands, they have retained their authentic character and are not yet overrun by tourists, particularly outside of July and August. Skiathos, which has an international airport, is the busiest and most developed of the islands, but it’s easy to find quiet corners and to hop across to its tranquil neighbours.

Sporades Greece Image supplied by George Michalisles Greek National Tourist Board (GNTO) it@gnto.co.uk
Sporades, Greece, has pristine beaches

(Photo: George Michalisles/Greek National Tourist Board)

It is an island of thick pine forests and crystal-clear azure waters. In recent years it has become synonymous with Mamma Mia!. The opening scene, in which Amanda Seyfried sings “I have a dream”, pans across Skiathos Old Town’s red-tiled rooftops, Agios Nikolaos Church and the Clock Tower. Later, when Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth run to catch a boat, you see Skiathos’s old port, next to the picturesque peninsula of Bourtzi. (If you’re in the area, seek out Bourtzi Skiathos. The cocktail list is incredible and the truffle fries to die for.)

The town hugs a windless bay on the east coast and it’s a pleasure to dive into its maze of simple white houses splashed with bright bougainvillea petals. Despite retaining its classic Greek charm, it’s a cosmopolitan little town, with plenty of restaurants (both Greek and international cuisine), shops, cafes and bars. There’s also an abundant variety of different shrubs and flowers on display, from freesias and orchids to poppies, irises, lilies and more.

Influential novelist Alexandros Papadiamantis was born and lived here in the 19th century, and his house has been turned into a museum, showcasing an interesting collection of his belongings, folk art and work.

The Old Port on Skiathos island (Photo: Izzet Keribar/Getty/Stone RF/Izzet Keribar)

I stayed about 7km southwest of the town at the elegant, but family-friendly Skiathos Princess Resort. Each of the guest rooms has a balcony or veranda, with views of the gardens or the Bay of Agia Paraskevi. I ate like a queen at the two restaurants here – crisp green salad with olive oil and feta cheese, tzatziki, aubergine, crispy samphire, sun-dried tomatoes, sardines and taramasalata – all home-made.

Agia Paraskevi can get busy at weekends during summer, but with 60 beaches strung across Skiathos’s 45km of coastline, there are plenty more to choose from. The best way to do this is from the water. Angelos, a knowledgeable skipper from GR Boat Rental Skiathos, took me to hidden-away beaches only accessible by boat – Lalaria, Tsougria, Arko and Kastro. He also recommended Danny and Zoe’s Blind Dog, a great spot for live music back in town later that evening.

Next on my island-hopping adventure was Alonnisos, an hour’s boat ride from Skiathos (about £10 through letsferry.gr), bypassing the biggest of the Sporades, Skopelos.

Hilly Alonnisos is a jewel in the Sporades’s crown. Remains of a Neolithic settlement on the east coast reveal this to be one of the earliest inhabited islands in the Aegean, and it was from here that Jason sailed on the Argo to retrieve the golden fleece. However, today visitors will find the island quiet and laid-back.

Uninhabited islands cluster off the east and north coast, home to an abundance of marine life including dolphins and the Mediterranean monk seal, not only an endangered species but also one of the rarest animals in Europe, numbering only about 800.

Skiathos town, Skiathos island, Sporades, Greece in afternoon.
Skiathos town is one of the most popular destinations in the region
(Photo: mbbirdy/Getty/iStockphoto/Matjaz Boncina)

I stayed at the Marpunta Resort, a former fishermen’s village at the southern point of the island, an area that is cloaked with pine forest. Set high on a hill among cobblestone streets, guests can walk down to Patitiri beach and harbour and the Port of Alonissos in about 20 minutes. It is a beautiful setting, surrounded by pine trees, wildflowers and dramatic cliffs that’s ideal for relaxing in the sunshine to a soundtrack of cicadas.

In the evening, the east coast fishing village of Steni Vala is worth a visit, if only to experience Tassia’s Cooking, a waterside restaurant serving fresh shellfish and fish caught that day. Alonnisos was notably quieter than Skiathos. I came across more donkeys than English-speaking tourists as we wandered through sleepy villages and wild woodland.

Of all the Greek islands I’ve visited, this little scattering of rocks is the best tonic for overworked minds and tired bodies; a perfect lesson in taking it easy, and the sweetness of doing nothing.

Getting there

Skiathos is served by Jet2 and Tui Airways.

Staying there

Olympic Holidays offers packages in the Sporades from £1,997pp including flights from London and five nights’s B&B at the Princess Resort Skiathos and five nights’ half board at the Marpunta Resort on Alonnissos, olympicholidays.com, santikoscollection.com

More information

visitgreece.gr

alonnisostravel.gr