Beyond Mamma Mia!: A Pocket Guide to the Sporades Islands, Greece
Skip Santorini and fun-loving Mykonos in favour of a slow-living escape in Greece’s Sporades islands. Movie buffs might recognise the archipelago from hit musical Mamma Mia!, but we’re here to guide you to the rustic-luxe hotels, quaint tavernas and the beaches loved by locals.
26 August, 2020
When you think of the Greek islands, the dramatic volcanic landscapes of Santorini or Mykonos's wild party scene might be the first things to spring to mind. For a rather different island experience, head north to discover the Sporades islands, where pine forests and secluded coves (along with the occasional monk seal) provide the backdrop for a slow-living experience.
Getting a sense of déjà vu? The lush landscapes of the Sporades (officially the Northern Sporades) might well look familiar - many of the outdoor scenes in the hit musical movie Mamma Mia! were filmed here, including at Kastani Beach on Skopelos and the Old Port of Skiathos. Yet the beauty of the archipelago doesn't stop there: Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonissos and Skyros are decorated with pristine coastlines and fragrant pine forests, though each has its own distinctive charm too.
The only member of the island group to have an international airport, Skiathos may well be the beginning of your island-hopping odyssey. Beyond its transport credentials, Skiathos draws visitors with more than 60 glorious beaches (including the golden sands of Koukounaries), nearly 200km of hiking trails and the lively nightlife of Skiathos Town.
How to get there: Skiathos Alexandros Papadiamantis Airport receives year-round flights from Athens, as well as flights from Thessaloniki and other European destinations during the summer season. Pro tip: the runway at Skiathos is very short, so be prepared for a sharp landing. Ferries and high-speed boats run from Volos and Agios Konstantinos on the mainland (often continuing on to Skopelos and Alonissos), along with Thessaloniki during the summer (these routes are subject to change, however).
Stay: Try La Piscine Art Hotel for easy access to Skiathos Town or Elivi Skiathos for a luxurious stay close to Koukounaries.
Eat: Dine at Marmita in Skiathos Town or Under the Pine Tree behind Koukounaries. Agnadio, on the road towards the Evangelistria Monastery, serves some of the finest Greek food on the island.
Drink: Head to Danny and Zoe's Blind Dog in Skiathos Town for live music or La Bussola for chilled vibes after a day at Koukounaries.
Do: Hike from town to the Evangelistria Monastery or the Kastro, the ancient fortified capital of Skiathos. Anyone wanting a history fix will also enjoy exploring the remains of the Venetian Bourtzi fortress, while the house-museum dedicated to celebrated author Alexandros Papadiamantis offers an introduction to one of the island's most famous residents and a Greek literary great.
Best beaches: Koukounaries Beach, backed by lush pine forest and wetlands; idyllic Lalaria Beach with its impressive rock formations, accessible only by boat from Skiathos town; and Big Banana for a party atmosphere and watersports.
If you thought Skiathos was green, wait until you see Skopelos. More than 50 per cent of the island, set to the east of Skiathos, is covered by virgin pine forest, while olives, plums, almonds and honey are all cultivated here. Charming Skopelos Town is packed with characterful tavernas and bar options, while the island's 70km of coastline hosts tree-lined pebble, shingle and sandy beaches.
How to get there: Ferries and high-speed boats run from Volos and Agios Konstantinos on the mainland and Skiathos, along with Thessaloniki during the summer.
Stay: Natura Boutique Luxury Hotel for an idyllic escape near the quaint Loutraki harbour or Aperanto Galazio for panoramic views and rustic design, perched above Skopelos Town.
Eat: Head to To Rodi in Skopelos Town to experience Greek cuisine in a flower-adorned courtyard or savour the catch of the day at Flisvos in Loutraki.
Drink: Mercurius in Skopelos Town serves the best cocktails on the island, while Vrachos is in a class of its own when it comes to views over the town.
Do: Explore the labyrinthine streets of Skopelos Town and admire the traditional houses in the hillside village of Glossa towards the island's northern tip. Hike the well-marked trails up Mount Palouki, stopping to admire the monasteries and small churches on the way, or make the climb up to the Agios Ioannis chapel - standing majestically 100m above the water - where the wedding scene in Mamma Mia! was filmed.
Best beaches: The longest beach on the island, Milia's stretch of sand and pebbles is also regarded as the most beautiful. Film fans, though, will undoubtedly want to visit the pine-backed Kastani Beach of Mamma Mia! fame.
A living embodiment of the widely held truth that good things come in small packages, Alonissos may be just 14km long and 4km wide but compels with its secluded coves, hilltop Old Town (or Chora) and awe-inspiring marine life. Along with six smaller surrounding islets, the island forms part of the National Marine Park of Alonissos - home to the rare Mediterranean monk seal. The first marine park established in Greece and currently the largest in Europe, it is also a haven for divers thanks not least to the 2020 opening of the site of an ancient shipwreck off the islet of Peristera, dating back to around 425 BCE.
How to get there: Ferries and high-speed boats link the island with Volos and Agios Konstantinos on the mainland and Skiathos, along with Thessaloniki during the summer.
Stay: Find your Zen with minimalist design and breathtaking island views at Althea Armonia Suites in the Old Town or go green at the Ikion Eco Boutique Hotel a short walk from Rousoum Gialos Beach and the port of Patitiri.
Eat: You can't beat dinner under the vines and the warm welcome at Taverna Astrofegia in the Old Town or taking in the hustle and bustle of the village (along with bouzouki playing by owner Nectarios) from one of the street tables at Kastro. Enjoy refined takes on Mediterranean cuisine and stellar views at Thea (also in the Old Town) or linger over freshly baked pies and innovative salads at chic taverna and beach bar Eleonas (Leftos Gialos Beach).
Drink: Though nightlife in Alonissos is generally low key, late-night drinks at the Drunk Seal in Patitiri are always a good time. In the Old Town, check out live Greek music at Hayati or cocktails in the courtyard at Piperi.
Do: Walk the traditional old donkey path from Patitiri to Alonissos's Old Town and visit the fishing villages of Steni Vala and Kalamakia for a true taste of slow island life.
Best beaches: Anyone in search of sand and shallow waters will want to head to Chrisi Milia Beach, while the horseshoe-shaped Agios Dimitrios Beach towards the island's north is considered by many to be Alonissos's most beautiful. Charming Megalos Mourtias is easily accessible from the Old Town and backed by a duo of excellent tavernas, while the pristine white stones of Leftos Gialos and adjacent Eleonas beach bar offer a stylish but relaxed beach vibe.
The somewhat estranged brother of this island family, Skyros is the southernmost (and largest) of the group. Less developed than the others, the island's northern half has the familiar pine forests common to its siblings, while the southern half offers a wild and slightly severe beauty in its rocky and relatively barren landscape. Visitors are spellbound by the sugar-cube-esque white, flat-roofed houses of the Chora, but families with children will be particularly delighted by both the golden sandy beaches and the chance to spot the local miniature Skyrian horses, reminiscent of Shetland ponies.
How to get there: Flights run to Skyros from Athens and Thessaloniki, along with ferries from Kymi on the island of Evia.
Stay: Combine proximity to Magazia Beach with whitewashed architecture and colourful gardens at Perigiali or opt for exceptional self-catering accommodation at Anemonisia Deluxe Apartments.
Eat: Sample fresh seafood at Istories Tou Barba at Magazia Beach or Asimenos by Aspous Beach, but leave room to try the thin ladopita pie with local cheese at Mouries, not far from Kalamitsa Beach.
Drink: Start your evening with waterside cocktails at Ammoudia on Molos Beach or take in the views at Kavos Lounge Café, set on the steep cliff overlooking the island's port.
Do: Visit the resident herds at the Skyros Island Horse Trust or Mouries Farm before delving into local folklore at the Faltaits Museum. To go even further back in time, make a beeline for the Byzantine castle or the archaeological site at the bronze-age city of Palamari or, to experience a piece of living heritage, plan your visit ahead of Easter to attend the vibrant pre-Lenten Skyros Carnival. Wellness seekers will love Skyros Centre, which offers yoga, art and writing retreats.
Best beaches: The most popular beaches on Skyros are the sandy stretches of Magazia and Molos, while Agios Petros, a shingle beach backed by cedar trees and sand dunes, offers a more tranquil escape.