The largest of Greece’s Sporades, this charming island packs a punch. Andrew Barker is won over by its lush hills and dazzling diving.
“Shall we go to the Mamma Mia! chapel?” I asked the group as the yoghurt and fruit salad went around the outdoor breakfast table. As if on cue, my three friends looked out across the Aegean to neighbouring Alonissos, up at the cloudless sky then down at the pool: “Naaaah” they sang in unison.
It wasn’t that we didn’t want to sprint up the 300-odd steps of the Agios Ionnis chapel à la Meryl Streep (the 2008 film adaptation of the Abba musical was filmed on the island). We just didn’t fancy the hour-long drive in 30-degree heat when there was sun-lounging, eating and boat-tripping to be done.
Skopelos is the largest island in the Sporades, an hour’s ferry-ride from neighbouring Skiathos which has the only airport of the three. The first recorded mentions of the island were in 1600 BC, when Thecyludus wrote of the island’s first ruler, the demigod Staphylos, son of Dionysus (god of wine) and princess Ariadne of Crete.
Speaking of wine, Skopelos town has so many bars and restaurants you need to know what you’re doing. Fortunately, we’d flown in for the wedding of a couple with 25 years’ experience of the island, which they’d shared with us — for drinks The Blue Bar, shoe-horned into an alleyway smack in the middle of town; for a calamari pitstop, Gorgones; for a peace-and-quiet plate of lamb kleftiko, Perivolos.
But our favourite was Anatolia, for the journey as much as the destination. To reach it you head to the end of the harbour and climb the steep staircase through the town where no two houses are the same but have much in common — a patio here, a balcony there, a pergola swathed in jasmine, pots of bougainvillea. All are whitewashed with shades of duck egg blue on the doors and shutters. There are no cars because the streets are too uneven and too narrow.
The restaurant itself is al fresco and at the highest point around. From your table you can see all of Skopelos town tumbling down the hillside as the moon is reflected in the lapping waves. Every so often the ouzo-fuelled band breaks into a traditional, folkloric mash-up. Food is simple and good — fried sardines, grilled sea bream, tzatziki. Service is slow but who gives a fig when you’re eating under the stars, with the sea breeze on your face?
Unlike many Greek islands in the Aegean, the hills are lush and rolling, with fragrant pines and wafting oregano, seasoning every car journey. A car is a must – the best beaches are between 15 and 60 minutes from town — and the winding roads which hug the clifftops and carve their way through time-warp pastoral towns have a surprise around every corner; from tinkling herds of billygoats to side-of-the-road merchants hawking huge red tomatoes, wild oregano, mint and dill, and local black olives and honey.
Skopelos still plays host to those dedicated family-run purveyors of baked bread, fish, meat and vegetables and an early morning trip to stock up for the evening ahead is well worth one less hour in bed. For everything else (gin, tonic, more gin) there are a couple of supermarkets, including a Carrefour.
Our villa was in Rachas, high in the hills above Skopelos town, looming over the main harbour where the ferries and hydrofoils dock. A tiled terrace wrapped around the property allowing for shade or sunshine from breakfast until sundowners, and we would dot the dining table about accordingly.
The outdoor kitchen was in use even more than the indoor one, and every evening we divided up the roles between us — from garlic chopper to firewood collector, fire starter to salad spinner. The villa had one master bedroom at the top with yet another terrace and a separate annexe with a spare room for our guests.
To rent a boat we headed in the direction of Panormos pebble beach. In the front garden of the Narkissos hotel, we paid €130 for a 15-horse-power boat — anything above that and we’d need a captain or a licence.
We followed the boatman on his scooter to a small, still bay where some sailing yachts had stopped for the night. Tied to a pier we found our ride. As we powered through the waves we headed for some nearby uninhabited islands whose shores were reachable with a short swim.
From there we could scramble up the blanched rocks and dive back into the deep blue water. We came prepared — a cooler of Mythos, the local beer —Tupperwares of homemade Greek salad, slabs of grilled halloumi from the barbecue the night before and a fresh loaf of bread.
Charging around the islands in the boat we noticed a PADI flag and the two of us with an open water diving licence thought “why not?” The dive centre was a wooden hut on nearby Adrina beach, where we signed up the following day. The dive site was one of the islands we’d circumnavigated the previous day; with tanks on our backs we followed the cliff down 15 metres deep where we saw sponges and brain corals, and schools of black fish, scorpion fish and the occasional octopus. With near optimal visibility, the instructor led us through a canyon which funnelled the current in our direction.
The extra effort to power through presented something of a challenge but it worked up an appetite for our al fresco lunch at the Adrina hotel which operates the dive centre. Here, we shared huge plates of grilled octopus before setting up camp on loungers and sleeping off the bottles of white wine. Dionysus surely would have approved.