“Here water and cypresses and shade give one back a sense of plenitude and peace – particularly on Skiathos, the beauty of the group, whose perched capital neatly divides a harbour…its dazzling white houses built as if from lump sugar, its labyrinth of quizzical churches”, Laurence Durrell
After redundancy and in between jobs I went to this little island in the Sporades in the summer of 2000 for a two week holiday with my brother Richard and his family and found it noisy, cramped and with just too many people around.
Durrell wouldn’t recognise it now because Skiathos is an airport island and therefore a package holiday destination, which brings in the football shirts and late night clubbers and I generally try to avoid these islands now. It was lively and mad and these days I prefer laid back and languid.
The Hotel Punta was close to Skiathos town about six kilometres away from the centre and when we arrived this seemed a perfect location, close enough to visit the town but far enough away to avoid the late night noise but we discovered on our first night that unfortunately this was not the case.
The hotel was in an elevated position overlooking the bay and the town and although at night there was a picturesque view of the shore line tavernas and bars with their pretty twinkling lights winking like fireflies the noise came straight across the water seemingly increasing in volume as it passed over the bay, echoing around the hills and filling our hotel complex with booming disco beat that went on until the early hours of the morning.
The hotel was nice enough with gardens and a large terrace, breakfast room and bar and two swimming pools but the rooms were cramped and faced south so became unbearably overheated during the hot July days and without air conditioning were especially stuffy and uncomfortable at night when we couldn’t open the windows because of the noise. I shared a room with Richard and some nights it was just too hot to sleep so we had some very late drinking on the balcony listening to the hedonistic activity across the way. A couple of nights we were rather glad of a massive thunderstorm because this blotted the noise out!
As it turned out this was one of the most sociable holidays that I have ever been on with an exceptionally friendly group of people choosing to holiday on Skiathos at this hotel at the same time and we spent some lively days around the pool and some lovely evenings in the town enjoying great Greek cuisine. Our favourite fellow holidaymakers were Pete and Julie in the room next door. They always had a far fetched tale to tell including my personal favourite about drifting out to sea on a Lilo bed and nearly being run down by a passenger ferry.
Skiathos town is set in a scenic bay and with the Bourtzi peninsula as a dividing line it is a town of two halves that had a dynamic resort holiday buzz. To the east was the modern port with expensive boats, chic cosmopolitan shops, restaurants and bars strung along the side of the harbour like a gaudy ribbon and to the west, more traditional with steep lanes, bougainvillea covered houses and family run tavernas creeping down to the original harbour front where local fisherman still worked.
It was a long walk from the hotel but luckily there was a regular free shuttle bus to take us there and back. After it stopped running at about eleven o’clock we were forced to use the local taxis and this was especially entertaining because each taxi driver would take as many passengers as he could cram into his white Mercedes cab as though it were some sort of local vehicle overloading competition and there were some interesting late night return journeys I can tell you.
Two weeks is a long time in the same place and I can quickly become restless and bored and Richard is twice as bad but thankfully there was quite a lot to do. The town was always busy and although there were far too many shops for my liking it was pleasant to walk through the narrow streets and explore the back alleyways and paths. In the centre of the town at the top of a long climb was the dazzling white church and it was worth the effort to get there because there were great views from the top of the red tiled houses, the mazy streets and the busy harbour with hydrofoils and expensive yachts tied up at their moorings.
On a couple of days we took the local bus which ran from the north to the south of the island down the east coast main road dropping people off and picking others up at the several pretty little beaches all the way down the coast. The bus was crowded every time and just like the taxis there seemed to be no limit to the amount of passengers that the driver could pack on board.
The journey to Koukanaries beach, regarded as one of the best in Greece, only took about twenty minutes but it wasn’t especially comfortable crammed in together in a hot dusty bus without space or air but Koukanaries and the nearby, unfortunately named, Banana beach were worth the discomfort because they were the best on the island and probably among the finest in Greece.
One day all of the boys went on an afternoon snorkelling trip on a boat to a deserted part of the island but it was a bit of a worry when we found ourselves swimming with men fishing with harpoon guns that looked dangerous and potentially lethal. The girls went to a Greek party night but we sat that one out and on one day Deanna and I went to Athens on a full day excursion. This was my first visit to Athens and we visited the Acropolis and the Parthenon, had lunch in Syntagma and a stroll through Monastaraki.
The best excursion of the holiday was in the middle of week two when we went on a boat trip to the nearby green wooded islands of Skópelos and Alónnisos, two more of the Sporadic islands and both quite different from Skiathos. First we stopped at Patitíri, the main port town of Alónnisos, which seemed subtle and quiet compared to the frenetic activity in Skiathos town where we wandered around the dusty streets and had refreshments at a quiet little taverna that had lashings of time to spare as they served leisurely drinks and snacks.
We didn’t stay long on Alónnisos however and soon left and set off to neighbouring Skópelos, which turned out to be one of the best islands that I have ever been to and I have always promised myself a return visit one day. Skópelos is best known now as the island where they filmed the ABBA musical Mama Mia and that might have made a difference I suppose but on this visit it was practically perfect.
The main town was busy but not hectic with pebbled streets meandering between red roofed houses with fish scaled tiles up to the ruined Venetian castle at the top where the views over the wide bay with its little boats and transparent sparkling water under the full glare of the mid afternoon sun was practically perfect. Skópelos was more picturesque and less touristy than Skiathos and we enjoyed a late afternoon meal down at the edge of the harbour before rejoining the little boat for the return trip home.
I liked Skiathos but not enough to want to return. The green pine wooded Sporades with their fertile soils and picturesque fields full of crops were a complete contrast to the barren and rugged Cyclades that have now established themselves as my favourites but one day I will go back and visit friendly Skópelos as I promised.