‘The Scattered ones’ accurately defines their direct translation from Greek, the Sporades. Like seeds windblown across the ocean, these 24 islands span a contrast from the rich pine forested group in the northwest, morphing into the Cycladic like thyme covered landscapes of the southernmost Skyros. It’s not only the landscapes, but also the settlements with terracotta roofs giving way to the more cubist blue and white as you move east.
Only 4 of the islands are truly inhabited, with a tight three - namely Skiathos, Skopelos and Alonnissos in the west all separated by thirty miles from the cluster of islands making up Skyros further east. Each island has a jaggedly indented coastline each home its own assortment of quaint fishing ports, town basins or a line of beach umbrellas and a wood fired taverna ashore. A draw card for visiting yachties are the relatively small distances, moderate sailing conditions and diverse mix of civilisation and private coves to savour. Even though these islands gained acclaim as the set for the making of the first edition of the ‘Mamma Mia’ film - they’ve not been over run by mass tourism nor polluted by crass marketing ploys from such exposure. A quiet charm still exists - this is still the Greece we love - just another eclectic delight.
We find ourselves here after a whistle-stop tour in 2018, just enough of a taste to immediately look to return for another tour. Arriving directly into Skiathos tiny international airport - our yacht awaited us in the town port a just a 3 minute taxi ride away. The 2019 objective - to take time and gently follow the breeze around all the islands unearthing a few diamonds along the way. Our rough route initially followed a zig zag path along the sawtooth of coastline through Skiathos - Skopelos and Alonnissos before taking advantage of a weather window for an in-depth exploration Skyros and her satellite islets.
Of immediate appeal was Alonnissos, playing a starring role in this archipelago. The twin harbours of Votsi and Patitiri in the south allowed access to sea caves, crystal clear swimming holes and a portal to the ‘old village’ atop the island. Remotely located due to historical piracy most homes here were destroyed by a 1965 Sporades wide earthquake forcing a slow depopulation of the island, only to make a resurgence in latter years in lower Patitiri being the islands hub to the rest of the world. Slowly but surely the hamlet has been reconstructed, with a new vibrancy fuelled by visitors from abroad. We lick our evening ice cream as a band of foreign retirees play rockabilly hits near the bus stop to a handful of tourists turning the only street into a dancefloor.
Striking a more intimate key just an hours sail north is Steni Vala - quintessentially Greek where your gangplank almost strikes the chairs of the half dozen tavernas making their living the cove. Here we meet Kostas Mavrikis - who immediately welcomes us with open arms after seeing the Kiwi flags proudly flying from our mast. Kostas is a self appointed local historian and the author of 8 different books on local folklore. He hands a copy of one particular book to our crew - and then begins his account of the Anzac forces retreating through the area pushed by Nazi aggression during World War II. Thanks to Kostas - this unique bond between the people of Alonnissos and NZ and Australia will never be forgotten. He and his family spearheaded an effort to erect a small museum in nearby Patitiri to commemorate the islands history and unique exhibits on the period of the Nazi occupation. Two book sales later and after re-provisioning of our stores we leave Steni Vala with a new take on our unknown national connection to this special part of the world.
A moderate northerly sees us set sail early for Linaria on Skyros, our longest passage of the trip. A confused slop means we motor sail a decent chunk of the leg - but we finally find a uniform following sea and skip down the islands northern coast under sail alone. The island’s primary port welcomes us, an unassuming place but immediately striking us with a totally different feel to its cousins further east. Whitewashed taverna’s and a small blue domed chapel line the waterfront - Skyros is the black sheep of the family, seemingly drifted north from the Cyclades rather than the pine clad neo-classical norm of the Sporades. The independent streak of the islanders here even saw them pool funds to buy their port from the Greek state. Dissatisfied with their level of funding, they transformed the hub into probably the most quirky marina in the Med. Everything works - and your port fee includes the assistance of a dinghy borne tugboat skillfully guiding you into your berth piloted by a patient smiling harbour master. No evening here is complete without an initiation in the famous ‘disco’ showers. Between 7-8 the lights are dimmed and the bubble machine bursts into life complete with music and lights for an entertaining way to rinse the days salt away. Some nights an outdoor cinema is set up for visiting boats to complement the unique local experience.
Skyros is large, roughly peanut shaped and around 35 kms from stem to sternpost. Under the guidance of local scooter guru George, two a piece we mount our trusty steeds and set off to explore the island. After a couple of test laps of the port we immediately labour up a steep incline before descending into picturesque Pefkos harbour. Not having earned a thirst yet we climb again to Agios Panteleomonas Chapel around 300 metres above the bay - and are rewarded with a panorama southward toward distant Evvoia island. The necessary photos clog the SD card a little more before setting off through heavy pine back to sea level at Fokas - a true gem of a beach where an off-grid taverna serves wood-fired meals to hungry pink and brown beach sloths. The sheltered sand gives way to a green velveted marble terrace of rock gently sloping inland behind. We need to cool off and the waist deep water invites us to stay, and wade a while in the every increasing warmth of the clear sky. The rest of the day is spent getting lost in and out of coastal nooks as well as an unintentional visit to an Air Force base. Skyros is a bastion - on standby in case of aggression from the east, an ever present reminder that memories in this part of the world do not fade quickly. A large present but unoccupied naval base is hidden in a large inlet on the islands south also. As we cross eastward across the island we discover the agricultural heart of Skyros, fields of crops and herds of goats whiz by as we seek out the postcard like promotory of Molos. Aptly named for its solitary windmill - the now cocktail bar is surrounded by an ancient limestone quarry which has sculpted the landscape into contorted sculpture akin to a tetris game gone bad. Some of the larger monoliths remaining contain the obligatory orthodox chapel hewn into the core and illuminated by candles within. A frappe or two later we’re back aboard and bound for Linaria, another disco shower and prepped for a visit to town.
‘Horio’ is the local spin on the classical greek name of ‘chora’ or main village. Again we’re transported away from the Sporades as the whitewash of churches and small homes tumbling down a rock mound rising out of the local plain. Atop are the remains of a venetian ‘kastro’ or castle that formally would have been the keep of the islands overlords half a millenia past. Our relative isolation from human kind is shattered as the restaurants burst onto the cobbles up the spine of the main street. Some set up camp with a cocktail overlooking the main square, as children play, jostle and blade scooter below us. Others seek out the best ‘souvlaki’ in town as they get lost in the small well kept boutiques along the way. Just like the Cyclades further south, the atmosphere bursts with light, music and the hum of conversation and laughter in every bougainvillea drenched alleyway. Alas, the yawns have taken hold, and we retreat to the boat for some rest - the wind has abated and the waxing moon sparkles across the water as we step aboard.
It’s the beginning of the season and the dawn arrives early rousing those who work to the sun. The skipper along with Murray seize the moment and after watering the horses with a fresh fill of gas head off for an early morning blast along the wild and largely abandoned south coast. On the road from Linaria small pockets of fishing villages are scattered on a couple of sheltered beaches before we’re on our own. A well maintained military road opens onto a barren landscape of herbacious scrub and decoratively planted oleander along the roadside. Only goats and handsomely stocked apiaries keep us company as we leave civilisation behind, sharp hairpin after hairpin we climb and decend enjoying the technical element of free riding a road devoid of vehicles apart from the odd farmers pickup along the route. We stop short of the roads terminus, high above the wild south eastern tip of the island, and dismount for a while to soak up the expansive view out over the ocean without a boat or island in sight.
On our return we’re delighted to catch a glimpse of the rare and peculiarly small Skyrian horses, albeit penned in behind fences at a local stable. These are the last few that remain from a herd first introduced here by Alexander the Great thousands of years in the past. George is pleased to see our safe return, wing mirrors intact and our saddles sore from almost 100 km of adventuring on this island of many contrasts. His hospitality knows know bounds as with a single phone call, he organises everything we need for two nights of BBQ’s on the beach, complete with a cooler, charcoal and grill. We’re heading ‘off grid’ for a couple of days and need the essentials - we complete our re-provisioning and slip our lines bidding this spectacular island goodbye.
Murray and I caught a glimpse of our destination earlier on our ride, and a lazy sail under genoa alone weaves us through small islands rounding the main island’s southern tip. Sarakino sits under Skyros like a penguin chick between its parents toes. It’s almost like a prize winning axe man has carved a wedge into the base of this islet forming a perfect bay where we long-line up to a rock outcrop, and the eager local fish life form an aquarium below. A couple of tourist boats depart, leaving just ourselves and a lovely english couple in the bay whom we immediately invite ashore for dinner. The smell of lamb chops is soon in the air as the recently acquired cooler does the rest. Soon we’re feasting on the latest refinement of fresh local greek salad prepared aboard by our resident galley whiz Tracey. She and her recently acquired husband are enjoying a unique honeymoon - Wayne takes delight at tossing the finished chops to the ever present fish life who wait in anticipation just beyond the wavelets lapping the beach. Our guests retire back to their yacht - and the cooler is slowly relieved of its contents as each of us take a stint as DJ and the stars open up above us. Tall tales are told - stories are shared and all agree it’s great to be alive right now.
Sometimes days start a little slowly, and waking in Sarakino is just one of those. A baptism in the Aegean is a fine start - this morning needs at least a couple of attempts. Back on track we weigh anchor and push west - with Skyros little sister, Skyropoula in our sights. Just a gentle zephyr tickles our skin as the diesel does the hard yards sending us on our way. We again play spy to the Greek Navy’s bolthole here, a couple of lonely quaysides give way to large ammunition magazines burrowed into the steep rock shoreline. Mission complete, a couple of hours pass and we’re dropping the hook in another Aegean idyll, turquoise water and a patchwork of sand interspersed by a thick lawn of sea grass between. The last of the lamb chops are consumed, again delighting the local marine life and we take advantage of a light afternoon sea breeze that has settled at the perfect direction for our crossing to Skantzoura.
Thanks to Google Earth we’ve hit the jackpot again, and our evening stop sees us sharing a wide anchorage with a couple of other boats. We string ourselves ashore and stake claim to our own corner of paradise. The cove is a little stone strewn so the skipper heads ashore with a grill load of Souvlaki skewers to roast golden over a quickly assembled fire of easily procured driftwood. Tracey has worked her magic again and we’re soon up in the cockpit filling our stomachs - good food hasn’t ever been in short supply. The breeze drops away and the moon has lost its crescent as it paints itself across the water, one by one we retreat below to call it an early night.
As the ink dries on the post cards, it is time to re-stock and get back into a bit of island life on our next stop in Alonnissos. A highlight of our visit is a visit to the aforementioned museum curated by our good friend Kostas. Three separate levels of this purpose built facility are filled with a treasure trove of exhibits from local island life, tools of the piracy era and the leftovers of the war years. The basement is cool - and a welcome respite from the searing heat outside. It’s one of those days that only a cool drink overlooking the bay can cure, and we pass the afternoon swimming in the bay before freshening up for a visit to the ‘old village’. The bus winds its way labouriously over the ridge lines to deposit us at the foot of the village path. Our taverna for the evening has us seated outside the kitchen window, and our drinks order arrives via an anonymous hand poking through brightly coloured shutters sitting slightly ajar. The breathtaking view over this, and neighbouring Skopelos is only surpassed by the lavender hues of the setting sun.
We take temporary leave from this island to make a quick sortie to Skopelos and a dose of scandinavian folklore. On arrival in the main port we come up empty handed with transport options to the famous Mamma Mia chapel at Agios Ioannis. Instead, after a quick bite we tackle the challenge by sea and make our way up the coast. The hillsides are thick with pine, broken by the scars of the major earthquake - large slips are slowly being consumed by the greenery as nature takes it course. The chapel emerges atop a steep rock outcrop seemingly a thorn in the side of the cliff face adjacent. The anchorage is swell prone, so we parachute drop two ABBA tragics into the water close to the beach before securing ourselves offshore for a swim. They climb, pay homage and return satisfied - our work here is done. There’s a few hours left before sunset, and a perfect breeze chimes in to give us a couple of hours of champagne sailing on our way to another new anchorage on our radar. As we near the northern tip of Alonnissos the wind abates abruptly - almost as if it was meant to be, and ushers in a 15 minute dolphin display as a large pod moves southward. A few individuals including a cow and calf find us too hard to resist, and each troupe take turns approaching broadside like torpedos before emerging beneath our bow. The water is mirror smooth, and a few roll sideways eyeing us curiously while exposing their salmon pink underbellies - excitedly Sinead and Tracey cling to the bow and simultaneously squeal in delight while providing all with a blow by blow commentary that would make more Steve Irwin than Attenborough.
Rounding Alonnissos’ northernmost cape we find the axe man has been at work again. Gerakas is a long fiord, that seemingly has no right to fit into this landscape. It’s entrance funnels us deep into a channel only a couple of hundred metres across and stood over by a towering bluff on the northern side. A gentle swell rolls down the bay, but only once we reach it’s inner sanctum do we find a handful of yachts tucked into an alcove with a tiny beach head within. The foredeck team find a sand patch for the anchor and soon we are secured onto a handily placed pinnacle of rock on the shore line. The setting is serene as Tracey once again works her wizardry down below and an amazing pasta with local produce, olive oil, capers and country sausage is heartily devoured by all. It’s amazing how doing so little leaves you completely spent - it’s an early night again.
The northernmost of the Sporades are mostly uninhabited, so our ‘off-grid’ trek continues to explore the two main harbours of Kira Panayia, the main island of a rocky cluster lying north of Alonnissos. An absence of wind has the motor humming and we tackle the western coast getting in close to the shore as the island plummets straight down into the ming-blue depths alongside us. Again every ravine and watershed is cloaked in an emerald cascade that wouldn’t look out of place in the South Pacific. Our planned lunch stop is hard to spot - Ormos Kira Panayia take its name as the islands safe harbour and we skirt the northern coast and find a tiny passage less than 100 metres wide - beyond opens a large heart shaped harbour that can only be accurately described as an inland sea’. So hidden is this haven that only the goats know where it is - and we stop for our break and swim in front of a tiny pure beach of white marble pebbles. This virtually landlocked harbour could accommodate 500 boats, we share it with 3 others and it’s a shame to leave but more exploring awaits - we bid the goats farewell as they nibble the seaweed on the water’s edge for a little hydration.
Completing our circumnavigation of the island we pass by the monastery - the only permanently occupied point on the island. A position of solitude - complete with garden, olive grove and proud Greek flags flying in the breeze. The monks have their own high powered speed boat to resupply before retiring back to their self-exiled existence overlooking a timeless seascape populated by the rare and extremely endangered Mediterranean seal bearing their name. There’s overnight wind in the forecast, so we tuck ourselves deep under the island in the best protected anchorage we can find. Free swinging on the anchor we set as much chain as possible in case of a blow. The wind arrives a little after 11pm, accompanied by its best friends - thunder, lightning and torrential rain. It’s a slightly nerve wracking experience, but the boat rides well on her anchor as the wind settles from the north. The bay continually illuminates as if we were in the middle of the blitz. Waves of electrical activity pass over us through the night making it a wet sleep in the cockpit for the skipper, but dawn breaks soon enough and after the rain has eased to a sprinkle we look for finer weather to the south. A steep swell greets us outside of the bay and it is not until we reach safe haven in Peristera to the south we find out the ferocity of the storm as it lashed Northern Greece before reaching us. Reports online describe the worst event of its kind since the early 80’s and some tragic deaths ashore as well as many casualties.
Our final stop is Panormos on Skopelos, the southernmost bay on the island’s eastern coast and lined with thick pine to the water’s edge. Murray again does the honours swimming a line ashore in probably his most difficult mission yet, and succeeds admirably earning his accolade of ‘Navy Seal’ at dinner ashore later that evening. Panormos translates as wide bay, and the humble traditional tavernas are repeated at regular intervals along the beach made up of quartz chips all roughly rounded by nature and steeply dropping away into the bluest of bays beyond. Our meal tonight is a celebration tinged by sadness as we all go our separate ways the following day. Over a half-kilo or two of local white the promises of a reunion trip are already starting to flow. Some in the group are novices and some have half a dozen trips like this under their belt but all agree this one was special - with the Sporades the star of the show and delivering in every respect. As the wheels leave the runway of Skiathos and we bank right out over the islands we are treated to a final reminder of what where we have been - we gaze out the window and recognise almost every small bay, cove and port town - knowing we’ll have to return.
THE SPORADES ISLANDS ARE BEST SAILED EX SKIATHOS (JSI) EASILY ACCESSED EITHER VIA ATHENS (45 MINS) OR SELECTED EUROPEAN AIRPORTS. 7-14 OR 21 DAY ITINERARIES AVAILABLE
"Twenty years from now, you'll be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did.
Throw off the bow lines, sail away from safe harbour, catch the wind in your sails
DREAM, EXPLORE, DISCOVER" - Mark Twain