There is perhaps no better way to see the northern Sporades than via a leisurely sailing trip through the turquoise waters of this cluster of small islands located in the northwestern Aegean.
We set off from the port of Skiathos, where chartered boats ferry tourists to and from the island’s beaches throughout the day, and Mamma Mia (the Hollywood hit filmed in the Sporades) is regularly shown in the outdoor cinema.
We unfurl our sails and a light breeze carries us off towards the remote islets of Kyra-Panaghia, Psathoura and Skantzoura. Here a National Marine Park has been established to protect the pristine area that is a breeding ground for the endangered Monk Seal (Monachus monachus).
In contrast to the Cyclades which are regularly buffeted by strong northerly ‘Meltemi’ winds in the summer, the waters around the islands Skiathos, Skopelos and Alonissos (particularly on the southern side) tend to offer a much gentler sailing experience, ideal for families with young children and groups of less experienced seafarers. Skippers can also be hired to captain rented sailboats for those with little or no experience.
ROCKS AND CAVES, OH MY!
The famous Lalaria beach on the northern tip of Skiathos, features dramatic vertical stone structures and perfectly round white pebbles, lending the water glorious colors. However the coast here must be approached with caution (and only when the weather is calm) as large rocks lurk on the seabed which local fishermen say shift after big storms.
Easier destinations to reach by sailboat are the nearby uninhabited islands of Tsougria and Arkos, the latter featuring a taverna on the sand.
The Sporades and particularly Alonissos were key bases for pirates right up to the Greek Revolution in the 19th century, and the seabed around them is filled with hundreds of known and perhaps yet-to-be-discovered shipwrecks.
A DREAM IN SKOPELOS
Arriving in Skopelos, the islet of Dasia with its sea-cave offers the perfect opportunity for a swim. The fairy-tale bays of Panormos and Stafylos are next on the route. Pine trees reach almost to the water’s edge, and the blue-green waters are crystal clear.
Sailing along, the sound of the bow cutting through the water is utterly soothing. Watching the sunset is particularly enjoyable, although there is nothing better than reading a nautical adventure lying under the shade of open sails.
On land, one can relax in the shade of a mulberry tree in the harbor of Agnondas with its rows of taverns or in the cafe “Platanos” under the eponymous enormous and ancient plane tree in the middle of Skopelos’s harbor. The island’s main town, Chora which is built around the harbor, is gorgeous, with picturesque neighborhoods ideal for wandering, and tasteful shops, cafes and restaurants.
SAILING WITH DOLPHINS
We head northwards. As we hug the coast of Alonissos, we pass bay after bay – each with its own particular character, from Votsi on to Spartines, Chrysa Milia and Georgi Gialos.
For a stretch from Peristera to Kokkinokastro, we are followed by about five dolphins and a group of opportunistic seagulls, as if to make clear that we had entered Zone B of the National Marine Park.
Archaeological research in these parts have shown that the island was inhabited as far back as 100,000 BC! Amberjacks jump in and out of the water, but unfortunately we hadn’t thought of bringing a net to catch our dinner as we sailed.
An interesting stop here is the little harbor of Steni Vala with its pervasive charm; even more beautiful is an adjacent creek.
It is a well protected harbor, but anchoring here is tricky and only for experienced captains. Here, as in many of Alonissos’s ‘pirate bays’ beautiful homes overlook the water.
DROP ANCHOR FOR PLANITIS
As we sail into Zone A of the marine park around Kyra-Panaghia island, silence dominates. A perfect spot to dock for the night is undoubtedly Planitis, a bay where the water is always cloudy and not the best for swimming, but magical at night when the countless stars are mirrored in the still sea. Planitis and Aghios Petros are the only areas in zone A of the park where mooring at night is allowed.
A five-day, or at a push a three-day trip is the minimum for a sailing holiday, but a week or 10 days is preferable, allowing for plenty of exploring at one’s leisure. When in the park, remember of course to follow the rules and not get closer than three nautical miles to the island of Piperi, a strictly protected zone.
Seagulls and about 200 breeding pairs of a rare species of falcon have nests on Piperi, the Caretta caretta sea turtle frequents its waters and monk seals take refuge in the island’s isolated caves to give birth and nurse their young pups.