I suppose that if you asked an Australian to name a holiday island, he or she would probably come up with Bali or Phuket. For an American, the quintessential island may be Hawaii or one in the Caribbean. For me as a South African, however, and for many Brits and Europeans, island life is synonymous with Greece.
The Big Difference
Apart from being surrounded by water, obviously, a Greek island is hugely different from one in Southeast Asia. For one thing, it’s tantalisingly seasonal.
You can go to Phuket at any time of the year. Like Singapore, it’s always hot and wet; during monsoon periods, there’s a chance it will be wetter. Even off-season, everything is open and it’s business as usual.
But Skiathos has a brief season of three or at most four months when you’re sure of getting a summer tan. It warms up to shorts weather in the first half of June. July and August can be blistering. And September rounds off the summer. Winters are cold and bleak; Skiathos even gets a few days of snow some years. During winter, most of the ferry services, shops, restaurants, beach tavernas and bars close down and go into hibernation.Falling naturally into one of a number of geographic groupings, each island has its own character. The first Greek isle I visited was Corfu, one of the Ionian group. It was on the itinerary of the European highlights package tour I did straight after uni. Much later, with Roy, I fell in love with Zakinthos, another Ionian isle, and Thassos and Skiathos. That’s four down and 56 to go.
Every Greek you speak to has lifelong connections to the islands and regards one of them as “my island”, returning there with friends or family every summer. Our Athenian friend Petros has Thassos; for as long as he can remember, his entire family has been getting together there every year for weeks at a time, at their charming holiday house under the fragrant pine trees. The summer that we joined them there was, for us, an unforgettably wonderful experience.
Though it has no antiquities to speak of, Skiathos has plenty of character. It’s easily accessible, being so close to the Greek mainland, and is famous for its beaches. But the main reason we went back there, rather than experiencing a new island, was that Roy’s old South African friend Michael had recently bought and rebuilt a house located right on Cape Kanapitsa beach. We’d stayed at the neighbouring Cape Kanapitsa hotel many years back, and loved the spot.
Like the Greeks, Michael has “his” island. He has been visiting Skiathos for the past 13 years. This isn’t unusual, we discovered, as we met some of the many Brits, South Africans and Zimbabweans who all seemed to know each other and form a sort of community of “seasonal expats”. English Annie, for example, confessed she’d been coming to the island for forty years.
Opening up your Skiathos holiday home after the six to eight months of winter is a tough job, they say. Patio furniture and surfaces are coated in salty grime, so everything must be scrubbed. Scarce and expensive maintenance staff, imbued with the manyana-style, have to be cajoled into freshening gardens and paintwork and mending whatever has deteriorated while you were away.
At the end of the previous summer, you would have wrapped up all ornaments, appliances, cutlery and other metal objects in plastic to protect them from rust and mould. Now you have to bring them out again. And having spent a week or two ruining your nails, you’re even more determined to have a fantastic time during the brief summer months that lie ahead.
All at Sea
One of the best things about the Greek islands is that the Aegean is marvellously unpolluted, so the water – from deepest indigo blue through to the translucent aquamarine that laps the beaches – is as clean as it is gorgeous.
Luckily for us, Michael had just taken delivery of the enviable Zara, a beautiful Princess V58 that is perfect for island-hopping with a few friends. But if you don’t have a friend with a boat, there are plenty of pleasure cruises and ferries to take you to whichever beach or island takes your fancy.
From Kanapitsa beach, for example, there’s an hourly ferry to Skiathos town; it takes just ten minutes. I recommend a day-cruise or a moonlight cruise on the Calypso, a converted traditional fishing boat owned by one of Michael’s local friends, the energetic Lambros.
To see Skiathos island properly, you need to sail around it. Admire the famous archways of the iconic Lalaria beach, or stop, as we did, at nearby Agio Eleni, for a lunch of sardines cooked on the barbecue with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon.
Skiathos is part of the Sporades group of islands. The second-nearest in the group is Skopelos, well worth visiting for its more traditional town and picturesque scenery.
We zoomed across one day for lunch at Liminaria beach, letting down the anchor about 50 metres from shore. While the others puttered ashore on our own little jet boat, I couldn’t resist slipping my sun-baked body into the cool water and swimming to the beach.
Skiathos town is a picturesque maze of cobbled streets, full of cafés, bars, restaurants and good shopping. Our friends say the island does get occasional summer rain, and that’s when all the tourists who would otherwise be on the beach crowd the lanes and shops, to the joy of the business owners.
Note: Don’t be fazed by Greek time. Apart from being five hours behind us, Greeks have a decidedly nonchalant attitude to timekeeping. Arrange to meet a Greek for lunch at 1pm, it is said, and he’s more likely to arrive at 2.30. And don’t even try to make an appointment
for 8am. Says Lambros: “For a Greek, that’s midnight.”
Ah, the food! Greek is one of the few cuisines I have yet to find in Singapore. Here’s a sample of staple items on a Skiathos taverna menu:
• horiatiki – “village” salad comprising chunks of tomato and cucumber topped with sliced sweet onion, kalamata olives and a slab of feta cheese sprinkled with oregano and liberally doused with olive oil
• taramosalata, tzatziki, melitzanasalata, skordalia, hummus – creamy dips containing cod roe, cucumber, brinjal, garlic and chickpeas, respectively, eaten with other food or mopped up with crusty bread
• spanakopita, tiropita – savoury pastries stuffed with spinach and feta cheese, respectively
• small fish – preserved in salt and olive oil in a barrel
• sardines – fresh, barbecued to order
• local calamari, fried
• patates – chips
Stathis Taverna at Vromoliminos beach turnoff, upscale. Highlight: prawn saganaki and the best steak on Skiathos.
Agnadio, upscale family-run restaurant above the airport with an excellent view; sons Jannis and Costa serve, while their mother does the cooking. Highlights: stuffed courgettes and moussaka.
Johnny’s Taverna at Kanapitsa beach; Johnny is the local postmaster, and his wife cooks. Highlight: hearty fish soup or whatever else Johnny recommends.
Chicken George on the steps of the old harbour for delicious and inexpensive souvlaki and other meat dishes; get there early. Highlight: Country lamb, stuffed and tender
Alexandros bouzouki tavern in the central part of old Skiathos town, where bouzoukis jam all night. Highlight: Stuffed peppers and tomatoes, lamb slow-baked with lemon
When to Go
The second half of June is probably the best time, when most facilities have opened and the sea has has warmed enough for swimming. Restaurateurs welcome you with a smile, still full of energy at the season’s start. July and August are hot and heaving, and by September the exhausted taverna staff will be banging your bottle of Mythos on the table with a surly scowl. They’ve made their money and have had enough of you.
Having come so far, you’ll want to spend at least a couple of nights in Athens. For sightseeing, atmosphere and dining, the Plaka is your best bet. You could wander endlessly around this evocative neighbourhood, which has the feeling of an old-world village and is in fact the oldest part of Athens. Museums, jewellery and art shops jostle with souvlakia stands and souvenir stores. We caught Sex and the City at the Cine Paris, touted as the best outdoor cinema in Athens, and then had the delectable fried cod at Damigos Bakalarakia, about 20 metres away. It’s probably the oldest restaurant in Athens, and mostly empty, perhaps because it’s in a basement and its entrance is easily missed.
The Plaka area is in the shadow of the famous Acropolis, so it’s an ideal starting point for the trek up to the Parthenon and other iconic Greek antiquities. You can walk to nearby Syngrou to catch a tram to one of the stretch of beaches on the Apollo Coast – Vouliagmeni is perhaps the best of these – but they don’t compare with those on Skiathos. Or you can take a cab to the yacht harbour of Mikroliminou for a seafood meal at one of its wharf-side restaurants, or just to hang out at one of the stylish bars along with beautiful young Athenians.
We recommend the four-star Ava Hotel apartments and suites at 9-11 Lysikratous Street, which runs up from Hadrian’s Arch to the edge of the Plaka. It’s just over the road from the National Gardens, one of Athens’ few green spots, and close to Syntagma Square and the fashion shops on Ermou Street. Roy says it’s the best hotel experience he’s had in 25 years of visiting Athens almost annually.
Ava Hotel (Athens) www.avahotel.gr
Damigos Bakalarakia 41 Kidathineon Str., Plaka
It’s a 10-hour direct flight on Singapore Airways to Athens, from where you have a myriad possible combinations of bus, boat and plane to get you to one or more of the 60 inhabited Greek isles.
A coach took us across the mainland from Athens to Agios Konstandinous on the eastern coast, where we boarded the Hellenic Seaways Fastcat to the island of Skiathos. The package through Alkyon Travel, Athens, took about four hours each way and cost us each about 100 euros return.