When Americans say they’re going to the Greek islands, they usually mean the Cyclades, the windswept archipelago in the Aegean Sea that’s home to Santorini and Mykonos. But Europeans are just as likely to head to the Sporades, a spattering of 24 islands—only four of them inhabited—off the mainland’s mountainous eastern coast that are as stunning as the Cyclades. You’ll still find cobalt seas, heart-stopping views and cobbled alleys, but the Sporades are more lush and green, with golden-sand beaches lined by pine trees, and forested mountains scattered with stone ruins and isolated monasteries.
Even if you don’t recognize the names of these islands, you’ll have an idea of what to expect if you’ve seen Mamma Mia!, the 2008 blockbuster film with an ABBA soundtrack that launched thousands of Greek-vacation dreams. The musical was shot on the Sporadic islands of Skiathos and Skopelos as well as the neighboring Pelion peninsula. Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan lead the cast, but the real star is the setting—the actors flit between the shining sea and the pine-covered mountains. And you too can split your time between the land and the sea, trying to decide which is more beautiful before giving up and singing, “My, my, how could I resist you?”
There’s an international airport on Skiathos, and it’s just a 40-minute flight from Athens. Once there, how you divide your time on terra firma is up to you. Are you a naturalist? Consider exploring some of the 124 miles of donkey paths today used by hikers. If you’re more of a history buff, trek uphill from Skiathos Town (the island’s main city) to the 18th-century Evangelistria Monastery (011-30-242-702-2012; monievaggelistrias.gr, site in Greek; admission, free), now home to four monks, a vineyard and a museum that honors the monastery’s past as a meeting place for revolutionaries who helped liberate Greece from Ottoman rule in the early 1800s. Alternately, drive to the monastery, stopping at Agnadio (Vigles; 011-30-242-702-2016; dinner for two, $36*) to sample the signature dish of lobster with zucchini and tomatoes while looking down at the sea below.
Once back in Skiathos Town, you’ll want to wander the alleys around Tres Ierarches church in Old Town, the historic center. Duck into the Alexandros Papadiamantis Museum (Papadiamantis Sq.; 011-30-242-702-2240; admission, $2), named for the 19th-century Greek writer who once lived here, to learn about Skiathos’s past. Then stop by the boutique Archipelagos (6 Mitropolitou Ananiou St.) to bring back a bit of the island’s present in the form of Greek olive oil soap and evil-eye talismans. Or stroll Bourtzi, the tree-filled peninsula that juts out from the middle of Skiathos, and pause for a frappé at the seaside Bourtzi Café (Old Port; 011-30-242-702-3900). You won’t want to miss the walk up to Agios Nikolaos church and its photogenic clock tower, which has a cameo in Mamma Mia!’s opening scene. The hill also affords views of the harbor and the distant islet of Tsougrias, which, rumor has it, the Beatles once wanted to buy.
When evening rolls around, Skiathos Town presents foodies with a difficult choice. Will it be grilled sea bass en papillote in the courtyard of a renovated mansion at Marmita (30 Evangelistrias St.; 011-30-242-702-1701; dinner for two, $42)? Or a Greek classic such as lamb in lemon sauce served outdoors under a mulberry tree at Alexandros Taverna (4 Kapodistriou St.; 011-30-242-702-2431; dinner for two, $31)? To find the restaurant, follow the live bouzouki music to the lanes behind Tres Ierarches church. After dinner, skip the packed Old Town bars in favor of a digestif at one of Skiathos’s first clubs, The Borzoi (Papadiamanti St.; 011-30-694-424-7349; drinks for two, $28), in a former olive oil factory. Or join the revelry at Attikon Open-Air Cinema (Papadiamanti St.; 011-30-697-270-6305; tickets, $12). The seasonal outdoor theater alternates new releases with Mamma Mia! screenings (some scenes were filmed steps away).
If you’re looking for a little quiet time, an hour’s drive out of town brings you to a path that leads to the ruins of Kastro, the island’s first settlement. Even if there happen to be other hikers or friendly goats taking in the views, you can find peace among the abandoned churches. If you’re not up to the hike, you can get to Kastro by boat from Skiathos’s harbor.
With 60 beaches circling Skiathos, you could spend a lifetime here and still be hard-pressed to pick a favorite. So start with the mainstays. For many return visitors, Skiathos is synonymous with Koukounaries, a sandy strip bordered by the pine forest that gives the beach its name (in Greek, koukounaries is a colloquialism for pine trees). The trees rise between the turquoise sea on one side and a lake on the other. In August, travelers fight for space, but in spring and fall your main competition is the herons and swans who preside over this shore. A regular contender for the title of best barefoot-in-the-sand restaurant, Mystique Beach Bar (Ampelakia beach; 011-30-242-704-9659; cocktails for two, $28) can be found on Ampelakia beach. Here, a lone stone farmer’s cabin has been turned into a casual spot for snacks and drinks. The waiters are known to hand you a towel as you emerge from the sea, and the bartender whips up Mystique Mojito Muratos using berries picked off the trees. But arguably the most stunning beach of them all is Lalaria, with its freestanding rock arches. Lalaria can be reached only by boat; luckily, Aegeo Yachts (Skiathos Harbor; 011-30-697-592-2535; seven-hour tours with breakfast, lunch and drinks, $83 a person) launches daily round-the-island cruises that stop at the beach and depart from the harbor at 10 a.m.
Of course, life isn’t always easily divided into categories here. Is the restaurant Bakaliko Tis Paralias (coastal road from Skiathos Town toward airport; 011-30-242-702-2669; bakalikotisparalias.4ty.gr, site in Greek; dinner for two, $47) on land because its entrance is on the island, or in the sea because its tables rest on a dock? Likewise, the abandoned monastery Panagia Kechria is in a forest but overlooks a beach of the same name and seems suspended between the sky and the sea. The solution? Adopt the Mamma Mia! philosophy that labels don’t matter and there is plenty of joy and beauty to go around. Because, on Skiathos, it’s true.
RCI® affiliated resorts in Skiathos include:
Enjoy unforgettable views of the water from the pool or while dining alfresco. Tzaneria, Skiathos
Member Review: “Excellent staff.”
For complete member review (as member review has been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Skiathos include:
Aegean Suites Hotel
This adults-only boutique can arrange hikes with a naturalist. Megali Ammos beach; 011-30-242-702-4066; aegeansuites.com; doubles from $207 a night, breakfast included
- *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
- NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
- Published: Spring 2018