A brief visit to the Greek Sporades

Despite all the summer airport chaos, we arrived into Skiathos airport right on time on an early Sunday evening in late July. Clearing security and receiving our cases quickly from its small but efficient airport, we were met outside by someone from the guesthouse we were staying in – many of the small family-run guesthouses in Skiathos town offer free transfers the short distance from the airport to their properties.

Above, Skiathos marina, and below, the town at night

After settling onto our modest but adequate room, we took a stroll downhill through the narrow back roads winding down to the main hub of Skiathos town. The sun was already going down and the seafront and harbour looked pretty in the red glow of dusk.

Our first priority was to find the old marina where the boat trip we had booked for the following morning would depart from. Easily locating that, next on our list was food. Although we’d eaten an all day breakfast at the airport before departing the UK that afternoon, that was now 6 hours ago and we needed some kind of snack to keep us going until morning.

We eventually settled on a seemingly popular Greek fast food-type place where we ordered chicken souvlaki – chunks of grilled chicken and salad along with a few chips in a pitta – opting to have the tzatziki sauce on the side in case we didn’t like it. It was dark by now and after a quick wander around some of the souvenir stores, we decided to call it a night and find our way back to our accommodation.

Breakfast at Mamma Mia cafe in Skiathos town

We were up early the next morning so we could wander into town to grab some breakfast before our cruise departed. We were again spoilt for choice with all the local bakeries and cafes on offer but sticking with the theme of the day (we’d booked a ‘Mamma Mia’ cruise) we chose to visit the reasonably priced Mamma Mia bakery.

Setting sail from Skiathos

While the tour had been marketed as a Mamma Mia tour, it actually had very little to do with the film other than a final stop at the church on a hill featured in the hit musical. From reviews we’d read online, we’d at least expected some Abba music to be piped into the boat – something that was obviously expected by other passengers too as one later asked a member of staff about this and offered to hook up his own iphone to the sound system. This lead to a full on party complete with drunken dancing from a group of fun-loving Italians on board once the cheesy pop classics started blaring out after our lunch stop.

Heading down to the old marina, we managed to locate the tour company we’d booked with from the many others all offering the same selection of island tours and Mamma Mia themed excursions and boarded our boat finding seats in the shade on the top deck.

Arriving at our unexpected stop of Panormos Beach, Skolpelos

Departing Skiathos old marina, the boat took us around the east coast of the island and up to Lalaria Beach on the north coast. Here, the boat docked at this well-known and extremely popular bay for about an hour. The beach had been separated in two overnight by a landslide and with the tide being in, this forced us to scramble over the fallen rocks to reach the far end of the beach and its pretty arched rock formation.

After a bit of sunbathing and paddling in the turquoise blue sea, it was back on board the boat where we found we were all stopped from sitting on the top deck – something which wouldn’t have been a problem except for the crew smoking indoors downstairs. Finding a seat by the window, we soon found out that the upstairs was out of bounds for safety reasons and due to rough, high seas the day’s itinerary would have to be changed.

The cave of Skiathos

While we would still be heading to the island of Skopelos, we would no longer be able to stop at Skopelos town and would instead be heading to a small bay on the island.

As Skopelos town was to be our lunch stop, we were reassured that there were cafes and restaurants where we were going.

Arriving at Panormos Beach, we found that it was pretty enough but there wasn’t a great deal to do. Avoiding being herded into the first restaurant we came to with the rest of the group, we walked the length of the bay eventually sitting at the furthest restaurant along and ordering some reasonably priced toasted sandwiches before returning to the boat via a small convenience store to grab ice poles to cool us down.

After our makeshift lunch stop, we passed the cave of Skiathos before docking at a port on the west of Skopelos Island. From here, we left the boat and boarded coaches which took us across the island to the stop we had all been waiting for – the church of Agios Ioannis Kastri, or the ‘Mamma Mia church’. Made famous in the Meryl Streep musical, the church sits on the top of a large rock, only accessible by walking up 110 steps. It was a pretty climb and the views gave us plenty of excuses to stop on the way up.

Sailing back to Skiathos at the end of the day

This was the last stop of the day so from here, it was back onto the coaches which returned us to the boat ready to sail back to Skiathos. Arriving late afternoon, we had a bit of time to explore the town some more before grabbing dinner and heading back to our guesthouse.

We had to be up at 4am the next morning to make a 7am flight to Athens so our time on Skiathos had come to an end. I’d liked what I’d seen of it and wished we had a bit more time to see more of the island.

A summer island-hopping adventure in Greece

My ‘big’ summer trip this year was supposed to be stateside to finally tick my final state of Hawaii off but it was something that needed to be planned and booked well in advance and when that point in time came, things were still very uncertain in the World as the pandemic continued to rumble on. Hawaii seemed a very big gamble when coming all the way from the UK – long haul flights, internal flights, car hire on multiple islands, hotels and condos all to book and while we could have gone through a specialist such as Trailfinders or Flight Centre to organise it all for us as a package giving us a bit more peace of mind should we have to cancel, we weren’t sure we’d get exactly what we wanted this way being so used to planning everything just how we liked it independently. It was a lot of money to lose should it all go wrong again.

Evening by Skiathos marina
Visiting Lalaria Beach on Skiathos

So we begrudgingly made the decision to put off the trip another year and swapped Hawaiian island-hopping for Greek island-hopping. We knew we wanted to get out of the UK this summer as much as we’d enjoyed our UK National Park trips of the last two summers and Europe felt less of a risk than the US, somewhere we could easily return from mid-trip if needed, somewhere we didn’t need to test to enter even at our point of booking quite early into the year.

Wanting to island hop meant we still couldn’t book as a package trip. With flying in and out of different islands, we’d even need to book our main flights as separate bookings as the (mainly) package holiday carriers that flew there didn’t allow for open jaw bookings but we decided to go for it and hope for the best.

Having never been to Greece before, it was hard to know where to start. Who knew there were so many islands to choose from?! My friend who had been many years ago suggested Santorini and with this being an island in the Cyclades, we decided to concentrate on this area. After some googling, we saw lots of suggestions of mixing Santorini with a less ‘touristy’, more traditional island. Milos, Paros, Naxos and a few other islands I’d never heard of before all came up as recommended in various searches and we eventually settled on the much-praised Naxos island.

Athens
Historic Athens

With those two islands only taking up a week of our 2-3 weeks available, my friends suggested looking into going to the ‘Mamma Mia’ island. She was a big fan of the film and wanted to visit some of the locations if we could. A bit more research lead us to find out this was filmed in Skopelos, one of the Sporades Islands and not really anywhere near the Cyclades! However, the neighbouring Sporades island of Skiathos was somewhere you could fly to directly from the UK and from here it was possible to do a ‘Mamma Mia’ boat trip to Skopelos. To get to the Cyclades from here, we’d have to fly via Athens and as neither of us had visited Greece’s capital city before, it seemed silly not to add a stop here into the mix!

Our trip was finally coming together – we’d fly to Skiathos for a few nights, fly to Athens and spend a few days there and then on to Naxos and Santorini by either plane or ferry – whichever worked out cheapest/least time-consuming.

Sunset on Naxos

With a few days still to fill, we looked at adding one more island. Wanting somewhere with plenty to do and some history behind it, I suggested the largest of the Greek islands, Crete. Being the most southerly of the Cyclades, it fitted perfectly into our into our itinerary as our last stop and with it being a popular package holiday destination from the UK, there was plenty of direct flights back to regional airports in the UK available, even one direct to Norwich, the closest airport to my friend!

Santorini

Researching what we wanted to do at each of our stops, we carefully worked out how much time we’d need at each destination settling on a 2 night stop in Skiathos (just enough time to use our full day there on the Mamma Mia tour), 4 nights in Athens, 3 in Naxos, 3 in Santorini and 4 nights in Crete – a 16 night stay in total. After booking our main flights, we debated internal flights over ferries deciding by the time we added in time to get to the airport, checking in, collecting luggage after landing etc etc, a 4 hour ferry ride would be just as quick as a flight. For the most part, the ferries were cheaper too especially as we didn’t have to pay to take our luggage on board and it seemed like a more authentic option if we were island-hopping! So, other than Skiathos-Athens where a flight was really the only viable option, we opted for ferries between the islands.

Chania, Crete

Accommodation-wise, we tried to stick with budget options, mainly using guesthouses or, with Athens, hotels in less touristy and therefore cheaper areas. Other than that, free cancellation was our non-negotiable and where possible, we tried to get some kind of breakfast included. Santorini was the main challenge here with many places being either already booked up for the summer or super expensive meaning we had to go above our £100 per night budget despite staying a 15 minute walk out of Fira town centre but we did at least have a hotel with a pool for that and we managed to save elsewhere.

Goats in Crete

Flights, ferries and accommodation sorted, we moved on to activities. With it being the height of summer, we knew Greece would be busy and wanted to save time by pre-booking tickets to museums and archaeological sites allowing us to skip the lines. We both decided that driving Greece would not be something we’d be confident with, especially with the language barrier, so instead we booked some organised tours on the various islands so we could still see as much of them as possible making sure, like we had with our hotel choices, that everything was cancellable until the last minute just in case.

Spinalonga Island

In the run up to our trip, we began to wonder if we’d done the right thing booking such a short stay in Skiathos, mainly because of the airport disruption with airline delays and cancellations constantly in the news. Our flight already arrived relatively late into Skiathos, just after 7pm, and with just one full day there followed by a very early morning flight out to Athens the following day, any delays or worse, cancellations, would make our stay there pointless and possibly have a knock on effect on our transfer to Athens from there.

As it turned out, we were worrying over nothing. Flying out of the relatively small and quiet East Midlands Airport and with Jet2, possibly the least disrupted UK airlines this summer, was a good decision. Everything ran smoothly with our departure and before we knew it, we were arriving into Skiathos ready to begin our summer island-hopping adventure in Greece!