If sun, sea and sand are essential ingredients for your perfect family holiday, look no further than the Greek island of Skiathos and its postcard-pretty beaches
Superb beaches, green hills and dazzling turquoise seas are the hallmarks of Skiathos, best known of a trio of islands in the Sporades group, within sight of the Greek mainland. Since it’s the only one of the three with an airport, you may spend an hour or two in Skiathos’s main (and only village), also called Skiathos – even if the rest of your holiday is spent on neighbouring Skopelos or Alonissos.
Happily, it’s a postcard-pretty spot, where gleaming motor-cruisers moor next to yachts and fishing boats, and a steady stream of ferries and hydrofoils carries passengers to nearby isles and the mainland. If you have time to kill while waiting for your boat, bus or plane, head for the Bourtzi peninsula, which juts into the bay between Skiathos’s old fishing harbour and the ferry quay. At its tip, you’ll find a bathing ladder giving access to the sea, changing cubicles and immaculately clean toilets, and a café under the pines.
Neat houses with red-tiled roofs and churches with multi-tiered campaniles give the little town an Italianate air. The locals just call it Chora – which means simply ‘the village’ - and by Greek standards, it’s quite a recent development. Until the 1830s, islanders lived in the hills to avoid corsairs, but after Greece became independent they built a new settlement by the sea, and their old hilltop village, Kastro is now a ghost village. Once home to more than 1,000 people, it’s a honeycomb of ruins and only two of its 22 churches still stand.
Start exploring Skiathos by taking a round-the-island boat trip. Boats leave Skiathos Town’s ‘Old Port’ every morning at 10am (buy tickets on board) and putter past the busy south coast beaches, then visit sea-caves, Lalaria and Aselinos (where’s there’s a lunch stop) on the north coast, and Tsougria island. For a few dollars more, you can take a yacht (with skipper and crew) from the New Marina to the uninhabited island of Tsougria, Skopelos, or even further.
Back in town, Odos Politechniou is the place for a cheap and cheerful bar crawl, with more than a dozen places to hang out after sundown, most of which offer potent ‘happy hour’ cocktails from around 8-10pm. Warning: the cheapest cocktails are made from local spirits and there’s a hangover in every mouthful. Bar Kentavros, a favourite spot since 1978, plays funk, soul, rock and rhythm and blues, and celebrated its 30th birthday in 2008.
Chora’s long quayside forms a double crescent, where a row of laidback clubs and music bars overlook the water east of the marina at Nea Paralia, about five minutes' walk from the town centre. Arena is authentically Greek (and so startlingly expensive – showing off is part of the real bouzouki experience, and a night here will set you back at least €80 a head). Pure has white canvas couches and purple cushions beneath palm trees and beside the sea, sounds to chill to, and drinks that start at €10. Red Morocco has harem-style red satin cushions and couches and a mirror-walled bar.
You’ll also find a string of excellent restaurants along this part of the waterfront. For those who are just passing through, they’re handy for the airport, which is a five-minute taxi ride away. Scuna, with tables on a deck above the water and a Greek-Mediterranean menu, is for my money the best restaurant in Skiathos Town, and dinner for two here will cost at least €80. At Milos Taverna, at the other end of this strip of bars, clubs and restaurants, you can dine (Greek or Chinese) for as little as €30 at a wooden seaside table beside a dilapidated windmill. Ta Bakaliarakia, in the centre of the village at the corner of Gregoriou and Epifaniou Dimitriou, is a long-established taverna, and its menu stretches from codfish croquette to rabbit stew and a good array of salads.
But Skiathos is really all about sea and sand. Five minutes walk from the harbour, Megali Ammos is lined with lively bars and restaurants, the sand is clean and the water is crystalline. The east end of the beach, nearest to town, is predictably the busiest - it’s a favourite with locals, with plenty of cheap and cheerful places to eat, including Taverna Poseidon, serving seafood, grills, salads and pizzas from around €10, and Taverna Twilight, offering traditional Greek scoff from around €15 a head.
On any other island, Megali Ammos would qualify as a top spot. Here, it’s overshadowed by even finer beaches further along the south coast. Happily, they’re easy to get to. From 8am to 11pm, buses zip along the south coast road every 15 minutes in each direction, picking up and dropping off at numbered stops every half-mile or so along the way, and it only takes about 45 minutes to travel all the way along the south coast to the end of the line, bus stop 26 at Koukounaries, the acknowledged top beach on Skiathos - and one of the very best in Greece.
It’s a vast crescent sweep of fluffy yellow sand, kept spotlessly clean and lined with loungers and umbrellas (€8 a day for two sunbeds is the going rate), café-bars and water sports kiosks. A boardwalk makes it (as far as I know) the only truly wheelchair-friendly and buggy-friendly beach in the islands, the water is shallow and warm, and there are lifeguards on duty in high season.
You don’t want to push a buggy over the rough track beyond Koukounaries, and at its end there are sights you may not wish sensitive toddlers (or grannies) to see. Little Banana Beach is the last spot on Skiathos where people bare all in search a perfect tan, and sadly these aren’t the nude nubiles and hunks who adorn so many Greek postcards, but walrus-like Teutons of a certain age. They really should know better.
Activity-wise, you’re spoilt for choice at Koukounaries, with water sports of all sorts, from banana-boat rides to speedboat rental and scuba diving for qualified divers and beginners. A five-minute walk from the beach, Skiathos Riding Centre (bus stop 25) has donkeys for kids and Arab horses for older riders.
Vromolimnos, midway between Koukounaries and Skiathos Town, is the liveliest party beach on the island, with more water sports, bungee jumping and loud music bars. There’s no public transport (and only dirt roads) to north coast beaches such as Aselinos and Lalaria, where white pebbles and sea-carved rocks replace golden sand, so you’d think they’d be a bit less crowded. In fact, they’re often just as busy, with day-trippers thronging the few bars and sun loungers.
Where to stay? Skiathos is so small, and its public transport so good, that it’s easy to mix and match beachlife and nightlife, even without renting a car. For families, the Skiathos Princess Hotel, a member of the Small Luxury Hotels group, is the finest resort on Skiathos, with lush gardens overlooking a vivid turquoise bay, a large pool and semi-private beach, five miles west of town at Agia Paraskevi. Less than a mile from Skiathos Town is the Aegean Suites Hotel (also a member of the elite SLH consortium). Sorry, no kids under 14 - but if you have teens it’s a good pick, with loads of water sports (and local totty of both genders) on Megali Ammos beach, and the bright lights of Chora within walking distance.
About four miles from town, the Kanapitsa Mare
hotel overlooks Tsaneria beach on the Kanapitsa peninsula and has two-bedroom family suites for €125-€135 per person. Stay in May or September and they’ll throw in free car hire.