A hit musical has put the Greek island of Skopelos firmly on the map - exactly where it deserves to be
Who would have thought the DVD of the film of a musical based on the hits of a 1970s Swedish pop group would, as if by magic, bring fame to a Greek island 30 years on? But – Abba cadabra! - that’s what’s happened to Skopelos. Here (and on its better-known neighbour, Skiathos, which is keen to jump on the Mamma Mia! bandwagon) it’s hard to escape the sound of Scandinavia’s greatest hits playing in every bar and café.
Get used to it. Once Greek islanders latch on to a tune they like they never let it go. They’re still playing the themes from Never on Sunday and Zorba the Greek 40 years on, so we can expect to be hearing 'Waterloo' and 'Dancing Queen' well into the 2050s. Strangely, I’ve yet to meet a Swede on Skopelos, so perhaps you can have too much of a good thing.
There’s nowhere to build an airport on hilly, thickly-wooded Skopelos, so get here by flying to Skiathos, then catching a ferry or (preferably) a high speed hydrofoil. Boats sail from the New Harbour at Skiathos Town, a 10-minute taxi ride from the airport. Most boats call first at Loutraki, the small port for the island’s second village, Glossa, which you can see 750 feet above, on a wooded hillside. Built to serve locals, it doesn’t hold much for visitors, so most people carry straight on to Skopelos’s main port, on the north coast and at the other end of the island – though if a strong north wind is blowing, hydrofoils may instead stop at Agnontas, the tiny but more sheltered harbour on the west coast, five miles from the capital.
Most of the island’s hotels and guesthouses are in and around Skopelos Town (also called Chora), or at the island’s two best beaches, Panormos (on the west coast) and Stafylos (on the south coast. Chora has a character all of its own. Seen from above, the old part of town is a sea of grey stone roofs. Seen from below, wooden balconies jut out over narrow streets and small squares from tall houses. Dozens of tavernas and cafés line the long harbourfront and stretch beside a rather scruffy, pebbly town beach. The skimpy ruins of a small Venetian fortress, and a gaggle of dazzlingly whitewashed churches surround the highest point of the village.
Between Greek holidaymakers from the mainland and British tour operators, most beds are booked up solid from mid-June until late August and finding a room can be tricky if you’re travelling independently. If you plan to visit at this time of year, book well in advance. In town, stay at Andromachi Studios (named after the owner), with six bright, modern and breezy, open-plan studios on the outskirts of town (20 minutes' walk from the harbour), with super views from private balconies. Or, for something more traditional, stay at Kir Sotos, a charming pension with 12 rooms fitted higgledy-piggledy into a 19th-century house with a paved courtyard and a roof terrace. It has basic, shared self-catering facilities and is right in the centre of town.
For full-on hotel comfort, stay at Hotel Dionysos, with a pool in flowery gardens on a hillside above the village (but still within walking distance) and frills including satellite TV and minibars, or at the Prince Stafilos, close to the sea on the outskirts of town. For a better beach, try the 41-room Afrodite Hotel at Panormos, a stretch of blue water and pebbly sand about eight miles from Chora, which has its own pool and comfy rooms, or stay on the south coast at Stafilos, only a couple of miles from Chora.
Restaurants? A big Greek summer clientele ensures the food is a cut above most islands, and ‘English pubs’ serving ‘English breakfast’ are conspicuously absent. This is good. We liked Platanos, with tables on a small square under a vast plane tree, and Molos, serving good seafood on the harbourfront. For staying in touch with the rest of the world while enjoying a cold beer, Blue Sea, at the far west end of the harbour, has wi-fi internet access, and for staying up late, the island’s main nightspot is Karavi, on the waterfront past the town beach, west of the harbour, where a big old wooden schooner has been hauled ashore and turned into a music bar where drinks are probably the most expensive on the island.
Apart from Chora’s small folk museum, and several almost-deserted monasteries on the hills around the village, Skopelos is blessedly free of must-see sights. If your feet get itchy, the shady woods provide good walking, and if you have a yen to explore further there are daily boat trips to nearby Alonissos and beyond, into Greece’s only marine national park, where you may be lucky enough to see dolphins, turtles, the rare Eleonora’s falcon, or the even rarer monk seals that rear their cubs in sea-caves in the park’s desert islands – though, since there are only 50 of them, sightings are unlikely. Mainly, though, Skopelos is an island for kicking back, enjoying café life… and listening to the omnipresent sounds of Abba.