Popular with charter yachts in summer, Genevieve Leaper explores these Greek islands at the quieter end of the season
But then the remote control for the windlass stopped working and the skipper started shouting.
Once out of the harbour we found a nice breeze and the skipper’s mood improved with lunch.
It was too late to get out of the Gulf, so we anchored in an un-named bay at the end of the Trikeri peninsula, the tip of the Pelion, which curls like a beckoning finger around the Gulf of Volos.
The clouds were turning pink as we left in the morning and the sun was already up over Evia when we rounded the corner and the islands came into view.
Despite the name – Sporades means scattered – the Northern Sporades, curving in an arc east from the Pelion, are actually one of the more compact groups of islands in the Aegean.
For us just a day’s sail from Aleko’s home village of Milina, the Northern Sporades are ideal for a short cruise, which was all we wanted in October.
Coming from the south, the archipelago is a short sail from northern Evia.
Beating up towards Skiathos, Aleko caught a swordfish – so that was dinner sorted.
Coming into calmer waters in the lee of the island we passed Koukounaries, often described as ‘the most beautiful beach in the Aegean’.
From the sea the most conspicuous feature is a huge hotel, but out of season it is a lovely beach over-hung by pine trees with a lagoon behind.
Wind stops sailing
Our timing was bad, we’d be crossing the gap between Skiathos and Skopelos at lunchtime.
The distances between islands may be short, but the wind funnels through the gaps – these islands were once known to fishermen as the Gates of the Wind.
Aleko suggested a lunch stop off Nisida Tsougkria, a small islet south of Skiathos town.
In five years I’ve not yet been to the main town and largest harbour in the Sporades.
Skiathos is the busiest island so this is the place to go for nightlife but we prefer the quieter places
On Tsougkria we investigated the old olive press. It was picturesquely derelict with crumbling walls and the rusting remains of the old steam and not-quite-so-old diesel engines.
However, as Aleko worked in the olive press in Milina in his youth, I was given the complete guided tour as he explained the workings of a cylinder with double-rotating grindstones and the huge iron press.
Skopelos town and main harbour are on the north coast. It is an attractive town, but we rarely visit as we usually pass south of the islands where our favourite anchorage is Panormos.
As the name ‘all round bay’ suggests, Panormos is sheltered from all directions and we have sat out a few thunderstorms and gales here.
Skopelos is green and well wooded, the honeyed scent of the pine forest wafting out to sea as we approached.
Off the beaten track in the Northern Sporades
The clouds scudding across showed it was still breezy the next day, though it was flat water and fluky winds along the coast until we came out into the open for another hard beat.
With a north-easterly swell it was lumpy until we got into the channel between Alonnisos and Peristera.
We considered going to Steni Vala, a charming little harbour on Alonnisos.
But I was keen to try somewhere new and one more tack took us into the big bay of Ormos Vasiliko on Peristera opposite.
There is a tiny hamlet at the head of a small inlet, but we anchored by the rusting wreck of a small cargo vessel.
Exploring ashore was not easy – there were plenty of goat paths through the dense vegetation, but following goats is always risky and I found myself crawling under bushes in places.
From the houses I found a real path to the north coast.
Autumn is not as good as spring for wildlife but I was excited to find a butterfly I’ve been hoping to see – the Two-tailed pasha.
The islands get wilder as you go east into the heart of the Marine Park. Kyra Panagia (or Pelagonisi) is the last inhabited island, home to just a few monks.
There are good anchorages on the south and north coasts. We spent a night in Agios Petros before sailing to Planitis, past the renovated monastery, which boasts a large array of solar panels.
I wasn’t surprised to see an Eleonora’s falcon soaring the eastern cliffs; the islands are one of their main breeding areas and it’s easy to forget what a rare species this is.
These fabulous aerobatic falcons are unusual in nesting colonially on sea cliffs where they prey on smaller migrating birds.
From a narrow entrance, Planitis opens out into a large bay with two arms. We went paddleboarding at first light to watch the sunrise.
Across the sound, the rugged ridge of Giaoura was silhouetted against the golden sky.
Along with more distant Piperi, this uninhabited island is out of bounds to protect the endangered monk seals.
Anchoring is allowed off Psathoura, another small outlier further north.
All the islands have their own character but flat, low-lying Psathoura doesn’t seem to belong to the group; it’s dark volcanic rocks quite unlike the more familiar pale limestones.
There is supposed to be the remains of an ancient city underwater but it is certainly not obvious.
We had hoped to go on to Agios Efstratios, an isolated island in the middle of the Aegean.
Unfortunately, although the forecast was suitable for going, it was no longer promising for getting back.
Common sense prevailed and we completed our circumnavigation of Kyra Panagia to head back towards Peristera.
Ormos Klima on the east coast of Peristera held two surprises. The first was a monk seal which popped up in the middle of the bay.
The Marine Park is one of their last strongholds but even a glimpse of a seal is something special.
We saw three this trip – our record – but, disappointingly, not a single dolphin.
Bottlenose and common dolphins are frequent and we occasionally see striped dolphins.
The next welcome surprise was to find the beach virtually clear of rubbish.
Last time we were here we did a big beach clean, this year someone had beaten us to it.
Needless to say a quick stop next morning in a smaller bay was enough to load as much rubbish as we could carry.
Adelfi and Adelfopoulo are a pair of small, steep islets south of Peristera with a narrow, fair weather anchorage on Adelfi.
The most remarkable feature of the island is a large population of snakes.
I was interested to find the first one on a summer visit, but soon began to feel vulnerable in shorts and sandals.
Most snakes in Greece are harmless but these were unmistakably nose-horned vipers, the most venomous species.
This time I wore walking boots and long trousers even though the evening was probably too cool for snakes.
Mist blowing up over the cliffs made for a very atmospheric red sunset.
Fog is quite unusual in the area. It can be hazy when the wind blows from the south, coating everything in fine, red dust, but more often the air is clear enough to see the snow-capped peak of Mount Athos 60 miles away.
From Adelfi it is only a few miles to Skantzoura and then a day’s sail to Skyros.
I was secretly hoping the skipper might be persuaded to extend the cruise. Skyros is the odd one out of the Sporades.
Largest and highest (788m) of the islands, it lies closer to Evia than the main chain and is remote enough to have its own endemic species of lizard and breed of ponies.
Achilles hid here at the court of King Lycomedes, sent by his mother in a vain attempt to evade his prophesied fate at Troy.
We usually visit Skyros on our way to more distant islands but it would be worth staying longer to explore the many pleasant anchorages in the west and south.
Linaria is quieter than the ferry harbours on the other islands, with a book exchange on the quayside and cats snoozing on the rows of parked mopeds.
In need of shelter
But it was no good thinking of Skyros now; with strong winds and rain due in a few days we needed to find a safe anchorage after first crossing to Alonnisos for shopping in Patitiri.
It was now early November so there was plenty of space to go alongside the quay and unload the rubbish we’d collected before moving round the corner to the little fishing harbour of Votsi for the night.
Hard to believe with the cloudless sky next morning that the weather was going to turn, but as we came around Skopelos the first wisps of high cloud appeared.
Determined to make the most of the last sunny day, we stopped for a lunchtime swim near Stafylos on our way back to Panormos.
With the wind forecast to go from south to north, instead of anchoring with a shore line as usual here, we stayed further out, preferring to swing to the anchor.
It proved a good decision when we were woken at 0300 by a thunderstorm.
The slow way home
We spent the last night on the mainland at a small cove near Chondri Ammos with a beach of marble pebbles.
Time for an afternoon playing on the beach, trying to create eye-catching designs with rubbish we had collected – our attempt to draw attention to marine plastic pollution.
All too soon we were hurrying to photograph our artwork and clear up before the sun disappeared behind the hill.
Short days are a downside to sailing at this time of year, but well compensated by the glorious sunrises and sunsets.
In the morning we left at first light with the moon still bright over Tiseo mountain. Motoring in light, fickle winds we could have been home by lunchtime, but felt inclined to delay the end of the sailing season for a few hours.
There are plenty of appealing anchorages just inside the Gulf, this time we chose Vrach Pithou off Trikeri island; another favourite is Prasouda islet with its ruined monastery.
It would take a week to get in or out of the Gulf if we stopped at every scenic anchorage on the way!
How to cruise the Northern Sporades
Where to moor and anchor
The main harbours are often very busy in the summer and have frequent ferry traffic (watch out for ferry wash).
Skiathos is the largest harbour but many berths are occupied by the charter fleets.
Skopelos harbour can be dangerous to enter during strong north-westerly winds.
Mediterranean mooring, stern (or bows) on to the quay, is normally required.
At Patitiri it is possible to anchor in the bay.
Smaller harbours include Neo Klima and Agnontas on Skopelos, Votsi and Steni Vala on Alonnisos.
The main harbours offer supermarkets, water and fuel, car and moped hire and bus services (of varying frequency) but facilities are limited elsewhere.
Many bars and restaurants are closed outside the main tourist season, especially in the smaller villages.
- Island harbours: Skiathos – Skiathos town; Skopelos – Skopelos town, Loutraki ; Alonnisos –Patitiri; Skyros – Linaria
- Harbours in the Gulf of Volos (Pagasetic Gulf): Volos – commercial port with large marina and many facilities
- Achillion: small harbour at the entrance to the Gulf on the western side
- Milina: small fishing harbour with space for a few yachts. Avoid in westerly winds; nearby Valtoudi Bay offers good sheltered anchorage but with many moorings.
Weather in the Northern Sporades
Summer (June to August) is the time for guaranteed sunshine, with July and August the hottest months (average high 29°C).
This is also the time when the meltemi blows, the strong winds that sweep through the Aegean.
The meltemi is north-easterly here and mostly Force 4-6, less fierce than around the Cyclades.
Swimming is possible year round as the sea temperature never drops below 14°C, but the water is still cool in April and warmest from July to September (24°C).
In spring and autumn almost anything is possible (pack everything from bikini to thermals).
There can be summery weather to the end of October but heavy rain also occurs and thunderstorms are not unusual.
Winds can come from any direction (still predominantly from a northerly quarter) and vary from flat calm to gale force, with good sailing breezes much of the time.
There are often two or three swells running from different directions which can lead to rolling in more open anchorages.
We use the Windy app for forecasts.
The National Marine Park of Alonissos and Northern Sporades (NMPANS) was the first marine park established in Greece in 1992 and is one of the largest marine protected areas in Europe (2,200sq km).
The park office and information centre are located in Patitiri.
The regulations are complicated and a bit confusing so it’s worth checking before visiting.
The area is divided into two zones: Zone B – Alonissos and Peristera – few restrictions Zone A – including Kyra Panagia, Psathoura, Skantzoura – restrictions on anchoring and landing.
There is an entrance fee for Zone A, tickets can be bought at alonissos-park.gr Giaoura and Piperi are no-go areas with exclusion zones of 0.5 and 3 miles respectively.
Skiathos and Volos are the main charter bases in the area, with smaller numbers of boats available at Loutraki on Skopelos, Achillion at the entrance to the Gulf and A&C Yachting in Milina.
The season generally runs from April to October with some good deals early and late in the season.
Direct charter flights from the UK to Volos and Skiathos are available in the summer.
Pilot books & recommended reading
- Greece, Sea Guide Volume 2 Evvoia, Sporades, North Aegean by Nicholas D Elias, 4th edition (Eagle Ray, €90 (includes charts, in Greek and English)
- Laminated pilot charts (Pagasitikos Gulf – Sporades) www.eagleray.gr/en/
- Greek Waters Pilot by Rod and Lucinda Heikell, 14th edition (Imray, £49.50)
- West Aegean by Rod and Lucinda Heikell, 4th edition (Imray, £22.50)
- An Island in Greece; on the shores of Skopelos by Michael Carroll, (Bloomsbury, £11.99) an entertaining account of sailing and life on Skopelos in the 1960s
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