Sporades Greek Islands - Holiday Destinations Greece

The Greek Sporades Islands are located in the Aegean Sea to the east and south east of Thessaly's Pelion Peninsula. There are 11 islands in the archipelago but only four are inhabited: Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnisos and Skyros. Skiathos has an international airport and boasts some of the best beaches in Greece making it one the most popular package holiday destinations of all the Greek islands. Neighbouring Skopelos also attracts hordes of summer visitors but Alonnisos and Skyros are both relatively unspoilt and appeal to independent travellers seeking tranquility and age-old island traditions untainted by mass tourism.

Skiathos will be your top choice if you're a party animal seeking a lively beach scene and an even livelier nightlife. It used to be an exclusive haunt of the rich and famous in the sixties but these days the island has been taken over by the tour operators who block book most of the hotels up to a year in advance. You can fly directly to Skiathos from Athens and several European destinations and there are good ferry and hydrofoil links with the mainland and other islands in the group. The island's greatest attraction is its beaches which are among the most beautiful in the Mediterranean. The south coast is peppered with pine-fringed coves with long stretches of golden sand and a wealth of watersports and beach activities to satisfy all ages and tastes. And when night falls there are music bars and discos a plenty to keep you dancing till dawn.

Nearby Skopelos is less commercialised than Skiathos but considerably more tourist-orientated than tranquil Alonnisos, which is a short boat ride to the east. Skopelos is a popular package holiday spot but the islanders cling determinedly to many of their traditional customs so in many ways the island offers the best of both worlds - it's a tourist centre but one which retains its quintessentially Greek character. The island has two of the loveliest towns in the Sporades - the main port of Skopelos Town where charming cobbled streets wind up to the hilltop Venetian castle from the bustling waterfront and delightful Glossa which steadfastly refuses to make any concessions to mass market tourism. The island's forested interior is littered with monasteries and old stone houses with outdoor ovens where the islanders used to bake locally grown plums for their once-lucrative prune industry.

Alonnisos lies at the heart of the Sporades Marine Park, established in 1992 with the main aim of saving the Mediterranean monk seals which are now one of the world's most endangered species. About 50 seals live in this protected zone, the only one of its kind in Greece, along with many other rare species of flora and fauna. You'll be lucky to catch a glimpse of one of the seals but if you take advantage of one of the many summer boat excursions from the island you may see dolphins playing in the waves, kingfishers and the extraordinarily acrobatic Eleonora's falcons which nest high up in the cliffs.

Skyros is the odd one out of the group - lying south east of the other three and isolated from them by a lack of regular ferry services. The main town is more reminiscent of the Cyclades than the Sporades with its dazzling, flat-roofed whitewashed buildings and labyrinthine lanes. Many of the older islanders still dress in traditional costume and take a fierce pride in their charming Skyrian stone houses adorned with local embroidery, copperware and handmade wooden furniture.

The island is home to the indigenous Skyrian pony which has been bred here since ancient times though there are only about 100 today and most of those are domestic pets.

One of its greatest claims to fame is the somewhat outlandish Skyrian Goat Dance, renowned throughout Greece as one of the country's most unusual and liveliest ancient festivals. The celebration takes place in the lead-up to Lent and involves groups of men dancing in the streets - the leaders wear goatskin masks and garlands of sheep bells and are accompanied by young men cavorting in Syrian women's clothing.

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