Last stop, Alonissos!” shouts the captain gruffly over the PA system as the hydrofoil approaches Patitiri harbour.
Having boarded the vessel in Skiathos and seen it almost empty of other passengers at Skopelos and then Glossa, it‘s with a certain sense of achievement that I scramble onto the pier – along with only a dozen other travellers.
On one side, Patitiri bay is lined with small fishing boats and yachts; on the other, soaring limestone cliffs topped with pine trees and a pebble beach, with children paddling in the turquoise shallows.
Alonissos is one of 24 islands in the Northern Sporades off the north-east coast of mainland Greece, and the most remote of the inhabited four, reached only by sea. With far fewer tourists, it’s noted for its sleepy, unaffected way of life and natural attractions.
Patitiri is brimming with hotels, tavernas and shops, but I am bound for a villa inland. Julia, the rep for sister operators Sunvil and GIC The Villa Collection on Alonissos, meets us to show us the way.
Villa Manolia lies five minutes northwards, tucked away down a quiet winding road, surrounded by a garden of fruit and olive trees, magnolia and roses. The two-storey house has three bedrooms and so many balconies and terraces it’s hard to know where to sit and watch our first Sporadean sunset from, with nothing but rolling green hills between us and the picturesque Old Town in the distance.
We waste no time the next day in exploring the northern portion of the archipelago on a boat trip from Patitiri.
A beautiful 25-metre wooden boat sets off with around 40 of us onboard, and with an insightful commentary from a British ex-pat who describes the islands’ history and wildlife.
Alonissos is inside the National Marine Park of Alonissos and Northern Sporades, established in 1992 as Greece’s first protected marine area. It’s home to almost half the world’s endangered Mediterranean Monk seal (though it’s rare to see one), as well as several rare seabirds, and by restricting fishing and park access, the marine life here has become some of the richest in the country.
Our first stop is at the Blue Cave on the north-east coast, said to be the home of the Cyclops of Greek mythology. As the boat noses into the cavern, we disturb dozens of darting Alpine swifts and are watched by a pair of Eleonora’s falcons gliding overhead.
On the next island, Kyra Panagia, we anchor in a sheltered bay and scale steep limestone steps to reach a remote monastery.
It is home to just two monks, who make their own cheese from goat's milk, mill wheat to make bread, and press olives and grapes to make olive oil and wine. We look around the tiny chapel, dating to the 1500s and bedecked in frescos and icons, and hear the intriguing tale of the monk who came here and never left – crafting a beautiful mosaic of pebbles on the floor and leaving a cryptic note tucked in a crevice to be discovered after his death.
There are several opportunities to swim, though the water temperature is even cooler than normal for the Sporades in late May, owing to a very cold winter. So I am thankful the next day for a thick wetsuit when I head out on a scuba diving trip with Triton Dive Center.
As I gear up on the back of the boat, a pod of dolphins frolics in the distance; four different species are regularly observed here. During two dives at Mourtias Reef I spy moray eels, wrasse, starfish and “feather-duster” worms.
At the Gorgonian Gardens site, I descend to 36 metres to see rare fan corals, starfish, grouper and brightly coloured nudibranchs (sea slugs).
A final dive off the coast of Skopelos, named Triton Cavern (“because we found it” explains our dive leader) is a chance to swim in single file through a tunnel and out into a cave with walls covered in sponges.
Recreational diving has only been allowed in Greece since 2005, and there’s currently huge excitement in Alonissos for the launch of Greece’s first underwater museum. At its centre will be the wreck of a huge ancient cargo ship that sank in about 400BC carrying more than 3,000 pottery jars – many of which are still intact.
“The combination of the marine park, shipwrecks, Gorgonian corals and caves makes Alonissos one of Greece’s best dive destinations,” says dive centre manager Dias Menis. The team at Triton is certainly convinced: the dive centre’s web domain is bestdivingingreece.com.
Smarter: GIC The Villa Collection’s season starts in May (2020 dates TBC), but during my visit (last week of May) some beach cafes and tavernas hadn’t opened yet. The sea is coolest in May and warmest in September, but the days are shorter at the end of the season.
Better: Rep Julia Browne’s invaluable book, An Insider’s Guide to Alonissos, is one of the few about the island; buy it for clients on Amazon for £11.99.
Fairer: Clients can buy jam, honey, sweets and pies from a local women’s cooperative in Patitiri, helping to keep traditional recipes and methods alive.
Strenuous days of diving call for hearty dinners, and Villa Manolia is only a 20-minute walk from both the Old Town and Patitiri (and an €8 taxi ride home).
Turning up the hill, we take a roughly paved and wildflower-lined path to Old Town, with butterflies, geckos, swifts and a harmless grass snake our only company.
Old Town was the island’s capital until an earthquake in 1965, when many moved down to Patitiri. Its steep, winding streets and paths are a labyrinth, concealing old-fashioned thick walled houses and the remains of the fortress, and with traditional tavernas and shops selling local honey and souvenirs around every corner.
Dinner at the new Thea restaurant – all sleek wood, white cushions and fancy plates – is a culinary highlight; fava bean puree topped with sticky, caramelised octopus in particular.
The stroll down the hill into Patitiri, meanwhile, brings us to a strip of waterfront restaurants: Alelma, where we feast on courgette fritters and fresh tuna steak; Ostria taverna, where we enjoy mussels with feta cheese and chilli, and lamb kleftiko (slow-cooked and served in parchment paper); and upmarket Skippers, where there is traditional country sausage and grilled kalamari, and a wine list featuring – unusually – several different Greek wines by the glass.
Patitiri lacks Old Town’s historical buildings and quaintness, but does have a local museum (€4) packed with traditional local clothing and agricultural implements, and a fascinating display of artefacts from pirate ships.
Having a hire car means we can explore well beyond places within walking distance. Somehow, we don’t get up early enough to tackle any of the island’s longer walks before the heat of the day sets in, but we drive the full length of the nine-mile island, and stop off at pretty bays and harbour along the east and south coast.
At Steni Vala we sit and watch yachts sail in over lunch; at Megalos Mourtias we laze on the pebble beach and snorkel in the sheltered bay; and at Kalamakia we enjoy dinner on the modest little waterfront. We choose sea bream and scorpion fish from the refrigerator, and as one of only two couples having dinner in Kalamakia that evening, we are vastly outnumbered by cats.
Alonissos and the wider Sporades are not necessarily top of the list for first-timers to Greece, but GIC The Villa Collection’s clients come here for Alonissos’s walking trails and wildflowers, its cooler temperatures, and its relative lack of excursions and entertainment.
And it’s clear those who make the journey fall in love with its relaxed pace and wilderness; I learn from Julia that six of my fellow passengers on the way here were clients returning to their same villa.
The same goes for Julia herself, who came to Alonissos more than 20 years ago, intending to stay for two. “There’s something about Alonissos – the kind people, the privacy, the lack of fuss,”
she says. “We came here and never left.”
Book it: GIC The Villa Collection – part of the Sunvil group – celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and prides itself on working with only the highest quality and most unique properties in Greece. Villa Manolia sleeps 6/7 in two double rooms and a twin room, and leads in at £1,116pp for seven nights based on two sharing, or £848pp based on five sharing for 2020, including return flights from Gatwick, car hire, transfers and the services of a local representative. There is a 5% early booking discount for 2020. Manchester departures also available. Qualified divers can dive from €90 for two dives with Triton Dive Centre. Greece makes an excellent destination for learning to dive, with high-quality instruction and no dangerous marine-life. Triton has Padi Open Water courses (3-4 days) from €480.
For more information visit: gicthevillacollection.com; bestdivingingreece.com