The Mama Mia sequel has been storming the movie theaters this month, drawing romantics to fall hopelessly into the arms of a dream Mediterranean love affair, set among the pines, azure waters, and bougainvillea. Cobble pavements, white walls, blue shutters, and glorious tapas only add to the whimsy. And irrespective of Piers Brosnan’s dubious tones the movie has struck a chord across the globe, placing Skiathos and Skopelos firmly on the map. Ironically Skopelos is the Mama Mia Island but Skiathos, its more established neighbor has garnered the lion’s share of tourists.
The reality of Greece can be a little different. Beautiful it is. But overpopulated, commercial and replete with strutting European posers or “tipsy” Brits it can also be. But with Mama Mia stealing so many hearts, I was concerned how much of the island’s authenticity might also fall victim to flocking tourists.
Greece had been a mainstay of my youth flitting through the islands in the late eighties and early nineties, and frequently visited, it felt busy even then. Mykonos, Santorini, Ios, all stunningly beautiful but edging towards a South of France feel, and tripping into Ibiza Town at night.
Croatia and the lesser-known Greek islands now vie for attention from visitors around the world hungry for that sublime Mediterranean experience, still untouched in parts. While I had been therefore, to my surprise, I found so much the same. Staying in the South of the Island on the Kalamaki Peninsula we were in pole position to experience the beaches from Kolios, to neighboring Vromolimnos and Kanapitsa, to Agia Eleni.
In the bid for a genuine Greek experience we avoided hotels and opted for the real thing – a stone clad, mountaintop villa, bedecked with the very blue shutters and cool white walls that complete the dream sequence. The veranda surrounded by towering firs, offered a 180 degree view of the ocean, and surrounding small islands. A golden sunset at around 9.30pm in early July is a sight to behold.
The owner Elisabeth Powers was a superb host, meeting us at the airport and driving us to Villa Maestrali to settle us in.
As we arrived the fridge was kitted out with greek yoghurt, wine and beer, fruit, greek salad, fresh meats, milk, and kitchen that everything you might need. When you arrive at a destination, that level of preparation is highly welcome. Always readily available, to the extent of booking us restaurants, she shared the love of her family home – a rare position that her mother purchased and built upon.
Sadly, Skiathos villa owners have been under threat from HomeAway.com and OwnersDirect.co.uk online reservations, not only losing 30% of their income to the global booking agents but also being unable to ‘meet and greet’ and provide the service that differentiated them. Villa owners have suffered as a result, with many going up for sale, unable to pay the annual ownership and maintenance costs with these constraints. The locals have embarked upon a campaign #bookdirect, and I would wholeheartedly advocate that, for the personal service alone.
A red open top Jimny jeep drove the fun and authenticity of the experience to another level as the warm air and hot leather seats provided no respite from the July heat. Our donut ring and ice lolly lilos flapping in the wind. The family was unanimous – we were living the dream. Without aircon. The popular alternative is a local bus route with frequent, well-positioned stops along the coast.
The beaches are all united by the same clarity of water, aspect, and temperature, but some leveraging their shade and style to provide beach restaurants on different levels of style, cool and quality. Lalaria and Secret Beach have special appeal for their beauty, but for us Agia Eleni assumed the top spot, with its Cafe Del Mar vibrations, colourful loungers and parasols, good-looking hosts – incredibly well run by the rugged Stephanos, surveying his domain with charm alongside the quiet intensity of a big city bar. While it could have easily attracted posers, it didn’t deter a quiet couple with three daughters. The welcoming owner and his beach staff making any demographic feel at ease.
In the evening, tired kids in tow, we would descend from the car park just outside the town into the labyrinth of barely lit cobbled streets saying “yassou” (pron. yas-soo) to the locals, often the elderly sitting on their front doorstep, feeling (unnervingly) safe.
Almost every story I write involves children, normally mine. And I would have to stress that the Greeks had a wonderful way towards them. My otherwise shy five-year old, was whisked into the air on many occasions without apology, which went down surprisingly well, to our surprise.
The main drag of shops and restaurants gives the gives a second burst of energy as they look for bargains while my wife browses the boutiques, and I pull in for a Gyros (filled pita) at No Name. There’s a quaint outdoor movie theatre on the high street – no surprises which movie was on rotation.
But perhaps the best tip I could give to a luxury traveler was to look out for the Islea Hospitality Group. They seemed to have the recipe for quality, both in decor, cuisine, and location. Restaurants include Marmita and Scuna and our favourite, Bourtzi Cafe, an outdoor restaurant surrounded by the sea, a canopy of pines, woven with fairy lights – lit to perfection. Originally an outdoor disco, moonlit skinny dipping off the rocks was quite the norm.
Or, if that’s a little too polished, there will be many surprising corners that present the most quirky side street restaurants, delivering that still, dream evening you had traveled 24 hours to find.
And finally, there’s the new harbour – a pedestrianised thoroughfare at night, some magnificent boats and yachts, open-air restaurants and bars, with a few smooth nightclubs towards the end. And that says it all. Skiathos hasn’t changed her personality over the years to compete with its siblings. She holds her own with who she is, confident in her identity.
I can’t promise perfection. Skiathos certainly goes off script in places, so if it’s Mama Mia you’re looking for, be prepared to find something more authentic and fall head over heels with the quirks of her reality.