ALONISSOS Greece is one of the less visited holiday islands of the Sporades chain that lies off mainland Greece's east coast. Unlike its much noisier neighbour Skiathos, Alonissos has a tranquil, soporific atmosphere with lots of old-world Greek holiday charm.
Alonissos island may have escaped the ugly embrace of the holiday package tour industry but there are still signs of change as more visitors begin to discover its many attractions.
Holiday hotels, apartments and villas have sprung up both in the main resort port of Patitiri and in the attractive hill village of Chora, while newly surfaced roads have made access to Alonissos' more remote beaches much easier than used to be the case.
The surrounding waters have been classed as a marine park and so Alonissos can boast some of the cleanest swimming in the Mediterranean. There are boat trips to several of the outlying islets, although visiting is restricted in order to protect endangered seal habitats.
Alonissos is a favourite both with independent travellers and with visitors. Walkers too have plenty to crow about as Alonissos island is a very green, fertile and heavily wooded island with well-marked walking trails and some jaw-dropping scenery awating the footloose.
Regular daily ferries from Skiathos make Alonissos relatively easy to get to and it often features in multi-resort breaks in several holiday brochures.
If it's tranquillity you are after and if you like to 'people watch' from quiet tavernas, wander the wooded hills or take small boats to near-deserted beaches then Alonissos is probably a Greek holiday island for you.
Alonissos is not noted for its sandy beaches. It is rightly famous for its clean water and green landscape with most Alonissos beaches enclosed by pine trees and set in beautiful locations. But the beaches are mostly stone, rock and shingle but for a few exceptions. There is a clutch of beaches around the south of the island, below the Chora ,but these can be difficult to reach down steep dirt tracks. The remaining Alonissos beaches are strung out along the south-east coast and most are easily reachable off the main island road. The more popular beaches have substantial tavernas open throughout the season while those less accessible have a beach cantina opening in the high summer season.
The island's main port at PATITIRI is, in truth, little more than a cement quayside with a couple of streets running inland up the steep hillside.
The harbour was originally lined with several wine presses - 'patitiri' translates as wine press - and the locals lived in the hillside village, or Chora, on the hills above.
An earthquake wrecked the hilltop homes and disease destroyed the island vines. Villagers were forced out of their homes to live in hastily built concrete houses in Patitiri and nearby Votsi.
Many guide books write off the Patitiri's drab collection of breeze block buildings, but much has been done by the locals to add charm and the results are not so bad. Flowers, vines and a liberal splattering of paint have helped brighten up the shops, cafes and tavernas and now Patitiri harbour offers a fairly pleasant, if short, evening stroll.
A galaxy of small hotels stand on the cliffs above, overlooking the bay and offering both pleasant views and shaded cliffside walks. A few bars and cafes have opened along the cliffside footpath where some rustic rope fencing is all that lies between you and the surf below; so make sure to hang on to the kids.
Down in the bay beyond the harbour, Alonissos has a narrow stretch of coarse sand with access to the beach through a line of tavernas. Patitiri beach is pleasant enough with steep, wooded hills on three sides. Good swimming is to be had in the clear, rock strewn waters.
Beach taverna owners are friendly enough (they'll pitch a table on the sands below if you ask), but the constant exhortations to eat every time you pass through to the beach can be wearisome. Better and cheaper food can be found in several tavernas tucked away at the other end of Patitiri anyway.
Patitiri's atmosphere is quiet, soporific even, and broken only by the regular arrival of hydrofoils as they pull into the bay to disgorge the daily visitors. There is a small free private museum and coffee shop on the road to the Chora with exhibits on the ground floor and a traditional Alonissos house upstairs - well worth a visit .
CHORA otherwise known as PALIA ALONISSOS is perched on the hilltop high up above Patitiri and is approached either by road or up a track from the port. The track has been signposted, resurfaced with lamps turned on at night.
It's a 20 minute walk on the track or 60 minutes along the asphalt road. A small island bus makes the run from Patitiri before heading off to Steni Vala up the coast.
Chora was the island capital until the 1965 earthquake when the villagers were weeded out by the military junta and forcibly rehoused in Patitiri below or in nearby Votsi.
The derelict houses left behind were eventually snapped by foreigners and well-heeled mainlanders as holiday homes and nowadays the Chora is pretty much abandoned for the winter.
Narrow streets and fortified stone houses, originally built to withstand attack from pirates, have since been cemented, paved and prettified.
The result may be picturesque but the Chora is now little other than a holiday home village with no heart to it and with no purpose but tourism.
At Chora's highest point is a series of small squares where cafe bars and tavernas open up for the summer season. There are impressive views of the island from Chora.
An old windmill and some preserved threshing floors are more interesting for their views than their architecture.
Chora sits on a hill at the southern end of the island and there are several steep narrow tracks that lead down in almost every direction to small beaches and coves below. The tracks can be difficult to find and the beaches are not always visible until you are actually on top of them. Some of the tracks are very steep and require quite a scramble down, with an even bigger scramble to get back up.
GIALIA is reached along an unmade track that branches north off the main road from Patitiri just outside Chora. The track drops sharply into the small inlet at Ormos Gialia. There a pretty windmill sits on the rocks overlooking a small sand and stone bay. As the beach is north-facing it tends to catch rubbish blown in by the offshore winds but it's a pretty enough place, although without any tourist facilities.
VRISITSA can be seen easily from the road out of Chora and sits in the next bay south of Gialia. There is a bit of a scramble down through scrub and bush to get to the beach. A flat bed of coarse sand and shingle lies at the end of a deep and steeply sided inlet that offers some protection from the wind. The beach is west-facing so the visitor can enjoy good sunsets here provided they can face scrambling up the hillside afterwards. There are no facilities here.
VITHISMA has a dark sand and shingle beach that is hardly visible until you are on top of it. It too can be reached from Patitiri on foot. From the hillside above a small car park marks the start of a very steep goat track that follows the line of the cliff. The track divides about half way down but either fork will get you to the beach.
The left track requires some tricky scrambling down a very steep slope, the right track drops even more steeply but at least there are some steps to make the going easier. The difficulties in getting to and from the beach explain why most arrive by boat from Patitiri harbour. The beach boasts some windsurfing in the high season. Many consider this the best beach on the island and some say it is the only one with sand but there are other sandy beaches to be found, though not many.
MOURTIAS has a delightful small quay at the northern end of a small cove of shingle and stone. Trees at the back of the beach offer some natural shade and there is good swimming among the rocks each side of the bay. A trio of tavernas offer plenty of refreshment.
MARPOENDA is the most popular of the beaches around Chora thanks to easier access. The downside is a rash of brightly coloured umbrellas, noisy radios and crowds cramming the small coarse sand and shingle bay. You need to get there early if you want to bag a place and it's not a beach to head for if you prefer to avoid the crowds. There are flat rocks beyond at PLAKES that are good for sunbathing with a camping site called Camping Rocks nearby which has a small cafe and toilets.
ROUSOUM YIALOS lies just north of Patitiri on the way to the village of Votsi. It is a popular little place, mainly taking overspill from nearby Patitiri which is about 10 minutes away on foot.
There is a steeply banked shingle and pebble beach that can get crowded in the afternoon. Apartments and villas have been built behind the beach which is edged by a low stone wall.
There are rocks at the southern end for added interest and an attractive little harbour to the north. A trio of shady tavernas line the back of the beach which, being south facing, can get very hot in the middle of the day.
The more adventurous can seek out a small pebble beach at SPARTINES that can be reached on foot or by boat. A track through a roadside depot just before the junction to Milia leads down through woods to the secluded beach. There are no facilities here.
God's gift to travel brochure designers, the tiny but delightful beach at VOTSI has great visual appeal and is certain to get the Nikons clicking.
Actually two small bays, it's the northerly one that wins the photographic prizes. A narrow stone and shingle beach cowers beneath a towering vertiginous cliff. Votsi looks out over a bay of incredibly clear water - so singularly clear that shadows of boats can be seen on the sandy sea bottom far out into the bay.
Access to Votsi beach is down a short, but steep, rough track. As Votsi beach is both narrow and short, with a sheer cliff behind, just a few visitors are enough to make it feel quite claustrophobic. There are no facilities here.
How unfortunate that such a dazzling jewel should be surrounded by the unremittingly drab sprawl of ugly suburban housing that makes up the most of Votsi village. The houses were thrown up quickly to house former earthquake victims ousted from former homes in the Chora and have since become permanent.
Visitors who venture along the northern headland above the beach will be rewarded with delightful views, a decent taverna and some very pleasant woodland walks - but care should be taken at the sheer cliff edges often hidden from view behind scrub and trees.
Fine sand makes a rare appearance at CHRISI MILIA or HYSRI MILIA around the headland north of Votsi where pines sweep right down to the seashore.
Travellers can struggle to find it though. Signs to the beach are misleading and arrival by road really is a hit and miss affair.
The descent is down a long and winding track through pine woods which seems to be leading nowhere until you suddenly hit the shore.
Once there, a lovely beach awaits with soft sand gently sloping into a clear turquoise sea and rocky pools at the far end to explore. Facilities come in the shape of a ramshackle cantina under nearby trees but it doesn't open until June.
Island holiday reps favour this spot, which many claim has the best and just about only sand on the island. The beach soon fills up though, even in the low season, and late-arriving taxi-boat passengers may have to search for a good spot to settle down.
MILIA, just opposite Chrisi Milia, has a less interesting stone and shingle beach, although it is in a beautiful location.
The bay at KOKKINOKASTRO has an arresting red cliff promontory (which gives the beach its name) and which marks the the end of a white stone and pebble strand.
Access requires a steep and difficult climb down through a narrow gully at the end of a steep goat track. Winter rains have carved deep ruts into the path and even goats must tremble at the prospect of clambering down to the stony shoreline.
Remarkably, a beach taverna pops up during July and August, though exactly how is a mystery and provisions are shipped in by boat.
Nearby archaeological excavations have unearthed the site of ancient Ikos with evidence of the oldest known prehistoric habitation in the Aegean, but there is little of it to see.
Ugly cement blocks have been dumped at one end of the beach, their only function apparently to spoil the view.
Nearby is a pleasant pebbles stretch at TZORTZI GIALOS with shallow water and a beach cantina in the summer..
LEPTOS YIALOS or LEPTOS GIALOS is a couple of bays north from Kokkinokastro but rather less easy to find. Access is down a long steep track from the main road.
The beach is a strip of white pebble and is in a lovely setting, just a small south facing scoop of a bay backed by pine trees that tumble right down to the sea shore offering plenty of shade.
There are a couple of tavernas here that stay open quite late for those who like to linger in the clear turquoise waters with a late swim.
A few sun beds and umbrellas are scattered along the shore which has a little natural shade provided by the odd tree at the back of the beach.
The tiny fishing port of STENI VALA is little more than a quayside of tavernas, a shop and a bar - but the setting is idyllic.
The approach from the south is spectacular with wide sea vistas and the nearby deserted island of Peristera hanging offshore. Taverna fare is above average at Steni Vala thanks to the demands of visiting yacht flotillas which have pushed up standards and prices.
Steni Vala village is the headquarters of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Monk Seal. If you are in luck you may see seals recuperating in the small rescue centre at the end of the harbour wall.
There are no beaches in Steni Vala itself but small bays can be found hidden along the coast at GLYFADA, GLIFES and TZORTZI.
They can be reached by track or you can hire a boat. There is a daily bus service from Steni Vala to Patitiri in the high season. Steni Vala also has an organized camping site near the shore.
The road hugs the coast as it heads north out of Steni Vala until it eventually reaches the huge triangular white stone beach at AGIOS DIMITRIOS which sweeps out to sea to create a dramatic scenic headland of breathtaking beauty.
The coast road the runs through the whole of the surrounding Kalamakia area is lined with rock and pebble beaches, some long and flat though none has any tourist facilities.
The road rises above cliffs on the approach to Agios Dimitrios to provide panoramic views over the headland below, with the large islet of Peristera just offshore.
The road than sweeps down onto the headland and disappears into dirt tracks that are curiously criss-crossed with chain link fencing, the purpose of which is utterly baffling, but typically Greek.
At the shore there are two large beaches of white pebble, one north of the headland and one south. A ramshackle, but attractive, beach catina has been built, mainly out of driftwood.
It doesn't serve drinks cold until July when visitor numbers made it worthwhile to fire up the generator.
There are sunbeds for hire on the south side of Agios Dimitrios where there is a small jetty for boats to pull in. On both beaches the drop into the sea can be very sharp with slippery stones underfoot, so this isn't a particularly good beach for families with children.
The stones remain on the sea bed for some distance fro the shore so visitors will need some sort of footwear, which is just as well as there are also plenty of sea urchins about.
The south beach at Agios Dimitrios seems to stretch to the horizon - a wide swathe of large white stones and pebbles. The north side of the beach is a little quieter (though neither beach could be said to be busy). Access to both beaches has been much improved recently.