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Sporades news and views

The small island chain of the Sporades lie off the east shore of mainland Greece near the Pelion region. The main islands are Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonissos and Skyros. Most visitors fly into Skiathos airport and Skiathos is a major package holiday island. The Sporades are also popular with yacht flotillas. Skyros is the most isolated with few ferry links. Much of the sea in the Sporades form a marine park so waters are very clear.

mediterranean monk seal
Alonissos bans plastic bags

Beaches on the holiday island of Alonissos look set to be free of plastic bags next summer as island authorities impose a blanket ban. Hotels, shops, restaurants on the islands have agreed to prohibit the use of plastic bags across the island. Alonissos is one of the Sporades group of islands and lies at the heart of a marine conservation area designed to offer protection to rare animals such as the endangered Mediterranean seal. Alonissos Mayor Petros Vafinis said the plastic bag ban has been agreed by the whole island in a move that is designed to protect the island's environmental status. Greek island holidaymakers are well aware of the blight of plastic bags on beaches throughout Greece. Not only are they an unsightly blot on many Greek beaches, but they are also a danger to marine wildlife. They can be mistaken for jellyfish and swallowed by marine creatures such as seals which then choke on them. Petros Vafinis said: "Plastic bags take 400 to 500 years to disappear and are very damaging to both land and sea. We discussed it at the municipal council and decided to go ahead with the idea, with the help of the Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal and the Mediterranean SOS Network." Now island hoteliers and shopkeepers have stopped importing plastic bags and have replaced them with paper. Even shops selling souvenirs are to use paper bags despite the added expense. It adds to the island's recycling programme that began in 2012 and a campaign to limit the use of plastic bags on Alonissos which was launched earlier this year. Natalia Roumeliot, projects coordinator at the Mediterranean SOS Network, added: "Alonnisos is a small island with tremendous environmental value and has a very positive stance when it comes to environmentally friendly practices." The Network is to donate 2,000 paper bags and launch its own awareness campaign aimed not only as islanders but at Alonissos holiday visitors as well. Hopes are high that the island will have rid itself of plastic bags completely by the end of the 2016 holiday season. Last May the European Parliament called on member states to limit the use of plastic bags in shops and supermarkets. Surveys show that each Greek uses an average 242 plastic bags each year. The EU hopes to cut that to 90 by the end of 2019 and to 40 by 2025. The aim on Alonissos is to cut this to zero within a year. Natalia Roumeliot said: "Reducing the use of plastic bags is important for the environment. This might sound somewhat ambitious, but I think Alonissos will succeed."

lalaria beach skiathos
More tacky tourism

Not satisfied with being one of the most popular holiday islands in Greece, hotel operators on Skiathos have launched heavy promotions in the UK and other European countries. Consultants have been hired to promote holiday in Skiathos in target markets of the UK, Germany and Scandinavia this year. In the pipeline are free trips for tour companies and journalists, stalls at travel shows, fashion shoots and deals for celebrity endorsements. And it's not just the European market that are being targeted. Skiathos hoteliers are plan Easter package deals for the Greek market as well as radio advertising, online media offers and themed holiday packages. You have to wonder why. Skiathos is already swamped with holidaymakers each year. The island boasts some of the best sand beaches in the Greek islands, but most are now packed end-to-end with sunbeds. The single road that links the beaches along the south coast is a virtual line of back-to-back hotels and tavernas, mostly owned and run by mainland Greeks. What Greek character the island once had has been overwhelmed by cosmopolitan consumerism and many regard Skiathos as a prime example of a Greek island that went belly up to tacky tourism year ago. Nevertheless, hotel owners are confident there is more money to be made from the ever growing tourists that stream from the island airport. President of the Skiathos Hoteliers Union, Makis Koukoulakis said the aim is 'maximizing the visibility of Skiathos in established markets in order to extend the tourist season and open up to new markets.' Skiathos did suffer problems this summer with many tourists cancelling holidays in the wake of capital controls and political turmoil in Athens. The island's biggest tourism markets are the UK, Scandinavia and Italy with up to 70% of these being return visitors. Skiathos has little to offer apart from the holiday staples of sunshine, sandy beaches and endless clubs and bars. It is why it tends to favour the cheaper end of the holiday market with cut-price packages and all-inclusive hotel deals. More discerning visitors tend to opt for the nearby islands of Skopelos and Alonissos and a more authentic Greek island holiday experience,

skiathos airport landing
Skiathos holiday upset

A British couple hoping for a memorable holiday in Skiathos returned to the UK with nothing but bad memories and a bill for a sea-view apartment they never even got to stay in. Skiathos is popular island which seems to appeal particularly to the British holidaymaker. Miles of golden sand, almost sixty beaches in total, and shallow bays have made it an ideal place for families and couples wanting a relaxing break. Ken and Dorothy Marlow from Sunderland, were all set to enjoy the delights of this island having spent weeks planning their perfect getaway, leafing through the beautiful pictures in Thomas Cook's glossy brochures. Eventually they decided on 14 nights at the Belvedere Hotel, a popular choice on the island. Having made their decision, they were disappointed to be told by tour operator Thomas Cook that the hotel was fully booked up. The sales rep then offered the couple a bungalow for an additional £580, explaining that they would have to pay a premium as the building would be under-occupied. Having read the brochure from cover to cover, Mr Marlow was confident that Belvedere was the place they wanted to be, so agreed to pay the additional charge. The couple agreed that it would be nice to have somewhere larger to 'spread out', and decided the experience would be well worth the extra cash. In total the holiday which started off around £1,118 came to just under £2,000. On arrival at the Belvedere Hotel & Bungalows at Achladies, Mr and Mrs Marlow were shocked to discover that not only were the Bungalows now not available, there were double rooms in abundance and they were duly marched into the hotel instead. "This, of course, was what we had wanted all along" commented Mr Marlow, "but a holiday that should have cost £1,118 cost me, somehow, £1,696.86, meaning I was overcharged by £578.86." Following the couple's return to England, they immediately contacted a representative at Thomas Cook to get a refund for the Bungalow they never got to stay in. Assuming this would be a routine procedure, Mr Marlow happily waited on the phone, before being told that a refund wouldn't be possible. Despite Thomas Cook agreeing that the brochure was misleading, they refused to refund the cost of an apartment which the couple didn't really want, and were never able to even stay in. This is when the Marlow's contacted their local paper. In our opinion this is always a good step for disgruntled travellers. Even the largest of companies will have a PR team who are determined to uphold a positive image of their company. Once the media starts snapping at ankles, those with a legitimate grievance are often quickly appeased. This is what finally happened with the Marlows, especially when the Daily Mail online ran the story in full within it's dedicated travel section. Thomas Cook suddenly seemed incredibly keen to help, and not only refunded the Marlows, but rounded up the refund to £700.00. It seems a shame that often companies only react to requests for refunds, when customers contact a media outlet or an ombudsman. Thomas Cook commented that that the difference between what Mr Marlow was charged and what he should have been charged had been fully refunded, and had occurred due to a data problem between themselves and the Belvedere Hotel & Bungalows at Achladies. Whatever a 'data problem' actually is, it seems to be a growing problem, with numerous holidaymakers complaining of additional charges, and a disparity between what appears in the brochure and what actually exists in reality. We recommend reading comments from likeminded travellers on the web. A quick search on Google Images can give one a much more accurate picture of a hotel or apartment. Savvy travellers with good IT skills may be able to avoid disappointment with a little bit of online detective work. However, it is arguable whether this would have helped the Marlows in this case.

lalaria beach skiathos
Skiathos beach fine warning

It's probably the best-known beach on the Greek holiday island of Skiathos and it features regularly in tourist brochures and magazine articles on vacations in Greece. But picking up a white pebble to take home as a souvenir of Lalaria could trigger a hefty fine. Authorities on Skiathos have threatened to impose fines of up to €1,000 for people who pocket the famous white pebbles. A popular target of tourist boat trips, the white pebble beach of Lalaria on Skiathos is a photogenic wonderland where clear blue waters crash onto a shore of steeply banked pure white pebbles. But the thousands of Skiathos holiday day trippers who flock to Lalaria Beach each year are taking their toll on the spectacular landscape. Now geologists fear that the continued loss of white stones from the beautiful beach may cause permanent damage to the scenery. The Cultural Association of Skiathos has posted warning notices along the beach warning visitors not to take any white pebbles as souvenirs of their visit. And tourists are warned that they could face fines of €400 to €1,000 for ignoring the ban. A statement by the cultural association claims that irreversible damage may already have been done to the white pebble beach at Lalaria. A spokesman said: "The landscape has been largely altered and now the situation is irreversible. During summer the beach empties of pebbles as everyone is collecting them instead of enjoying the scenery. This can no longer continue." But it is not just the visiting holiday tourists who are at fault here. Over the years, many Greeks have poached pebbles from the beach to decorate their homes and many backyards on Skiathos will have mosaics of stone taken from Lalaria enhance the homes. The Skiathos beach of Lalaria can only be reached from the sea and is famed the world over for its brilliant white pebbles, clear turquoise waters and spectacular rocky arches. Sun-bleached pebbles and white underwater marble slabs combine to create a dazzling aquamarine seashore that attracts thousands each holiday season. Although a very beautiful spot, boat trip visitors will usually find Lalaria crowded other tourists. Almost every excursion boat on the island offers trips here and scores of visitors arrive hourly to walk on the beach. Boats usually anchor here for one to two hours before heading off to visit nearby caves and to visit the nearby Kastro.

skiathos airport landing
Skiathos airport upgrade

Runway being extended to Xanemos beach. Visitors flying in and out of the holiday island of Skiathos may find the experience a little less taxing now that work is well under way on extending the island runway. Thousands of tonnes of soil are being shipped to the beach near Xanemos to extend the island airport runway by 110 metres to create more runway for Skiathos flights. Trucks are shifting earth seven days a week in a bid to get the new island runway ready in time for the 2014 holiday season on Skiathos. When complete it will being a sigh of relief to regular Skiathos holiday visitors who have braved the notorious landing and take-off on the island's very short runway. Incoming plans fly in low over the Skiathos Town harbour to touch down, slamming on brakes and throwing engines into reverse thrust to avoid toppling off the end of the runway and onto the island's Xanemos beach. It is an even bigger problem for tourists leaving Skiathos as the runway is too short to allow holiday plans to take off with a full load of fuel, necessitating an extra stop at Thessaloniki to take on enough fuel to fly holiday Britons back home. The land must be built up be several metres to extend the Skiathos runway with must of the earth being transported from land to the west of the runway. The area of hillside being dug out will create hard standing for up to 10 aircraft to park up near the Skiathos terminal as well as a new taxiway. The work has not gone without its problems. A popular taverna on the road from Skiathos Town to Xanemos has become almost stranded by operations. But the latest work should mean not only safer landing and takeoff but a faster turnaround time for aircraft and shorter journey times home for Brits on holiday on Skiathos.

Lalaria Beach on Skiathos
Skiathos beach win

Skiathos wins poll of top ten Greek Island beaches. UK holidaymakers have voted for their ten best beaches in the Greek Islands in a poll carried out by travel website Tripadvisor. Skiathos came top of the poll in the Travellers' Choice 2012 Beach Destinations awards for the top ten beach destinations in Greece. The Greek holiday island of Skiathos may be small but it boasts around 60 beaches. The wide sandy bay at Koukounaries was voted the best beach on Skiathos for its great swimming, watersports and lively tavernas while others given a mention by UK holiday visitors were Lalaria, Little Banana, Vromolimnos and Nostos. Mykonos ranked second in the poll with the south coast beaches getting top marks for their beach party atmosphere, watersports and stylish nightlife with the quieter beaches at Panormos and Elia having special appeal. Third in the vote was Corfu, a perennial UK favourite, with busy beaches in the east and more sedate ones in the west featuring strongly in the poll. Corfu beaches at Paleokastritsa, Sidari and Arillas are picked out on the Tripadvisor website. Other Greek islands featuring in the top ten list were Rhodes, where holiday beaches at Lindos, Faliraki and Pefkos are highlighted. In Lindos there are a trio of beaches to choose from, two quieter beaches Pallas and St Pauls's Bay and the main Lindos beach at Megali Paralia. Faliraki has a world famous reputation as a beach party hotspot but it is quieter now than it used to be and the long stretch of sand is now a big favourite with families. The beach resort at Pefkos is described as 'serene, perfect for families with young children'. Two beaches on Zante also feature in the top ten Greek Island beach list. Kalamaki gets praise for the dark golden beaches, the variety of restaurants, and the friendliness of the locals while Tsilivi picks up votes for a 'mashup of awe-inspiring history and contemporary holiday culture'. And finally a couple of beaches on Crete make it to the top ten. Malia is praised for its wild nightlife and music scene, while the laid-back beach resort of Stalis is popular with UK travellers.

Alonissos island shop in Chora
Alonissos lifts gold

Alonissos island lifts gold beach award. The Greek holiday island of Alonissos has picked up a gold award for the quality of its beaches and for its eco-tourist facilities. The gold medal was awarded to the islands of both Alonissos and Samothraki by the Quality Coast Association under the auspices of the European Coastal & Marine Union (EUCC). Awards are handed out each year to the greenest, cleanest and most sustainable coastal destinations in Europe. In an assessment of the world's most beautiful, clean and pleasant beaches they ranked Samothraki 7th and Alonissos 17th from more than 800 beaches in 30 countries. The Greek island of Alonissos is one of the Sporades group, off Greece's east coast, that includes the popular holiday destination of Skiathos as well as the islands of Skopelos and Skyros. The Marine Park of Alonissos and Northern Sporades was established in 1992 to protect endangered species, notably the Mediterranean monk seal monachus monachus. The area is an important habitat for many species of fish, birds, reptiles and Alonissos is increasingly valued by nature lovers, and by walkers who come from far and wide to walk the many woodland trails that cross the pine carpeted island. Locals have done much to clear, mark and signpost the interior walking trails of Alonissos. For example, the walk from the old hillside Chora to the port at Patitiri is now signposted, surfaced and lines with street lights. Alonissos also has several good beaches, mainly stone and shingle, and its surrounding waters are considered to be some of the cleanest in the entire Mediterranean. QualityCoast aims to create a worldwide network of coastal communities that promote natural, cultural and social values as well as maintaining high quality tourism. Experts use 110 indicators to assess the standards of beaches and coastal communities. Awards to the top beaches range from bronze, silver, gold and, since 2007, 29 coastal communities from 10 European countries have received the QualityCoast Award. Azores beach in Portugal ranked 1st on the list, followed by the Cretan beach of Ierapetra and the Gozo & Comino beach in Malta. It has been shown that holiday visitors are increasingly interested in sustainability issues when choosing their holiday destination and tourism experts believe tourism eco-labels will be common feature of travel brochures and websites. Whilst the Blue Flag scheme awards honours to individual beaches and marinas, QualityCoast is concentrating on sustainability of ecological projects in the whole area of coastal destination including towns, villages and islands. Alonissos is especially attractive to those looking for a quiet get-away and a traditional Greek island holiday.

Learning to sea kyak on a Skopelos holiday
Skopelos kayaks

Sea kayaking on a Skopelos holiday. Many people are looking for more in a Greek island holiday than lying on the beach and sipping cold beer in a taverna. Now a Skopelos holiday company Aegean Escapes is pulling in active holiday visitors with popular courses in sea kayaking. Holidays on Skopelos, with its uncrowded beaches, rugged cliffs, impressive sea caves and uninhabited offshore islets, is the perfect location for exploring on guided sea kayaking holidays. Aegean Escapes is based in the traditional hilltop village of Glossa, at the north end of Skopelos, overlooking the small fishing port of Loutraki. The UK owners escaped the trials of life in the Midlands about five years ago to sample life in this warm and welcoming Greek island village. Now their kayaking activity holidays have proved a real hit with visitors. Their Skopelos sea kayaking holidays run from April to November and include single-day trips, multi-day tours circumnavigating the island of Skopelos and even expeditions to the neighbouring islands. On a sea kayaking activity holiday in Skopelos you can and expect to see dolphins leaping from the Aegean, turtles taking it easy, awe inspiring sea caves and secret, deserted beaches. Beginners and children can join in the Paddle and Play sessions while more the more experienced can enjoy more demanding days out. All their Skopelos sea trips are led by British Canoe Union qualified coaches and including island hopping in the Skopelos marine conservation area. Equipment is designed to cope with a wide variety of sea conditions and is very carefully maintained. They have a selection of single and double seater kayaks, fitted with either rudders or skegs to help you go where you want – better than going round in circles! The kayaks are sit inside, stable and easy to paddle. Also provided on the sea kayak adventure holidays are kayak paddles, buoyancy aids, spray decks and dry bags. And it is not all work and no play. The is plenty of time on sea kayak holidays to relax on a beach or go snorkeling in the crystal clear waters around Skopelos . The coast of Skopelos is perfect for activity holidays in Greece with secret beaches, sea caves, tunnels and miles of rocks and cliffs. There are also small islands nearby inhabited by a plethora of nesting sea birds as well as hawks, buzzards and falcons. In spring and early summer you may be lucky enough to spot whales and even an occasional basking shark. Later in the season the tuna appear, usually signified by huge flocks of gulls. Aegean Escapes also provide all types of accommodation, from simple seafront apartments to splendid villas with private pools. Details of accommodation can be found on their website at aegeanescapes.com and for more details on their Skopelos activity holidays in Greece, see the Skopelos Tours page.

Kastani beach on Skopelos
Skopelos Mamma Mia

Skopelos holidays still cash in on Mamma Mia. It had to happen I suppose, but the wonder is it has lasted so long. Visitors on a Skopelos holiday can still hardly escape the Greek island's links with the hit musical movie 'Mamma Mia'. Released in 2008, the romantic comedy musical was mostly filmed on the Greek island of Skopelos and, obviously, the locals cashed in on what became the UK's highest grossing film ever. Years later, Skopelos is still making the most of the ABBA-based musical with local travel agents Madro Travel leading the way with Skopelos island tours based on the film. The top selling tour is a Skopelos island cruise on board the 'Odyssey' which visits many of the Mamma Mia movie locations. Some of the most beautiful areas of Skopelos where chosen to shoot the Mamma Mia movie scenes when film crews descended on Skopelos in 2007. Universal Pictures and Play Tone Productions combed the Mediterranean area for suitable sites before settling on the island of Skopelos, with its inviting coastline. Skopelos holiday resorts that feature in the boat cruise include Amarantos and Agnontas. Amarantos was called the 'three trees' location for the scenes where movie heroine Sophie is seen reading her mother's diary and has a picnic with her trio of candidate fathers. Donna's Villa at Anarantos is a private home and cannot be visited. The Skopelos holiday boat tour also takes in both Milia and Kastani beaches. Milia did not feature in the movie but this was the main base for film crews and their equipment. Milia beach was where breakfast meetings were held for the 230-strong crew on location. Kastani Beach, however, featured very strongly in the Mamma Mia movie. The jetty and Donna's bar were built here for some of the movie's best-loved moments and it's where the Abba songs 'Does your mother know you are out' and 'Lay all your love on me' were filmed. Kastani beach is one of the best on Skopelos and known for its tranquillity and serene beauty. Both the beach bar and jetty have gone but the memorable backdrops remain. Top on the boat tour's list though is the tiny chapel of Agios Ioannis, located in the remote north-east of Skopelos. You can stand on the spot where Meryl Streep sang 'The winner takes it all' before running up the steps to the church, as she did, although you may find the steps rather steep. The famous wedding scene in Mamma Mia was shot here over four days, although the chapel interior in the movie was not the original one. Any visitor will see that the real chapel is far too small. If you want to see the church interior on which the studio-filmed setting was based, you should visit the Church Panayitsa tou Pirgou in Skopelos Town. Other Skopelos resorts that featured in the films are Milia Beach, with Dhasia islet in the background, where the three fathers sang 'Our last summer' and the place where the boat 'Jason' – featured in the song 'Money, money, money' – was moored in the pretty beach harbour of Agnontas. Of course, the Skopelos holiday visitor can find all these memorable places without a tour guide but they will need a jeep and a map as many are quite remote. For those that don't like boats, Madro Travel offers an overland tour. Giorgos Drossou co-ordinated transportation during filming, so he knows what he's doing and he leads the Mamma Mia tours of Skopelos. film.12(Mamma Mia) is the highest grossing musical film ever worldwide and is the third highest-grossing musical film in the US. On its release, the DVD became the fastest-selling of all time in the UK and sold 1,669,084 copies on its first day. By 2009 it had become the biggest selling DVD ever in the UK, with over 5 million copies sold.

Approaching Kyra Panagia island
Clear Alonissos delights

Clear delights of Alonissos marine park. No one on holiday in Alonissos can fail to note the crystal clean waters that surround this, one of the less visited of the Greek holiday islands in the Sporades group. The clear water is, in part at least, a result of Alonissos being the centre of a National Marine Park, the first to be founded in Greece. An excellent guide to the marine park can be found on the Albedo Travel site with details of Alonissos geology, climate and wildlife. The marine park, founded in 1992, covers more than 1,500 sq km of the north Sporades islands and Alonissos is the largest island in the park. The marine park also includes six smaller islands of Peristera, Kyra Panagia, Gioura, Skantzoura, and Piperi with 22 uninhabited islets and rock outcrops. The park is split into two zones, A and B, with the 678 sq km in Zone A the most strictly protected. In Zone B areas permitted activities include swimming, diving, photography and filming but there are restrictions on fishing. Hunting is outlawed in Zone A except for the island of Gioura, where it is allowed by special permission. Even approaching certain islands in Zone A requires special permission. The region's isolation and the limits of human activity make the islands and sea areas of the park an ideal habitat for many threatened species of plants and animals. The most notable of these is the Mediterranean Monk Seal monachus monachus whose habitat is restricted to small uninhabited islands, inaccessible rocky shores and caves. The Mediterranean Monk Seal is one of the largest seal species at 2-3 metres long and an average weight of 250 kg. In the past, the seal was hunted intensively and even today it is hated by fishermen for damaging nets and reducing fish stocks. The Monk seal is now top of the list of endangered marine mammals in the EU and it is estimated that only about 600 survive in the Mediterranean Sea and on the North Atlantic coast. But the marine park is also an important habitat for many species of fish, birds, reptiles and mammals. Other endangered species that find protection in the park include the Red Coral coralium rubrum, Eleonora's Falcon falco eleonorae, Audouin's Gull larus audouinii, Shag phalacrocorax aristotelis, and the wild goats of Gioura capra aegagrus.

Mediterranean Monk Seal
Greeks ignore fate of seals

Greeks care little for the fate of endangered dolphins and seals in the Mediterranean, claim wildlife and ecology experts. Despite the marine mammals being vital to the ecology of the Mediterranean, many are routinely killed by becoming entangled in fishing nets. There is evidence that some are deliberately killed by fishermen to protect fish stocks. Experts from Society for the Protection of the Monk Seal (Mom) said: 'While all indications that the Greek seas as a valuable venue for the survival of these rare species their presence is necessary for the ecosystem of the Mediterranean, the majority of Greek public opinion ignores the importance and even the existence marine mammals in our country.' Now Mom, in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund (UK), the Institute of Cretacean Research have launched a campaign to raise awareness of the importance of marine mammals in Greek waters. They claim the accidental tangling in fishing gear is responsible for 23% of deaths the rare Mediterranean seals. And they claim that 27% are deliberately killed by fishermen. In the past 20 years of the 1,460 marine mammals reported dead on the Greek coast 147 were killed by humans. They say 106 dolphins were killed by entanglement in fishing gear while 40 were deliberately killed. The Mediterranean Monk seal has been on the 'critically endangered' list for 14 years while six species of cetaceans found in Greece including the blower, common dolphin, porpoise and bottlenose dolphin, striped dolphins and stachtodelfino are now classed as endangered. The National Maritime Park of Alonissos was the first to be founded in Greece and comprises Alonissos and six smaller islands as well as uninhabited rocky outcrops and was set up to try and protect rare maritime species. The Greek seas play permanent host to the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus), in striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba), the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), the common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) , the zifio (Ziphius cavirostris), the sperm (Physeter macrocephalus), the stachtodelfino (Grampus griseus), the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) and fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus). A further five species of marine mammals visit Greek seas including the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), the perjury (Pseudorca crassidens), northern minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), the mesoplodontas (Mesoplodon sp.) And stenoryncho dolphin (Steno bredanensis).

Skiathos Palace Hotel
Skiathos award

Skiathos Palace hotel gets green award. The beach holiday hotel Skiathos Palace, in Koukounaries Skiathos, has picked up a top international award for its green credentials. The 550-bed hotel which overlooks one of the world's best known holiday beaches at Koukounaries in Skiathos has lifted a 'Green Key' award from the Greek Society for the Protection of Nature (EEPF). The Green Key award is granted for eco-friendly hotels and covers environmental management and education as well as energy consumption, water use, waste handling and the use of environmentally friendly products as well as foods and drinks. The Maratha beach next to the hotel has also picked up its first Blue Flag this year. The beach is organized and managed by the Skiathos Palace. The Blue Flag is granted to beaches that pass a total of 32 tests on water quality, environmental education-information-management and protection as well as beach cleanliness and safety for swimmers and visitors.

Mermaid and fisherman
Artist Themis Tsironis

Many years ago I used to visit the island of Skiathos quite regularly. I don't go so often now as the island has become rather too popular and cosmopolitan for my taste. Even then the locals were complaining at how the Athenian mainlanders were taking over Skiathos. Nowadays the taverna owners are more likely to be Albanian or Russian rather than Greek. Things got so bad that even a McDonald's appeared briefly in Skiathos Town. Anyway, in earlier days the streets of Skiathos Town has many odd arts and crafts shops – again unlike the tatty tourist trinket shops that run the length of Papadiamantis Street these days. While rummaging around in one such shop, some rather attractive picture postcards took my eye. The postcards were of paintings by a Greek folk artist called Themis Tsironis and quite wonderful painting they were – mainly of scenes from Greek life, notably fishermen and boats, and of Greek history, notably Cretan, and mythology. Many of the originals had been painted on wood and the painting was crudely direct with vivid colours roughly drawn in that typical naive folk art style that remind me of the paintings and drawing of children. Pictured here is 'Fisherman and Mermaid' painted on wood in 1978. Another gripping painting is 'Sant People' from 1982, again painted on wood and depicting Greek figures in a large crowd, from ancient philosophers to wartime resistance fighters. I have sought high and low to find out more on this artist, even ringing up experts in the National Art Gallery and Alexander Soutzos Museum in Athens but no one appears to know much about him. Searches on the internet have uncovered more paintings but nothing on the artist himself. I would be grateful if anyone could tell me more about the artist and his works. Most of all I would love to own an original.

Mediterranean monkseal is endangered
Monk seal pup

Alonissos tends monk seal pup. A Mediterranean monk seal pup (monachus monachus) is currently being cared for at a seal rehabilitation centre on the Greek island of Alonissos. Conservationists rescued the two-month-old monk seal, one of only about 600 of the creatures that remain in the wild.  A research team based on the Greek holiday island spotted the pup in February while watching a seal colony in the south-western Aegean Sea.  Workers are feeding the seal and aim to return it to the wild. With fewer than 600 individuals remaining the monk seal is now believed to be the world's second rarest seal and is classed as one of the most endangered mammals in the world. Once common in the Mediterranean it is believed that habitat loss, fishing and tourism are to blame for the sharp decline since World War Two. Known to inhabit open sandy beaches and shoreline rocks in ancient times, the Mediterranean monk seals now mostly lives in remote underwater caves. Colonies were once common throughout the Mediterranean as well as the Marmara and Black Seas.  The species was also common on  the Atlantic coast of Africa and the Atlantic islands of Cape Verde, the Canaries and the Azores. Now there are just two monk seal population left, one in the seas around Alonissos and the other off the coast of north-west Africa. The National Marine Park of Alonissos Northern Sporades was aet up in 1992 partly to protect the monk seal habitat. It is the largest marine protected area in Europe and includes Alonissos, the six smaller islands of Peristera, Kyra Panagia, Gioura, Psathoura, Piperi and Skantzoura as well as 22 uninhabited islets and rock outcrops.

Holiday plane landing at Skiathos
Skiathos runway

Skiathos holiday runway a scary sight. Flying into the Greek holiday island of Skiathos may herald the start of your Greek island holiday is definitely not for the faint of heart. Pilots bank around to hit Skiathos island runway from the south and passengers on the right side of the aeroplane can catch a brief glimpse the runway. Skiathos is one of the most popular destinations for Greek island holidays and thousands fly in each year. The Skiathos airport runway is laid across a very narrow neck of land between two heavily wooded hills. There is nothing at either end of the short runway but the deep blue of the Mediterranean sea. Aeroplanes glide in across Skiathos Town bay and passengers sitting left-side will see holidaymakers sitting in the tavernas and cafes that line the shore. Passengers are warned to expect plenty of noise when the wheels hit the concrete and, as aircraft touches down, the engines are thrown screaming into reverse. This is because the runway is only just long enough to take fully loaded charter planes and the pilots don't have long to stop. The alternative is to overshoot and drop off the end of the runway and into the sea. No need to worry though. Skiathos airport, although tiny, has an unblemished record. As does the holiday island of Skiathos itself, which is now one of the most popular holiday destinations in the Greek islands. Nevertheless the arrival can be unnerving, especially if you are not fond of flying. Unfortunately it is even worse when you leave. Fully fuelled aeroplanes are too heavy to take off on the short runway so they must leave with fuel tanks virtually empty. Pilots line up at the end of the runway and rev up until the engines can stand no more before releasing the brakes and shooting off like rockets. The near empty tanks require that they land a few minutes later at Thessaloniki on the mainland to take on enough fuel to fly home.

Skopelos plums
Skopelos plums

Skopelos holiday island of plums. Skopelos is one of my favourite Greek holiday island hideaways. It was unfortunate that one of its best the beaches was used for so much filming in the hit movie musical Mamma Mia. Hardly surprising that the island has cashed in on the connection and that the notoriety has brought in the crowds. Nevertheless, I have visited Skopelos beaches many times and will continue to do so. I think Skopelos is one of the most beautiful in the Greek islands. There is no airport on Skopelos so arrival is by ferry at either of the island's two main ports of Skopelos Town or, on the other site of the island at Loutraki, beneath the hill village of Glossa. As well as the usual holiday delights of sandy beaches and soporific coves Skopelos is also known as the plum island and plums have been a cash crop on Skopelos island for many years. Citrus groves are found all over the island and there are at least eight different varieties of plum trees growing here and Skopelos plums are harvested from mid-June to mid-September. Although there are eight plum varieties grown on Skopelos but there are three that stand out : the black, red and yellow. The blue/black plum is a French variety, Azania, which flourishes on Skopelos. It is very sweet and it's eaten as fresh fruit through the summer or used for jam-making. The Skopelos black plum is also dried in special kilns to produce Skopelos prunes and these are stored in cotton bags for use over the winter. There are several Skopelos island dishes that include plums. Chicken and pork dishes are often stuffed with black prunes. The plums or prunes can also be used in meat 'stifado' dishes for extra flavour. The island speciality 'pork with plums' is found in many Skopelos tavernas. The red plum of Skopelos has a sour tang. I am not sure of the variety but this plum is often used in recipes as an alternative to lemon or vinegar. The red plums are usually dried in the sun to make a tangy tasting prune that is also often included in local dishes – notably lentil and prune soup and fish stew in the oven with red prunes. They may also be pressed and a red jelly is made from the juice. Black and red Skopelos plums can be cooked together with baked fish and are both often used together in recipes that contain potatoes and tomatoes. Yellow plums are even sweeter than the black but they don't keep very well so they are often harvested before they ripen and the yellow plums are used to make sweet jams and plum preserve. You can find many plum products dried and sold as sweets in confectionery shops on Skopelos. Bakers and patisseries usually offer plum sweets, dried prunes, plum pies and plum cakes, croissants with plums filling and, of course, home-made plum jam.