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Skopelos, an Unspoiled Isle in the Central Aegean

May 03, 1987|DICK CALDWELL | Caldwell, of Tustin, is a classics professor at USC.

SKOPELOS, Greece — For most tourists, there are four Greek islands: Mykonos, Rhodes and Santorini in the Aegean Sea, and Corfu in the Ionian Sea. These are the islands the tours and cruises visit, and the ones usually featured in advertising and promotional brochures.

But the most famous islands are not necessarily the best ones (partly because they are so famous). To experience the true island life, you should avoid the cruise routes and head for places like Thasos, Zakynthos or Patmos.

The best Greek island, in one man's opinion, is part of the Sporades Islands in the central Aegean Sea, east of Volos. Its name is Skopelos, and for 12 years it has been my summer home and the highlight of Greece for the hundreds of Americans I've taken there on tours.

Like the other Sporadeses, Skopelos is mountainous and pine-covered, with dozens of marvelous beaches and picturesque coves and villages. It is visited during the summer by many knowledgeable tourists from around the world, but fortunately it remains unspoiled by mass tourism and commercialism.

Single Paved Road

Skopelos is a big island, about 40 miles long and 5 to 12 miles wide. A single paved road runs from Glossa, an elevated village on the west coast, to the main town, also called Skopelos, on the northeast side of the island.

Ferryboats stop at both towns, but there is little to do in Glossa so most people come directly to Skopelos.

In a circular harbor backed by mountains, the town rises steeply from the water. The first impression as you enter the harbor is of a huge layer cake: The bottom layer is the waterfront--half a mile of restaurants, shops and cafes almost hidden by the green of mulberry and plane trees. Above it, layers of whitewashed houses with red-tile roofs and brightly colored shutters seem to be piled on top of one another.

Skopelos has several nice hotels. My favorites are the Eleni and the Denise ($25-$35 double occupancy). Others include the Prince Staphylos, Amalia and a group of condominium-type units called Skopelos Village (the latter three range in price from $35 to $60).

Most people, especially the younger and more adventurous, stay in apartments and pensions (domatia) in the town ($10-$20 double), which they rent either from the two tourist agencies at the ferry landing or from the landladies who ask all newcomers if they need a room.

There is very little difference between rooms in the town or in the hotels. If you want quiet and hot water (probably), choose the hotel; if you want to meet people, share the life of the town and take a chance on hot water, stay in a pension.

Five Days or More

Don't come to Skopelos for one or two days. If you want the experience to be worth the travel, plan on staying five days or longer if possible. It takes at least two days to explore the town and get to know people, and there are countless things to do and see outside the town.

After the hotel's continental breakfast or the Greek coffee your landlady makes you drink, go to the Platanos Cafe at the north end of the waterfront for a real breakfast.

Sitting outside under an enormous plane tree a few feet from the water, you can watch fishermen mend their nets as yachts and sailboats come and go, while you sample a French omelet or yogurt with honey and fruit.

The young owners of the Platanos are Vassilis and Danielle, his French wife, and their cooking and conversation (in English) are both superb.

During breakfast you'll meet old friends, make new ones and plan the rest of the day. Morning is a good time for shopping and wandering through town. It's cool, everything is open, and everyone, it seems, is active.

A dozen boutiques and art stores are strung along the waterfront, selling everything from typical tourist goods (T-shirts, snorkels, etc.) to handmade jewelry and exquisite objets d'art.

One of the most interesting is the shop of Kostas and Voula Kalafatis. Kostas is a jazz musician well known for his recordings of traditional rebetika music. He and his wife spend the winters making clothing, paintings and jewelry to sell in their shop along with hand-painted Skyros pottery.

Winding Mountain Road

Around noon, take a bus (25 cents) or a taxi ($3 for one to four persons) to Agnontas, a tiny fishing village about six miles from Skopelos. The trip offers one of the most beautiful sights in Greece as the mountain road winds through pine forests high above Stafylos Bay, a large crescent named for a prince of Crete who, according to legend, colonized Skopelos during the Bronze Age, about 1500 BC.

Agnontas is deep within a cliff-lined inlet. It consists of a few houses and three waterfront restaurants serving fresh fish, lobster, calamari and langostino.

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