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Beaches Are Siren Call of Greece's Skiathos Isle : While most tourists flock south to the Cyclades, the best of the Aegean may be in the north.

July 25, 1993|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

SKIATHOS, Greece — Legend has it that Jason and his Argonauts set sail from the Pelion Peninsula of mainland Greece, just a few miles from this lovely Sporades island of the northern Aegean Sea. Had Jason docked here for even a short time, his men may have forgotten their intrepid quest for the Golden Fleece and settled comfortably into the lush life of this lotus land.

With some 65 gorgeous beaches and small coves rimming the coast of this 5-by-7-mile island, and nine smaller offshore isles easily accessible by bateau, motorboat or caique, Skiathos is an ideal place to find and enjoy everything the Greek isles are all about.

Apart from a few minor naval engagements about 500 BC, Skiathos has kept itself far from the mainstream of Greek, Roman or any other history, being most famous for its magnificent Aleppo and Scotch pines, olive groves, abundant fruit orchards and those glorious beaches. It also has a number of good hotels, excellent beach-side tavernas and night life to satisfy the most sybaritic soul.

The island's main town of Skiathos is set on two bays separated by a small promontory that was fortified in medieval days. One harbor is for island ferries and fishermen's boats, the other for pleasure craft. The quay is chockablock with cafes, shops, bars and fish tavernas, most shaded from the fierce sun by canvas awnings.

While Rhodes, Crete, Mykonos and other more popular Aegean islands have drawn Americans in great numbers since World War II, Skiathos has mainly been the idyllic playground of Europeans for the past two decades. They tend to flood the island in July and August, often combining a visit to Skiathos with day trips to the even-more-bucolic island of Skopelos just 15 minutes away.

Hotels and beaches on Skiathos are spread out, so renting a motor scooter is a good idea. They go for $9 per 24 hours, rising to $13 in July and August. Barring that, rent yourself a mule for the two-hour ride up the mountain to Evangelistria Monastery, keeping in mind that it's another two hours back down. And riding a mule for half a day should rightfully be left to those with a strong back, stronger constitution and strange idea of what a relaxing holiday really means.

Getting settled in: Set on a pine-covered hill 100 yards above pretty Platanias Beach and about five miles from Skiathos town, the Atrium is a new hotel of contemporary design but with traditional Greek overtones in its furnishings. All of the bedrooms look out over the water, each with private balcony or patio, and there's a large pool with a poolside bar and dining terrace.

Perched on its own woodsy hill above a small cove and beach, the beautifully furnished Nostos is the very essence of a Greek island hotel, with traditional ceramics, furniture and fabrics giving real Hellenic character to the bedrooms and public areas. There's an inside-outside dining terrace overlooking the pool, plus two bars, a tennis court and all sorts of water sports at the almost-private beach, plus a funicular to get you to and from the hotel to the water.

The Skiathos Princess is the younger sister of the island's once-dominant Skiathos Palace, still high above what some consider Greece's prettiest beach, though now the Palace is getting a bit long in the tooth. The sprightly Princess is a spread-out affair of tiled buildings in island style, with a sparkling white marble lobby, handsome bedrooms with balconies and most other big-hotel amenities. Besides its restaurant, the Princess has two tavernas (one right on the beach), several bars and a Greek coffee house.

Regional food and drink: Greek meals always start with mezes , the appetizers that are usually taken with ouzo, an anise-flavored liqueur that turns milky when ice or water is added. The three most popular "dips" that serve as mezes are tzatziki (made of shredded cucumber, yogurt, garlic and olive oil), taramosalata (a pink dip of red-mullet roe, bread, oil and lemon juice) and skordalia , a strong one of mashed potatoes, oil and tons of garlic. Melitzanosalata , a dip of eggplant, oil, lemon and parsley, is also delicious.

The true Greek salad of cucumber, tomatoes, onions, black olives and feta cheese sprinkled with oregano deserves a spot in culinary heaven. And the always present horta (boiled dandelion greens), dressed with olive oil and lemon, is also worthy of worship. Horta , and most vegetables in Mediterranean countries, are usually eaten at room temperature, so one may appreciate the true flavor.

The tart, rosin-flavored retsina wine is unique to Greece (either you love it or you don't), but regular red and white wines are making great strides, particularly the whites from Santorini's Boutari vineyards.

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