Skiathos – Sporades

Skiathos hit the jackpot when it came to beaches. Textbook sands line its south coast, from Koukounaries, the island’s best-known beach – where deep green trees provide the backdrop for a dramatic golden sweep – to Megali Ammos. And if much of the island’s sand is buried beneath rows of sunbeds, it doesn’t take a great deal of effort to find a windier, sparser and less manicured slice of island life. A half-hour walk north through the woods from Koukounaries takes you to the laid-back Mandraki and Elias beaches, while further east is expansive Megalos Aselinos. Here, in the evening, goat bells clang and families play badminton in the setting sun.

Perhaps the best beaches are the smallest: at picture-perfect Agistros, Mikros Aselinos, and Krifi Ammos (or “hidden sand”). At remote Kechria, in what the Skiathian writer Papadiamantis called a “beautiful, melancholic valley”, a Greek flag flies above the craggy beach as people wade into the sea, or stop in the shade of the beach taverna for a cold Mythos beer.

Visibility for snorkelling and scuba diving is especially good around the islets. Take a boat to the beach at Tsougria, or view it from afar over an iced coffee at Bourtzi, an islet linked to Skiathos Town by a bridge, and which – rumour has it – the Beatles once tried to buy. Even some main island beaches – such as pebbled Lalaria, with its rock arch – are accessible only by boat.

Skiathos has over 60 beaches, but there is more to see: visit the lazy cats at the Evangelistria monastery instead, or the fresco paintings at Kounistra, from where a path winds to the miniature “Hidden St John” monastery. Visit Papadiamantis’s old house in Skiathos Town and watch a film at the open-air cinema. Try the octopus stifado at Amfiliki restaurant, washed down with a tsipouro (like grappa) and go to Kentavros bar (where the spirit of the 1960s lives on) to hear whose yacht is in the harbour.

Skiathos may be favoured by the A-list, but by staying at the campsite behind Koukounaries you can join them on a budget. The island’s charm, after all, lies in its simplicity: the glaring sun, the pine-swathed hills, and a dazzling turquoise sea.

Syros, Cyclades

An island of unspoilt beaches and fishing villages, with an elegant 19th-century capital, Syros is the place Greeks go to avoid mass tourism. It is the Aegean’s most underrated island. Ermoupoli, once Venice’s prized Aegean colony, then Greece’s biggest port, is spread across two hills, one crowned with a Greek Orthodox church, the other with a Roman Catholic church – a legacy of the Italians, who have also made their mark on the architecture. Ermoupoli is characterised by gorgeous neoclassical mansions and 19th-century tenement blocks. Its labyrinthine alleyways are home to fish restaurants and marble- and-brass espresso bars. One block behind the waterfront is Antiparou, a pedestrian lane full of outside tables and chairs, shaded by flowering bougainvillea creepers. Beyond that is In the town square, where Greek yuppies pose with €6 Heinekens, old folk sip Greek (“not Turkish”) coffee and children play football in the dust.

Out of town are many small coves. Some 12km to the south is the long, narrow beach at Megas Gialos – incredibly tranquil, with soft pale sand and tamarisk trees and straw canopies offering shade. There is a whitewashed chapel, a few wooden boats moored to a jetty at the western end, a cafe and three grocery stores. Self-catering is possible at the many studio flats available in the village, from about €25pp a night. Expect a diet of bread, olives, tinned sardines, yoghurt and honey – Megas Gialos is too remote for deliveries of much fresh food.

Galissas beach in the south-west of the island is rather more busy – and worldly. It has a rockers’ beach bar, where nubile Australian backpackers hunt for grizzled Greek bikers, and a small and secluded beach with skinny- dippers. It also has several restaurants with perfect sunset views over the sand dunes, while you eat, serving minced lamb with chicory and unusual fish dishes, alongside standard Greek fare of roast meats and stews.

Further north is Kini, the closest Syros gets to a beach resort. Here are largish beachfront hotels, and restaurants serving ubiquitous feta salad or deep-fried calamari drenched in lemon juice, washed down with retsina. Some families let out the guest apartments attached to their homes. The best are half a mile inland, high enough to offer magnificent views of the setting sun.

At the northern headland of Kini bay, take the footpath north for a 2km clifftop walk through heather to the sandy beach of Delfini. After a swim, make the return journey at sunset, for the best view on the island, and an indelible memory of red sky over black water.