Skopelos may lack the history, culture and scenery of its better-known neighbours - even getting there is a struggle. But for Stephen Bayley, this craggy Greek island is the perfect place for reflection

Skopelos is one of a tight group of islands off the coast of Euboea whose names all begin with "sk", reminding Durrell of scallywags. He also called them "maiden aunts turned pirates". Like the more popular Skiathos and Skyros, Skopelos is almost wholly lacking in worthwhile antiquities. The ancients knew it as Paparethos, but then seemed to lose interest. It has a grotto that is not much visited, some ancient tracks called calderimi and there are some monasteries, mostly abandoned. One of them did, however, accommodate Skopelos's first literary hero, Dapontes, a monk born in 1707 who wrote very long poems which even the guides describe as "of very limited literary interest". As a result of its modest cultural patrimony, Skopelos has been largely protected from the worst indignities of archaeological, or, indeed, any other sort of tourism.

But if Skopelos is not defined by its heritage, it is most certainly defined by access and geology. The name actually means "rock" and the island is craggy and precipitous. With 67km of coastline and two towns it is more than a mere lump in the sea, but retains many of a rock's characteristics. Skopelos's coast is hostile, but it is a surprisingly green island: there is a bare flat plain in the middle, with abundant plum orchards, as well as figs, olives and vines, but nowhere is there space to meet the unnegotiable horizontal demands of an airport. With no concessions to cultural curiosity and a fine inaccessibility from the sky, Skopelos has maintained a unique personality.

Even as the island depends on the sea, the locals do not have the characteristics of fishermen. Ernle Bradford, author of the fine Companion Guide to the Greek Islands (1963), found a distinction between the gloomy Skopeliots and their more cheery neighbours in Skiathos: "In simple societies throughout the world I have always found sea people are generous and land people grasping," he wrote. Bradford found the Skopeliot peasant farmers "apply to their fellows the same hard attitude that has earned them a profit from their fields". The distinction is preserved today in a different style: Skiathos was long ago ravaged and humiliated by egregious tourism. Skopelos may not be exactly virginal in this respect, but retains measures of dignity and modesty unusual in the Mediterranean. One of the great sights is the old boys sitting in the shade on their wood chairs, drinking ouzo. Sometimes when the bar is not open they just sit anyway. A Greek proverb says "Work is hard, but no work is harder", and this is what they seem morosely to be demonstrating. Occasionally, you still hear the click and flick of the worry-beads, but the mobile phone has largely replaced them as a therapeutic for manual fiddling.

Skopelos travel options are simple, if long-drawn-out. Fly to Athens on a big plane, then Olympic Airlines to Skiathos on a rather smaller one. Or take a charter direct to Skiathos. Here you pick up a hydrofoil or a catamaran for a 40-minute crossing. Alternatively, from Athens take a bus or a taxi to Aghios Konstaninos or Volos where you can also find a suitable vessel. The bus takes four hours, taxi half that, but it is a miserable journey no matter how many companions you have. When Durrell described the Euboean coast as "thankless and profitless", he may well have been generous.

The hydrofoil, branded Flying Dolphin, deserves explanation. These vessels are built to a Russian design, I imagine with technologies similar to those employed in the dangerous mini-submarines which have so many nasty accidents. After a perfunctory safety briefing, huge thrumming diesels propel the craft noisily at impressive speeds, with many alarming clunks and judders en route, but they were designed for use on inland waterways and are spectacularly ill-suited to the frequently turbulent conditions. "Vomit is our business", I have often thought might be the motto of Hellenic Seaways, operator of these hideous, but indispensable, vessels. Interior decor is Khruschev-era Tupolev, with green, velour aircraft-style seats, some held together with parcel tape. I usually close my eyes and imagine the marine diesels are instead Kuznetsov NK12-MV aero engines. Whatever, the 16 sea miles from Skiathos village to Skopelos harbour can sometimes seem longer.

The passage from Skiathos is protected from the weather by the bulk of Skopelos itself and is usually smooth until you reach Skopelos's north-west cape, known as Gourouni. The word literally means pig, and the geology does have a slight, chance resemblance to a hog's back, but gourouni is also Greek for "disgusting". Accordingly, it is a dark, jagged, unwelcoming coastline with savage currents. This you follow in rolling swell past dark cliffs offering no prospect of encouragement to those in peril, but occasionally you pass a small chapel or extremely secluded beaches accessible from inland by intrepid four-wheel drivers.

So to reach Skopelos town is a relief and a pleasure. You have been in the shade even on a sunny day. Then the Flying Dolphin barrels past the final cape and a large bay opens up an exciting prospect of delight: as the first accessible entrance to land Skopelos bay makes you immediately appreciate all of history's comforting metaphors of harbours and havens. A north-facing harbour is unusual - some say it was characteristically Skopeliot in being an uncompromising device to deter invaders - but it is a spectacular sight. Skopelos town itself is a postcard perfect vernacular masterpiece. Steeply built on two hills, with fragments of a Venetian castle an important feature, it is a fine, haphazard and closely packed assemblage of white houses.

The old town is known as the chora. It would be wrong to call it pedestrianised because the locals have taken to motorinos with a blunt disregard for visitors' health and safety, but few of the old town's giddy and cramped roads are adapted for cars, dimensionally speaking. Although some try. The rubbish is collected by horse. Skopelos town is utterly authentic, marred only by the occasional intrusive advertisement for "Driftwood Art" and other detritus belonging to an older generation of sundried Scandinavian hippies who first discovered the place and are still scattered about. The Greeks themselves show a superb disregard for the accidental beauty of the townscape: Panasonic air-con units are important status symbols and are freely applied to disfigure buildings. The grocer, Spyros, blithely piles up rubbish with no respect for amenity. Ditch-digging utilities companies ignore the sanctity of the ancient calderimi.

Walking around the chora at dusk is specially interesting: you see those domestic parlours with their harsh strip lighting, shiny brown cabinets, marble floors and oil cloths where nuclear families sit and mill. Sewing, brooding, cooking, staring. They are both severe and cosy. And it is easy to imagine how safe and secure they must have felt after a day in a diesel-smelling, storm-tossed, crudely painted anchovy boat. The more so an Orthodox church. There is a Greek saying: "If time hangs heavy, why not build a church?" Time hangs very heavy indeed in Skopelos and the chora has more than 30 churches: Byzantine, Victorian, Sporadic. How much more transcendentally safe and secure they must have felt after a day at sea.

The market in icons is dead, but the pick-up trucks are a local art form. One enterprising man with a Volkswagen Caddy sometimes does things with fish and a bullhorn, but he is unreliable. A daily sight, however, is a brown Japanese vehicle, often resprayed, seasoned like a barnacle, denuded of all branding and ancillary features by continuous low-speed impacts with Aegean architecture. In addition to its splendidly weathered commercial vehicles, Skopelos has seven taxis, two police cars and a single police motorbike. Thanasis, chairman of the Sporades Taxi Drivers Committee, tells me that on a busy day in summer he can do up to 350km, but fusses about the rough roads and their effect on his tyres. Still, 350 clicks is quite something on an island where an energetic person could walk almost everywhere.

We have stayed for several years in a fine, modern house at the top of the chora, just off Nirvana Street, named after Skopelos's other literary hero, a justly neglected modern poet. It's a stiff,* * heart-pumping hike, but the eventual reward is silence. From its terraces there are views across the harbour and then to Alonissos, the neighbouring island. Skyros, where Rupert Brooke is buried, lies beyond. On a good day you can see Mount Athos in the far distance. In the Greek way, the superb view is carelessly interrupted by telephone cables and building works in an indeterminate state of completion.

You amble to the harbour for coffee. Skopelos has two harbours; one old, the other new and charming in that order. The latter seems to have been built with an expectation of tourism that has never been completely realised. Even in summer most of the garish tavernas and bars in the new harbour are quiet. At least until the wind blows.

The wind is a big issue here. It was on the nearly harbourless Euboean coast that Xerxes' 400-ship fleet foundered in a storm. Greek fishermen call the Sporades "The Gates of the Wind", chosen as a title for Michael Carroll's charming 1965 book on his house-building venture in the Skopeliot bay of Panormos. Ernle Bradford, who served on destroyers during the war and sailed the Atlantic three times, ruefully quoted The Admiralty Pilot which claims that in summer winds from the north-east do not blow home. "Unfortunately," he writes, "I can confirm that on some occasions they certainly do." Yes, they do. Because the Aegean is so gusty, Greeks have attributed personalities to winds since Andronikos Kyrrhestes built his Tower of the Winds in Athens in the fourth century BC.

The local wind is the Meltemi and, like the Spanish Tramontana and the French Mistral, it is a wind with lots of character - mostly bad and threatening. The chora has subtle aerodynamics all of its own. When the wind blows, it becomes dead. People stay indoors. The Flying Dolphins cannot cope, even the harbour has problems with the conventional ferries - when the Meltemi blows you can be cut off for days, creating a sense of isolation that is both pleasingly Homeric in its grandeur and, frankly, harrowing. But when the shipping resumes after the Meltemi, it restores life.

Being on Skopelos is a primitive experience. As in most of Greece, the cooking is unimaginative, carelessly served and, if you are lucky, delicious. Restaurant recommendations are out of place, since the food is the same everywhere, although Molos and its neighbours in the old harbour are the most charming establishments, architecturally speaking. Little effort is made to rediscover neglected Greek classics, the sfoungato of Hania for instance (lambs' intestines and spinach), although the sole speciality, Skopelos cheese pie, a deep-fried horror, is universally available. This year, one place was offering a "starter raped with feta". I spent the summer testing the gastronomic limitations of goat - which did not take long - and eating as much skordalia as body chemistry allowed. Last year, someone opened Le Bistro, but it has not flourished. Other signs of a slowly awakening self-consciousness include the Skopelos Festival which included "The Night of the Plums and the Pontian Dance Performance", but it was poorly attended.

On Skopelos, despite occasional frights from the weather, your Circadian rhythms slow down, although this may be something to do with the merciless, hypnotising predictability of Greek food. Hortopita is a very good thing, but without theme or variation it can become wearying.

It's a thing about island life. After two years without a newspaper or a radio, Lawrence Durrell found himself thinking there might be no such thing as news. He wondered if the whole idea was an illusion. And you begin to believe in the telling of omens, the evil eye, the psychology of the wind, the mysteries of the sea. Skopelos is not always a comfortable place. Those old boys in the café, staring at the water. What exactly are they thinking of? Heroes returning across the sea from foreign wars? The next bottle of beer? What am I thinking of when doing exactly the same? As we said, Skopelos is a fine place for introspection.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

There are no scheduled flights between the UK and Skopelos. Instead, fly to Athens and connect from there. The airlines serving the capital are BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow, easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Gatwick and Luton, and Olympic Airlines (0870 606 0460; www.olympic-airlines.com) from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester.

From Athens, Olympic flies to Skiathos, where you can take a hydrofoil to nearby Skopelos. Skiathos is also served by charters during the summer months including First Choice (0870 850 3999; www.firstchoice.co.uk) from Gatwick and Manchester. From Skiathos, Hellenic Seaways (00 30 24 270 22209; www.dolphins.gr) and SAOS Ferries (00 30 21042 93420; www.saos.gr) ply the route to Skopelos. All travel arrangements to, from and in Skopelos can be handled by Madrotravel (00 30 24240 22300; www.madrotravel.com).

STAYING THERE

Hotels and guest houses on the island generally open from May-October.

Houses are available to rent through Madrotravel, with prices starting at €60 (£43) per day.

Ionia Hotel, Skopelos Town (00 30 24240 22568; www.ioniahotel.gr). Doubles start at €50 (£34), including breakfast.

Aperiton Hotel, Skopelos Town (00 30 24240 22256). Doubles start at €55 (£37), including breakfast.

VISITING THERE

Monastery of Evangelistria Daponte, Skopelos (00 30 24240 23230). Opens daily 9am-1pm and 3-5pm. Admission free.

Folklore Museum of Skopelos (00 30 24240 23494). Opens daily between May and September 10am-2.30pm and 7-11pm. Between October and April it opens Monday-Friday 9am-2.30pm. Admission is €2 (£1.40).

FURTHER DETAILS

Greek National Tourism Organisation (020-7495 9300; www.gnto.gr).

Phong Luu

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