The last time I lazed on this beach, backed by rich, ochre cliffs and tumbling trees, it was virtually deserted.
On a busy day there were perhaps 20 fellow sun-worshippers, slicked with Factor 1 Ambre Solaire tanning oil, in various states of undress.
I spent hours looking over the clear water to an outcrop of land which had been marooned at sea. Somewhere out there lay the remains of an ancient sunken city.
Spool forward 20 years and I am back on the same beach and the view is pretty much unchanged. It is a little busier now, but it is mid-August, high season. The last time we were here it was June and the Aegean was starting to heat up nicely. Today, saturated by months of uninterrupted sunshine, the sea is like a warm bath.
A small beach bar has appeared at one end of the pebbled beach and there are now sun beds and parasols for hire. Back in the day, it was rush mats and floppy hats. But little else has changed at Kokkinokastro, a sun-trap bay on the Greek island of Alonissos.
My wife and I haven’t been to Alonissos, a small sister to Skopelos, where “Mama Mia” was filmed, since 1995. That year was our very own 1BC (One Year Before Children). In fact, the island played a significant role in our change of family fortunes. Unknown to us, and with a little help from me, Sally left Alonissos with the fizzing genetic material that would develop into our first baby.
The embryo that became Polly cringes at the story of her conception. She also cringes when I tell the story to anyone who will listen – waitresses, shopkeepers, complete strangers – when we return to Alonissos with Polly and her sister, Livvy.
In the fancy-free “BC era,” we went to Alonissos three times between 1992-1995 and loved, absolutely loved, each visit. We were youngish, I could still get in Speedos and Britain was Britpoppy. Oasis’s “Definitely Maybe” was on repeat on my state-of-the-art Sony Walkman and the album is forever linked with kicking back at Kokkinokastro.
We thought it would be fun to return to the place we recalled so fondly. Yet I was worried it might not be the same and the children wouldn’t like it and I’d cry. My fears were ungrounded.
The island, if anything, is more beautiful than we had remembered, far more green and lush than you would think possible in such a hot climate. The major summer tourist groups are predominantly Greek and Italian, which means the place is immune to the Costa del Clacton vibe.
For authenticity’s sake, we return to the same apartments where we stayed every time we visited in the 1990s. Dawn Kiriannakis, a former UK bullion dealer, still runs three immaculately maintained twin and double rooms near the main port of Patitiri, where the ferries and hydrofoils deposit island-hoppers. The hillside location, a five-minute walk from the bars, tavernas and shops, ensures peace and quiet and a lovely cooling breeze day and night.
The simply furnished en-suite rooms have fridges for chilling drinks and the terrace overlooks the port. Islands trail off into the horizon. Stock up with beer, wine or G&T and enjoy your pre-dinner drinks at one of the best seats in town.
Patitiri has a good range of tavernas and cafés where all tastes and budgets are covered, from pasta and pizza to delicious seafood platters, grilled and roasted meats, and tasty vegetarian dishes showcasing sweet peppers, tomatoes, aubergine, beans, salads and, of course, feta cheese.
Don’t miss the local Alonissos cheese pie and the spinach pie (spanakopita), both of which make great snacks for beach picnics.
Also look out for the women’s food cooperative on the outskirts of Patitiri, on the way to the tiny port of Rousoum. It has a terrific range of homemade cakes including an addictive nut cake, steeped in syrup, and magic baklava.
Rousoum was a favourite spot of ours in the 90s because we could walk there from Dawn’s. There were four very individual tavernas and we loved the homespun simplicity of O Yalos, closest to the cliff-face. We return to find it exactly the same.
With the help of an English-speaking waiter, I explain our previous visits to Yiannis, the tall, dark-haired owner, and remarked how there used to be a friendly female cook, who must have been in her 60s then. She would come out of the kitchen with trays of slow-cooked meats, potatoes and grilled fish. I have a picture of her in an old family photo album. It sums up an era for me. Here it is:
Yiannis’s face breaks out in a big smile. The woman was his late mother. He says he is touched we have returned to the family taverna with our daughters and brings out ice creams and watermelon as a “welcome back” gift.
In the 90s, there was a single road across the central spine of Alonissos. The pot-holed strip was just about passable in a tractor. The road surfaces have improved considerably and car hire has arrived. We rent a budget motor with the power of a retsina-soaked slug but the major plus of functioning air conditioning. It certainly beats some of the classic cars strewn around the island, for chill factor if not style.
Renting a car opens up the island like never before. Previously, the only way to get about was by the small fishing boats that once docked at Patitiri. They have been banned now on health and safety grounds, despite being good enough for travellers for several thousand years.
At the horseshoe-shaped Agios Demitrios beach, about 45 minutes’ drive from our base, we encounter the finest swimming of our lives. The water here is the clearest you can imagine and it is unbelievably warm too. Alonissos’s designation within Europe’s largest protected marine park ensures amazing cleanliness and idyllic bathing.
Most of the popular beaches are along the island’s east coast, including the shallow sandy bay of Chrissi Milla, and Steni Vala, now a bustling sailing and diving centre with great tavernas.
When we last visited Steni Vala in the 90s, in another lifetime, we ate the finest barbecued fish you could wish for. Standards are still high and if it is super fresh seafood, salads and vegetables you crave, this place is heaven. There is pretty much great eating all over the island.
On our final trip to Kokkinokastro, the tourists are thinning out and the place takes on an unmistakable air of another era. I decide to party like it’s 1995. I may have an iPod instead of a Sony Walkman but Oasis’ “Rock ‘n’ Roll” still sounds awesome. “I’m feeling supersonic, give me gin and tonic…” I’ll drink to that, Liam.
Flights arrive at Skiathos (we flew from Birmingham Airport) and it is about an hour by hydrofoil to Alonissos.