Alonissos is popular with a small but loyal group of regular visitors, thanks mainly to its laid-back vibe, its quiet beaches and its network of marked walking trails. For nature lovers the waters surrounding Alonissos are also part of its appeal, along with the nearby uninhabited islands which together make up the National Marine Park of Alonissos and Northern Sporades.

The marine park was set up in 1992, primarily to preserve the critically endangered population of Mediterranean monk seals, whose numbers had dwindled to around 55. The seals have plenty of obstacles to contend with, and as well as sea pollution, the lumbering mammals don’t help their own cause with a slow reproduction rate and relatively high infant mortality.

But their historic and symbolic link to Greece is beyond dispute. They have been depicted on coins found in archaeological digs at Ancient Greek sites, and they even get a glowing mention in Homer’s works. Looking at the seals it’s not hard to see why they are so adored – this 9-minute clip shows some of the rescue work carried out by MOm (the Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal).

While the seals are the star attraction within the park (you may be lucky enough to spot them), the benefits of a carefully managed local environment have meant that other species also can be seen in the waters and along the shores. Various species of dolphin, and even sperm whales, have been seen around the islands to the east of Alonissos.

There’s no shortage of boat excursions running from Alonissos, all offering the chance to experience the highlights of the national park. You can choose a trip according to your particular interest – here are a few suggestions.

The island of Piperi is home to the largest colony of monk seals, while its steep sea cliffs are alive with the shrill cries of thousands of birds, including Bonelli’s eagles, Peregrine falcons and Eleanora’s falcons.

Gioura, another of the outer islands of the park, is best known for the Blue Cave which, according to legend, was home to the Cyclops. Sightings of the one-eyed giant are not guaranteed, but if you visit the cave you will find spectacular limestone formations. Gioura is also home to a rare species of wild goat which is unique to the island.

Peristera is the closest island to Alonissos, and in some places the two islands are separated by less than a mile of open water. The main reason to visit Peristera is for its deserted beaches, although divers might be interested in a shipwreck just off the coast; it is thought to be an Athenian vessel dating back to around 400 BC, and it probably sank with over 3000 amphorae of wine on board.

Another nearby island to the north of Alonissos is Kira-Panagia, which is popular with those sailing their own small boats. The main building of note on the island is a Byzantine-era monastery which has been recently restored.

See the GIC Villa Collection site for a list of holiday villas in Alonissos.