Viewed from above, Halkidiki resembles a trident. Its three prongs – Cassandra, Sithonia and Athos – are distinct from each other and each offers a different experience: tourism to the max in the first, escapes in nature in the second, and serenity in the third.
The so-called “Riviera of the North” remains the most popular holiday destination in the region despite the often ungainly spread of urbanization, destructive forest fires and commercial exploitation, mainly because of its seemingly never-ending stock of natural attractions.
Halkidiki arguably has the best beaches on the Greek mainland. Stunning sandy stretches and coves can be found along its crenelated coastline, facing crystal waters in hues of blue and green. The effect is a painter’s palette, created by the union of lush vegetation with the sea.
All-year delights Mount Cholomon and the woodlands of Sithonia are perfect spots to marvel at starry skies through tall planes and pines and to observe a rich animal kingdom that comes vividly alive at night, as badgers, hedgehogs, foxes and fireflies come out to play.
In Halkidiki you’ll see snow dusting the mountaintops from November and leashes of foxes dashing across the road, beautiful guesthouses lost in vast estates and villages forgotten by time. It is a place that awakens the senses but also panders to our yen for luxury, with several resorts created on an otherwise wild landscape.
One such spot that was transformed from marsh to landscaped elegance is the Sani Resort in Cassandra, with restaurants run by award-winning chefs, a marina and exclusive services that have pushed it to the top of global rankings, drawing celebrities from around the world, not least for its annual summer music festival. There’s also the Porto Carras Resort in Marmaras, created by shipowner Yiannis Carras in his 70s. Inspired by the legends associated with Sithonia, this is a world-class destination that can only be accessed by boat. It attracted the likes of Salvador Dali and continues to draw high-rollers with its marina, casino and golf course. Giving a luxurious spin to monastic life, the five-star Eagles Palace in Ouranoupoli on the way to Mount Athos is where Maria Callas spent her last summer. It represents a perfect combination of simplicity and style.
Of the area’s many beautiful villages, one of the best known is Ano (Upper) Nikiti in Sithonia, lovingly restored by foreigners and Greeks who recognized its potential and bought up its abandoned houses. Every July a swimming marathon is held from the coast of Cassandra across the bay to Nikiti harbor. Listed for preservation, Parthenonas retains some rare samples of vernacular architecture, has pretty cobbled streets and is just a 10-minute drive from the sea from its vantage point above Marmaras. Arnaia is the biggest town after Polygyros in the mountains of Halkidiki and has a few fine samples of traditional Macedonian architecture, some, like the Alexandrou Traditional Inn, restored and transformed into rustic yet comfortable accommodation units. In Cassandra, Athytos is by far the most attractive village in the north-eastern side of the peninsula, with picturesque streets and small boutiques, though it can get a little busy in the tourist season.
Halkidiki is renowned for its food and particularly the excellent fresh fish and shellfish served at its myriad restaurants and tavernas. Tuna from Sithonia is shipped straight to Japan because it’s great for sushi; Nikiti village produces a famed honey scented with heath that grows in abundance here; Ormylia has some of the best olive oil in the country, produced from age-old trees; and at the Carras Estate on the slopes of Mount Meliton, acclaimed French vintners have helped create a vineyard that yields excellent Malagousia, Limnio, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet.
There is no shortage of spots waiting to be explored in this nearly 3,000-square-kilometer area that offers an exciting variation of landscapes and attractions. Diaporos, for example, is a small island off the coast of Sithonia. Dubbed the “Greek Caribbean,” it’s where the cosmopolitan mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, spends his summers and is also frequented by Hollywood power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. In Cassandra, the natural springs of Aghia Paraskevi, said to have therapeutic properties, have been developed into a high-end spa, while in Sithonia, Toroni beach is an untouched hidden paradise with a primordial atmosphere.
And we mustn’t forget Stagira, the birthplace of Aristotle, just 73 kilometers from Thessaloniki, where interactive exhibits in a fascinating park are dedicated to propagating the great philosopher’s teachings. Or the ancient city of Olynthus, built in a fertile valley near the buzzing town Moudania, that offers a rare insight into life in Neolithic times at its excellent museum.
Petralona Cave is another highlight that must not be missed. Discovered in 1959 about a kilometer from the village of Petralona, it is believed to contain traces of human habitation – Petralona Man – from 700,000 years ago.
And the jewel in Halkidiki’s crown, of course, is the monastic community of Mount Athos, one of the most sacred religious sites in the world and an unrivalled spiritual experience, albeit afforded only to men.