Halkidiki: Perfect Peninsulas

Gorgeous sandy beaches, turquoise waters, densely forested mountains, significant historical monuments and plenty of fine dining options combine to create a unique setting for a summer vacation.


Halkidiki is a region blessed with places of rare natural beauty as stunning as they are diverse. In an enchanting blue-green setting dominated by forests of pine trees and beautiful stretches of seashore, visitors can discover locations ranging from exotic islets and endless sandy beaches washed by crystal-clear waters to dense forests with oak trees and waterfalls. What’s more, it’s a region scattered with Byzantine towers and other fortification works as well as the ruins of ancient cities. The latter include the remnants of Ancient Stagira, the birthplace of Aristotle, in addition to remains of temples and other sites of great historical significance, such as the Canal of Xerxes at Nea Roda. And, of course, among the region’s many cultural attractions, it is perhaps the monasteries of Mt Athos that have brought the region its greatest international renown; they certainly established it as a leading religious tourism destination.

The region’s unique geographical form, with its three peninsulas jutting out from a much less touristy “mainland” to form two sheltered gulfs, is conducive to local travel by boat and to coastal exploration, while also providing good fishing grounds. The abundance of seafood (including the celebrated mussels of Olympiada), the local meat, the delicious cheeses, the area’s famous green olives and other agricultural produce are all put to good use by talented culinary professionals and presented in amazing dishes of the highest caliber. Award-winning chefs, traditional cooks and passionate restaurant owners working with local ingredients create delectable dishes for all tastes; from the monastic recipes of Mt Athos to exceptional meat and fish dishes to traditional fare often augmented by creative personal touches, the food you find will further enrich your travel experience here.

With the passage of time, each penin – sula has established its own personality, while also selectively borrowing from the others. So, Kassandra, the westernmost, is chiefly known for its cosmopolitan feel, with Sani Marina and beach bars stealing the show, although it’s not without its pristine landscapes. Sithonia, the middle peninsula, while offering five-star and boutique hotels, is especially popular among nature-lovers on account of its many secluded beaches and its camping options. Lastly, the area north of Mt Athos in the easternmost part of Halkidiki, a region which includes the island of Ammouliani, is constantly upgrading its services to offer visitors unique experiences, such as the Aristotle Trail and mountain trekking on Mt Holomon.

PICK YOUR PLEASURE

COSMOPOLITAN CHIC

The luxurious Sani Marina, located on the northwest coast of the first peninsula, is the most cosmopolitan part of Halkidiki. The ideal place for people-watching and leisurely evening strolls, it offers a wide selection of shops with leading foreign and Greek brand names, as well as many dining options. You’ll find everything from restaurants serving Asian and modern Greek cuisine to renowned seafood tavernas, chic bars and fine delicatessens. The best time here is twilight, when the reflections of the yachts in the water combine with the hues of sunset to create an idyllic picture-postcard setting.

CAMPING

Sithonia has many of the most at – tractive camping spots in the country, some of which now offer the “luxury” alternative known as glamping. The wellknown campsite Armenistis Camping (Tel. (+30) 23750.914.87) is located on a long stretch of golden sand surrounded by pine and plane trees that reach right down to the beach. There are many activities to choose from here, including scuba diving and yacht excursions. On a slightly smaller scale, Akti Oneirou (Tel. (+30) 23757.709.10) enjoys an equally stunning setting on a secluded, pinefringed bay with turquoise waters and a fine sandy beach. From a distance, it looks like an island settlement. The decorative elements feature natural materials such as wood and stone, with white as the predominant color throughout.

HISTORY

Near the village of Aghios Mamas are the remains of Ancient Olynthus, allegedly founded by Olynthus, son of Heracles. This is one of the most important archaeological sites in Halkidiki (open Wed-Mon 08:30-15:30, Tel. (+30) 2310.285.163). The city was razed in 348 BC by Philip II of Macedon, who punished the Olynthians thus for breaking their alliance with him and shifting their allegiance to Athens. Among the ruins of the city, there is an impressive mosaic floor in excellent condition which depicts Bellerophon riding the winged horse Pegasus and chasing the Chimera. It’s best to visit in the morning, because there’s really no shade to be found. You should give yourself about one hour to visit the site.

If you prefer Byzantine history, head for Ouranoupoli and its marvelous Prosforio Tower. Standing proudly beside the sea since the 12th century, the tower is part of a heartwarming story of human solidarity. In 1928, Joice Loch and her husband Sydney, both members of humanitarian organizations, made their home in the tower and generously offered assistance to refugees who’d settled in the area during population exchanges between Greece and Turkey some years earlier. Today, the tower hosts an exhibition dedicated to the couple and is the best preserved tower in Halkidiki. Fishermen mending their nets in the shade of the tower and seagulls flying above it add to the charm of the scene. From here, you can walk along the coast to the Monastery of Zygos on a 3km-long path through olive groves and vineyards.

ARCHITECTURE

Located in the eastern part of the Halkidiki hinterland, at an altitude of 600m on the slopes of Mt Holomon, Arnaia is the region’s architectural gem. Built of stone, the town’s traditional houses are mostly two-story. The exteriors of the upper levels are often painted (pink, ochre or blue). Arnaia is famous for its woven fabrics, its honey and its cheeses. Generally speaking, summer temperatures in the area are very pleasant. Wander the narrow, stone-paved streets, drop by the Church of Aghios Stephanos or relax in the main square. In the mood for a picnic? Choose a quiet spot in the nearby Alsos (“Grove”) of Aghia Paraskevi.

ARISTOTLE TRAIL

There’s a historic trail of great natural beauty in the eastern part of Halkidiki that starts from Aristotle’s Park at Stagira, a lovely theme park at an elevation of 500m, where you can see a statue of the ancient philosopher and interact with a number of instruments, including a compass and a sundial, which demonstrate basic natural laws as described in Aristotle’s “Physics.” From here, a six hour walk (about 17km) takes you to the archaeological site of Ancient Stagira (open Wed-Mon 08:30-15:30, Tel. (+30) 23710.220.60), the philosopher’s birthplace (next to the modern-day settlement of Olympiada). Part of the Natura 2000 network, the area abounds with an amazing variety of wild herbs and rare plants, while offering a breathtaking view of the Strymonic Gulf. However, bear in mind that the walk is not recommended in July-August, unless you start out very early and cover just part of the trail. For greater safety, employ the services of a certified mountain guide. To find out more, visit mountathosarea.org

MT ATHOS

While Mt. Athos is again open to pilgrims, only a few are currently being granted access because of the pandemic. As of 1 July, each monastery may host up to 20 guests per day. The monastic communities known as sketes are also open to pilgrims; the sketes of Aghios Andreas, Timios Prodromos and Profitis Ilias may admit up to 15 persons, while the sketes of Aghia Anna, Kafsokalyvia and Nea Skete may admit five each. Isolated monastic houses, or kelia, are allowed to admit three. The main prerequisite for pilgrims is an invitation from a monastery or its dependency. Pilgrims from one monastery or dependency may visit other monasteries, but can’t stay at them overnight.

NOTES

KASSANDRA

On the west side of Kassandra, just to the north of Sani Beach, you’ll find Bousoulas Beach Bar. The turquoise hue and the clarity of the shallow waters here will put you in mind of tropical island paradises (Tel. (+30) 23740.994.18). Tip: Approach the beach on foot from the north side of the Sani Resort hotels. For a set of two sun loungers and an umbrella, you’ll pay €40, and €10 for each additional lounger. You’ll also be provided with towels.

On the east coast of Kassandra, after Pefkohori, lies the natural harbor of Glarokavos. Next to the harbor there’s a long strip of golden sand that pleases all tastes, offering both stylish beach bars and food trucks, plus plenty of space to spread your towel. You can fish and swim from the rocks at the entrance to the lagoon harbor. Tip: If you want some peace and quiet, choose the end of the beach nearest the harbor.

Faros Possidi. In roughly the middle of the west coast of the peninsula Kassandra, near the Possidi Lighthouse, a gorgeous sandbar extends into the sea. Lay out your towel on the dense white sand and enjoy a dip in the deep blue water with a view of Mt Olympus in the distance. Be sure to stay until sunset! Tip: Take a beach umbrella and a cooler with water and some food. There’s no shade and nowhere to buy refreshments.

If you feel the need to chill out completely, which is to say, if you’d like to enjoy a swim with everything taken care of, look no further than Villas Seaside Lounge & Restaurant at Polychrono (Tel. (+30) 23740.625.18). It has comfortable loungers, earth tones décor, atmospheric music until midday (in the evening and at weekends the volume rises) and a full menu (beverages, cocktails, food). Don’t be surprised if some Greek celebrity is occupying the lounger next to you. Tip: Whether you want a lounger or a table, be sure to make a reservation, even on weekdays. A lounger costs €6-8 depending on the type.

The El Puerto restaurant at the recently renovated Porto Sani hotel, headed by Michelin-starred chef David Ibarboure, is the latest gastronomic project of the Sani/ Ikos Group (Tel. (+30) 23740.995.02). On an inviting veranda featuring muted earth tones and designer décor, you can enjoy the taste of Spain, executed with a modern twist and the finest local ingredients.

Handmade ravioli filled with dusky grouper in shrimp broth; charcoal-grilled golden grouper; tamarisk greens from Sithonia; and incredibly delicious cheeses exclusively produced by two local cheesemakers: at Trizoni in Kryopigi, in an enchanting courtyard shaded by a majestic mulberry tree, Stergios will spoil you with the delicious flavors of beautifully cooked seafood, including wonderful fish-of-the-day dishes (Tel. (+30) 23740.519.45).

For over a decade, To Spitaki in Kallithea, with its stone-paved yard, white furnishings and lounge atmosphere, has been the premier destination for cocktail lovers. One of the standouts among this year’s concoctions is “Make your Death,” an explosive combination of silver tequila, ignited by a spicy primer of hot chili peppers and red wine, mixed with ginger ale and pineapple cordial, which is sure to set your palate, and your evening, alight (Tel. (+30) 23740.231.30).

SITHONIA

In Vourvourou Bay, there’s a small island just off the coast called Diaporos, known locally as Hawaii. Sheltered from the wind, with tall pine trees, sandy bays and crystal-clear turquoise water, it invites exploration and discovery. Tip: The most convenient way to reach the island and circumnavigate it is by renting a motorboat. You don’t need a license, prices are reasonable and having your own boat will give you greater freedom of choice in your sea trips.

At the very end of the cosmopolitan summer resort of Vourvourou lies Karydi Beach, where there are no shops, bars or loud music. What you will find are fine sand, blue-green waters, white rocks on either side of the bay and shade trees lining the shore. The water here is shallow and quite warm. You’ll have to walk out some distance before the sea deepens. Tip: The best time of day for a swim is late afternoon, when most people have left and the cool breeze wafting through the trees tempers the heat.

Much photographed and very well known, Kavourotrypes on the east coast of Sithonia is actually a string of small beaches that form a monument to nature and attract large numbers of visitors. After making your way through a pine forest that was once full of people camping wherever they pleased, you reach a narrow beach where sun-bleached rocks artfully sculpted by wind and waves create an otherworldly setting. Tip: Go early in the morning to find a spot to lay out your towel. If you’re looking for the nudist beach, head as far right as possible, almost to the end of the bay.

With its wild, jaw-dropping beauty, golden sand and views that take in majestic Mt Athos, exotic Tigania lies between the beaches of Klimataria and Kriaritsi. It comprises three adjacent sandy coves. You’ll also find a laid-back beach bar with beach umbrellas made from palm leaves. Tip: The difficult thing about Tigania is finding it. The easiest way to get there is to follow the Sykia coastal road, pass the signpost for the Klimataria Taverna and continue straight ahead. A little further along, the road makes a turn; about 300m after this, turn left onto the dirt track that leads to the beach.

Since 2002, Yiota, the tireless cook at Boukadoura near Porto Koufo Beach, has been preparing imaginative Greek recipes firmly rooted in the farming and fishing traditions of the wider region. Her cuisine is both “mom-style” and exciting at the same time. Meatball soup with monkfish, stuffed vine leaves with chard and shrimp, and tuna balls are among her biggest hits with diners (Tel. (+30) 6944.547.239).

At the old fish taverna established by his grandfather at Ormos Panagias in 1971, Aristos pays gastronomic homage to the treasures of the sea. With the fresh fish he selects daily and local vegetables from nearby villages, he pleases his discerning patrons with delicious dishes such as steamed monkfish in lemon sauce, and fish soup with scorpionfish and cod. If you arrive early, you may get one of the tables right next to the sea (Tel. (+30) 23750.314.20).

Two hotel restaurants are raising culinary standards in Halkidiki by offering gastronomic experiences of a lifetime. The first is Treehouse at the Ekies All Senses Resort (Tel. (+30) 23750.910.00), where chef Dimitris Pamporis, in a cozy space for just 10 persons with a stunning view over Vourvourou Bay, crafts a menu that expertly pairs select ingredients to create dishes that are intriguing both in terms of taste and structure (think tzatziki macarons, or Wagyu beef with eggplant and cider). The second is The Squirrel at Danai Beach Resort & Villas (Tel. (+30) 23750.204.00-2). Here, chef Vasilis Mouratidis has created a degustation menu with à la carte features (i.e., some courses offer a choice of dishes). The skillful and often bold combination of ingredients results in genuinely exciting dishes, such as cod with beer and caviar. In addition, the hotel’s amazing wine cellar, built deep into the mountainside and housing over 1600 labels, is another good reason to pay a visit. Place yourself in the very capable hands of the resort’s head sommelier, Apostolos Plahouras, for the perfect pairing.

POLYGYROS

Marigoula is a traditional eatery of a kind that you might not expect to find in Polygyros. With a history going back 80 years, the cuisine is rich and tasty, tipping its hat to Greek producers and making optimum use of local ingredients. Bite-size fried savory pies (with a filling of zucchini, peppers and mizithra cheese), carrots stuffed with minced beef and trahanas, and chickpeas with cod and turmeric are just some of the fine dishes you will savor (Tel. (+30) 23710.231.71).

ON THE DOORSTEP OF ATHOS

In the Gulf of Ierissos, just north of Mt Athos (whose proximity has undoubtedly spared it from excessive housing development), there is a roughly five-kilometer stretch of sand separated by a rock outcropping into two beaches, Mikri Komitsa and Megali Komitsa. Surrounded by lush vegetation, they have coarse sand and are washed by crystalline waters. Tip: Pick the first beach, which doesn’t have facilities and therefore attracts less people. Be sure to take a beach umbrella, water and food.

Surrounded by waters rich in fish, Ammouliani is a small island in the Bay of Mt Athos with very few permanent residents. The island is famed for its fresh fish and sandy beaches. On the west coast, the long crescent-shaped beach of Alykes is noted for its white sand and calm, swimming pool-like waters. Tip: Ammouliani is relatively isolated from the rest of Halkidiki, so you may want to consider staying overnight, if not longer stay.

At Karagatsia, on a small and verdant sandy bay on the northwest shore of Ammouliani, Yiannis lovingly prepares local meats at his seasonal canteen (Tel. (+30) 6974.734.311). Your only dilemma here is whether to go for the pork belly or the souvlaki, both served with fries. It’s the perfect place for those seeking an alternative, value-for-money meal right next to the sea.


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