Halkidiki Greece

Introduction

Halkidiki is an immensely popular destination in Greece, yet still seems to hide in the shadow of its better-known cousins such as Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes and Corfu. Perhaps because you have to make that extra effort to get there, it doesn’t attract the same attention as easier fly-in fly-out destinations.

Nonetheless Halkidiki has an awful lot going for it. Boasting perhaps the greatest number of excellent beaches in the whole of Greece packed into one , Halkidiki consists of four distinct regions while porting an almost insular air. It is a green and fecund land, it has beach life to compare with any hotspot on the mainland or islands, yet you can drive not too far and find your very own shaded piece of a beach with nary a soul in sight.

In July and August, the place is packed with drive-in tourists from the Balkans and fly-in visitors from the cooler north seeking to enjoy some of the truly excellent boutique and luxury hotels on offer. Travellers of a spiritual bent congregate all year round to imbue themselves with the unique environment of a monastic republic that has changed little in hundreds of years.

Halkidiki is special in many ways. Maybe you should let curiosity get the better of you and give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.

History

First settled by migrants from Evia (Euboea) in the 8th Century BC and later by another wave from the island of Andros, Halkidiki has a long history. The philosopher Aristotle was born in Stageira, Olynthos was an early adopter of urban planning the results of which can be seen today he Persian warlord Xerxes dug a canal through the neck of the Athos peninsula in the second invasion of Greece by Persia and Potidea was a colony founded by Corinthians in 600 BC. Potidea now has a permanent and navigable canal through the narrowest part of the Kassandra Peninsula.

The area was part of the Hellenic Macedonian Empire during the reign of Phillip of Macedon, then was subjected by the Romans and finally the Byzantines. In around 885 AD the third and eastern leg was proclaimed a religious place and no person other than male monks were allowed to settle there. It has been so ever since.

In more recent times the shorelines of the Kassandra and Sithonia peninsulas were allocated to refugees from the exchange of populations that took place between Turkey and Greece in 1923. ‘Useless land’ became a goldmine when beach tourism took off in Halkidiki in the 70s and the descendants of those refugees have been smiling their way to the bank ever since.

Getting There and Away

Air

Thessaloniki is the major hub for transport to and from Halkidiki and for air connections domestically and internationally. Thessaloniki Airport () is 16.5 km to the south east of the city centre and is connected by the No. 78 bus that also links the train station and the main bus station.

Bus

There is no direct local bus service from the airport to Halkidiki so independent visitors will

have to take a cab to the Halkidiki Bus Terminal which is officially located at the 9th kilometre of the Ring Road. In practice that means 9.7km north of the airport via a 12-minute cab ride. The website is useful for booking online tickets and you can download an app beforehand, but the site offers no timetable nor maps nor options for planning your bus travel around Halkidiki so you will have to plan your itinerary with an online or offline map.

In general buses will cover the two main ‘fingers’ of Halkidiki as distinct routes heading down one side and coming back up the other. Buses to Athos terminate at Ouranoupoli from where you take ferries onwards to Mt Athos (the Holy Mountain).

Intercity buses to/from Thessaloniki arrive the main bus station () 6.2 km to the west of the city centre. The No. 45 local bus departs regularly from within the bus terminal for the Halkidiki bus station, via the train station.

Train

Thessaloniki is connected by train to its neighbours to orthern Macedonia and Bulgaria as well as internally with trains south to Athens which, thanks to a newly renovated rail track, is reachable in just 4.5 hours. Trains also arrive at Thessaloniki from the Greek province of Thrace to the East. See . The No. 45 local bus from outside the train station will take you to the Halkidiki bus station.

Car and Motorcycle

Realistically, Halkidiki is best visited by private transport – either your own, or hired. Driving is easy though some care is required on the main access routes especially in ummer and during long weekend breaks or religious feasts when it can get very fast and busy. The main access route is Route 24 from Thessaloniki to the middle of the Kassandra Peninsula where it abruptly ends near Kallithea (1 hour, 87.7 km). Drivers heading to Sithonia will branch east at Nea Moudania (61 km).

Travellers heading to Athos are better advised to take the central route via Polygyros from where Sithonia-bound travellers can benefit from this quiet, but hillier alternative drive. Travellers from the east will enter Halkidiki at Stavros whence you follow the coastal road to Ierissos and beyond.

The roads throughout Halkidiki are generally very good, but can get quite winding once you enter the individual peninsulas. The road from Vrastama to Arnea via Taxiarhis and Mt Holomondas is spectacularly winding through thick forests and makes for a great motorcycle cruise (See Central Halkidiki).

Central Halkidiki

About Central Halkidiki

Central Halkidiki is usually regarded as ‘transit territory’ for visitors heading to the attractions of the Peninsulas’ beaches or the monastic quiet of Mt Athos. However, the Centre is a destination in its own right and boasts many unsung, pretty villages, mountain hideaways, rustic rural fare in country taverns and some excellent hiking, cycling and scenic driving options. It is also the site of controversial gold mining operations () that have driven many locals to distraction. It is home to Halkidiki’s administrative capital Polygyros there are a few beach enclaves worth considering. A worthwhile archaeological site and an intriguing and ancient cave bring up the rear of things to see in this rather underrated part of the region.

Destinations

Arnea

Arnea is a pretty village that has reinvented itself for tourism and travellers by renovating its traditional Macedonian stone, balconied houses and opening up cosy guesthouses and tavernas with hearty rural menus serving among other dishes wild boar. Arnea is the ying to Kassandra’s yang: a total antithesis to the bling of the beaches and their sometimes crowded, fast life. While Arnea can be taken in on a slow drive – Sunday after church is a good time when the locals spill out into the cobbled streets and fill the cafeterias – is equally enjoyable for a night or two to soak up the sense of the place.

Mt Holomondas

This otherwise under-impressive mountain peak forms the bulk of mid-central Halkidiki. Topping out at 1,165 metres you will be hard-pressed to see the summit unless you hike there as its slopes are covered in a dense carpet of chestnut trees, oaks and pines (many of which end up as Christmas trees). This is prime mountain biking and motorcycle cruising territory with the pretty village of Taxiarhis making for a suitable pit stop for food and fuel. The road between Arnea and Vrastama is non-stop curves all the way and is not for those prone to motion sickness.

Nea Kallikrateia

Nea Kallikrateia is not on everyone’s travel hit list and nor does it strive to be. It’s still enormously popular with locals from Thessaloniki who regard at as their first real Halkidiki beach resort. Many have holiday homes here. The town itself is a bustling seaside resort with a decent beach and everything you would expect from a workaday holiday destination. About 4km further to the east there is a quieter beach scene with casual beach bars, tavernas and equally clean sand and sea.

Polygyros

As the administrative capital of Halkidiki you would think that Polygyros doesn’t bother with tourism. On the contrary it is an agreeable and amenable town, with a cosy centre and because it is lived in all year round it is never too quiet. Excellent boutique accommodation is available as well as some wholesome Greek (as opposed to tourist) oriented food. Polygyros makes for a good base for Central Halkidiki and because of its elevation (560 meters) it is noticeably cooler than the fringes of the peninsulas. Snow often falls in the area in inter making it perfect for a cold time break.

Psakoudia & Yerakini

You can drive past Psakoudia and Yerakini on the main highway and never notice that they were there. Psakoudia is little more than a 1.4 km long strip with a beach, tavernas, cafés and some pretty decent accommodation. Both beaches are very popular for residents of the inland villages seeking a relief from cultivating olives which is the mainstay of the region. Of all the typically unnoticed beach communities along the shorelines of the inter-peninsular coasts, Psakoudia just has that extra attractive edge. In a similar but lower key vein is the

beach strip of Yerakini, 6.2 km to the west. The beach is good and doesn’t get jellyfish that sometimes frequent Psakoudia and is totally unassuming. Both places are probably the best of the Central Halkidiki beach annexes.

Ormos Panagias

Ormos Panagias is another beach resort built over a headland that overlooks the big bay (Ormos) of the Virgin (Panagia). The port is cosy and pretty to sit in over an iced ouzo and grilled octopus, but it’s the beach that is its drawcard. When the wind is not from the east, it is perfect; when it blows the other way, it’s time to pour another ouzo and relax in the shade under a tree. There is some scattered accommodation including a more upmarket option with a pool.

Sights

Petralona Cave (www.petralona-cave.gr)

First discovered in 1959 by local man Filippos Hatzaridis, this beguiling cave is widely held to be the place where Europe’s oldest known man was discovered – or at least his skull. It has been dated to about 700,000 years ago. The fossils of many animals have also been found in the cave. Located approximately 50km from Thessaloniki and inland from Nea Kallikrateia, it makes for a worthwhile detour. The entry ticket gives access to the nearby Anthropological Museum.

Ancient Olynthos

Olynthos was an Ancient Greek city state ‘polis’ founded in the 7th century BC and carries a fairly significant history. Archaeology buffs may care to visit the extensive site near the eponymous village. It extends over two hills and the remains demonstrate perhaps a fine early example of urban planning. Artefacts found on the site are displayed in the Thessaloniki and Polygyros Archaeological Museums so the truly historically-bent will need to combine visits to get a fuller picture of the significance of Olynthos.

Activities

Weaving Museum of Arnea (tel: 23723 51100; www.dimosaristoteli.gr/en/culture/weaving-museum-of-arnaia)

Traditional weavers still spin their yarn and create carpets and wall hangings following time-honoured patterns and methods on very old looms. The woven wall hangings are a tradition of the region and follow patterns passed down from generation to generation. A truly fascinating and worthwhile step back in time that maintains links with today.

Break Free Mountain Biking (

Break free with a guided bicycle tour or an invigorating hike in Central Halkidiki. This outfit offers a few tailored tours such as a Holomondas mountain biking or trekking excursion, plus also cycling tours of Sithonia and Kassandra of around 30-40 km in length.

Artisan handmade soaps (tel: 699 840 1185;

Making soap at home is a time-honoured tradition and traditional soap is made from olive oil, salt, water and caustic soda. It is still made in this artisan’s workshop and you can visit. Blended with care by Antonis Vasilakis you’ll find him busy creating at the 6th kilometre of the Polygyros-Yerakini road. Six different aromatic soap products are for sale.

Suggested Hotels

Alexandrou Traditional Inn (tel: 23710 23210; Comprising 10 cosy and stone and wood-clad rooms this relaxing hostelry in a restored Macedonia mansion is

ideal for a weekend stay.

Antigoni Beach Hotel (tel; 23750 31809; Positioned strategically on the large Ormos Panagias beach this 4-star hotel offers sophistication and beachside comfort. There’s a cafeteria and restaurant included and when the wind is up, you can swim in the pool.

Klities Guesthouse (tel: 23710 21001; Right in the middle of Polygyros’ day and night life town centre, you can be sure of country comfort in style. There’s a downstairs eatery with spotless kitchen and the rooms are ample and well-equipped.

Melina Hotel (tel: 23710 23800; Another good option for an over-nighter, or short break in the capital, Melina is an exceptionally tastefully outfitted hostelry with colour coded rooms and the exceptional Coco-Mat beds made in Greece.

Viraggas (tel: 23710 71429; For the ultimate getaway where the only sound you might hear is (even your phone won’t ring here). Meander over to the village of Vrastama and slowly chill in this immaculate old house. Owner Vasilis is an accomplished chef and lays on some fine, tailored meals for guests.

Suggested Restaurants

Exi Vryses (tel: 23710 24820, Kountouriotou 2, Polygyros 631 00) Occupying prime garden space in Polygyros ‘Six Springs’ is regarded highly by locals and is perfect for either lunch or dinner. With a broad and imaginative menu Exi Vryses covers all customer preferences and is perfect for kids.

Marigoula (tel: 23710 23171, Konstantinoupoleos 7, Polygyros 631 00) Cosy and street urban this central eatery has a menu comprising imaginative meze dishes for informal shared eating, or imaginative mains. Try stuffed Florina peppers with anchovy pesto, or chicken rissoles with leak and dill.

Platanos Taverna (tel: 694 870 5119, Aristotelous, Arnea 630 74) Arnea is not short of good eating places, but this one has prime location right on the main square. Village style meat dishes predominate and portions are more than ample.

Raki me Ellada (tel: 23711 11292, Parayitonia, Vrastama 630 71) You’ll have to make an effort to find this place, 14km east of Polygyros. Rabbit and quail are on the menu but the real stunner is the ‘spetsofaï kapalato’ a hollowed-out loaf of wholemeal bread stuffed with a rich mix of tomatoes, onions, sausages and other herbs and spice all topped off with the crusty top of the loaf. Yum!

Getting There and Around

Visitors heading to Central Halkidiki will normally take a Sithonia or Athos bus and alight in Polygyros. Disembark at the central bus stop, not at the stop by the hospital. For local destinations, a cab (tel: 23710 22460) might be a solution.

Arnea is another destination option. Call the local taxi service (tel: 23720 22523) for travel within the area.

As with all of Halkidiki – and maybe more so here – your own transport is the best option. Cycling will involve quite a bit of hill work, so bring taut muscles and a bicycle with good gears.

Kassandra Peninsula (1st leg)

About Kassandra

Kassandra is considered ‘holiday central’ in the Halkidiki tourism stakes. Perhaps because it

is closer to Thessaloniki, it was developed first, or maybe because it is easier to get around – either way Kasandra bears the brunt of the annual migration of tourists to Halkidiki. Some like it, others love it and not a few prefer less crowded and raucous options. Kassandra has undoubtedly some splendid beaches and they run almost sequentially on the eastern coast from Kallithea in the North to Paliouri in the South. The splendour of the beaches has caused rapid development over the years and hotels line the coastline from top to bottom. The western coast of Kassandra is more sedate, but doesn’t have the quality of beaches as the east side.

Destinations

Afytos

This delightful clifftop village is unquestioningly the jewel in the crown of Kassandra’s destinations and tourist flock there. There’s not a lot to it: just narrow streets lined with shops and hand-decorated canswith its restaurants and cafés it all looks very pretty. The star attraction is the clifftop street overlooking the sea. The fine beach is a 10-minute downhill walk.

Loutra

Yes, Kassandra does have a thermal baths resort and you’ll find it tucked away at the bottom end of the western side. There is a pleasant pebbled beach with loungers and a backdrop of cafés, but folk come mainly for the Agia Paraskevi Thermal Spa ( with its large sulphur-laden swimming pool.

Nea Fokea

A lot of places in Kassandra were re-incarnations of refugees’ towns and cities in Asia Minor and carry the prefix or ‘Nea’ or ‘Neo’ meaning new. This is one of them and the first of the beachside communities that you will encounter as you drive down the east side. There’s not a lot to it: a beach, a Byzantine tower and one of the Peninsula’s better restaurants.

Nea Skioni

Nea Skioni is another low-key west side agricultural community cum alternative beach resort for those that like it simple. It boasts a sizeable port, an adjacent beach and enough cafés and restaurants to keep its summer visitors watered and fed. Like most west side communities, it is generally quiet and less intense than its neighbours over the other side.

Pefkohori

Pefkohori is a busy conurbation of hotels, houses, shops, businesses, restaurants and somewhere beyond the cement, a long promenade with a narrow beach. It is undoubtedly popular for visitors who like bustle and action, but subtle or petite it is not. There are nice places to stay nearby including a fine hotel on the hill and a cheery local taverna that holds frequent musical evenings.

Polyhrono

Polyhrono is another Pefkohori lookalike a little further north along the shore. It dishes up the now familiar mix of narrow beach, long promenade, row upon row of shops, cafés, restaurants and people seemingly permanently walking up and down. It’s an acquired taste and it’s not to everyone’s preference. It is holiday central à-la-Halkidiki after all.

Possidi

Back over on the quieter mid-western side Posseidi is a small waterfront settlement with a gorgeous kite-shaped beach jutting out into the meeting of the Thermaic Gulf and the Aegean Sea proper. If you like your beaches big wild and unshaded, you’ll love this one. Possidi is quiet on the whole so it might make a good base to read a book or sleep.

Sani

Sani bears the moniker of the most isolated beach resort in Kassandra. It’s also one of the first as you drive from Thessaloniki. You have to drive out and back to reach it. That said, it sports some flashy resorts and a marvellously artificial marina. It is perhaps its manufactured artificiality that gives Sani an unnerving look and feel to it. There’s no real cosiness or edge that you’ll find elsewhere. Still, it’s pretty in its own way and some like it just as it is.

Siviri

Siviri competes hard for the tourist buck with its rivals across the way and has some appeal. It is lower-key, the beach is long if a little narrow and there is ample greenery surrounding. Like all west coast beach communities Siviri exists in isolation from its neighbours, so has developed its own identity. There is plenty of accommodation and the usual plethora or places to eat and drink.

Sights & Beaches

The eastern side of Kassandra is essentially a long beach that has been decorated with hotels, shops and restaurants. Sometimes you can’t even see the beach. Some of the best ones have unsurprisingly been camped on by the big luxury hotels and the leaner ones have been given over to the holiday communities that support a huge tourism industry. Bathers will generally find clean water – though it makes sense to swim away from big business – but the cosiness and sense of ownership afforded to the Sithonia Peninsula beaches doesn’t really exist here. You may have to go as far south as Hrousou Beach near Paliouri to seek beach relief.

The exposed western coast is more desultory and lonely-feeling and really good sandy beaches are fewer and further in between. Possidi Beach on this side is the obvious exception. You’ll need your own wheels to find what you’re looking for, but in general terms the better beaches are along the north-west coast.

One of the more unusual sights is the Potidea canal. Blink as you drive over it and you’ve missed it. Running across the neck of Kassandra it essentially disconnects Kassandra from the mainland rendering it in effect an island. Take the effort to pause at Nea Potidea and have a look.

Kassandra probably lends itself better to hill driving than Sithonia, so half a day could be dedicated to a drive through the centre from Sani to Kassandrino then descending to either side of the peninsula for lunch.

Activities

Activity on Kassandra is about having a holiday and good time. So, you’ll find plenty of water-based activities to choose from. If you want to be more active, try cycling. Contact Break Free (tel: 23103 48073; for details of their Kassandra bicycle tours.

Suggested Hotels

Alia Palace Hotel, Pefkochori (tel: 23740 61166; . Perched on a hillside overlooking Pefkohori and away from the hustle and bustle below, Alia Palace Hotel is a relaxing choice. Sporting a large pool and adjacent bar/restaurant you get the views and

space that you won’t find next to the beach.

Art Boutique Hotel Pefkohori (tel: 23740 62931; Seventeen individually decorated and created rooms – all named after famous painters make up this very swish boutique hotel on the beach. Pour a glass of wine or just sunbathe on the relaxing and discreet terrace.

Blue Carpet Luxury Suites, Haniotis (tel: 23740 62744; Boasting a minimalistic, orient-inspired collection of 27 suites by the sea, you’ll be spoiled for choice at the Blue Carpet. Some suites have private pools. Breakfast, lunch, dine and wine next to the sea in subtle luxury.

Flegra Beach Hotel, Pefkohori (tel: 23740 61702; Amidst the action and close to the centre of Pefkohori these 29 apartments with kitchenettes will appeal to those who wish a bit of independence without sacrificing comfort. Prime choice for families with kids.

Suggested Restaurants

Azur Sea Food Restaurant (tel: 697 029 8872, Polyhrono, 630 85) Beachside dining with an emphasis – not surprisingly – on fish. Tuna and octopus get thumbs up as does grilled feta with fig jam. Meat lovers won’t be disappointed either, nor will vegans and vegetarians with alternative options on offer.

Kavouras Sea View (tel: 23740 22900, Plateia Agiou Nikolaou, Kallithea, 630 77) Overlooking the beach at Kallithea this predominantly seafood restaurant gets consistently good reviews from its patrons. Recommend dishes are prawns in pasta (garidomakaronada) or seafood risotto.

Massalia (tel: 23740 81008, Kentriki Plateia, Nea Fokea, 630 77) Greek for Marseille (in France) this is nonetheless a Greek averna with an avid band of followers. The best deal is ‘mezedes’ order a few and dive in. Try smoked mackerel with white fish roe salad (taramasalata) and pickles, or smoked aubergine dip. The list is huge.

Taverna Villa Elia (tel: 23740 62386, Palia Plateia, Pefkohori, 630 85) You’d probably never find this place unless you were told about it. Hiding coyly in the back streets next to the church, it’s no nonsense home cooking whatever you order. A whole fish is suggested. Music nights feature frequently.

Getting There and Around

Once again, the bus is king – unless you have independent wheels. It’s 1.5 hours from Thessaloniki’s KTEL Halkidiki to Kallithea, around two hours to Pefkohori and around 2.5 hours to the southern settlements.

You can easily hire a car locally to get around if you want to avoid the drive from Thessaloniki. Motorbike and scooter rental shops abound.

Sithonia Peninsula (2nd leg)

About the Sithonia Peninsula

The Sithonia Peninsula has to be the icing on the Halkidiki cake. Whereas Athos is mainly for soul-searchers, Kassandra for packaged travellers looking for a seaside holiday, Sithonia is for unfettered adventurers looking for the beaches in the Halkidiki posters to either camp or indulge in a bit of couture accommodation luxury. Sithonia has it all. Sithonia has the added advantage of two ‘inside’ coastlines thus offering more options of beaches and resorts less exposed to the outside weather. The east coast is wooded and winding with beach communities peppering the coastline. The west coast is more mellow and smooth and is home to Halkidiki’s better hotels and lodgings. Sithonia is unreservedly popular, but visitors will almost always find a piece of it to call their own for an hour or more.

Destinations

Agia Kyriaki

Agia Kyriaki is a small isolated centre that sits on a scimitar-shaped beach backed by shading greenery. Its beach is one of many undeveloped strands that cut into the coastline forming mini bays all the way down to Porto Koufo. It’s hereon you will need your own wheels to explore and where you will find your own private place to swim. Not all are sandy or serviced, but quiet they most certainly are.

Elia Nikitis

It is around this part of the coast where you will start to come across many little beach communities that are sequestered and secluded, backed by trees and keep a very low yet quality profile. Elia Nikitis is an almost undefined settlement that stretches from Kovios Beach in the north to Lagomandra Beach in the south. Here is the epicentre of the west coast resort centres. The coastline is wooded, and the beaches appear in turn along an attractive coastal road.

Kalamitsi

Twenty years ago, Kalamitsi was the best spot in Halkidiki to break away in. It had a gorgeous beach and a smattering of tavernas. It still has a gorgeous beach but it has grown exponentially and now getting in with a car is a matter of luck. Probably best to visit early or late in the season. It is worth the effort.

Neos Marmaras

This port community is one of the more established ‘big’ resorts in Sithonia and is home to the expansive (and expensive) Porto Carras Hotel which was the pioneer in hotel in Sithonia. You wouldn’t call Neos Marmaras cosy, but it is a lively hub and you can take various excursion ferries across to Kassandra. There is a long beach strip south of the town called Azur Beach where the water is clean and shallow.

Nikiti

The bustling community of Nikiti is the de-fact gateway to Sithonia and one of the few places where you will encounter traffic lights in Sithonia. Not a well-established resort centre in itselfthough there is a long beach running south it is the home to what is perhaps Sithonia’s best hotel and the waters of this unsung coastline as pristine as anywhere else further into the peninsula.

Paradeisos

Paradeisos is not quite Paradise (as the name suggests) but you will pass it on your way up or down the west coast. It’s a small and unpretentious community with a thin sandy beach packed with loungers and Paradeisos doesn’t put on airs. Predictably there are places to water and feed yourself and it make for a good base if you don’t mind its simple form.

Skala Sykias

Skala Sykias is the portend of the long and curving Sykia Beach. While Sykia Beach is rather exposed and open and not too inspiring, the little beach and port community at the south end is perfect. Tidy, neat and just how a hidden-away beach community should be. Three tavernas feed hungry bathers. The pretty village of Sykia is 5.6 km inland where you will find further good eating options.

Parthenonas

Few people are aware of this old restored village in the hinterland 6.1 km above Neos Marmaras. Once totally run-down it is now being carefully put back together stone by stone and the results are impressive. Impressive also is the view at sunset when visitors settle down with a cocktail and watch the sun slip over Kassandra.

Porto Koufo

Porto Koufo is a quaint little port protected and hidden from the outside sea. Meaning ‘deaf port’ in Greek – perhaps because you can no longer hear the sea – it is an ideal spot for families with children as the water is shallow and unruffled by waves. The little harbour sports some enticing places to eat.

Sarti

Sarti is the country cousin to the other centres on Sithonia. Unapologetically in your face, open and enthusiastically touristy. You will love Sarti if you love your beach scene big and uncomplicated. The ‘scene’ is one long unshaded (other than by beach umbrellas) waterfront backed by restaurants, cafés and shops. Accommodation can be a bargain here and is undeniably popular with families looking to stretch their Euro, Leu or Dinar.

Vourvourou

This elongated community on the west side looks unremarkable as you drive in from the north you can hardly see or get to the beach ts real reward lies at the end with one of those famous beaches Karydi Beach a curved blade of sand between two rocky headlands backed by trees and an international gathering of travellers who revel in the casual ambiance. Bring a picnic and sit under the ample trees, or choose fine dining nearby. An excellent hotel with prime location completes the movie set.

Sights & Beaches

Where to begin. First up the sights are mainly the beaches themselves. Here is a list of the more well-known onesivided as described above into west side and east side beaches.

Starting down the east side first up Ormos Panagias on the cusp of Sithonia and Central Halkidiki covered in the Central section. Vourvourou is essentially Karydi Beach an enclosed bay that can get quite crowded in summer but is so very pretty.

Further south the next major stop is the more recently developed Manasú Beach (known in the past as Oneirou Beach) which is home to a private luxury camping site () and a modern restaurant bar and shopping facility. Don’t let the guys manning the barrier stop you from accessing the public carpark. You can go through at no cost and utilise the Manasú facility. The public beach area and facilities are excellent.

Further south you will hit Kavourotrypes (crab holes) Beach a funky hippy-like setting with a series of little bays wrapped around by smooth rocks. Rough and ready cantinas serve food and drink underneath the shading trees.

Skipping Sarti and Sykia beaches (already described above) Skala Sykias is good but not as excellent as the beach at Kalamitsi at the southern tip which is now feeling the pinch from a spot of over-popularity.

Coming up the west side other than the aforementioned southwest isolated beaches, worthy of mention is Lagomandra Beach with handy restaurant and hotel, Kalogria Beach with a narrow backing access road and the very tempting Kovios Beach, best via a short access

road on the south side.

Agios Ioannis Beach further north should be good, is exposed and unshaded and as at the time of research a huge hotel complex is being constructed at the eastern end. There is a small beach scene at the western end.

Activities

Water sports are offered at all the main services beaches and camping is very popular in Sithonia with some excellent campsites. Camping Armenistis (tel: 23750 91487; is one of the better ones and is fronted by another excellent beach.

There is a scuba diving centre in Kalamitsi the Dolphin Diving Centre (tel: 23750 41346; and another one the Atlantic Diving Centre (tel: 697 816 5361; for serious underwater lovers.

Suggested Hotels

Acrotel Athina Palace (tel: 23750 81410; ) One of a group of hotels under the same flag this is the jewel and enjoys a good position. The hotel sports a pool, but a short walk will take you to the beach below. Well-appointed rooms and guest services.

Blue Dolphin Hotel (tel: 23750 61483; A modern well-maintained hotel suitable for families. There is a swimming pool, kids and adult pool, a bar a kids playground next to decent beaches one a beach bar. It’s a quiet location, but 1km east there is a low-key beach bar and tavern scene.

Danai Beach Resort (tel: 23750 20400; Quite possibly the best hotel in the whole of Halkidiki the Danai Beach Resort has and does it all. This discrete yet opulent resort caters for couples and groups who require total emersion in peace and relaxation. It is small enough to be intimate yet spacious enough to allow privacy. It enjoys a manicured beach, a bar and a couple of restaurants. The private villas are stunning. Go no further.

Ekies All Senses Resort (tel: 23750 91000; Despite the desultory looking exterior of this beachside resort, the interior is magnificent and decked out in greenery and tropical palms. The hotel is crowned by a delightful beach with large cafe bar and shallow water ideal for families with kids. A very attractive spot and favoured for its sheltered position. Sand loungers and umbrellas abound and there are boats for hire.

Thalassokipos Hotel (tel: 23750 31945; A stunningly located suites-only hotel with brilliant views over the sea below. Set in an olive grove with a steep path down to a small beach, this hotel will suit couples and people seeking utter peace and quiet. There is a little bar and breakfast room, but you will need a car to get to and fro’ as it is a little isolated.

Suggested Restaurants

Lagomandra Taverna (tel: 23750 72217, Elia Nikitis, 630 88) Part of the Lagomandra Resort abutting the eponymous beach, the restaurant is the best of the places to eat in the area. Professional service, immaculate presentation and a wide variety of standard choices.

Limanaki (tel: 697 982 7767, Skala Sykias, 630 72) The first of trio of eateries you will meet upon arrival Limanaki eschews the brash commercialism of its rival up the hill. Limanaki is reserved, simple and gives good food – seafood of course, plus all the usual staples.

Melia Restaurant (tel: 23570 91067, Vourvourou, 630 78) Just back from Karydi Beach Melia is good for meze grazing after a good swim. Perhaps try grilled octopus with fava and herbs, or steamed mussels with ouzo, wine, onion and celery. Or how about stuffed squid with fresh tomato and cheese. No need for seconds.

Taverna Giorgakis (tel: 23750 41013, Kalamitsi, 630 72) Location, location, location! You can’t get closer to the beach than at this place. You are on the beach. The menu is extensive and covers all tastes. Perhaps this is the place to try that mousakas that you never had. Wash it down with chilled white wine and dash of soda water.

Tzitzikas (tel: 23750 51270, Port Koufo, 630 72) Slap bang in the middle of the little harbour Tzitzikas (cicada in Greek) serves up finely served fish and meat dishes such a stuffed squid, red mullet or mackerel filets with oil, lemon and fresh onion rings. The ambiance is just right and the service attentive and quick.

Getting There and Around

You guessed it, the bus is the unless you have your own wheels and probably here more than anywhere elseIt’s 1.25 hours from Thessaloniki’s KTEL Halkidiki to Nikiti, around 2 hours to Neos Marmaras, 3 hours to Sarti and 3.5 hours to Kalamitsi.

You can easily hire a car in the main centres to get around if you want to avoid the drive from Thessaloniki. Motor bike and scooter rental shops are also to be found in major centres.

Cycling is probably easier on the west side as there are more gradients and curves on the east coast.

Athos Peninsula (3rd leg)

About the Athos Peninsula

The Athos Peninsula is essentially about, to all intents and purposes, one destination: the Holy Mountain (Άγιον Όρος) and its monasteries a.k.a. Mt Athos The Monastic Republic of the Holy Mountain occupies around 80% of the peninsula leaving just a mere 20% of the territory to secular visitors and females. Women are not allowed into the Holy Mountain. While the greater majority of the peninsula is off-limits to casual visitors, the remaining slice of secular Athos offer some rare treats that include Halkidiki’s only island and its satellites, a busy and commercialised port, a coastal strip packed full of pricy hotels and a low-key, down to earth beach resort that is not at all expensive and might just be the tip to watch.

Destinations

Ammouliani Island

Athos Peninsula’s biggest surprise to visitors to the region is its very own desert island floating offshore at the north-western end of the peninsula. It’s not exactly ‘desert’ as it is covered in green vegetation yet boasts a spectacular desert island beach called Alykes. Settled by Asia Minor refugees over 100 years ago the community has grown up in a pleasant haphazard kind of way and still feels off the beaten track. There are fine places to eat and good accommodation possibilities. Off the southern tip of Ammouliani are a scattering of islets known as Drenia one of which has a bar and seasonal taverna. Drenia is reached by excursion boats from Ouranoupoli. Ammouliani is reached by ferry from the minuscule port of Trypiti on the mainland several times a day. For more details visit www.visitammouliani.gr

Ierissos

You could be excused for missing Ierissos in your hurry to get to Ouranoupoli as the main highway skirts its main attractionits pristine and exceptionally clean beach with warm waters in summer. The village is a year-round settlement not totally dependent on tourism. It sports a lengthy promenade, a scattering of fine restaurants and cafés, supermarkets, gas stations and an undeniably pleasant ambiance. You could take a seaside apartment here for a week and be entirely happy. Ierissos is not known to the larger world as a resort, but it is and it’s happy to proudly wear its moniker as a family destination. Ierissos also an alternative departure point for monasteries on the eastern side of Mt Athos.

Mt Athos

Men come here for various reasons: out of curiosity, to feed their soul, to enjoy walking, to talk to fellow men of the Orthodox cloth or maybe to seek a temporary alternative to fast, secular life on the other side of the border. Mt Athos allows in only 100 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox men daily. So, getting in requires some planning (see separate box). Women can get a distant taste of the monastic republic by taking a cruise along the coast. But that’s about it. Women can peer into Athos at a curious land border point about a 15-minute drive south of Ouranoupoli where a locked fence and gate firmly deny legal entry to anyone into the Republic. There’s a nearby beach by way of compensation. Plan at least six-months ahead if you intend to visit.

Ouranoupoli

This is the secular capital of Athos – the port, the place to buy religious paraphernalia, the place to hang out over a cold beer and follow the moving chaos and the place to get your permit to Mt Athos. While it is eminently liveable with hotels and restaurants, the main hotel strip spills northwards along the coast towards Trypiti and enjoys some fine beach scenes. Ouranoupoli (‘Heaven City’ in Greek) is the end of the line for buses to Athos. From here on it’s all by sea.

Sights & Beaches

Pyrgos Prosforeiou (Ouranoupoli Tower) is an unmistakable edifice in the port of Ouranoupoli. Built in the 14th Century it has served various purposes its primary purpose being to protect the agricultural holdings of the Vatopedi Monastery. In more recent times it was the home of refugee advocates Joyce and Sydney Loch who lovingly kept the tower in habitable condition. Since their passing it has been renovated and is open to the public to explore.

Xerxes Canal (). Persian warrior Xerxes I on his onslaught of the Hellenic mainland decided to build a canal across the narrow neck of the Athos Peninsula between Nea Roda and Trypiti. It was completed in 480 BC. This was to avoid the stormy passage for his fleet around the tip of the peninsula. While nothing obvious remains to this day – other than an optimistic sign – visitors can easily see why a canal was a no-brainer. It’s barely 2 km from one side to the other. The canal was allegedly used once and abandoned.

The inside (western) strip of beaches and those on Ammouliani and Drenia are the most protected from the weather and can usually be guaranteed to be calm. They are frequented by the many crowds of tourists in the narrow hotel strip. The most user-friendly one is about 2 km south of Trypiti as you drive to Ouranoupoli. It has a low-key tree-shaded beach bar and is typically locatable by the haphazardly parked cars along the road. The beach at Ierissos (as described above) is excellent (wind permitting) as is the one at Nea Roda – also on the eastern side.

Traditional wooden boatbuilding can be spotted on the Nea Roda road just outside Ierissos. It’s not on a big scale but there are not many places where you can still see wooden boats being built by hand.

Activities

Cheese lovers should make a mooline for the Stathoris Dairy where a wonderful range of cheeses and dairy products are crafted with care and tradition. The Stathoris Dairy is 2.1 km south west of Ierissos on the Gomati road. How about olive oil cheese with oregano, or ‘mikrasiatiko’ with hot pepper? These and more can be savoured here.

While it seems unlikely, you can actually climb Mt Athos, ). You will need the normal Holy Mountain permit to get into Mt Athos (and you must be male), but it is doable and it is such an enticing looking mountain. You can walk it in one day, or climb it using a more technical climbing route. It is off the more familiar climbing destinations in Europe, but it has that ‘I did it’ appeal to spiritually adventurous mountaineers.

Suggested Hotels

Agionissi Resort (tel: 23770 51102; Arrayed amphitheatrically over a hillside overlooking the beach, this resort is the best place to stay on Ammouliani. Sixty-nine rooms from singles to apartments. All well-equipped.

Akrathos Beach Hotel (tel: 23770 71100; Just a short of Ouranoupoli, the Akrathos resort is an upper-market hotel with a wide range of comforts. A walkway and bridge connects the hotel to the splendid beach.

Eagles Villas (tel: 23770 40050; Luxury and comfort on a hill with a view, Eagles Villas is for discerning families and couple. Comprising 42 luxury villas, this stunning property is the best in the area.

GKEAA Boutique Hotel (tel: 23770 22533; Over in understated Ierissos this hotel offers quiet comfort close to the beach in a pleasant part of town. Excellent personalised service and finely furnished rooms are the trademarks of this welcoming hotel.

Suggested Restaurants

Athos Taverna (tel: 23770 22966, Ierissos, 630 75) Others may claim the accolades, but Athos Taverna delivers the goods. Low-key, no bells and whistles, just honest food and swift service with a smile.

Kritikos (tel: 23770 71222, Ouranoupoli, 630 75) One of two distinguished and well-established eateries in Ouranoupoli, Kritikos is good for fish. Oysters, mussels and shrimp also feature, as well as local specialities.

Lemoniadis (tel: 23770 71355, Ouranoupoli, 630 75) Hugging the seafront Lemoniadis pips its neighbours with a mixture of fish and meat dishes. Service is swift and efficient and the ambiance is just perfect for an indolent lunch or dinner.

Taverna Tzanis (tel: 23770 51322; Ammouliani, 630 75) Abutting the port beach with enticing views over to the Athos Peninsula, Tzanis is probably the best place to dine on Ammouliani. Medium prices with quality food.

Getting There and Around

All public bus transport options are focussed on getting passengers to and from Thessaloniki and Ouranoupoli. Travellers wishing to move on to Sithonia or Kassandra are going to have to swap buses along the way.

Day trippers to Athos by boat have a few options one of which is Athos Sea Cruises (tel: 23770 71370; . There are seven different cruises to choose from, matching time, budget and style preferences. The boats skirt the coast to the bottom of the peninsula and back, but do not approach too close so you can’t see a lot of detail. Not all boats do Athos – some visit Ammouliani and Drenia and Vourvourou beach on Sithonia.

[see also next page with boxed text]

MT ATHOS

As previously mentioned, Mt Athos (the Holy Mountain) is a male-only destination, so females read hereon n out of curiosity only. The usual plan is to spend 2-4 days walking between monasteries spending one night in each. Accommodation and food is ‘free’, but there is an in-built cost to securing all this. Visiting Mt Athos is a well-oiled operation and is run like a monastic business.

Men come for their own reasons to the Holy Mountain. It matters not what your reason is; everyone must follow the same preparations to get there. Once there your time will be spent walking in what is one vast, ecclesiastical conservation park, thinking, spiritualising and maybe reading, sleeping and rising early while dining and engaging with monks. It is not a holiday camp nor should be considered such. It is a destination for pilgrimage and visitors will get the most out of the experience if that principle is knowingly adhered to.

Preparation, Arrival & Departure

Start planning six months ahead. Get in touch with the Mt Athos Pilgrims’ Bureau (tel: 2310 252 575; and carefully read all the information. You will need to apply and pay beforehand. Then you will need to plan your walking itinerary and book your bed at the monasteries of your choice. You are normally given only three nights stay, but that can be extended to a further two nights after arrival in Karyes the capital of Mt Athos. Monastery contact details are on the website.

Upon arrival at Ouranoupoli (it is recommended to arrive the day before) you will pick up your entry pass (diamonitirion) at the Pilgrims’ Bureau sub-branch (tel: 23770 71422) in town then you are ready. Boats leave at 08:00, 09:45 and 11:45 and tickets can be bought on the waterfront near the jetty. If you are heading for Karyes you will alight at the port of Dafni and take a bus. If you are heading further south, you will change boats at Dafni. Heading back to Ouranoupoli the boat departs at 12:00 with connections to meet this departure from monasteries further south.

Conduct

Common sense should prevail, but there are some ground rules. You should dress modestly (and practically) in much the same way as you would around your own place of worship. Take photos of scenery and buildings, but not of actual services and do not take video. Take photos of monks only if given permission. Be willing to arise for early morning services if suggested and follow the rhythm of the monastery when it comes to meals and activities. When eating be aware that you’ll only have about ten minutes to eat your food. The head monk will ring a bell once to start and once again to finish so eat fast! After that all eating is over. Respect the silence and refrain from playing music via a speaker (use headphones), or talking loudly.

Practicalities

Keep additional food supplies with you should you ever be caught out at mealtimes. There is, however, a well-stocked supermarket in Karyes. Take stout walking shoes with you as you will be walking rough tracks. Use sun screen and wear a hat. It can get hot and humid. Your phone will work just fine (monks use them), but you will need to use your own mobile data if you want to access the Internet. Wine is commonly served with meals, but if you bring alcohol to the monastery you are expected to gift it to the kitchen monk to be shared. Don’t try to do everything or over-stretch your itinerary. You can always come back. There is plenty of information on Mt Athos online plus plenty of guidebooks you can purchase or borrow. This information is just to get you started.

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