Traveling to the islands of Greece is by far the most popular way to experience the beaches on the Aegean Sea. But north of Santorini and Rhodes, you’ll find a new way to explore the beaches of Greece on the coasts of Halkidiki, the birthplace of Aristotle. Here, there is no cultural, culinary, back-roads or sea-based adventure that can’t be dreamed up. This is where Greek families head for summer vacation and where a relaxed quest for enjoyment rules.
1. EAT: Eat New Greek Cuisine at the annual Gourmet Food Festival hosted by the 5-star Sani Resort on the Kassandra peninsula. This is where award-winning chefs from all over Greece collect for a ten-day culinary celebration, elevating traditional dishes using modern cooking techniques. All ingredients are homegrown within 100 miles of the event, bringing a helpful boost to the local economy at the same time. This collaboration among local food producers, hoteliers, restaurateurs and foodies of all ages unites traveling food lovers year after year.
Many of the qualities that make Halkidiki so exceptionally beautiful are a direct result of the way that tourism has been handled in the region during the last few years. You could go as far as to say that they are guiding their promotional efforts with a strong moral compass. That is, there is great consideration for the effects that tourism on a large scale brings to a place and Halkidiki tourism has guided their growth efforts thoughtfully in response.
They have created the opportunity to choose their market, instead of letting the market choose them. And from that you get to experience a region rich in tradition without hoards of tourist buses and all of the additional damage that comes with it. What is left is a sophisticated, culturally wealthy and superbly healthy place to visit. So, while Halkidiki is one of the hottest places to travel, you probably won’t see it on every hot list being published each month online and in print. And most travelers agree, that is a really good thing.
2. DRINK: Drink sun-dried wines vinified in wooden barrels in nearby Kalohori, outside of Thessaloniki. Experience the revival of Retsina, traditional Greek table wine that was once considered the wine of the poor. Family-owned Kechris Winery creates both using ancient winemaking traditions. They have been in business since 1911 and are known in the wine world and beyond for consistency and high quality.
For a fresh sip of modern Greek winemaking, look to small producer Claudia Papayianni, who used her business and marketing background to create a thriving company boasting one-of-a-kind blends of old and new world varietals. It’s not all business for Claudia, though; when she began planting vines in 2003, she looked at the surrounding nature, traditions, architecture, life in Arnea and found fullness returning to her family roots. Here, she creates wines for the new-world market displaying artist-inspired designs on the labels named after her son and daughter.
Not into wine? Try Tsipouro, a pomace brandy that is the most traditional liquor of northeast Greece. You can find it anywhere and everywhere and will start many meals by toasting a glass of it.
3. EXPLORE: Explore Halkidiki on a Jeep safari through the rugged hills of the Kassandra or Sithonia peninsula. Head out with local driver Stratos who has led mountain excursions in the area for more than 25 years. He knows every viewpoint and hidden trail and will craft a cup of traditional Greek coffee along the way made with water from a fabled spring of youth and beauty. He has the gift of gab, a contagious smile and a loyal following of repeat guests.
4. EXPERIENCE: Experience every kind of outdoor activity you could want or imagine: a network of hiking trails for various skill levels, horseback riding, or kayaking among the still waters of Sithonia. Sail the entire coastline on luxury ships with overnight accommodations. Dive the deep waters or hit the many mountain biking trails of Olympiada on Athos, the birthplace of Aristotle.
Celebrate the arts—theaters, shows, music, comedy and of course, drama! Annually, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (the only one in Greece) welcomes filmmakers from all over the world, as does the increasingly popular documentary film festival held in May.
5. RELAX: Relax while indulging in thalassotherapy at the Aegean Sea. Thalassa means “ocean,” and thalassotherapy is the use of sea-based therapy to provide better circulation, boost immunity, provide more restful sleep, increase muscle tone, cleanse naturally, reduce cellulite, improve respiratory function, reduce inflammation and improve overall psychological wellbeing.
It was suggested by French biologist, René Quinton, that human blood and seawater contained identical mineral ratios creating a synergy of balance between the two. More simply put, when trace elements of magnesium, potassium, calcium and sodium are ingested into the lungs, pores, cells and tissues, the entire body, especially the skin, is revitalized.
Head to a local hammam or to one of the premier spas in Halkidiki to absorb minerals while submerging in seawater and unwinding with the ancient healing rituals drawn from the bio diverse Aegean Sea. Make your introduction with thalassotherapy at the Eagles Palace Spa. It is considered one of the finest spa resorts in Greece and the world after partnering with Elemis (the leading British company in spa treatments) and Apivita (the first Greek company to create natural, effective and holistic products for health and beauty).
6. LINGER: Linger during the evening hours while dining at a local tavern, a family-style meal house that welcomes you to sit for hours. In coastal cities, the focus is seafood. Inland you will find a focus on meat dishes from locally raised animals.
Participate in a free weekly cooking class at the Akroyiali Restaurant in Stragiera on the Athos peninsula. The class is taught by Lulu, TV chef extraordinaire. While she didn’t intend to pursue a career on Greece’s version of the Food Network, word got out that something magical was coming from her kitchen at Akroyiali. People started to come from all over to stay at the adjoining hotel and to relax at the outdoor taverna by the sea. “Sit for ten hours to eat a tomato if you’d like—eat, read, discuss enjoy, watch the view,” says the manager, Domitrios. “I will never be dusting crumbs off your table.”
7. TAKE A SPIRITUAL PILGRIMAGE: Take a spiritual journey to the land that is closest to god. The Holy Mount Athos is the only Monk Republic in the world, keeping religious tradition alive since the Byzantine period in 1453. Athos, the most holy peninsula of Halkidiki, is made up of 24 monasteries which can be viewed by sea on a coastal cruise along remarkably wild landscape. This is the only way for women to see the area because “no smooth faced person” is permitted here.
The 1,700+ monks who live here are the fathers, brothers, sons and cousins from families from all around Greece. To get there, start in Ouranoupolis, the “City of Heaven” and the gate of Mount Athos. Hit the souvenir shops for religious memorabilia, have a coffee and book your boat trip with Athos Sea Cruises.
Go to the Cathedral of St. Stephanos in the village of Arnea. This 18th century Orthodox Church burnt entirely to the ground in 2005 and has since been rebuilt—in the process, ruins from 5th century AD were discovered beneath the church and are now on display beneath a glass walkway.
8. WATCH and LEARN: Watch the more than 200 species of birds at the Sani Resort’s sponsored wetland preserve. Guest Relations will provide a map of trails through the two main trails, Bousoulas and Koutsoupia, in the Sani region’s private forest and bird sanctuary. Learn about Sani Resort’s year-long comprehensive scientific study documenting bird species in the wetlands sanctuary and how they are helping to protect them further.
9. STAY: On the Kassandra Peninsula: Blue Bay Hotel, low key and romantic.
The Sani Resort, the leader in the region offering everything for everyone.
On the Sithonia peninsula: Porto Carras, a resort with historical star power.
Ekies All Senses Resort, modern and tranquil.
On Mt. Athos: At the Eagles Palace, five-star elegance without glitz.
In Thessaloniki, the jumping off point to Halkidiki: Excelsior Hotel, 5-star luxury and unbeatable location in the heart of city center.
City Hotel, across the street from (and more moderately priced than) Excelsior. Same great location and a chill and youthful atmosphere.