So you’ve partied in Mykonos, sunset-spotted in Santorini, capered (literally) around Crete, windsurfed in Naxos and wound down in Paxos. That’s Greece done, right? Nope, you’ve forgotten the mainland, where island-rivalling wonders await. There’s no better place to start than the beaches and mountains of rugged Halkidiki – here’s our hitlist.
Halkidiki, north Greece’s most popular tourist draw, is an eye-poppingly pretty peninsula with three legs: Kassandra (the most developed), Sithonia (quieter and more relaxed) and Unesco-protected Mount Athos, home to a remote monastic community. Together, they host some 550 kilometres of knee-weakeningly lovely beach. The craggy mountain region is just south of cosmopolitan Thessaloniki, capital of Greek Macedonia, which you’ll likely fly into.
Don’t just pass through this buzzing city (the second largest in the country; nicknamed ‘the Lady of the North’), which pulses with energy, thanks to its sizeable student population. There are plenty of bars to pause in along the waterfront, plus a bewildering choice of top-notch seafood restaurants (Marea and Frutti di Mare, for example) and some wallet-destroying retail kicks to be had.
Browse top designers at Intervista, invest in Hellenic jewellery from Katerina Ionnadis (the designer hails from a family of goldsmiths, who began their trade in Istanbul) or pick up artisan Greek groceries (black-olive spread, green olives with almonds, rose petals preserved in honey, marinated anchovies, proper pesto and more) from Ergon. Be sure to try a few local specialties: trigona panoramatos (cream-filled triangular pastries) and koulouria (a sweet and buttery Greek spin on the bagel), for starters.
Enrage your dentist by indulging in Greek spoon sweets – moreish orange chunks, dripping in syrup – served alongside potent coffee at Piece of Cake, or feast on crisp-battered courgette flowers and toothsome aubergine salad at Ouzeri Agioli, which comes with commanding sea views.
Once you’ve explored the city, head to the coast and find out why Halkidiki’s beaches draw discerning Greek holidaymakers (and jammy Germans; they’ve been flocking to Halkidiki since the Sixties). On the west coast, Nea Heraklia and Nea Kallikratia are peaceful, white-sand expanses well suited to families; if you get hungry, visit one of the little tavernas that dish up traditional meze and Greek cuisine. Continue along the coast for the turquoise waves and crystalline waters of Nea Plagia, Dionisiou Beach and Agios Mamas, where you can try watersports and discover hidden bays. Kassandra is famed for its beaches, with their soft sands, green surroundings and buzzing beach bars; if you’re after something a little quieter, visit Mola Kaliva or Glarokavos.
Over in Sithonia, top up your tan in the coves of Kavourotripes and Karidi. Kalogria, the pine-studded bay of Koviou Beach, is rightly famous, as are Paradisos Beach, sociable Nikiti and windsurfer-magnet Sarti. Dedicated beach bunnies can uncover less well-known treasures, too: Aretes, Azapiko and Diaporti, perhaps. You might even get them all to yourselves…
THE HALKIDIKI HOT LIST
Where to stay Eagles Palace or its brand new sister property Eagles Villas – set to join the Mr & Mrs Smith collection in the next month or so. Picture elegant villas with private plunge pools, an ambitious chef in the kitchens, faultless staff and a cocktail bar with a breezy, view-toting terrace. Watch this space…
What to eat Octopus all day, every day. Eagle’s Palace’s sand-surveying, seafood-championing trattoria, Armyra Restaurant, serves an incredible cephalopod entrée with fried polenta, crispy onion rings and fruity chutney. We had it as a starter and then again for dessert.
What to drink Delicious wine from Halkidiki, natch. The region’s wine-making history dates back to the Classical era. Tsantali is one of the more celebrated wine-producers; on a hot day, you can’t beat its refreshing, fruity Klima Klima organic assyrtiko.
What to do Hop on a boat across to the nearby island of Ammouliani – take a chef-prepped picnic with you.
What to pack Aim for Greek chic: loose linen layers (preferably sunbleached-white), leather sandals and a dash of appropriate scent: Diptyque Philosykos, perhaps, suited to travel gods and goddesses.
Featured image is Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos