Mention the word Halkidiki to inhabitants of northern Greek city Thessaloniki and watch them go all starry-eyed as they outline why they are obsessed with their closest holiday destination.
The trident-like, pine- and cypress-covered peninsula, which plays host to 550 kilometres of verdant coastline and turquoise seas, is unlike any other part of Greece.
To the west is Kassandra, the most developed of Halkidiki’s three prongs, which is thronging with hotels and popular with young people, who pack its beach bars.
Sithonia, blessed with the Toroneos Gulf to the west and astonishing beaches, still retains much of its wild beauty.
The third leg is the richly-vegetated, rugged Mount Athos, host to a semi-autonomous, all-male monastic community and Orthodox spiritual centre dating from 1054. Female visitors can travel as far as the coastal town of Ouranoupoli, while men can schedule a short stay at one of the monasteries.
A comfortable bed
In Mount Athos, Avaton Luxury Villas Resort (www.avaton.com), a Relais & Chateaux property, has set new standards in Halkidiki for five-star pampering. Multilevel villas feature a spacious, inviting lounge area and easy access to a tranquil sandy beach. A private dinner indulging in the chef’s menu at the open-air, sea-facing restaurant is a must. Rooms here cost from around €360 (Dh1,547).
In Kassandra, Afitis Boutique Hotel (www.afitis-hotel.gr) is a divine couples’ cocoon situated on a private Blue Flag beach below mountain hamlet Afytos. The contemporary, 50-room, family-owned resort serves as an ideal jump-off point to beaches such as alluring Elani. Rooms cost from €200 (Dh859).
Ekies All Senses Resort (www.ekies.gr) is a Design Hotels member that oozes beach-club cool and welcomes families. It is one of the most sought-after places to stay in Sithonia and is a mini ecosystem in itself, where children will feel right at home. Rooms cost from €209 (Dh898).
Find your feet
Halkidiki is ideal for a road trip, but it needs longer than you may expect. Rent a car from Thessaloniki Airport and take the highway towards Kassandra, then spend three days driving the coastal route east to west. Make your first stop the stalactite- and stalagmite-filled Petralona Cave, which was formed about one million years ago and discovered by a villager in 1959.
From there, drive to Afytos, which is one of the few traditional villages, and stroll through its cobblestoned streets, where restored 19th-century stone-built mansions stand proud. Take in views of the blue-green Toroneos Gulf from the Koutsomylos acropolis.
Head south to Paliouri and stop at Porto Valitsa cafe-bar, where the soundtrack is predominantly jazz and blissful azure waters await.
From Kassandra, head east to Sithonia, where at least three days are needed to explore a few of its remarkable beaches. Cool off in the shallow, surreal cerulean waters of Kavourotripes, a chain of beaches hidden beneath thick pine forests.
The main beach, dotted with umbrellas and chaise longues, features otherworldly sandstone formations. The artist behind a mermaid sculpture and others carved into the rocks reputedly partly destroyed them when authorities issued him with a fine. Sheltered Karidi Beach in Vourvourou, is preferred for its calm waters and curious rocks.
Finally, head to Mount Athos, Halkidiki’s easternmost leg, for a two- to three-day journey starting at ancient Stagira, where Aristotle was born in 384 BC. Hike the 17-kilometre-long Aristotle’s Trail from there to the modern town of the same name. Try your hand at instruments the philosopher and scientist referenced in textbooks, which are installed at Aristotle’s Park.
Catch the sunset in Ouranoupoli, beside a crumbling 14th-century Byzantine fortress with views of Ammouliani island.
From there, male pilgrims take ferries to reach the monasteries, where up to 100 visitors per day are accepted on pre-arranged trips. Mount Athos, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is home to 20 self-sufficient monasteries – many clinging to steep cliffs – 12 sketes and about 700 houses and cells, where 2,000 monks tend to farms, livestock and gardens.
Meet the locals
The seemingly endless, sandy Possidi Beach draws weekend sunseekers from Thessaloniki all summer, but there is plenty of space to lay out your towel. Witness an unusual meeting of the waves and admire a tall white lighthouse built in 1864 at Possidi Cape.
Book a table
Amid reams of fish tavernas, Bubo (www.bubo.gr), in the Ekies resort, stands out for its daring, imaginatively presented haute Hellenic cuisine. Chef Dimitris Pamporis does Greek salad differently: feta mousse with olive oil, olive “soil” and summer vegetables. Menu highlights include his reinvention of a classic Halkidiki Easter tradition: lamb slow-cooked for six hours in vine leaves, and beef fillet with indigenous truffle.
In Kassandra, Vasilas is the go-to beachfront taverna for masterfully grilled fish such as local sea bream (ask for mousmouli) and plump, golden-brown calamari.
Sousourada looks deceptively simple, but you will quickly realise why foodies are so keen on this hidden gem in Afytos. It is run by Nikos Katsanis, his wife and their two sons, who live and breathe slow food with home-grown flavour.
Pick up early harvest olive oil, extracted from the olive trees you see everywhere in Halkidiki. The town of Nikiti in Sithonia is home to 150 beekeepers who produce some of northern Greece’s finest honey, with the pine version considered the most nutritious.
What to avoid
In Kassandra, the town of Kallithea has seen considerable development and teems with hotels, shops and cafes that are not particularly attractive.
Halkidiki must be experienced by sea with a yachting experience. SunCruise Yachting (www.suncruise.gr) offers private sailing day tours of Mount Athos’s western coast and its impressive monasteries from the comfort of a catamaran.
The fun-loving captain prepares a phenomenal seafood lunch on board, that often features mussels from nearby Olympiada, while guests take a dip in sapphire waters off the tiny Drenia islets. SunCruise also arranges tours to beaches in Sithonia and Kassandra.