For most travelers, a trip to Greece means a history lesson in Athens and beach time at one of the famous islands like Santorini, Mykonos or Naxos. But I was dreaming of seeing Greece off-the-beaten-path where I could easily get both, and I found all that and more in the Halkidiki peninsula in northern Greece.
Part of Greece’s Central Macedonia region, Halkidiki is a one hour drive from Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki. Getting to Thessaloniki is easy – you can choose to drive about 6 hours on the well-maintained toll highway from Athens, or you can take one of the many short flights from Athens. Thessaloniki also has numerous direct flights from many cities across Europe.
I chose to drive to Halkidiki, which also allowed me to make a stop at the Leonidas Memorial at Thermopylae. This is the location of the famous Battle of Thermopylae, which occurred 2500 years ago and was the basis for the movie “The 300”. Against all odds, a small band of Greeks was able to hold off a large Persian army at the pass here for many days. It was only through treachery that the Greek fighters were eventually overwhelmed, but this defeat inspired the rest of the Greek army into winning the war against the invading Persians.
Once I reached the peninsula, I had five full days to sample the varied delights of this region. Geographically, Mother Nature has given Halkidiki a coastal profile that cannot be missed on a map. The large peninsula has three smaller individual peninsula fingers that jut out into the Aegean so that the whole land mass resembles a fat, distorted letter E. Though similar in shape and size, I found that each of these three peninsula fingers – Mt. Athos, Sithonia, and Kassandra – had its own unique character and culture.
My home base for my first three nights was the Philoxenia Hotel located at the “top” of the Sithonia peninsula. The hotel’s ideal location made it easy to explore nearby Mt. Athos as well as the many beaches that dotted the Sithonia coastline. From my home base at the Philoxenia Hotel it was easy to discover nearby Mt. Athos. Mt. Athos has to be one of Greece’s most unique UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Unlike its neighbors, this peninsula cannot be easily visited by the common tourist. Mt. Athos is a holy site for the Orthodox Christian church and like the Vatican in Italy, it is a self governing religious entity within the Greek republic. The steep mountainous terrain is home to 20 monasteries representing several different countries including Greece, Russia, and Bulgaria among others.
The monasteries can only be reached by boat and they allow only a small number of male pilgrims to visit each day. Women are not permitted to set foot on land there at any time. Despite these restrictions Mt. Athos is a popular tourist destination, and several boat companies offer tours to see the monasteries from water level. Mt. Athos became a holy site around 900 AD, however, the religious complexes I saw on my tour were much more recently constructed and were anything but modest.
Another interesting historic sight not far from my Sithonia home base was the archeological site of Olynthos. Olynthos was established in the 7th century BC and flourished for a few hundred years until it was conquered and decimated by the Macedonian ruler Phillip II. Today, the reconstructed site demonstrates the orderly layout of the original city and displays some beautiful and well-preserved mosaic floors that once adorned the homes of the locals.
Along with a few other historical locations, the Sithonia peninsula is also known for having over 100 beaches lining the coast. A driving tour around Sithonia’s perimeter allowed me to explore a small fraction of this abundance of white sand and blue surf. There certainly seemed to be a beach for every taste. There were small, secluded beaches with no amenities for those that wanted to escape. There were beaches with beach bars and lounge chairs for rent. There were beaches with large rocks for climbing. And there were beaches with long stretches of soft sand ideal for easy strolling. And these were only the few I had time to stop at.
It would have been nice to discover more of Sithonia’s beach scene, but it was time to move on to the Blue Bay Hotel on the Kassandra Peninsula. Like its neighbor, Kassandra also has a selection of beaches and resorts for every budget.
The Blue Bay Hotel was a resort complex ideally situated over the long Athytos beach. Sitting on a cliff overlooking the beautiful Aegean, the resort included two large pools with plenty of sun beds and lounge chairs and a full service spa. Two restaurants offered either buffet or a la carte menu options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Also, the nearby traditional village of Afytos was a quick 10-minute walk and also presented a variety of eateries and taverns.
My explorations of the Sithonia peninsula and my two days of relaxation at the Blue Bay Hotel certainly gave me a small taste of all the delights that the Halkidiki peninsula has to offer. I now understand why this is such a popular destination with Greeks and other Europeans as well.