Greece’s hidden gem

Forget the islands – this summer go off the beaten track in Athos and discover mountains, monasteries, and perfect white sand beaches

If you want to experience Greece’s beautiful beaches, ancient culture and fabled hospitality without joining the masses heading to the islands this summer, the mainland region of Halkidiki is the answer.

Why go? A peninsula made up of three ‘fingers’ – Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos – it has more than 300 miles of coastline edging the Aegean sea, and the beaches that go with it are beautiful.  Athos being the most remote peninsula and home to the Eagles Palace Hotel is deemed the most exclusive of the three – Kassandra is all about bars and nightclubs while Sithonia has lots of larger family resorts.

Stay at: One of the sea view rooms, garden bungalows or brand new villas at Eagles Palace. From the outside, the family run resort looks a little dated (hello Seventies architecture), but once through the doors you step into another world. The spacious, light and airy reception, lounge areas, bar and library make it evident the resort has been loved and continually updated, most recently the Elemis spa has been given a luxurious overhaul, and will reopen this season along with 40 new luxury villas. Outside, gardens, courtyards and terraces are filled with palm trees, cactus, aloes and fragrant jasmine. Steps take you down to the pool (with swim up bar) and then onwards and downwards to a stretch of beautiful white-sand beach.

The location: After a direct flight from the UK to Thessaloniki, to reach the resort is a straightforward 90-minute drive south, climbing through hills and pine forests, passing just a few small villages and sign posts to the birthplace of Aristotle and King Xeres’s Canal (given how remote it feels, it’s hard to imagine all this action taking place as far back as 480 BC).  Arriving at Eagles Palace, it’s clear to see why this was the spot chosen to build Athos’s first five star resort back in the seventies: the white sandy beach lapped by the clear, sparkling sea is really spectacular, and thanks to the east-west orientation is sunny from dawn ‘til dusk. Throw in views across to the small island of Amolunia and left to Mount Athos (home the most spectacular monasteries you will ever see) and it’s hard to imagine a better setting.

The room: Bright, light and breezy. White walls, sheer curtains and bed linens with accents of blue in throws and cushions make for a cool retreat from the sun, sand and sea. Bathrooms come with lovely Apvita products – the Greek Honey and Orange shampoo is a real treat. It’s worth paying extra for a sea view room, or if your budget can stretch to one of the bungalows where you get your own private terrace and a mini pool.

The food: Breakfast and an evening buffet is served in Melathron, with the menu changing daily between Greek, Asian or Mediterranean inspired dishes. Have lunch on the beach at either the beach café or Amarya restaurant, which serves delicious meze including fried zucchini, baby octopus, stuffed squid, as well as the obligatory (but none the less tasty) Greek salad and olives served with warm pita and freshly made tzatzki.

For a real treat, book a table on the terrace at Kemares fine dining restaurant, and enjoy beautiful views across to Amalounia Island. We had a heavenly meal of cheese dumplings with rose jam, fragrant sea bass stuffed with fresh herbs, and dorado with lemon sauce, a speciality of Monk Epifanios who, cooks at the restaurant occasionally (and is a pal of Jamie Oliver, who knew?). Rounding off things rather splendidly was a simple but stunning dessert of strawberry soup with ‘mastica’ (a Greek dessert wine) ice cream and olive oil.

In Ouranoupolis, we had a great value lunch of chicken and pork skewers, with a perfectly chilled Mythos beer at Tavernas Leonaidis beside the harbour.

Don’t miss… Knocking back some Greek wines. They are hard to find in the UK as most vineyards don’t make the quantity required by the large supermarkets, or the import/export costs make them too expensive, but they are utterly delicious. For an aperitif, the Paraga sparkling wine hit the spot: not as dry as champagne or sweet and soft as Prosecco. Our favourite white was Blanc des Noir Pegasus and a great red is Nemea Skouras.

The vibe: Very chilled, with super friendly staff looking after a mix of couples (straight, gay, young, older), plus a few families (if you go in school holiday time as we did). Eagles Palace is small by many resort standards (max 400 guests) and no area ever felt overly busy.

The spa: A day one or two visit to the Elemis spa for a massage with manager Sofia will have your muscles unknotted and shoulders dropped in no time thanks to her very impressive firm touch. I also took her advice to have the Elemis anti-ageing facial on my last day to ensure I returned home glowing, despite days of slapping factor 50 all over my face.

While you’re there Well, it’s easy to do nothing. Lying on the quiet beach all day is a very tempting option to get into relaxation mode. Sporty types however, can use the gym or try the free yoga, Pilates and mountain biking sessions – early morning sun salutations on the beach with instructor Pascalos is a lovely way to start the day (especially if you’ve never seen a cactus through your legs in downward dog before).

To get active on the water, pay a visit to Pavlos, who runs the paddleboards, kayaks, windsurfing and waterskiing. Diving novices can book in with sisters Kate and Nikki to do a test dive – it’s the perfect spot to try it out if you never have before as the sea is lovely and clear and you only need to fin a few yards from the shore to see octopus, pretty fish and sea anemones.

Hard as it may be, it’s worth dragging yourself away from Eagles Palace to visit the nearby village of Ouranoupolis (ask reception to book a taxi – cost is approx 10 Euros) to wander the shops and tavernas and pay a visit to its imposing Byzantine tower. If you see a lot of monks wandering around, that’s because Ouranoupolis is the border to Mount Athos, a separate state (like the Vatican) that’s home to monasteries, monks and hermits and where women aren’t allowed. Male pilgrims may visit (Prince Charles and Vladimir Putin are frequently among them), but the nearest women can get to viewing the gravity defying Greek and Russian Orthodox monasteries clinging to the edge of the mountain is by boat. The hotel can take you (at some expense) on it’s own private launch, or you can get a tour boat from Ouranoupolis – even though you’ll only see the monasteries from the 200m sea perimeter, it’s definitely worth spending a morning or afternoon doing.

Further afield, and a nice half-day out if you’ve got a hire car, is a visit to the mountain village of Arnea. It’s a 40-minute drive from the resort up into the hills, where you’ll be rewarded with the pretty houses, churches, cobbled streets and coffee shops of this traditional Macedonian village. It’s a good place to try Greek coffee (strong and gritty – definitely an acquired taste) and ‘spoon sweets’, candied fruit such as figs, cherries and bergamot in syrup, served in little glass dishes and eaten with teaspoons (hence the name).

Bring home Spoon Sweets from Arnea; Mastica, a desert wine that smells like a strong spirit but is actually sweet and really delicious (and won’t leave you with any ouzo-type buying regrets once you get it back to the UK). Religious paraphernalia of all sorts can be bought in Ouranoupolis, as well as wines and honey made by the Mount Athos monks.

Prices for a Garden View Room at Eagles Palace start from €159 per night. A Junior Pool Villa at Eagles Villas starts from €355 per night. eaglesvillas.gr, reservations@eaglespalace.gr

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