The Sithonia peninsula, in the Halkidiki region of Greece, has blue lagoons, secret beaches, tiny offshore islands – and a forbidden Holy Mountain
The Porto Carras Resort on the west coast of the Sithonia peninsula is a plutocrat’s dream, with a private marina, an 18-hole golf course, and a choice of three-star to five-star hotels, rooms, suites and villas. But despite its near-legendary status as Greece’s first all-star resort, its ostentatious opulence and 1970s design values leave me cold. Though it pioneered luxury tourism in this part of the world, there’s a sense that its time has come and gone.
Happily, big-time tourism has not yet reached the east coast of Sithonia, the ‘middle finger’ of the three Halkidiki peninsulas. And it certainly hasn’t jumped across the Gulf of Agion Oros to the monk-infested Athos peninsula. You can see Mt Athos, Greece’s 6,607ft-tall ‘holy mountain’, from the low-key resorts of Sithonia, and view its amazing medieval monasteries from the sea, but it’s strictly 'look but don’t touch'. Women - and even female animals - are forbidden to land, to preserve the monks of Athos from temptation. And male visitors need a special permit to visit the peninsula. Though it’s part of Greece, Athos is governed independently by its Orthodox abbots.
Monastic rule has kept tourism at arm’s length from Athos, but on the Sithonia side of the bay it’s a different story. There isn’t any of the large-scale development that dominates the neighbouring Kassandra, but there are plenty of places to stay to suit most budgets, from campsites and small and basic apartments to a couple of highly-rated luxury hotels.
Almost two hours drive from the nearest airport, at Thessaloniki, Vourvourou sits on a long curve of yellow sand, which fringes a mirror-calm, shallow bay, sheltered by a little uninhabited island. You have to wade out quite a way before the water is more than knee-deep, so it’s very child-friendly. Stay at Ekies, which I rate as the best, friendliest and prettiest holiday hotel in the whole of Halkidiki, with stylish, designer-decorated rooms (from around €80) beside the beach, a pool, a bar, a superb restaurant and a range of activities including yoga. You won’t want to leave. Walk to the east end of the bay and over a rocky headland redolent of juniper and wild thyme to discover a chain of smaller, west-facing sandy coves punctuated by weirdly eroded rock formations.
Even better, hire one of the hotel’s motor boats to discover the sheltered, luminous turquoise bays around Diaporos island. Venture further down the coast and you’ll find secret coves beneath steep pine-covered slopes, accessible only from the sea.
On a tighter budget, you’ll find an amiable and well-equipped campsite (€8 per tent per night) on one of the easier-to-reach beaches, at Armenistis, about six miles south of Vourvourou. Still further south, Sarti is a cheap-and-cheerful strip of small hotels, apartments, shops and tavernas along a two-mile sweep of sand. It’s popular with city Greeks, and younger visitors rock it up till dawn at the open-air music club discreetly located out of earshot at the south end of the bay.
You can sail round Athos on an excursion boats from Ormos Panagias, the small port four miles north of Vourvourou, or from Ouranoupolis, the funky little town a mile or so north of the Berlin-style wall that separates monastic Athos from the rest of the world (the monks may not have mines and machine-guns, but barbed wire and sternly-worded notices make it clear that you are not welcome beyond this point).
Ouranoupolis functions as the gateway to Athos, with supply boats ferrying pilgrims and supplies to the monasteries. It’s also a good base for an exploring holiday with a rented car. The sights of Thessaloniki and the ruins of ancient Philippi are in easy day-trip reach, the thickly wooded slopes of Mt Holomontas are great for walking, and the nearby wetlands of Lake Volvi are a haven for migrant birds including pelicans.
Ouranpolis also has excellent sandy beaches and lots of places to eat and drink. Offshore, an archipelago of tiny islands (with just one inhabited village) offers more beaches, several with summer-season tavernas serving good seafood.
The Hotel Akrogiali, in the centre of Ouranoupolis, next to the historic monastery tower (which houses a small museum), is the best budget option, with rooms from around €30, but Skites, half a mile south of the centre, is definitely the nicest address, with rooms in small bungalows (some with basic kitchenette), great food, a pool and direct access to a pebbly beach.
For serious luxury, the superb Eagles Palace, on its own beach a couple of miles north of Ouranoupolis,has lavish, spacious rooms and suites (in summer, you may find swallows nesting on your balcony) with fabulous views. It has a choice of gourmet restaurants and water sports include scuba and wind surfing, a private sailing yacht and motor cruisers available for charter. It’s the closest you’ll get to heaven this side of the Holy Mountain.