With super sandy beaches, purpose-built resorts to suit most budgets, and sports and activities for all ages, the Kassandra peninsula in Greece is tops for families
It takes less than an hour to get from the bustle of Thessaloniki to the beaches of Kassandra, so it’s not surprising that it’s a favourite holiday weekend spot for denizens of Greece’s second city.
But foreigners, too, have discovered the allure of this wooded peninsula, its miles-long stretches of powdery white sand and dazzlingly clear blue sea. Whether you’re looking for bustling resorts where the strand is lined with loungers, umbrellas and beach bars or long, empty stretches that are perfect for beachcombing, you’ll find something here to tickle your fancy.
But don’t expect to find old-timey fishing villages or temple ruins here. Kassandra’s resorts are modern, and purpose-built for tourism. When the summer season ends in October, they become virtual ghost towns until April or May. The exception is Nea Moudania, just north of the isthmus at the northern end of the peninsula. Most people whisk past this workaday fishing port (one of the largest fishing harbours in Greece) on their way to more appealing beaches, but Nea Moudania is where you’ll find essential services that are thin on the ground in most of the resorts, such as ATMs, banks, travel agencies and pharmacies.
With these practicalities taken care of, push on down the east coast. A string of resorts begins at Kallithea and extends through Kryopigi and Polichrono as far as Hanioti, Kassandra’s largest and busiest resort. For big-hotel comfort, make your base the Grecotel Pella Beach
(where rooms start at €125). This is resort-hotel territory, and other upscale options include the Alexander the Great Beach Hotel,
with rooms starting at around €150, and the less pricy Kassandra Palace, with rooms from as little as €60.
If your taste runs to smaller, stylish hotels, seek out the lovely Petrino Suites Hotel in Afytos, where 28 split-level suites in village-style stone houses surround a shared pool. The hotel has an excellent restaurant, and two of the suites have private pools. Afytos is a pretty village with more atmosphere than its new-built neighbours, but its beach is no great shakes, so those pools are essential. And it’s outstandingly good value – a junior suite costs €48-€81, while pool suites cost €103-€167.
Gradually merging into one continuous resort strip, this is New Europe in the sunburnt, multi-lingual flesh. Shops and restaurants display signs and menus printed in Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian and Romanian, as well as English, Greek, German and Italian. With an esplanade of bars and cafes pumping out loud music, Hanioti’s beach – a long strip of clean white sand - lives up to its Blue Flag rating.
The resort’s central square is surrounded by tavernas and cafes and scattered around town are all the shops, bars, hotels and restaurants (Russian, German, Italian, Indian and Mexican, as well as Greek) that you could wish for. The tree-lined streets are mostly traffic-free (cars are banned from the village centre after dark) and houses are brightened by colourful bougainvillea and crimson geraniums. A lively nightlife scene spreads out around the central square and along the beach, and restaurants range from Indian, Mexican and Italian to Russian and German.
Rival watersports centres at either end of the esplanade offer canoes, pedaloes, banana boat and sea-ring rides, jet skis and water skis, and parascending (no need to book - just turn up and go). Beneath the waves, Dive Club Kassandra and Sea World Diving Centre offer dives on the wreck of the MV Mitilini (only 10 minutes offshore) and nearby caves and reefs.
Kick off the evening and make new friends on a sunset cruise (buy tickets at the water sports centre on the beach or at your hotel) – billed as ‘romantic’, it's actually more of a floating party, with loud R&B and free-flowing beer and cocktails.
Try Drami’s on the main road for sticky baklava and bougatsa (Greek custard pie), Zorba’s Taverna, for Greek food, and Zytheion Beer House, for more than 100 different beers and Greek, Russian and German snacks. Billy’s Bar on the central square is a crowd-pleaser, with snooker, arcade games and karaoke nights. SunShine, with comfy leather sofas, which can be hard to get up from after a couple of the bar’s deceptively potent cocktails, is the coolest bar on the square. Favourite beach joints include Molos, at the south end of Hanioti beach, Bahalo Spiaggia in front of the waterfront park, which serves cold drinks and snacks all day and turns up the music after sunset, and Waikiki, with sports TV and happy hour cocktails from 6 to 8pm.
In search of more space, push on south to discover, just beyond busy Pefkohori, a nine-mile swathe of white sand and pebbles. Fishing boats and a few yachts moor in the lagoon at Glarocavos, where a small and unnamed summer cantina dispenses cold drinks and snacks. There’s an even less-visited beach at Xina, about 10 miles south of Pefkohori, but you will need to bring all your own supplies (including lots of water) if you want to spend a day here.
Akti tou Vlachou, in Pefkohori village, makes a change from multi-national eating – it’s a typical taverna, serving fishy meze, excellent fresh seafood, salads and grills. For after-dark entertainment, there’s free admission for the girls on Tuesday nights at NoNo, Pefkohori’s top summer club (west of the main road, 100 yards north of the taxi stand, 9pm-3am). Thursday nights are for Greek sounds and Saturday night is R&B night.
For a slice of village life that’s less influenced by tourism mayhem, head for Nea Skionio on the west coast. With a small harbour and a working fishing fleet, it’s a real community with a life of its own – though it also has a small beach that gets crowded at weekends.
Further up the west coast, it’s a very different world. Life’s a beach at the vast Sani Resort, a complex of luxury hotels (two rated five-star and two as four-star), where you can choose a regular hotel room (from around €70), a spa hotel suite, or an individual villa (around €750). Nine pools, heaps of land and water sports, baby-sitting and child-minding facilities and lots of activities for children of all ages (from toddlers to teens and from paintball to finger-painting) make this the best self-contained family resort in northern Greece. Once settled in here, there’s really no reason to leave – even if you feel the need to explore, the resort is surrounded by its own 1000-hectare nature reserve of woods and wetland, with a network of cycle and walking trails for family expeditions.
The focus is the Sani Marina, filled with yachts and motor-cruisers and surrounded by designer shops, restaurants, tavernas and bars – all part of the resort, but open, too, to non-residents. White sand beaches lined with white canvas umbrellas and beach loungers stretch out on either side of the complex and places to eat and drink include the casual Art Café, Bousoulas Beach Bar (great for sunset cocktails) a creperie, a patisserie and more sophisticated Greek and Mediterranean-fusion restaurants. The Nautilus Night Club plays dance music for a better-off and more sophisticated audience than most of Kassandra’s clubs, and you’ll need reservations for after-dinner drinks at the posh Water Bar.
Kassandra is short on big-ticket sights. For me, on a beach holiday, that’s a plus – I needn’t feel guilty about staying on the beach and ignoring ancient wonders. But for a token culture injection, visit the ruins of Olinthos, a once-great city that was destroyed by Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, in 348 BC. He did a thorough job, and only the foundations remain, on a hilltop. It’s only five miles east of Nea Moudania, so it’s not a huge expedition. There’s a great view from the top of the hill, and kids will like the tortoises and lizards that infest the ruins. Quench your thirst after the climb at the shady outdoor café-bar at the foot of the hill.
Even more awesomely ancient are the Petralona Caves (10 miles west of Nea Moudania, off the main road to Thessaloniki). Rediscovered just 50 years ago, this complex of caverns and weird limestone formations is the tomb of the earliest European: a fossilised skull, dating from around 700,000 years ago, was discovered here, and the bones of long-extinct lions, hyenas, bears, elephants, rhinoceros and bison have also been found. Fabulous beaches with all the trimmings, and just a little bit extra – that’s Kassandra.