Note: We were invited by Jet2Holidays to explore Halkidiki but, as always, all words and opinions are my own.
One international wedding in Cape Town. One sandy honeymoon in the Namibian desert and two London Marathon medals later: Kasha and I were ready for a break.
To say the last few months had been hectic would be putting it mildly. Yes, some of the above had been holidays, but there was never any time to really unwind. The kind of relaxing where you vegetate, get sunburned, drink too many cocktails and forget your middle name in an ecstasy of languorous slothfulness.
Thankfully, Halkidiki was just around the corner.
One thing planning a wedding has taught me is that post-wedding you need time to not make any decisions whatsoever. So that means no restaurant bookings for two dozen family members or worrying about your dad getting lost on the way to see Cape Town’s penguins… (that last one really happened).
Which is why, for the first time, allowing someone else to do take the reigns and do the legwork seemed like a dream come true. A few days before we flew to Greece with Jet 2, the only challenging decision we made was which colour swimsuit to bring. Flights (including hold luggage), transfers, hotel (half board) and even excursions were all – or could be – arranged for us.
The freedom to choose is a wonderful thing, not having to choose is sheer indulgence.
Alia Palace – unwind like a Greek god
Set atop a hill overlooking the chilled seaside town of Pefkohori, on the Kassandra peninsula of Halkidiki, otherwise called Chalkidiki, Alia Palace is a beauty.
Within the hotel grounds you’ll find everything you need for a relaxing holiday: a luxurious infinity pool, pampering spa, fantastic food and lastly – though arguably most importantly – drinks delivered directly to your sun-lounger.
Our room, the junior suite, came with a private pool, plush dressing gowns, slippers and a gorgeous exposed beam high-ceiling. It was hard to leave, believe me.
Foodwise, our meals here were taken al fresco from the hotel buffet. We seized the chance to sample many of the local delicacies: gyros (Greek kebab), tzatziki, Greek salad, dolmades and all the ice cream we could manage (remember, calories don’t count on holiday).
As much as Kasha and I started to enjoy doing literally nothing, soaking up the sun like particularly lazy sea lions, we also couldn’t resist the urge to wander.
Thankfully, the nearest town, Pefkohori , was a short walk away. Here we spotted spot families, lovers and friends strolling along the promenade, splashing about in the azure water and lingering over ice-cold cocktails in the many bars that line the seafront.
The architecture is a pleasant mishmash of striking old buildings, like the church of Saint Athanasios above, squat houses and sprawling apartment complexes. But in reality, the real draw here is undoubtedly the beach.
It’s a short, pebbly dash into the water, but once you’re in its sheer bliss. The depth shelves off very gradually, so the beach is shallow enough for families and for the sun to gently warm up the water – making it especially pleasant to swim in. If you haven’t swum in the Aegean Sea I strongly urge you to try it.
Discovering the Monasteries of Mount Athos
On our city breaks, Kasha and I often end up using one day to explore an area outside the city. Navigating bus timetables, booking trains and often relying on locals to get us where we need to go. It’s always fun, though it can be tricky to organise.
Another benefit of doing our holiday the lazy way was that Jet 2 could organise a day trip for us. Without lifting a finger, all the hard work was done and we could relax and enjoy the journey. So where did we decide to go? The ancient Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos, the oldest surviving monastic community in the world.
A long, hot coach journey took us to our vessel, a galleon made up like a pirate ship, naturally. Once boarded, the ship pulled gradually ever closer to the looming mountain range of Mount Athos.
Thick forests, untouched by man, show what the peninsulas of Halkidiki would have been like without the development that Kassandra has experienced. The mountains are perilously steep and the land itself completely isolated. Why would anyone choose to live here?
But this land is far from uninhabited. Mount Athos and its monasteries date back over 1,000 years to Byzantine times. There are 20 monasteries here which are occupied by Orthodox monks from across the world including, Russia, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria.
Each day, 100 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox male pilgrims are admitted for a three-night stay in one of the monasteries. But for many visitors, a boat tour is the only chance to see them.
The 335 sq km (130 sq mile) peninsula of Mount Athos is also self-governing, and there are some very strict rules, especially surrounding women. As our guide explained, no woman can step foot on the peninsula, not even a female animal is allowed!
The striking architecture, particularly of the Russian Orthodox monastery of Saint Panteleimon above, is especially staggering when contrasted with its backdrop of endless forests and sheer cliff faces.
You can’t easily spot them from a boat, but there a select number of monks who choose to live apart from the monasteries, alone in the wild Greek forests. These monks take a vow to live as hermits in simple buildings called hermitages.
I couldn’t help thinking of these men as we sailed away. Surrounded by olive groves and dense woodland, they spend their days in utter solitude and deep contemplation. The thought that someone could choose to live without ever seeing another human again made me desperately sad.
The sunsets in Halkidiki aren’t gorgeous.
They aren’t jaw-dropping, or picture-perfect. No. They are much, much more than that.
The sunsets here fill the sky with vivid bursts of colour that slowly fade to hazy, soft yellows and reds. They are the free light show that draws every evening to a close.
They are what inspired generations of Greek poets, philosophers and writers. In short, they have to be experienced first hand, because my words simply aren’t good enough to describe them.
Have you ever explored Halkidiki? What was your impression of this unique region of Greece? Share your thoughts by commenting below.