All hail Halkidiki: why Greece's mainland is marvellous
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Greece is one of the most treasured holiday destinations, yet many flock to its idyllic islands while overlooking its marvellous mainland in error.
Here, we share a handful of the ancient, natural and exhilarating attractions that make Halkidiki* a must-visit for anyone chasing the sun with a side of culture.
Getting to Halkidiki: check out the latest deals on holidays to Halkidiki with First Choice*.
The beaches are empty
Halkidiki's pine-scented coastline ribbons for 300 miles via forested cliffs and butterscotch sands. Given such distances, many beaches on the three main peninsulas of Kassandra, Sithonia and Agion Oros are accessible by boat only.
Kavourotripes Beach is like the British Virgin Islands with squid and ouzo picnics. Alykes Beach is a crescent moon of sand backdropped by perfumed scrub. The clincher? A mix of minerality and ocean currents colour the lapping seas blue-green.
Visit the holy mountain
Mount Athos is Halkidiki's most isolated - and telegenic - tip. Hilltop monasteries housing golden icons drip like gems into an aquamarine sea. Such serenity has been preserved as only monks are allowed to tread Athos' ancient footpaths.
Mere mortals can tour 'The Garden of Virgin Mary' by boat - as long as they stay 500m or more from shore. Passengers are rewarded by Instagram-worthy views and stops at sandy-trimmed villages like Ouranoupolis*, where Mount Athos wines are on sale.
Get a history lesson at Stagira
The three peninsulas that make up Halkidiki boast more archaeological sites than an Indiana Jones movie. Stagira combines a history lesson with tempting white sands below.
The ruined settlement - now inhabited only by lizards and swaying oaks - had its heydey over 2,000 years ago when local philosopher Aristotle preached above the beach.
Now, ancient stone walls mark the original settlement with its agora marketplace and tumbledown shops. Carry a picnic lunch to the coastal footpath below and dive right in.
Step back in time at Petralona
People have been barbecuing dinner in Halkidiki for a million years. At the ancient caves of Petralona, and its adjoining Anthropological Museum, on show are remnants of the world's first open fire and stone tools - both found on the peninsulas.
Spare a thought for lost shepherd Fillipos Chatzaridis, who stumbled upon the spooky cave in 1959. Now public tours run through the eerie stalactite-spotted cavern. Its uplit interiors also provide a cool respite from the hot Halkidiki sun.
Dive shipwrecks galore
Halkidiki's panoramic seascapes are as alluring as they are dangerous. Glassy seas hide limitless depths, which can be whipped up in winter winds. Persian galleys have been joined by more recent wrecks like the 40m-long German cargo ship Mitilini, which sank 20m to the sandy seabed in 1961.
It's now a living aquarium for grouper, anemones and starfish. Other great scuba sites include a 60m-long diving wall near Porto Valitsa guarded by octopus and moray eels.
Stroll the villages of the Kassandra peninsula
The real Greece is only a short drive away. The sleepy settlement of Afytos on the Kassandra peninsula was once a powerful city-state. Where villagers now sell mountain honey, a mint once cranked out gold coins with the image of Zeus on one side. The curvaceous sands below the village are still priceless.
Just as charming is Kriopigi. The old village is a postcard of climbing flowers and tumbling buildings, with yet another beach down below.
Save time for the historic fishing port of Nea Skioni. A forest breeze trickles through timeless churches and waterside cafés, the latter selling thimbles of bitter coffee.
Sip 2,000 year old viticulture
Once-in-a-lifetime wines proliferate on each of the three Halkidiki peninsulas. Fiery red grapes like Limnio can withstand raging sunshine and were once sipped by Aristotle.
Other whites like Malagouzia are reared atop sea cliffs, where cooling breezes mature wines with a saline whipcrack.
Wineries like Domaine Porto Carras welcome visitors to sample vintages from the undulating slopes of Mount Meliton. The best bit? All pair perfectly with Halkidiki dishes like grilled fish, aubergine dip and vine-wrapped dolmades.
See Halkidiki split in two at Nea Potidea
Those clever Greeks chopped Halkidiki in two at its narrowest point. The resulting Potidea Canal allows fishing boats to hop between seas, instead of making a 60-mile dash around the Kassandra peninsula.
Seafood is the order of the day at the adjoining town of Nea Potidea. Think cuttlefish couscous, slow-baked octopus and squid with trahana, a traditional Greek pasta.
The beach bars may play Bob Marley but life was once tough around here. Until a bridge was built over the canal in 1967, every item travelling up the peninsula had to be rafted across.
Laze on Halkidiki's only island
Only 500 lucky residents live on Halkidiki's heartrendingly beautiful island. A handful of Euros grants passage on the regular ferry to Ammouliani, which putters across crystalline shallows.
Bring a swimming costume. Because aside from blossom-scented walks and paddleboard jaunts, the island is all about the beach. A dozen powder-soft curves are dotted with low-key beach bars. These include the lonely sands of islet-strewn Drenia, Blue Flag Porto Agio and boat-only Agios Giorgios.
Weather in Halkidiki, Greece
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The above guide shows the weather in Halkidiki.
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