Updated 06.01.2019: A few weeks ago, we took you on a fun Greek Island hopping cruise. But for those who’d like to visit this beautiful country by car, you’re in luck. Guest contributor Debi Lander, from ByLanderSea, is taking us on a fabulous Greece road trip. Her destination? The gorgeous resort area of Halkidiki, an off-the-beaten-path gem that looks divine.
Most American travelers to Greece arrive in Athens. If you haven’t climbed up to the Acropolis or marveled at the National Archeological Museum’s statues of Athena, Poseidon and Zeus, you’re missing a crucial ancient history lesson.
Exploring Athens and the Greek islands was once a classic leg of the old Grand Tour. On a recent trip, I was fortunate enough to tour Athens and cruise the isles, but even luckier to extend my trip and fly on to the lesser known, but enchanting area around Thessaloniki.
I planned to rent a car and discover the place where Greek residents vacation: Halkidiki. Unknown to most Americans, Halkidiki offers 340 miles of sandy coastline, rugged and glorious landscapes, historic monasteries, and authentic Greek cuisine.
Thessaloniki the second largest city in Greece, lies in the northern part of Greece—Alexander the Great’s Macedonia. Today’s more than 1 million residents call the 2,300-year-old city home. You can find Halkidiki easily on a Greek map—look for three fingers (peninsulas) reaching out to meet the Aegean Sea. My travel partner, John and I set out to explore each of them, starting with a drive from the airport to Sithonia, the middle leg.
Greece road trip to Halkidiki and beyond
The first-rate main highway (modern and well-signed) dispelled any apprehensions about driving in a foreign land. Leaving the main highway took some throttling back to maneuver hairpins on two-lane roads. But the transition proved more than worth it, the classic Greek sudden elevation changes brought spectacular views. They are reminiscent of scenic Tuscany. The drive was so compelling, we simply had to stop at a number of overlooks to take it all in.
Wending our way past some stunning water views, we came to Elia and the Athena Pallas Village, by Acrotel Hotels and Resorts. Welcoming smiles greeted these two somewhat disheveled travelers.
John and I entered the open-air lobby, filled with marble and antiquities, and were escorted to our lodging. We’d spend the next three nights in a maisonette or ‘little house’ within a gated area that included an olive orchard. Aah…time to pause and breathe in the fresh air and revel in the moment of authentic luxury.
The maisonette door opened into the front bedroom, beyond it the bath and a living space that begs one to sit and unwind. Tucked on the side is a stairway leading to a spacious loft bedroom. Outside, overlooking the pool, a private patio with built-in seating hugs one wall along with two king-sized chairs. I threw off my shoes, grabbed a glass of welcoming wine, and put my feet up. I could have stayed in this cushion of comfort for hours.
Dining with Saints in Halkidiki
Dinner reservations called, inviting us to a Byzantine themed meal in the onsite, award-winning restaurant named Hierion. As we approached the doors, the sound of chanting monks met our ears, although recorded, the music set the scene.
The small restaurant, a cross between a stone chapel and a spacious cave, is encircled by frescoes of the Orthodox saints. Our waiter charmed us with stories of the bread—made by the monks on Mount Athos, the olives from the resort’s gardens and the water gurgling in a historic fountain.
The 7-course meal was exceptional. John and I began by slathering a black olive paste onto the bread and then were served sfougaton—something between a soufflé, frittata, and quiche. The sautéed mushroom dish with a sweet petimezi sauce melted in my mouth, and we had two entrees- white fish and slow clay-pot cooked goat. We ended with a puff pastry filled with dried fruit.
Hanging out at Athena Pallas
Next morning while meandering the hotel grounds, we found an underground tunnel designed to ease the descent to the beach on the other side of the road. Crystal clear turquoise water and the deserted beach are precisely what make a Greek vacation so desirable. The hotel’s lounge chairs and umbrellas sat empty, waiting for guests to indulge in a day of sun, fun and relaxation.
We walked to breakfast, a grand buffet that’s included in all lodging rates. (Guests may choose to add on a dinner package.)The bountiful selection included Greek yogurt (naturally), a variety of fresh and dried fruit, cold cuts, and eggs made to order accompanied by a wide selection of rustic breads and pastries.
Befuddled by the optional authentic coffee preparation, a waitress ended up giving John a lesson on how to make Greek coffee. He succeeded, but the taste was too strong for me. We left breakfast feeling like we’d be full until dinner.
Mid-morning, I attended the hotel’s cooking class learning to make my favorite dish—domatas or stuffed grapevine leaves. The chef and his assistants gave demonstrations on the preparation of Loukoumades—Greek donuts, a cheese pie and Greek Salad—no lettuce. Plentiful samples were passed around.
Pool time, naptime and a pre-dinner cocktail filled the afternoon. Another late dinner awaited—this one in the hotel’s Greek tavern, Dionisos. The menu incorporates the flavors and aromas of Ancient Greece modernized for today’s palate.
Our waiter from the previous night met us at the door and asked us to don togas. I adore wearing costumes, John not so much. Nonetheless, he was a good sport.
The meal began with the most unusual, but delectable salad of wild greens. An array of starters followed: octopus, shrimps and stuffed squid. Filet of sea bream with lentils and beetroot appeared as the entree. I’m sure we were served dessert, but between the wine and abundance of food, I can’t remember.
Cruising to Mount Athos
We drove to the easternmost peninsula to join a three-hour cruise passing by Mount Athos. I say passing Mount Athos because very few are able to go. Entry is highly regulated, and females have never been allowed on the 130 square mile property. This rule is so firm that even female animals are banned. Mount Athos continues after 1,000 years to remain the spiritual center of the Eastern Orthodox Church and is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
At one time 40,000 monks lived and worked on Mount Athos within a community of 40 monasteries. Now, about 20 monasteries remain, tucked into mountains or lying near the shore—many visible from the water, which provided them access to get their goods to market. Some of their towers, domes, and belfries sing out in bright colors.
From the boat, I spied terraced vineyards among the steep terrain and deep ravines created by gushing water. Once you near the incredibly imposing mountain’s peak (6,670 feet) at the tip of the peninsula, the boat turns about for its return. Some of the monasteries contain ancient relics and famous pieces of art, but sadly, very few will ever cast an eye on them.
John took great pleasure in driving the return route back to our resort. He whizzed up and around high cliffs and swung by way too many deserted beaches and coves to count. We passed through the tiny town of Stagira, the birthplace of Aristotle, and nearly ran into a sheep crossing the road.
The next morning we left for Kassandra, the westernmost finger, but paused in the seaside resort of Nea Poteidaia to photograph a church. Continuing on for about an hour, we stopped for lunch in Nea Skioni.
The casual outdoor restaurant we chose was typical of thousands in Greece: wooden tables painted blue, hanging baskets of flowers, perhaps a roaming cat or dog, and enticing aromas. This gem of a seaside bistro offered a bountiful Greek salad and grilled fish that tasted even better than it looked- which was spectacular.
A European road trip planner to take you there. Check it out!
Our road tripping through Greece continues to Nea Skioni
Checking into Nefeli Villas and Suites just outside Nea Skioni, we we were surprised to find our super spacious one bedroom unit included a huge living room or family room, a full kitchen as well as a private swimming pool. Oh my! Nefeli Suites offer a chance to live like the rich and famous at affordable prices—a huge plus for anyone vacationing in Greece.
The complex consists of six individual buildings each accommodating four villas. Each villa opens to a patio with views of the sea and direct access to the private beach across the road, equipped with lounges and umbrellas.
We loved the breakfasts and dinner at the beachside restaurant that just happens to have the perfect view of sunset. With no other Americans on the property (there rarely are), we became rather special to the staff.
I was overwhelmed by the excellence of the food preparation and service. In this out of the way corner of Greece, a little waterside cafe served sensationally simple, but scrumptious food. We were becoming addicted to Kalamata olives and ordered more fresh fish and grilled vegetables.
Next day our Greece mainland itinerary headed for Afytos, making some wrong turns that produced breathtaking views—some at sheer drops off the side of the road. John and I dined on Greek salad (yes again) and took a walk around the old town in the heat.
We chose to return to Nefeli Suites and just relax by the pool or on the sofas of our large living room. Our last day in Greece we spent checking into flights, catching up on emails, packing, and spoiling ourselves at this place.
A very early morning drive to the airport, return of the rental car and flight back to Athens proved hassle free. American’s have not yet discovered this area of Greece, but I highly recommend Halkidiki for the adventurous. We left with fond memories, a few extra pounds and a vastly increased love of the Greek culture.
May we suggest some useful travel panning tools for your Greece vacation?
- Travel with a Greece road trip guide book.
- Book things to do in Halkidiki before leaving home.
- Search for international and domestic flights in Greece.
- Find the best Greece hotels. Compare prices. Read the reviews.
- Download the best apps for a European road trip.