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HALKIDIKI - THE GREEK SECRET PARADISE

If you want a guarantee of clean sea and beaches, cA 12th-century Byzantine tower stands guard beside a beach at Ouranoupolisonsider the gorgeous 300-mile coastline of Halkidiki. That's the star holiday region of Northern Greece, which is still much lesser known in Britain compared with the Islands. 

UK tour operators operate direct 3-hour charter flights to Salonica (Thessaloniki), the capital of northern Greece, with only a 75-minute drive to Halkidiki. Direct scheduled services are operated by Olympic Airways and BA from Gatwick.

Described as "Greece's secret paradise", Halkidiki includes the three long fingers of land that jut out into the Aegean Sea. They offer miles of superb natural coastline, comprising every type of landscape. 

Travel Facts

 

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TRAVEL FACTS

Unless you have plentiful time to drive there and back, the
simplest policy is to buy a tour operator's charter-flight
package, with wide choice of accommodation.

A Jeep Safari takes visitors off-road to areas high in the
forested hills and along cliff tops. Walking trails are well
developed, with guidebooks that describe routes throughout the
region.

More information and brochures: Greek National Tourism Organisation, 4 Conduit Street, London W1S 2DJ. Tel: 020 7495 9300.

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There are long golden-sand beaches; little coves scattered at the foot of dramatic mountains; forested hills and well-tended farms. Only about 3 per cent of the region has been developed, and there are no major rivers or industry to cause pollution. The coastline includes 32 Blue Flag awards for clean beaches, and two for marinas.

Tourism focuses mainly on the westernmost finger, called Kassandra. There are luxury-grade developments on the western side of the middle finger, called Sithonia. 

Most dramatic of all is Mount Athos - the Holy Mountain of the monks - which is out of bounds for women. Even entry for males is very restricted, with special permission needed for a maximum of ten non-Greek visitors daily.

Far removed from industry and large cities, the waters of Halkidiki are brilliantly clear. You can watch a three-dimensional ballet of shoals of fish, with sparkling visibility thirty or forty feet down. Dolphins enjoy giving a display for the entertainment of boat passengers.

Tourism is relatively new in Halkidiki. Formerly the region was cut off by poor roads, which could still do with some improvement. Most Halkidiki resorts are reached in a 90-minute road journey from the Thessaloniki gateway. In former times, it took five hours.

The first wave of building hotels and resort facilities started around 1971, and the industry really got going from 1980. Even so, only a few miles of the total 300-mile coastline have been developed. There's still plenty of unspoilt shoreline left for those who like natural scenery more than concrete.

Outside tourism, small-scale farming and fishing are still the main occupations. There are apricot and peach orchards, olive groves, glowing fields of sunflowers, vineyards and market gardens. 

Bee-hives, mostly painted bright blue, provide excellent honey from pine trees, from the brilliant displays of spring flowers and from aromatic shrubs that cloak rocky hillsides.

A village taverna that also takes in guests Halkidiki offers all the atmosphere of the Greek islands, with the bonus of easy access to mainland sightseeing. For shopping and exploration in Salonica - second largest city of Greece - just catch a local bus. 

The area can claim an extremely long history of human settlement. In the awe-inspiring Petralona Cave, scientists have found evidence that man-made fires were lit here around 700,000 years ago. A human skull found in the cave is an estimated quarter-million years old. 

Tourism on Kassandra is mainly concentrated on the eastern coast of the finger of land. Around 40% of the holidaymakers are Greek, and many residents of Salonica commute in for summer weekends. It makes for a very lively season, April till October, with real Greek atmosphere. Everything closes down November till March.

The busiest nightlife centre is Kallithea, a village with a good range of discos, bars and tavernas. There are incredible scenes of Saturday-night traffic jams at 2 a.m. Elsewhere, nightlife is more subdued, but most hotels feature in-house discos and entertainment programmes.

On the middle peninsula, Sithonia, Porto Carras offers the most expensive and exclusive tourism in the area. 

It's a unique mixture of tourism and agriculture. Four hotel complexes total 2,000 beds, with adjoining marina, 18- hole golf course and all other sport facilities. More than 1,000 acres are planted with citrus trees, vines and olives. 

Porto Carras white wines - especially Blanc de Blanc - are highly rated and mostly go for domestic consumption. The red wines are geared to the export trade.

Sithonia features a wildly twisting coastline with small coves and sandy bays. Pine forests cover the hills. Close to Porto Carras is the fishing village, marina and resort of Neos Marmaras, with charming streets and houses around the harbour.The cruise-boat view of the Monastery of Dochariou on Mount Athos

Best of the local excursions is a cruise along the shores of Mount Athos. The peninsula is 30 miles long, and five to eight miles wide. Twenty monasteries cling to the sheer hillsides. At the extreme tip, the mountain rises like a great pyramid from the sea, 6500 feet high.

About 1,700 monks live on the mountain. Because of the ban on women, cruise boats are forbidden to approach closer than 300 yards from the shore. But the incredible architecture of the monasteries, like something out of Tibet, is quite unforgettable. Take binoculars for a better view.

All-day excursions include coach pickup and time ashore at Ouranoupolis for a typical taverna lunch. 

Best time to go? Consider the early season, when spring flowers are at their best, and it's cool enough to enjoy walking in the hills. 

For a contrast in holiday styles, look at 

ATHENS - Centre yourself


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Halkidiki - A detailed map of the area, worth having if you're planning to explore by self-drive car or on foot.

Mount Athos - Even if you cannot visit the Holy Mountain, here's a useful description of the history and life-style of the monasteries and hermit caves that can be seen from the tourist boats. 

Halkidiki - Walking  - David Ramshaw - If you plan to do some serious walking, this essential guide is worth having.

Flavours of Greece by Rosemary Barron - Special for those who enjoy cooking, and want to recapture the pleasures of the Greek cuisine.


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