The third finger, my Athos experience.
Contributed by Jens Hoffmann
Go off the beaten track in Athos and discover mountains, monasteries, and perfect white sand beaches
Here you will find Greece’s monasteries, beautiful beaches, ancient culture and hospitality without going to the islands, the mainland region of Halkidiki is the answer.
A peninsula made up of three ‘fingers’ – Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos – it has more than 300 miles of coastline edging the Aegean sea, and the beaches that go with it are beautiful.
Athos being the most remote peninsula is deemed the most special of the three – Kassandra is all about bars while Sithonia is bigger with nice beaches.
Outside, gardens, courtyards and terraces are filled with palm trees, cactus, aloes and fragrant jasmine. Steps take you down to the pool and then onwards and downwards to a stretch of beautiful white-sand beach.
The location: After a direct flight to Thessaloniki, to reach the resort is a straightforward 90-minute drive south, climbing through hills and pine forests, passing just a few small villages and sign posts to the birthplace of Aristoteles and King Xeres’s Canal.
Hotel tip:Eagles Palace.
Its clear to see why this was the spot chosen to build Athos’s first five star resort back in the seventies: the white sandy beach lapped by the clear, sparkling sea is really spectacular, and thanks to the east-west orientation is sunny from dawn ‘til dusk.
Throw in views across to the small island of Amolunia and left to Mount Athos (home the most spectacular monasteries you will ever see) and it’s hard to imagine a better setting.
The food: Breakfast and an evening buffet is served in Melathron, with the menu changing daily between Greek, Asian or Mediterranean inspired dishes. Have lunch on the beach at either the beach café or Amarya restaurant, which serves delicious meze including fried zucchini, baby octopus, stuffed squid, Greek salad and olives served with warm pita and freshly made tzatzki.
In Ouranoupolis, youn can have a great lunch of chicken and pork skewers, with Athos wine at Tavernas Leonaidis beside the harbour.
The spa: A day one or two visit to the Elemis spa for a massage with manager Sofia will have your muscles unknotted and shoulders dropped in no time thanks to her very impressive firm touch.
I also took her advice to have the Elemis anti-ageing facial on my last day to ensure I returned home glowing, despite days of slapping factor 50 all over my face.
While you’re there well, it’s easy to do nothing.
Lying on the quiet beach all day is a very tempting option to get into relaxation mode.
Hard as it may be, it’s worth dragging yourself away from Eagles Palace to visit the nearby village of Ouranoupolis to wander the shops and tavernas and pay a visit to its imposing Byzantine tower.
If you see a lot of monks wandering around, that’s because Ouranoupolis is the border to Mount Athos, a separate state -like the Vatican- that’s home to monasteries, monks and hermits and where women aren’t allowed.
Take care to get the Athos visa in advance.
Male pilgrims may visit Athos but the nearest women can get to viewing the gravity defying Greek and Russian Orthodox monasteries clinging to the edge of the mountain is by boat.
The hotel can take you on it’s own private launch, or you can get a tour boat from Ouranoupolis – even though you’ll only see the monasteries from the 500m sea perimeter, it’s definitely worth spending a morning or afternoon doing.
Great experience, do not forget to bring home some wines made by the Mount Athos monks.