SAILING TO BYZANTIUM—AN INWARD JOURNEY  

By: Aurelia

“And therefore I have sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium.” – W.B. Yeats

I don’t remember the exact date when I learned that my itinerary for my first journey to Northern Greece had been finalized, but I remember the season. Looking through the open, upstairs window, I saw a courtyard with lush green bonnets still covering the trees and the carpet of jade velvet on the ground; the air was warm and dry. August’s humid days were waning. I knew that when I returned in two months my view of the courtyard would not be the same. My eyes would see a palate of golden brown, bright yellow, and burnt orange and the air would be cool. My journey would be at an end; there would be a new season.

As it happened, nothing would be the same when I returned. How could it be? I had, indeed, “Sailed to Byzantium.” My voyage took me through the three peninsulas of Halkidiki– Kassandra, Sithonia, and Athos—extending like long fingers into the sea. My destination was in the third finger resting in the sea surrounding the ancient monasteries of Mt. Athos in Halkidiki, Northern Greece.

Established more than a thousand years ago. It is said to be the oldest monastery on earth and “a living museum of Byzantium.” Some say it is the most sacred spot on earth where today some 1,400 monks live in perfect peace and tranquility completely removed from the outside world.   A giant Byzantine Cross sits on a rock, marking the border between the 21st Century and Mt. Athos, home of the twenty monasteries where nothing has changed through the centuries.

My boat did not cross the border because it is forbidden; all passengers on board were limited to a look at the past while remaining in the present.   Pilgrims are permitted on the grounds with special permission, but women are not allowed; the monks’ goal is to bring them closer to Christ through a spartan way of life creating splendid isolation from the outside world. Their days never change; each consists of eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, and eight hours of continuous chanting. Literally. The Monks chant for eight hours every day, intoning the same prayers that have been said for over a thousand years.

“And be the singing-masters of my soul…

And gather me into the artifice of eternity.” – W.B. Yeats

It was not the destination but the journey that enriched my life. To reach the sea below the Byzantine monasteries of Mt. Athos, I had the thrill of discovering a world previously unknown to me—Halkidiki. This region in Northern Greece is sculpted into a three pronged Peninsula that some call Poseidon’s trident.   It offers unsurpassed beauty, a magnificent, 500 km coastline, and an environment and landscape so serene that one wishes it could be preserved in a bottle and taken home. The hospitality offered by the management staff of the hotels is unsurpassed, as is the allure of the architecture and beaches on the undulating coastline.

Something I found very thrilling was the beauty I saw when I left the highway for the entrance to the five-star hotels where I stayed or dined. In some cases, the hotels were not visible from the main road, and in others I had just a glimpse and saw the full view when I reached the entrance.   Because of this, I experienced the exciting joy of discovery as I entered the grounds of each new destination.

Imagine driving for many miles on a grey highway with pastoral settings on each side; sometimes you will have to stop to allow a shepherd and his flock pass, and other stops will be to allow a farmer to cross, driving his tractor and followed by his dogs.   Then imagine leaving this scene abruptly and turning into a driveway where you see before you such splendid architecture that it gives you pause before entering. Your eyes take in the view with the intensity and wonderment of a cat. When you gain your composure and are guided through the lobby onto the hotel’s grounds, your reward is a spectacular view of what some say is the most magnificent coastline in all of Greece. The panoramic vista took the breath from my lungs.

Because none of this is visible from the highway, you have to “discover” it and for me, an insatiable itinerant, nothing is quite as satisfying as the thrill of discovery. I had entered a new world and I knew parting would be difficult.  How to best express and summarize my feelings for Halkidiki? With apologies to Lord Byron, I have borrowed some of the lovely words he wrote and substituted “Halkidiki” for “Maid of Athens:”

Halkidiki, ‘ere we part, give, oh give me back my heart. – Lord Byron

THE JOURNEY BEGINS

My journey began with a short, thirty-five minute flight from Athens to the airport in Thessaloniki where a rental car awaited me. My itinerary was planned by the incomparable Sofia Bournazi, Marketing Director for the Halkidiki Tourism Organization, responsible for a dynamic marketing plan that, in the last few years, is bringing larger numbers of tourists to Northern Greece, than ever before.

THE POMEGRANATE WELLNESS SPA HOTEL

                                           “Halkidiki…the Secret Paradise Of Greece.” – Anonymous

First on my odyssey was the five-star Pomegranate Wellness Spa Hotel, situated on the western side of Halkidiki, between the Thermaikos and Toroneos gulfs, in the area of Nea Potidea. It was less than an hour’s drive away and was a splendid introduction to Halkidiki and its hospitality.   I was greeted by George Doucas, the Hotel’s very personable Sales and Marketing Manager. Mr. Doucas was the first of the many gracious hosts I had the pleasure of meeting; all have years of experience in luxury travel and are clearly the cream of the crop.

After a brief tour of the facility’s interior and exterior, I shared my high compliments with Mr. Doucas, explaining that my first experience of what Northern Greece had to offer was well beyond my expectations. Smiling broadly, he quoted a proclamation by an anonymous source that I heard a number of times during my time in Halkidiki:   “We are the secret paradise of Greece.” As I traveled to the other destinations in Halkidiki that Ms. Bournazi had arranged for me to visit, I was in total agreement with Mr. Doucas.

The Pomegranate was completely renovated in 2013 and offers the top of the line in luxury accommodation, gourmet restaurants, a unique spa, hi tech nightclub, a conference center, and freshwater swimming pools on meticulously landscaped grounds. The Afrodita Roa Spa is one of the largest, most luxurious in all of Greece. I indulged myself in its massage services, swam in the indoor pool, and relaxed with a cup of tea in my very own, private “séparée.” It is one of six enclosed spaces located around the perimeter of the indoor, seawater pool.   Wrapped in a warm robe, I sat on plush cushions and sipped refreshing tea while veiled from view by floor-length curtains.

I don’t now how many hours I spent in the spa. My experience in the States was that I had to go to one place for the best steam bath, and another for relaxation in a Jacuzzi, and still a third for a true, therapeutic massage. But at the Afrodita Roa Spa, it was all there and more. I had never been in a cryotherapy/snow chamber, for example, and I think I would go back just for that. The Byzantine bath was extraordinary and I learned that it is the largest in Greece. There was not one Jacuzzi, but two, and while the saunas were high temperatures as they should be, somehow they were not uncomfortably hot and almost lulled me to sleep. The stream baths were fragrant with herbs and the temperature was perfect. When I went to cool off in the showers, I was treated to a continuous spray of mist. This spa is a hedonist’s delight.

During my stay, I had breakfast and dinner in the Zeus Restaurant, one of three dining areas, and enjoyed bountiful buffets. The chefs pride themselves on creating international gastronomy and offering rich buffets of traditional Greek dishes and international cuisine. With reluctance, I skipped the nightly entertainment in the Pomegranate Club, said to be the best hi-tech Club in Greece. I was feeling placid from my soothing days at the spa and wanted to maintain that precious serenity. I did go outside to the hotel’s entrance to see the spectacular water fountain show, featuring a combination of motion, light and sound. It was like watching one of the best fireworks displays, only better. I was dazzled.

I asked Mr. Doucas how the owners came up with the idea of this sensational extravaganza of light, color, and music. He explained they

hired a high-tech firm and gave simple instructions: Produce a “wow” factor. The firm delivered.

While walking the beautifully landscaped grounds, I had a view of Mt. Olympus, where the ancient gods were said to live and I understood why they chose that location because there could be no better view in Greece than Halkidiki’s 500 km coastline. I noted as I walked the grounds that the outdoor pool appeared to merge with the horizon and the landscaping blended with the natural environment. I thought if Zeus, his wife, Hera, and their entourage of gods and goddesses who meddle in the lives of we mortals were still with us, they would have left Mt. Olympus for the Pomegranate Wellness Spa Hotel.

BLUE BAY HOTEL

“Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depends on simplicity.”

Plato (BC 427-BC 347) Greek philosopher.

The beauty that Plato famously declared comes from “style, harmony, and grace,” can be found in understated simplicity of the Blue Bay Hotel on the undulating Kassandra Peninsula. It is a short distance from the Pomegranate and was on my “must visit” list, although I could not stay overnight. During my next visit to Halkidiki, I definitely plan an extended stay. The restful ambience beckoned me and the symmetry of the hotel and its natural surroundings soothed me. The Blue Bay Hotel is a true gem, offering services, luxury, and accommodations that are best described as “discrete.”   It is modest in comparison to the huge resort hotels, but has sixty very well appointed rooms, twenty-two with enchanting sea views.

It was designed by Jannis and Evgenia Tsapanidou whose vision was to offer a package of subtle luxury for the discriminating guest. The apartments are made of stone from the area as found in the ancient, nearby village of Athytos (well worth a visit).  Mr. and Mrs. Tsapanidou’s goal was to create a relaxed, cozy atmosphere in a setting that blends seamlessly into its natural surroundings. They accomplished this and then added luxury services. It is no wonder that most of their guests are “repeats,” or those who come year after year and make their reservations for the coming year at the end of their stay.

The Blue Bay Hotel opened in 1997 with twenty-two rooms; twelve were added in 1998 and twenty more in 2000. The renovation was completed in 2008 and the hotel now has sixty rooms, twenty of which have direct views of the sea; the remaining rooms have lateral or side views. Their lovely daughter, Olga, manages the hotel.

I almost hesitate to broadcast the charms of the Blue Bay Hotel for fear there will be no room available for me on my next visit, but it would be an injustice to the visionary owners and their daughter not to sing its praises.

As was the case with all of my visits, I had no idea of the beauty of this hotel until I was met by Olga Tsapaidou and taken to the veranda 60 meters above the sea. Unfolding below me were stunning views of the Aegean Sea. One does not see this from the main road. With the Blue Bay and the other coastline hotels, I felt I was entering a hidden paradise; I experienced what some poets refer to as entering “a secret garden.”

There are five buildings, all ground floor, two swimming pools, and a “Relax Center” with services designed to make you as loose as a rag doll. You may indulge yourself in a three-step “Aqua Magic” therapeutic treatment that includes a steam bath, hydro massage with ozono therapy, and aero therapy with essential oil treatments. Or, you may decide you want to “float” and you will be introduced to Nuvola, a floating system on a special bed that promotes relaxation of muscles in the neck and spin as you are made “weightless.” I was told you have to experience this to appreciate the sensation of floating weightless on a cloud. There is the obligatory Haman, of course, and a variety of massages, all designed for the well being of body and mind, are offered.

Imagine spending your day relaxing in the spa and your evening on the veranda overlooking the cliff for your evening meal. In this very private, exquisite setting, you will be offered dinner from the chef’s a la carte menu and wine from the hotel’s cellar. You can arrange to sit with other guests or you can be alone.

I would choose to be alone in order to be one with the surroundings. I would request a table on the very edge of the veranda and watch the sun set as I sipped wine, specially chosen for me by Olga, who is studying oenology.   From our conversation at lunch, I discerned she was a true wine connoisseur with excellent taste.

Mr. and Mrs. Tsapanidou had the dream and talent to create a discreet gem that could be called a “Hideaway in Halkidiki.”   Their daughter

Olga’s goals are to manage the hotel to the highest standards, complete her studies in oenology, and offer guests a selection of the finest wines. The pursuit of excellence is reflected in the parents’ vision and their daughter’s goals, proving that “the apple does not fall far from the tree.” The beneficiaries of all of this expertise are the guests—the ones who come year after year and the ones yet to discover the joys of being one with nature at the Blue Bay Hotel.

For further information please visit the hotel’s website at https://www.bluebayhotel.com.gr

 

 

 

 

SANI RESORT

 

“Some say even the lyric poets

cannot describe the radiance

of the light of Greece.”

Anonymous

 

In the early 1960’s when the men who gave birth to the Sani Resort arrived at Kassandra Peninsula, the undeveloped land stretching over 1,000 acres was owned by monks. Black and white photos of the area at that time reveal a single tower, a few low-level buildings, local children playing in the sand, and a solitary man fishing peacefully in a small row boat. In the background one can see a pine forest and olive trees. Because the photos are black and white, it is not possible to know that the waters are a breath-taking, beautiful azure and the forest a verdant, lush green. And if it were possible to look at the photos and describe the scents, we would learn that then, as now, the fragrance of the pine trees, flowers, herbs, and citrus filled the air.

 

For Anastasios Andreadis and Leonidas Zisiadis who arrived by boat, it must have seemed that they were entering paradise. Before their eyes unfolded one of the most beautiful natural settings in all of Greece. To their credit, when these visionaries purchased the land and began the development that is today the magnificent Sani Resort, one of the largest luxury hotels of its kind in Greece, they maintained a great respect for the environment. This reverence resulted in a stunning ecological reserve where flora and fauna and man exist in harmony. The peninsula is now graced with four hotels with distinctive, welcoming personalities and a marina so splendid it rivals any in Monaco. Yacht owners from all over the world vie for spaces to dock there for the entire season. The pine forest blends with the crystal clear waters of the Aegean Sea, the golden beaches remain unspoiled, and lush gardens of mint, basil, and rosemary are meticulously maintained.

The Sani Resort is described as “A Mediterranean Destination,” and it is an apt description. It remains family-owned and it is truly a serene reserve, in an unspoiled, natural environment where one can find a secluded beach or wander in a pine forest. The discriminating tourist

who chooses Sani as a destination will be rewarded with pampering and indulgence; Sani’s stated goal is “to exceed your expectations.”

 

Last October, I was a guest at Sani Resort and had the most pleasurable day as I was introduced to key areas of the spectacular, 1,000 acre property. The highlights were a delicious lunch by the crystal-watered pool and a rejuvenating spa treatment. My guide and luncheon companion was the lovely Mariza Giorgou, Marketing Assistant. Her love of Sani was infectious as she enthusiastically enumerated all of the pleasures to be found at this luxurious hideaway. At Ms. Giorgou’s suggestion, we asked the chef to chose entrees for our lunch and he indulged us with a platter of perfectly grilled fish, a Greek salad with tangy feta cheese, and fresh vegetables, expertly seasoned. The setting for our meal was one of sublime splendor defined by the clean, contemporary lines of the soft and neutral furnishings on the patio surrounding the pool with its deep blue waters.   It was the most tranquil of habitats.

 

Four hotels and eighteen restaurants are spread over the resort and each has a distinctive personality serving discriminating guests and families with different needs. As we walked the grounds, the phrase “understated elegance” came to mind and stayed with me.

 

The most luxurious hotels are the Sani Asterias Suites and Porto Sani Village and it is here where I am guessing the owners of the yachts stay if they want to leave their own floating hotels and come on shore.

The Sani Asterias Suites are in a discrete boutique hotel in a private beach setting. A Spa Suite, with its vast array of services, is in Porto Sani Village, an expansive complex which hotel management says is “the perfect place to restore your karma.” This is where I had my spa treatment—a relaxation massage—and I can attest to the fact that my karma was restored.

 

The Sani Beach Club and Sani Beach Hotel offer very private bungalows with stunning views of Mt. Olympus and the Aegean Sea. Spa services are offered in both and include traditional therapies inspired from around the world as well as modern European treatments from the renowned Parisian skin expert Anne Semonin.

 

The Sani Beach Hotel is set directly on Cape Sani and is circled by three picture perfect beaches. One nice feature of staying at the Beach Hotel is that you can walk with ease anywhere in the resort, including the marina where many of the yachts anchored in the harbor were owned by Russians. Ms. Giorgou explained that the largest number of guests—thirty-eight per cent—are usually from the UK, thirty percent come from Russia, and about fifteen percent are Germans. The remaining are Greeks, French, Italians, and residents of various Balkan countries.

 

A “dine around” feature enables you to make lunch and dinner reservations at any of the eighteen restaurants on the complex.

The Sani Resort is the ultimate “Mediterranean Destination.” Indulge yourself. For more detailed information on accommodations, services, rates, and availability, please visit the Sani Resort website at www.sani-resort.com

 

 

 

FLEGRA PALACE AND FLEGRA BEACH HOTELS

                                   

“I felt once more how simple and frugal

a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, …

the sound of the sea. Nothing else.”

 

Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

 

I doubt if there is a more charming mother and daughter team in Halkidiki’s hospitality industry than the most congenial Evi Nikolelou and her lovely daughter, Eleni. My odyssey took me to their hotels and my reward was a triple treat—a visit to both hotels, introduction to the famous Loutra Spa with its healing waters, and a lunch at their seaside restaurant, Asterias, which I can say with all honesty was the best meal I have ever had in a seaside tavern in all of Greece. Kudos to Mrs. Nikolelou and Eleni, and a gracious bow to the talented chef.

 

We met at the Flegra Palace Hotel in cosmopolitan Pefkochori. My host, who asked me to call her Evi, founded the Palace in 1989 with forty-three rooms and, after two extensive renovations, it now offers eighty-two rooms. The second hotel is Flegra Beach, located on Pefkohori Beach. The hotels are ideally situated close to each other on the beautiful Kassandra Peninsula.

 

My “day-to-be-remembered” consisted of an initial tour of Flegra Palace, followed by a visit to the renowned spa, and a fitting end at Flegra Beach with the splendid lunch by the sparkling waters of the Aegean Sea. A triple treat, indeed. A day not only to be remembered, but cherished.

 

Flegra Palace is 150m from a soft sand beach in Pefkohori and 500m from a Village where one finds many restaurants, bars, and shops .The Makedonia (SKG) airport is about 100 kilometers away. I was guided through the completely renovated, four-star hotel. It offers eighty distinctive room and its amenities include a lovely swimming pool and the “Soleil Bar,” next to ‘Titanes,” a garden restaurant In a lush setting that invites relaxation. Coffee and cocktails are prepared throughout the day at Soleil bar, next to the pool, the focal point of the attractive complex. I imagined myself relaxing by the pool, ordering afternoon tea and then an evening dinner and never leaving. It is that inviting. For guests who desire leisure facilities, however, there is a beach volley court, table tennis and LCD satellite TV, a playground and hot tub.

 

The Ambrosia Restaurant overlooks the pool and it is here where guests indulge themselves with delectable dishes inspired by the “Mediterranean Greek diet.” For accommodations, you may choose bungalows surrounding the property or executive rooms and suites in the main building. All are tastefully furnished and designed to promote calming milieu and relaxation.

Flegra Beach Hotel is ideal for the guest who wants to be “on the beach.” And what a lovely beach it is. The hotel is brand new and opened in 2014. It consists of three buildings on two floors with access by elevator. There are twenty-nine apartments, including spacious rooms and suites, the “Starfish” beach bar, and the splendid Asterias beachfront restaurant where I had that famous best meal. When I am on the islands in Greece, I always choose to dine as close to the sea as possible and dining at the Asterrias was exactly like dining on an island with the beautiful sea views before me. Perfection.

Ideally located on the beachfront on the beautiful Kassandra Peninsula, Flegra Beach Hotel is a mere 300m from Pefkohori shopping center. Also, there are a number of attractions within easy driving distance of both hotels and the two most famous are the Thermal Baths of Loutra and the Petralona Cave, one of the wonders of Halkidiki. Bejeweled with stalagmites and stalactites, it is nestled on the western side of the limestone Katsika Mountain, 700m in height and 300m above sea level. The cave became internationally known when the fossilized skull of Petralona man was found by a group of six men (three of them scientists), guided by a villager.

 

The day ended with a visit to the Spa Thermal Baths of Loutra. I would not have been able to easily find my way there through the mountainous roads and it is a testament to the gracious hospitality of my two hosts, Evi and her daughter, Elena, that I had the privilege of visiting the thermal waters.

 

The Village of Loutra, is on the west seaside of the Kassandra Peninsula, in a lush pine forest. It is located approximately 57km from Paralia Dionislou Beach, and it can be reached from main roads, but in order to give me views of the lovely countryside, Evi drove through winding, rural roads where scenes of pastoral beauty were beyond each turn.

The springs, discovered accidentally sometime after World War II, have important therapeutic qualities due to the water’s special chemical composition. First discovered by a farmer, who was looking to sprinkle sulfur on the vines, residents became aware of the healing quality of the waters because of their high sulfur content. (The strong, unmistakable smell of sulfur is apparent as soon as you enter the facility and even before entering.) When residents decided to see if they could release the waters they blasted the rocks with dynamite and precious, hydrosulfide water at temperatures of 39C gushed forth, as from a volcano. The result was a healing combination of sulfur and seawater and a therapeutic Spa was born; it was first named St. Nicholas and then Agia Paraskevi.

It has to be one of the most reasonably priced spas in all of Greece. Most treatments cost between five and nine euros and include a hydro massage in the hot, sulfur springs; warm and soothing baths in personal tubs; a Turkish steam bath; dry steam sauna; a swim or soak in a pool of curative water; and a luxurious, sixty minute sauna-hydro massage. The “taking of the waters,” as the treatments are commonly known, promote revitalization and relaxation and a provide relief from a vast array of medical conditions, (the Spa lists sixteen), ranging from osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis to tendinitis, psoriasis, and urologic and gynecologic disease.

I did not have time to sample the spa treatments, but I took the literature and stored it with all the information I collected on Flegra Palace and Flegra Beach hotels. The information will be at my fingertips when I am fortunate enough to plan my next visit there.

For detailed information on both hotels, please visit www.flegra.gr, and for information on the Spa, visit https://dionisiou-realestate.com/pages/SPA-center_in_Loutra_Halkidiki/

ANTHEMUS SEA BEACH HOTEL AND SPA

“Suddenly, at my bedside,

was golden-sandaled Dawn.”

Sappho, Lyric Poet (630-612 to 570 BCE)

My room at the Anthemus Sea Beach Resort was actually a suite with a whirlpool, walk-in shower, large living, dining room, and my very own private swimming pool near the patio, reached through a floor to ceiling glass door. And each morning I was awakened by Dawn, standing by my bedside, wearing golden sandals.

Anthemus was my only stop on the lovely Elia Coast, on Sithonia, the second peninsula. It is noted for its Oriental Spa, named one of the world’s best by HolidayCheck, a leading travel website. During my stay there I luxuriated in the distinctive spa services and relaxed in a suite with my own whirlpool and swimming pool. When I walked into my suite, I knew that the gods had smiled upon me.

It was an easy drive from Kassandra to Sithonia. The views of the countryside do not prepare you for the beauty that greets you once you pull off the main road at your destination. I was greeted by a gurgling fountain marking the gateway to a very special oasis within.

Anthemus rests on a picturesque bay next to sandy beach and offers desirable seclusion for a most relaxing and rejuvenating holiday. There are 202 rooms and suites available for singles, couples, and families, all aesthetically pleasing. Guests have the choice of accommodations with a balcony or a veranda that provides direct access to a garden, and all rooms have breathtaking views of the sea or pinewoods. It is a hidden paradise.

There is not one, but three outdoor pools, including one for children, and one has an integrated Jacuzzi. If you choose to swim indoors, you will find a heated pool and a most unusual pool in a “cave room.” For guests who are invigorated by athletic activities, you can go scuba diving, play beach volleyball, work out in the fitness center, play golf, or go mountain biking or hiking. I chose to be sedentary and indulged myself in the oriental spa services.

Many people come to the Anthemus Sea Beach Hotel for the spa services because they are distinctively oriental and designed to promote relaxation and rejuvenation. How could one not be rejuvenated after a swim in the fresh water spool, a whirlpool soak with a jet massage, an hour long Lotus Harmony Massage by two therapists, a foot reflexology treatment, finished with a nap on a relaxing bed? It was a treat to be so pampered in the hands of these expertly trained relaxation therapists.

The choice between using my private pool and the beach was difficult, but I solved this by going to the beach in the afternoon and enjoying my pool in the evening when the music was soft and the lights dim. One evening I ordered a snack and it was delivered to the patio at poolside. Bliss.

Anthems’ personable sales manager, Sakis Gililoudis, was my host for a sumptuous dinner on the Roof Garden Restaurant especially prepared for us by Euripides Tzinopoulos, Executive Chef, who chose our menu for us at Mr. Gililoudis’ request. My entrée was a grilled sea bass that was the most flavorful I have ever enjoyed, pared with grilled vegetables and freshly baked bread. A glass of excellent white chardonnay completed the meal.

The following feast was prepared for us by Chef Evripidis and served by candlelight on the Roof Garden:

Starters:

Tartar from tuna fish with cucumber, tomato, fresh coriander and soya sauce

Dumplings filled with Feta cheese mousse, mint , dried tomatoes and olives with pomegranate syrup and pistachios

Salad:

Salad with honey melon, watermelon, goat cheese by Stathoris  from Athos, rocket and extra virgin olive oil dressing from Sithonia,

aged vinegar Gerovasileiou and molasses by Marianna

Main Courses:

Grilled black cod with mirin and miso (for Aurelia)

Shank from lamb with mint sauce and wine by Livadiotis (merlot-cabernet), bulgur wheat and mirepoix of vegetables (for Sakis Gililoudis )

 

The hotel opened in 1992 with sixty rooms and during the past decade, additional rooms were added for a total of two hundred and two. The largest percentage of guests—forty—come from Germany, fifteen per cent each are from Russia and the Balkan countries, and the rest are from Greece, the U.K., Scandinavia, and western Europe. Mr. Gililoudis estimated that there are ten to twelve flights daily between Germany and the Makedonia Airport in Thessaloniki, four or five from Russia, and three or four from England. The Makedonia airport is and easy ninety-five kilometer drive from the hotel.

If you are from the States and mistake the Anthemus Sea Beach Hotel and Spa for The Hamptons, the south fork of New York’s Long Island, you will be forgiven. Both are highly desirable locations distinguished by luxury, elegance, and serenity. They are so similar in atmosphere and amenities that the Anthemus Sea Beach Hotel could well be called “The Hamptons of Halkidiki.”

SKITES—AN EXOTIC GUEST HOUSE

“Other countries may offer you discoveries

in manners or lore or landscape; Greece                                                               offers you…the discovery of yourself.”

 

Lawrence Durrell, author

 

Before the final leg of my journey—the actual sail to Byzantium—I had lunch in a remote and secluded sanctuary that would have earned the approval of the Monks of Mt. Athos. In fact, at one point during the afternoon, I could imagine them chanting there. The hideaway is Skites, a guesthouse situated 650m next to the border of the monastic community of Mount Athos and 38km from the summit of the Holy Mountain. Despite its proximity to the town of Ouranopolis—it is within walking distance–Skites is really a world apart—a wonderful world apart. It is a place that promotes self-discovery.

 

I drove past Skites several times before I found it because there is no sign discernable from the road. After having lunch with my laid-back hosts, I concluded that this was deliberate. They chose not to advertise their presence, I reasoned, and most likely their guests enjoyed the anonymity as well.

Skites is a twenty-five room guest house whose clientele (mainly repeat guests) appear to be a very interesting collection of intellectuals, artists, writers, musicians, film directors, and unconventional-types who book well in advance to ensure they have their rooms for the next season.

One reviewer called Skites “a laid back Bohemian retreat” and another was totally smitten by its “understated charm,” and wrote with affection about its “fragrant gardens, pine-forested hills, and low-slung, camouflaged rooms.” Another reviewer, who is a frequent guest, summed it up quite well: 
“Skites is beautiful, tranquil and charming. It provides serenity, peace, stunning scenery, sunsets and a caring staff. It is a great place to ‘get away from it all’ and to recharge.” It is also a wonderful place for introspection.

These are lovely descriptions of what Skites is, but I can tell you what it is not. It is not for the bourgeois.

The local lore is that a visionary, a woman named Pola Bohn discovered the secluded beach area, which is said to be “in the shadow of Mt. Athos,” sometime In the 1960’s. It was not until 1989 that the house opened to its first guests, who traveled a rough, unpaved road well off the so-called beaten path to stay there. It is run today by Mrs. Bohn’s daughter, Karin Bohn, and her companion Dimitri Panagiotidis . The road is still unpaved, and I think, somehow, the ambiance found in getting there and staying there, would be diminished if it were paved.

Skites is a collection of low level cottages surrounded by fragrant gardens; one has to walk across the dirt road to get to the pool and pebble beach. Once you have crossed the road, however, a totally new world is before you; the placid sea beckons. Skites also has an exotic personality. Karen grew up in Morocco and eye-catching artifacts from this country are found throughout the main house, with a lovely chandelier as a focal point. The furnishings are an eclectic collection of curtains and linens from local farmhouses, candelabras said to be from a monastery on Mt. Athos, beautiful, hand-made driftwood sculptures, and foreign, wood-carved works of art that must be Moroccan.   Here are two added attractions: the beach bar is said to be “magical” at sunset and by moonlight, and in summer guests enjoy poetry readings and chamber concerts by the pool. It is most likely the only guest house in all of Greece where the musicians come to you to play their music.

 

It was in this intriguing, unconventional setting that I relaxed with Karen and Dimitri for a delicious lunch of Greek specialties especially prepared for the three of us the by chef, Giannis Saris, who studied in Greece and in Holland. I am not a food writer, so I will simply list what Chef Saris prepared for us and I apologize if your mouth begins to water.

 

Spinach Gratin with a hidden garden Mint Aroma

 

Fried Tomato Balls in a splash of fresh Greek Yoghurt

 

Polpete of locally fished Octopus 

 

Sea Potato Nest

 

Sesame Feta folded in Pine Tree Honey

 

Our Garden Veg Selections, completed in white Layers, “Baksevana” 

 

Spicy Feta Variaty in Veg & Herb Aroma Combinations,

 

Aftered a Slow Oven Roast

 

The Skites guest house is not for those who want all the amenities of a five-star resort, but if you like the exotic, reflected in the setting, atmosphere, cuisine, type of guest and personality of the owners, then Skites is definitely for you. Magic awaits you on that long, winding and rather bumpy unpaved road.

 

EAGLES PALACE

“Or set upon a golden bough to sing…..

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

 

W.B. Yeats

Sailing to Byzantium

 

As I neared my destination, I could imagine the Monks singing, and was thrilled by the anticipation of what was to come—being as close as possible to their sacred home. I had read so much about Mt. Athos and the lives of the Monks and envied their tranquility. I would not be able to set foot on the Holy Mountain, as it is forbidden for women, but I would be able to sail into the sea below and gaze at the ancient monasteries when the boat stopped by the marker of the Byzantine Cross.

Once again the gods had smiled upon me and I would be staying in the Eagles Palace Hotel, an elegant, award-winning, five-star luxury hotel on the Athos Peninsula. Halkidiki’s Peninsulas are sometimes called “Poseidon’s Trident,” after the god of the sea. Some consider Athos, the third finger, to be the most stunning peninsula not only in Halkidiki, but in all of Greece. It certainly took my breath away.

 

The Eagles Palace Hotel is as splendid as the Peninsula, with spacious rooms and suites, large balconies, amazing views, beautiful pools, a first-class spa, and extraordinary, personalized service. The hotel’s cuisine and wine are taken so seriously that there are special events throughout the year celebrating the distinctive fare and excellent “fruit of the vine.” The wine cellar has an extensive collection of extra ordinary wines and I doubt if you will find a more thoughtfully assembled collection in all of Halkidiki.

One with the environment, the hotel is surrounded by verdant hillsides and azure seas whose gentle waves lap a sandy beach. A stroll through the gardens will reward you with the refreshing scent of pine trees and the lovely fragrance of flowers and herbs. The area surrounding this five-star hotel combines the golden beach, crystal clear seas, green clad hillsides and, of course, the mystical Mount Athos itself, just two and a half miles away. Extensive gardens filled with olive, palm and pine trees, and beautiful flowers and herbs surround the hotel.

The hotel has eighty-nine rooms and seventy-two bungalows aptly classified as “luxury;” some have private pools.   I stayed in a luxury suite with a balcony where I enjoyed afternoon tea and a glass of wine in the evening. It was simply gorgeous with a beautiful, mountain view.

Eagles Palace is very near the Village of Ouranoupolis, where pilgrims board the boat for their spiritual journey to Mt. Athos. Tickets are required for the three and a half-hour round trip and those who are privileged to actually stay at the Monastery must have a Diamonitirio, a written authorization for which one must apply well in advance.

Ouranoupolis sits at the top of the Mt. Athos Peninsula and is the gateway to the ancient monasteries. In English, the name of the village translates as “the City of Heaven.” Upon arrival at the port, pilgrims are greeted by the imposing Tower of Andronikos. Lonely as a sentry, it guards the port and was once used as a watchtower for protection from Pirates.

Even if you do not plan to take the boat trip to the monasteries, Ouranoupolis is well worth the visit. It is a bustling place with traditional fish tavernas, souvenir shops galore, and beachfront cafes offering perfect views for watching the sunset.

Back to the hotel. Eagles Palace has one of the best “spa worlds” in Greece and has won numerous awards.   The services offered are exceptional; I can attest to experiencing total relaxation and rejuvenation after a series of spa treatments, which included time spent in the haman and sauna, a soak in the warm waters of the therapeutic pool, and a massage in the hands of specialists. Guests may choose from a variety of “packages,” including beauty treatments that could well keep you in the spa’s serene sanctuary from morning until night. Beauty products are provided by Elemis, the leading British company in spa treatment, known as “best Day Spa in the world.”

For your dining pleasure there are four excellent restaurants from which to choose, including Melathron, an a-la-carte, in-door, out-door restaurant for breakfast and dinner; Kamares, for creative Mediterranean cuisine; Armyra, where fresh seafood is served; and Washi, featuring Asian cuisine. There are also four bars for either a relaxing drink or stimulating entertainment and these are Ammos, a beach bar; Armyra Pool Bar; the Eagles Café, a casual place to relax; and Eagles Club with occasionally live music.

The Eagles Palace is hugely popular as a conference or convention site for firms based in Greece and also for international organizations that require the hotel’s state-of-the-art technical equipment. As few as ten and as many as two hundred and twenty conference goers can be accommodated.

Last but not least, Eagles Palace has the infrastructure and the experience to provide unique VIP & Executive luxury services to its prominent clients, including private trips to hardly ever visited Monasteries at Mount Athos. The offer of private trips to the rarely visited monasteries is a unique and highly prized offering of Eagles Palace.

Which brings me to the highlight of my visit at Eagles Palace—something that for me was both unique and highly prized– the opportunity to meet and spend time with Olga Mouratidou, the concierge who the famous writer, Michael Lewis, credited with being “the single most helpful hotel employee I have every met.” (Before continuing with background information on this statement, I hereby second Mr. Lewis’ kudos.)

Mr. Lewis came to write a story about Mt. Athos and had permission to stay at the Vatopaidi monastery as an overnight guest.   When he explained the details of his pilgrimage to Ms. Mouratidou, she gave him reading material and offered advice on what he should take with him. She gave him not one, but “a stack of books” on Vatopaidi and suggested that he leave his wheelie filled with his worldly possessions at the hotel. (“You won’t need these,” she said of his lap top and cell phone.) It appears that he took her sage advice because he reported that on the boat ride to his destination, he carried only “an Eagles Palace plastic laundry bag with spare underwear, a toothbrush, and a bottle of Ambien.”

 

When I recall my wonderful days at Eagles Palace, I will always remember Olga Mouratidou. She was the one who greeted me upon arrival when I entered the lobby frazzled from the drive there during which I lost my way several times. She took me to a quiet corner of the lobby, ordered a pot of very hot and very fresh tea, and told me the check-in details could wait until I was relaxed. Within minutes, the tea, the atmosphere, and Ms. Mouratidou’s company totally soothed me. I was ready to see my room (gorgeous with a private balcony) and anxious to tour the hotel and its grounds (stunning in all respects). That night my hostess and I met for dinner after I had spent a very pleasant hour in the wine cellar with Christos Fragotsinos, Assistant Operations Manager, who has studied oenology for the past decade. The wine cellar stocked by Mr. Fragotsinos is unique in all of Greece and has many varietals that cannot be found elsewhere. The collection holds more than one hundred twenty-five bottles; most are from Greece, with others from France, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, and Chili.

That evening, Olga (we were on a first name basis by then) and I had a lovely, light dinner of fresh fish and grilled vegetables expertly prepared by the Executive Chef, Illas Gotsis, and wine selected personally by Christos. (After an hour in Christos’ wine cellar sampling wines he chose for me, I was now on a first name basis with him as well.)

“Happy is the man, I thought, (or woman—my insertion) who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean sea.”

 

―                               Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

 

It was now time for me to prepare for the journey that until this time had seemed unimaginable. I was about to embark for the sail to Byzantium, and I was mentally and psychologically prepared. During the stays at the seven hotels, I sought and found serenity and through meditation and relaxation, I managed to live each day in the present, as those who have achieved serenity advise. Above all, I consciously embraced the tranquility offered by all my hosts.

Olga did not prepare an overnight bag for me because not only would I not be staying overnight, I would not be setting my feminine foot on the Monastery’s grounds. She did arrange, however, for tickets for the boat trip and for a private ride to and from the dock in Ouranoupolis. As I boarded the boat for the three hour round trip, women on the shore were either chanting or praying loudly, but otherwise the mood was somber. Passengers included men and women of all ages and nationalities, a few Greek Orthodox priests, and a gaggle of extremely excited school children guarded by a very young priest who fluctuated between admonishing his wards every few minutes and talking on his cell phone (I joked with a fellow passenger that I thought the priest was calling for help.)

For the first hour, we passed a coastline that was mainly barren, except for rugged rocks and weathered, ancient Chestnut trees (if only their rings could reveal the past). The mountain was 2,039m tall at its highest point, according to the guide book sold on board; it is wild and rugged and stunning to the eye. The first monasteries come into view suddenly and dramatically and are literally in the middle of nothing. They are a spectacular array of buildings that must have been absolutely splendid in their day. Up close, one would likely see remnants of Byzantine ornamentation and grandeur, but from a distance, they were simply imposing structures holding never-to-be-revealed secrets.

The boat approached the Byzantine Cross that marked the boundary between today’s world and glorious Byzantium of a thousand years ago and dropped anchor.   The cross is also a boundary between the myth and history of the past and the protected, mysterious present. I found a secluded spot at the ship’s bow and blocked everything else out. I was very much in the present. My ears heard the chanting of the monks; I envisioned them praying, working, and sleeping; I tasted the honey they spread on their bread; I inhaled the scent of the herbs from their gardens; and I felt the powerful vitality surrounding the boat. I was alone at the bow and the energy from the Holy Mountain enveloped me. I did not need to step ashore. I had reached my journey’s end. . . .

“And therefore I have sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium.”

 

W.B. Yeats

Sailing to Byzantium

 

 

 

                                    TELOS