There was only one place I wanted to go after Covid… other than my local pub of course.
When things felt completely bizarre and overwhelming, which to be honest has been for most of the last two years, I would close my eyes, take a deep breath and imagine myself lying on a beach in Greece. I longed for the blue haze of the Aegean, the cloudless sky, the whitewashed walls and that unique light that I have not known anywhere else on earth.
Since my first visit at the age of 16 Greece has been part of my heart and as the American writer Henry Miller wrote: “It takes a lifetime to discover Greece, but only a moment to fall in love with it”.
This would be my 15th trip back, but my first with two little ones in tow, so my vacation wish list looked very different: kids’ clubs instead of nightclubs; playgrounds over parties; Ice cream over ouzo.
Convenience was key so no island hopping for us. Instead, we booked early morning direct flights from Dublin to Thessaloniki with Ryanair, followed by a 45-minute transfer from the airport – which meant we were in our clothes at the pool by 3pm.
We stayed at the five star resort of Sani in Halkidiki, tucked away in the northeast corner of Greece. Greeks have been vacationing in Halkidiki for years, especially on the white sandy beaches reminiscent of the Maldives.
And if you’ve always dreamed of staying at one of these chic resorts in the Maldives, without having to endure the long-haul flights, Sani might just fit the bill. It consists of five hotels, of which Sani Beach, Sani Club and Porto Sani are the three most family-friendly.
Sani Dunes is perfect for couples or families with older children, while Sani Asterias caters to honeymooners and lottery winners with its southern French vibe.
All five properties are scattered along a 7 km stretch of white sand beach, set against a backdrop of a pine forest and overlooking the majestic Mount Olympus across the water. All are within a minute’s walk of each other, except for the Sani Club, which sits on the far edge of the bay and is accessible by shuttle bus from the other four hotels.
Sani Beach was our home for the week. We entered the beautiful lobby with an uninterrupted sea view to the choirs of “kalispera” (Hello). My shoulders immediately sagged. Soft drinks for the girls, an ice-cold flannel for me.
Relaxed, tanned parents strolled past us as if from another planet: in contrast to me, who wiped baby vomit from both shoulders with said washcloth…
Facilities and activities for children and teenagers are endless.
Our room was a Sea View Junior Suite: an open plan one room layout with a double bed, a couch that was converted into a single bed for Ellie and a crib for Grace. Tight quarters for a family of four but the balcony became our oasis when the girls went downstairs and with very little room to lounge around meant we had to pack up for the day after breakfast and didn’t come back until it was time to change for dinner. (Of course, there are different room types and sizes available depending on your budget.)
Due to the size of the resort, it takes a day or two to figure it all out. With the exception of the Asterias, you can use the facilities in all other four hotels. There’s stroller access everywhere, including boardwalks on the beach, making all of Sani extremely wheelchair-friendly too.
Facilities and activities for children and teenagers are endless. There’s the Rafa Nadal Tennis Centre, Chelsea Football Academy where you can sign up for the week or just a few practice sessions. At Bear Grylls Survival Academy you will learn everything from starting fires and building shelters to building and launching your own rafts. There’s ziplining, bike trails, jeep tours.
But as weary parents of two children under four, it wasn’t Bear Grylls Academy that taught us the art of holiday survival, it was the Sani Kids Club and crèche. The crèche accepts children from four months to four years and the mini club from four to 12 years.
We booked the daily sessions from 3pm to 6pm (€38 per child) which meant we could read our books, hit the gym, take a yoga class, share a bottle of wine and non-stop people watching.
As with most things from Sani, the Kids Club takes it a step further. Rather than being cooped up in perpetuity, groups of toddlers are spotted at the resort – having lunch on the beach, bird watching, enjoying a nature walk, a pool party with karaoke to finish. Ellie liked it so much that at breakfast she started asking when it was time to leave. In fact, the staff were so good with the children that I shamelessly tried to lure one of them back to Ireland to live with us… and cried openly when we had to say goodbye.
For those of us who feel the need to get out and explore, the Halkidiki region of Greece – and the Kassandra peninsula in particular – offers some incredible hiking trails. The next of these takes you to the wetlands of Nea Fokea, a protected forest and lake area that is home to over 50 percent of all of Greece’s native bird species. From there we continued to the archaeological site of Gerani, an excavation of pre-Hellenic ruins and tombs on a beautiful beach. The round trip took three hours in total.
For a slightly less strenuous day trip, a 20 minute drive took us to Afytos, a traditional mountain village with stone houses, cobbled streets and beautiful shady lanes. The views from the traditional tavernas and bars along the cliffs overlooking Toroneos Gulf are spectacular, as was the Greek food we enjoyed while watching the sunset.
And for more respite from the sweltering summer heat, there’s Petralona Cave and Museum, a 35-minute drive from Sani, at the foot of Mount Katsika.
Discovered by locals in 1959, the caves revealed ancient fossils of flora and fauna – and also a human skull which archaeologists have not yet been able to accurately date, but they believe dates to the middle Pleistocene, 300,000 to 600,000 years ago. It has since been moved to the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, but its replica is in the same place where it was found.
Back at Sani, there are 26 restaurants throughout the resort, ranging from the finest restaurants (with Michelin star chefs) to traditional Greek tavernas and beach bars for long leisurely lunches. A highlight for me were the menus designed by the renowned food expert Annabel Karmel with a focus on healthy dishes – which, in my opinion, compensate for the enormous ice cream consumption.
The 1,000-acre resort — surrounded by forests and wetlands — also takes its sustainability goals seriously, as the entire site is powered by renewable energy.
‘Repeat’ is generally not a word in my travel vocabulary, especially with so many sights to see and so much post-Covid catching up to do, but once again Greece has captured my heart and Sani has restored my sanity. We booked for next year before heading to the airport.
- Kathryn stayed at Sani Beach for three nights. Prices start from €235 per room per night in a Garden View Junior Suite in Sani Beach on a full board basis for a stay in April 2023, including the Easter holidays. First child stays free. Free airport transfer; Minimum stay of five nights. www.sani-resort.com
- Ryanair flies from Dublin to Thessaloniki on Mondays and Fridays from May to October, with fares from €180 return. ryanair.com
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/europe/kathryn-thomas-and-family-enjoy-a-greek-odyssey-in-halkidiki-41908188.html Kathryn Thomas and family enjoy a Greek odyssey in Halkidiki