The beautiful island of Halkidiki
We had been intrigued by the story of Drenia, where goats who were considered beyond any use to humans and too old to eat were taken to die – with just a single tree and hundreds of nesting seagulls for company.
Against all odds the goats not only survived but thrived – and we decided we should visit them and pay them our respects.
The voyage had been going well despite the Mpoukadoúra (pronounced moo-ka-doo-rah) – the hot wind which whips up the surface of the translucent green sea late each afternoon.
I headed for an idyllic sandy cove with crystalline waters where another boat had moored and where, I could just make out, an elderly couple were sunbathing. Just as I slowed the engine and aimed for the beach my wife shrieked “Stop! Turn away!” Fearing a sudden foundering on some unseen danger I turned sharply right.
“What’s wrong?” I yelled. “They’re naked,” came the reply, followed by shrieks of laughter from my kids.
Their mirth was matched by my growing panic as we suddenly had rocks either side of us. So, faced with risking drowning my family in a shipwreck (not to mention the repair bills if I survived) or heading for the safety of the white sandy beach, I ended up doing a complete circle before crash-landing on the beach, with the couple scrambling to put some clothes on as we fell out of the boat next to theirs.
Our sudden arrival… then departure… then arrival again had sadly ruined the Greek pair’s romantic idyll.
With everyone trying to regain their composure, we bade them a cheery English “good afternoon” as we strode past in search of the nearest goat, while the shaken couple decided their romantic tryst was over and headed back to the mainland.
Battling up the small cliff, weaving our way between perturbed seagulls and wild flowers and herbs, we were met with the welcome sight of goat.
PLACE OF WORSHIP: Osio Gregoriou Orthodox Christian monastery on Mount Athos
Drenia was strange and beautiful, wonderfully peaceful and unspoiled by humans – clothed or unclothed.
The island, where the only mammalian inhabitants were goats, seemed to follow a theme for this part of the world.
The day before, we had taken a sea cruise to observe the holy mountain and peninsula of Mount Athos, the intriguing self-governed Greek Orthodox republic of 130 sq miles – almost as big as the Isle Of Wight.
Here, no female of any species is allowed and men who wish to visit must apply at least three months before their intended date of arrival.
The borders are controlled by police and no one is allowed within 500m of the shore without permission.
ANDY’S CREW: Charlie, 13, and 12-year-old Eva on the motorboat hired by the family
It is currently home to approximately 2,000 monks who inhabit one of 20 monasteries and hermitages.
Despite the restrictions, the boat trip was fascinating and exploded my expectations that the monks would be living frugal existences on desolate rocky outcrops.
Instead, many of the dozen or so monasteries that we saw from our boat were, even from half a mile away, magnificent to the point of being ostentatious.
Perched, as many were, on the top of perilous cliffs and boasting towering Byzantine architecture, each could have made a perfect setting for a Harry Potter or James Bond movie.
Our imaginations were further pricked when the cruise guide listed some of the incredible treasures contained within these buildings. A room in one monastery is built of solid gold, we were told, and other monasteries contained priceless artefacts (including an ancient piece of timber said to be part of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified).
TASTEFUL: The interior of one of the many fine restaurants at the Eagles Palace Hotel
The seeming contradiction between the display of power and wealth (with treasures that are effectively hidden away from the rest of the world) and the supposed simple life to be closer to God left me desperate to find out more… which is, after all, what the best travel destinations do.
I had taken my family to Greece for a five-night stay during the school summer half-term holidays. We based ourselves in the serenity of the exquisite Eagles Villas, a recent addition to the Eagles Palace Hotel in this particularly unspoiled region of Halkidiki on mainland Greece.
With spectacular, panoramic views across the coastline and nearby islands, the stylish luxury villas sit on a hillside among aromatic Mediterranean gardens that are home to hundreds of butterflies.
Our apartment was beautifully designed and gleaming in white tiles and glass, with a private pool, a kitchenette and an outdoor living/eating area.
The vista in all directions was stunning, from dawn until glorious sunset. The resort offered a wide choice of activities. On lazy days we sauntered down the hill and crossed a jasmine-scented bridge to the resort’s beach.
For variety we also enjoyed the jaw-dropping infinity pool at the top of the hill where we swam with swallows swooping overhead.
The resort had a gym and a beauty centre and spa, which offered a list of massages.
On more active days we sampled the watersports on offer at the beach hire shop.
The choice ranged from kayaks, pedalos and windsurfing to water-skiing, wake-surfing and jet-skiing.
Motorboats and sailing boats were also available for those wanting to explore neighbouring beaches, as we did for our voyage to Drenia.
SPIRITUAL HOME: One of the monks in Karyes, a settlement in the Orthodox centre of Mount Athos, wher
Trips were also available to the nearby bustling village of Ouranoupoli (the last frontier before the Mount Athos border). At the harbourside we enjoyed a glorious lunch of fresh fish, seafood and local delicacies at the Lemoniadas restaurant.
The village was also a handy place to buy wine and honey made by monks at Mount Athos.
Sampling local food and drinks became a common theme of the trip, aided by the incredible choice and quality of the Eagles resort’s restaurants. My children loved the Lofos at the top of the hill among the villas, with its varied buffet which meant they could choose their favourites and also try local delicacies.
The Armyra beachside tavern was a beautiful place to spend evenings, bathed in glorious golden sunsets, as we sampled freshly caught fish, squid and octopus and traditional Greek bites.
The Vinum Grill, set in palm tree gardens, was a high quality yet informal place for meat lovers.
ANCIENT CHARMS: The old tower by the beach at Nea Fokea in Kassandra, Halkidiki
We saved Kamares, a Michelinstar restaurant offering fine dining, until our last evening. Set on the terrace of the Eagles Palace overlooking the bay and lit with candles and lanterns hung from mature trees, it was a wonderfully romantic experience.
But we all agreed that our favourite was the less formal but magical Eleonas – a small Italian set among the resort’s hillside villas which served some of the best authentic pasta and pizzas we have ever tasted.
In an all-too-short stay, Eagles Villas, with its attentive and friendly staff, provided a relaxing and stimulating workout for the senses.
It offered relaxation, privacy and peace with injections of fascinating historic sites, treasure island explorations and diving off boats to keep our young family occupied… just perfect.
Sovereign offers seven nights at Eagles Villas from £1,489 (two sharing), B&B. Price inclues return flights from Gatwick to Thessaloniki.
Departs April 27. sovereign.com, 01293 832 459
Halkidiki tourism: visit-halkidiki.gr