I’ll admit it upfront: Halkidiki had never been top of my list of must-go destinations. My impression of this curiously-shaped region in north-east Greece, (gathered, admittedly, from a misspent youth reading Thomson holiday brochures instead of The Famous Five), was of huge package hotels and organised beaches – not at all the informal, chic, lazy Greece that I love.
How misleading impressions can be. Through my job, I came across Eagles, home to one of Scott Dunn’s kids clubs. Situated on Halkidiki’s third and most easterly ‘finger’, Mt Athos, just outside the small Byzantine town of Ouranopolis, Eagles is far away, physically and spiritually, from Kassandra, the peninsula nearest to the airport at Thessaloniki that (I found out) is home to almost all the tourist development. There’s good reason why the serenity here is how it is, and will never change: the majority of the peninsula is given over to monasteries – 20 of them – and is governed autonomously from the rest of Greece by the theocracy.
So far so good. But why come here for a family holiday, as opposed to a romantic escape? The answer, as I found out this summer, is simple: Eagles is the Med as it should be – with an added, very welcome dose of luxury. A holiday here is about stripping things back and reveling in the pure joy of a glorious beach, crystal-clear sea, mesmerising views and glorious sunsets, whilst enjoying all the comforts of a five star hotel. It’s about not really moving very far, developing a new, soporific routine and occasionally – just occasionally – punctuating the lethargy with an activity (Spa! Boat trip!). Importantly, it’s about keeping the kids as busy as you chill, with the help of the kids club. And it’s about enjoying truly genuine hospitality that reminds you how much it’s missing from so many places.
Let me talk first more about that beach. It really is a stunner: a strand of fine white sand that stretches for miles in either direction and shelves so gently that tots, like my youngest son Rufus (3), can paddle and play without fear (whilst bigger kids float blissfully on inflatables).
Walk along the beach away from the hotel (which my wife and I did every day in our kid-free time) and you will have the coastline to yourself – inconceivable for the Med in the middle of August.
There’s never a fight for a lounger, you’re pretty much guaranteed front-row if you want it. There’s a relaxed beachfront taverna, Almyra, for a long lunch of BBQ prawns and that essential Greek salad. And perhaps best of all, there’s a buzzer on every parasol to call for drinks service; like giddy kids, my wife and I fought to be the one to press it to request our pre-lunch Aperol Spritz each day. What fun.
Then there’s the water. Wow, wow, wow. So still, so blue, so clear; the only place I had experienced water like it was in Croatia. Swimming out to the pontoon and back was a joy and became a daily event. Making the most of the calm waters, our eldest two, Ginny (6) and Leo (9), spent 3 hours each day on Eagles’ ingenious watersports taster course, Aqua Explorers. They tried their hand at paddle boarding, kayaking, snorkelling and waterskiing; and the afternoon breeze whipped up just enough each day for a bit of sailing.
With sea this enticing, taking a boat out is de rigeur, even for non-sailors like my wife and I. In 10 minutes, the helpful guys at the watersports hut taught me how to pilot (and park) a little motor boat and I was proudly whisking the family off for a morning exploring the intriguing and unspoiled islands of Drenia and Ammouliani, just 15 minutes away.
As nice as the beach and water are, you (or your kids) always reach the point of retreat (Too hot! Too sandy! Too wet!), and that’s where the luxury of good accommodation comes in. The hotel offers plenty of options for families, including family rooms (with sliding partition) and two-bedroom beachfront bungalows. We, however, were staying in the newly-opened Eagles Villas. Constructed up the hill behind the hotel of Eagles Palace, the villas offer privacy, space and cool design in equal measure; if you can afford them, they are undoubtedly the ones to go for. We stayed in a one-bedroom villa which comfortably fitted all five of us (although had Rufus not been in a cot we would have needed a two-bed). Our favourite ‘villa moment’ each day was enjoying a glass of Halkidiki rose by our private pool, watching the sunset as the kids splashed happily about: another holiday ritual which, for me, sums up what a Med holiday is all about.
A beautiful room doubtless helps make a holiday more comfortable, but, as ever, it’s the people you meet, and service you receive, that you stick with you and make you feel happy. And it’s in this department that Eagles really stands out. The welcome here is so warm that it’s like being given a great, big, fat Greek hug. The resort is family-owned and run, with many long-serving staff, and their pride in the place shines brightly through. You get the sense that the staff really appreciate how special the place is and they have a genuine desire for their guests to love it too. They also go far beyond a mere tolerance of kids; they actively engage with them (hats off to the golf buggy drivers who had countless ‘chats’ with our 3 year old).
I suppose, in summary, I should qualify the title I have given this review. Eagles is the Med as I think it should be. For some families, a holiday at Eagles, or indeed in this part of Greece, wouldn’t be right. It’s quiet. There are no waterparks or ‘attractions’; no lively resorts (the nearby town of Ouranopolis is pleasant enough but won’t occupy you for long); and it’s a long-ish drive from the airport (about 90 minutes). But for me, and my family, this is what make Eagles a real gem. For us, Eagles was a place to simplify our busy and fragmented lives, sink into a new holiday routine, and enjoy the Med basics of sand, sea and sun, done so, so well. We can’t wait for our next big Eagles hug.