"My family is happy when I cook," confides Loulou Alexiadou as she dips two arms of an octopus into flour, shakes them gently, then places them in a pan sizzling with olive oil, garlic and white wine.
It's one of the chef's signature dishes — octopus with honey and figs, and the aroma is tantalizing, especially after a morning hike around ancient Stagira — the birthplace of Aristotle. When I take my first bite, I wish for a moment that I were part of Loulou's family here in the small village of Olympiada in northern Greece. But guests at her restaurant have it just as good.
"We don't do the French way, with a little piece of food in the middle of a plate," chuckles Dimitris Sarris, Loulou's brother, as he carries more dishes from the kitchen. A bowl brimming with fat mussels, a salad of tender greens and dill, and a platter of vegetable patties made with feta cheese, fragrant herbs and the last of the summer's zucchini grace the table.
Loulou and Dimitris are the fourth generation to run the family business, comprised of two hotels and the restaurant Akroyiali. Loulou's home-style cooking, Olympiada's seclusion — it's a two hour drive from the closest city of Thessaloniki — and the recliners on the beach out front are so tempting that I'm inclined to cancel my plans and stay right here. Lots of guests do.
However the rest of Halkidiki beckons, so when I can't eat another bite, I point my stomach to the door and leave before my resolve weakens.
On a map, Halkidiki looks a bit like that octopus I ate. But instead of eight arms, it has just three, which dangle into the Aegean Sea from the main body — a mountainous landscape covered in olive groves, Aleppo pine forests, and heather.
In mid-October I've missed the pink and purple heather blossom by a couple weeks, but the honeybees are still hard at work. "It's the second blossom," explains Chris Serafeimidis, the naturalist at the Sani Resort on the Kassandra peninsula, as we walk past a dozen or more beehives on our way to the Sani Wetlands.
The 110-hectare wetlands are an important stopover for migratory birds on their way from Europe to Africa for the winter. "In the 1960s it was a huge swampland infected with malaria," Serafeimidis tells me. "Now, 270 species can be found here. We have some clients who come just to watch the birds in May and September."
The purple herons, black stork and other migratory birds have come and gone, but we enjoy an aerial display of common starlings over Lake Stavronikita before dusk descends.
It may be fall but it still feels like summer. The next day the temperature climbs to 30 degrees and I'm grateful for the shade of the pine forest as I hike the Koutsoupia-Siviri Trail between Sani Resort and Siviri village, a 10-kilometre return trip.
The trail hugs a cliff edge most of the way offering non-stop views that are nothing short of amazing. The placid sea spreads out below in multiple shades of blue. When I reach Siviri, I have the sandy beach almost to myself, which is probably a good thing since I forgot my bathing suit. But who could resist a dip here au naturel? Not me.
The most remote of the three peninsulas of Halkidiki is Mount Athos. The bottom half of the peninsula — nicknamed the Holy Mountain — has been a self-governing monastic community since the ninth century. Today, 20 monasteries with 2,200 monks continue to thrive. Going on a pilgrimage here is like going back in time, back to the roots of Orthodox Christianity with its Byzantine architecture, rare icons, gold objects, priceless art and precious manuscripts.
There's just one problem: Only men are allowed on Mount Athos; women have been banned since 1046. A three-hour boat trip will have to suffice. But it's hard to appreciate architecture from half a kilometre away — the distance that boats carrying women must stay — and the landscape itself is a bit of a letdown. It's entirely possible I'm just grumpy about being denied access, but I want dramatic skies and clouds that reach down from the heavens, not sunshine and whirling seagulls.
When the boat turns to go back to port, my mood changes almost as quickly as our direction. I hear music; the sound of an electric piano rises over the boat's engines and a man sings. A few Greek women get up to dance, arms entwined. Soon, more join in, stepping in unison, smiling and laughing as they keep pace to the music. The rest of us get up to watch and applaud. It's not quite My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but close enough. The Holy Mountain fades pleasantly out of sight and out of mind.
If you go:
Fly: Aegean Airlines flies from numerous European cities to Athens and from there to Thessaloniki. It was named Best Regional Airline in Europe in 2014. www.en.aegeanair.com.
Stay: Sani Resort (sani-resort.com/en_GB) is on the ocean and in a 486-hectare ecological reserve on the Kassandra peninsula.
Eat: In Olympiada, Chef Louloudia Alexiadis of Restaurant Akroyiali, gives cooking demonstrations once weekly on request.
Activities: Sani Resort has a long beachfront for swimming, as well as walking and cycling trails, tennis courts and a PADI-certified scuba diving centre. Bird watching tours in the adjacent Sani Wetlands are offered daily by their in-house naturalist. The Koutsoupi-Siviri hiking trail begins at the Sani Beach Club.
Half-day boat tours of Mount Athos are offered by Athos Sea Cruises (athos-cruises.gr) for 20 Euros pp from the port town of Ouranoupoli.