CULTURE

Getting the best of both worlds on the island of Ammouliani

The first time I visited Ammouliani, years and years ago, it had just a handful of hotels, tavernas and bars. There was little to choose from and the small island mostly catered to families looking for a quiet vacation.

Today Ammouliani has taken off, with locals boasting that it has become the “Myconos of Halkidiki,” as numerous hotels, eateries and nightlife venues have sprung up across the tiny island off the northwestern coast of the Mount Athos peninsula of Halkidiki in northern Greece.

Most Greek and foreign visitors to Halkidiki, a popular destination, don’t know Ammouliani exists, but for the residents of Thessaloniki in general and Halkidiki in particular, it is a well-guarded secret.

Ammouliani is Halkidiki’s only inhabited island and just one of two in the entire region of Macedonia; Thasos is the second. Administratively it belongs to the Municipality of Stagira and Akanthos, and it is connected to the mainland by small boats that make daily runs in summer as well as winter.

The mass tourism that has robbed many other parts of Halkidiki of its innocence, so to speak, has left Ammouliani mostly untouched, and its residents are warm and welcoming, unlike many of their jaded counterparts in busier resorts.

Ammouliani may not be Greece’s most beautiful island but it is pretty in its own low-key way even though its charms may not suit everyone. As its name suggests (“ammos” means sand in Greek) the island’s coastline consists mainly of a succession of sandy coves with shallow azure waters.

The island is reached from the port of Trypiti, where there are regular ferry crossings. The boat trip takes just 15 minutes. Trypiti lies just before Ouranoupoli, which is 120 kilometers from Thessaloniki. For more information, you can call the Ierissos Port Authority on 23770.22.666 or log on to www.ierissos.gr.

Ammouliani has an area of just 4.5 square kilometers, which means that getting around is very easy and you don’t really need a car. Other than its beaches, the island comprises gentle hills, valleys and olive groves, and the fact is that in this tiny area you can get more or less everything you need. It is also an island that is affordable.

The residents of Ammouliani live mostly off fishing and tourism, which in the summer sees the population swell from 600 (permanent residents) to more than 5,000.

Up until 1925, Ammouliani was a dependency of the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos. A handful of monks, assisted by laborers, were in charge of cultivating fields, looking after the livestock and collecting olives on the island. The Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22, however, compelled the monastery to cede the island to the state in 1925 so that it could become a settlement for refugees from Asia Minor.

Landmarks that have survived from the island’s otherwise rather uneventful history include a small shipyard that was used to dry-dock and maintain fishing boats and was also used as a landing by the monks during bad weather, the Church of Aghios Nikolaos (dating to 1865), the local community club and an old school.

Don’t miss the opportunity to stroll around the island’s pretty main town, Hora, where you may run into Dimitris, who has been shuttling visitors to and from the port in his horse-drawn carriage for decades. Hora has an array of impressive courtyards and gardens that have grown resplendent with seasonal blooms since the island began getting water from the mainland via an underwater pipe rather than having to depend on shipments of fresh water.

There are a few tavernas serving traditional fare, though the best seafood is to be found at the port.

Ammouliani’s greatest attraction is its beaches. Most can be reached by bicycle or car, though there are a few that are accessible only by boat.

Alykes is on the far side of the island, facing Ouranoupoli on the mainland, and is one of Ammouliani’s prettiest beaches with fine white sand and crystal waters. It has loungers and umbrellas, a cantina and a cafe, while this is also the location of the island’s excellent campsite.

On the northern end of the island, the best beaches are Ai-Giorgis – where you can find tavernas and rooms – as well as Megali Ammos – which has a taverna and a refreshment stand. Karagatsia, a golden sandy beach flanked by a forest of elm trees, offers welcome shade during the hotter months. Faka and Nisakia are also nice beaches, but can only be reached by a dirt road.

In the summer, a boat departs from Ammouliani’s port every day at noon for a tour of the island’s coastline, making several scheduled stops and returning at 6 p.m.

From Ammouliani you can also take day trips to Mount Athos (though women are not allowed in the monastic community) or to the Drenia islets, known by locals as Gaidouronisia, which is a small cluster that lie 2 nautical miles off Ouranoupoli.