(this article appeared in the April 1, 2001 edition of  The State newspaper, Columbia, SC)


      GREECE IS THE WORD


      By JAN COLLINS  Special to The State


      Most Americans visiting Greece fly to Athens, check out the Parthenon
      and perhaps the temple ruins at Delphi, and then tour the dazzling Greek islands.

      There is a sun-dappled, achingly lovely portion of northern Greece,
      however, that Americans haven't yet discovered. A three-pronged
      peninsula called Chalkidiki that is thrust into
      the northern part of the Aegean Sea, it is as charming as the
      better-known islands, minus the throngs of American tourists.

      Better still, a Columbia couple have built a whitewashed
      Mediterranean-style home on the central peninsula of Sithonia on
      a hill atop the village of Sarti, and are now operating
      Sarti-Vista, a dandy guest house with the six comfortable units
      that adjoin the house.

      Residents of Columbia since 1977, Isidore and Chichi Melekos
      (he is Greek-born; she is American) now live six months a year in
      South Carolina and six months (May through October) in Greece.

      My husband, Rosewood Elementary School Principal Ted Wachter,
      and I visited the Melekoses, former Rosewood School parents, for
      a week in June. We're already plotting our return.

      In Sarti

      Sarti, a traditional fishing and farming village about 100 miles
      southeast of the ancient city of Thessaloniki, could be reached
      only by boat until the 1960s, when good roads were built.
      Electricity and other amenities followed, but it wasn't until
      the 1980s that German and Eastern European tourists discovered
      the area's wide sandy beaches, pristine turquoise-hued bays, and
      excellent tavernas, where one can order calamari, octopus,
      shrimp, or the catch of the day, along with the traditional
      Greek souvlaki and gyro. There is also a wide variety of beef,
      lamb, pork, chicken, pasta, and pizza dishes.

      Isidore Melekos inherited some land in the hills above Sarti
      from his late father in the mid-1990s. The Columbia couple
      painstakingly built their house over the next few years, and are
      still putting finishing touches on the landscaping. The property
      features a large grove of venerable olive trees, which the
      couple has harvested each November.

      Each comfortable SartiVista unit has a private entrance, private
      bath with shower, kitchenette, queen-size bed (three units also
      have an additional single bed), and private balcony or patio
      looking down on the blue, blue Aegean and beautiful Mt. Athos
      across the bay. This mountain rises steeply from the sea to a
      height of 6,670 feet. The peninsula on which it sits is home to
      20 monasteries, some built as early as the 10th century and
      still inhabited by monks.

      Visitors - especially stressed-out, we-really-needed-a-vacation
      visitors - soon get to love the laid-back Mediterranean
      lifestyle. Breakfast, which is served to all guests, is not
      until midmorning (why becomes clear later), and might consist of
      omelettes, juice and coffee, and scrumptious Greek bread, or
      perhaps some wonderful Greek yogurt and fresh fruit.

      Then it's off to one of the area's lovely beaches, where
      catamarans can be rented or one can swim and snorkel in the
      astonishingly clear waters. Or, you might like to go
      sea-kayaking in one of the Melekos' well-equipped kayaks.

      They'll give you a basic lesson and tell you the best places to
      explore, including some fabulous rock formations and private
      sandy beaches and caves that can be reached only from the sea.

      You might shop in the town's small grocery stores for fresh
      produce, cheese, meat or fish, and cook your own lunch
      (accompanied by retsina, the ubiquitous Greek white wine), or
      try one of Sarti's many small restaurants and tavernas. Siestas
      are usually taken from 4 until 6 or 7 p.m., and then it's time
      for shopping for trinkets in town, where scarlet bougainvillea
      seem to spill from every window box. Or perhaps you'd prefer a
      walk on the beach.

      Dinner in Greece isn't taken until at least 9 p.m., and often
      continues until midnight or later (with more retsina and ouzo, a
      popular Greek liqueur). Greek music and sometimes dancing are
      often an accompaniment. And that's why breakfast the next day
      isn't until mid-morning.

      Cars can be rented in town for a reasonable price, and it's a
      good idea to have one. It's less than a five-minute drive into
      Sarti and its beach, but there are other spectacular beaches
      (including a beach for nude bathers) in the area.

      Excursions on the area's winding roads present glorious views of
      the wooded, wild countryside and the clear blue sea, and lead to
      several other interesting villages and towns that can be
      explored. There are also ancient Greek ruins nearby worth
      visiting.

      A half-day boat trip that takes you near the shores of Mt. Athos
      is also not to be missed. The thousand-year-old monasteries are
      architectural wonders to behold, and the three-hour round trip
      ride is a perfect way to enjoy the sparkling sea. (Women are not
      allowed on Mt. Athos, and men wanting to make a religious
      pilgrimage must have special, hard-to-get visas to visit. But
      the boats take you close enough for a good view.)

      For the adventurous, there are mule rides to the nearby
      mountains, and there is also a casino in the village of
      Marmaras, a one-hour drive from Sarti.

      Menu to order

      We were sold on Sarti on our first full evening there, when our
      friends took us to one of their favorite seaside tavernas at the
      end of a quiet dirt road.

      We were sitting at the water's edge, sipping retsina, when Vaso,
      the young waitress, came to take our order. "What's on the menu
      tonight?" Isidore asked the woman in Greek. "I'm not sure yet,"
      she replied. "My father is still fishing." With that, she
      whipped out her cell phone and told her dad that hungry patrons
      were waiting.

      A few minutes later, the boat chugged into the cove. Beaching
      his boat, Vaso's father jumped out, carrying a basket of his
      fresh catch. He invited us into the kitchen to choose our fish,
      which the cook promptly seasoned, grilled, and brought to our
      table. That serendipitous experience gave a new meaning to the
      term "fresh fish." And, yes, it was divine.

      It helps to have a native Greek speaker cut through red tape for
      you (in the village, more Greeks speak German than English), and
      Isidore does this with aplomb. Plus, he and Chichi are very
      interesting people who enjoy getting to know their guests and
      showing them around.

      Upon leaving Sarti, you can fly from Thessaloniki to Athens,
      then home or, if you like, on to the Greek islands.
      Alternatively, it's just a short flight from Thessaloniki (an
      attractive, interesting city in its own right) to exotic and
      wonderful Istanbul, Turkey. But that's another story.

      Jan K. Collins is a writer and editor based in Columbia.