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Short breaks: Greece

The sun's as hot, the sea's the same cool, translucent blue, and the general atmosphere is still...well...why rush? But this isn't the Greece that so many of us know and love.

Forget the all-action value holidays of Corfu, Zante, and Rhodes. Dispel  the urban bustle of Athens. Great fun, yes, as budget breaks, but maybe lacking a certain something?

Think instead of a totally different Greece:  stylish, luxurious, with first-class cuisine and wines. And, as a bonus, a glimpse of an almost hidden peninsula which draws some of the world's most powerful people.

We are in Thessalonika, the three fingers of land which jut into the Aegean in the north of the country. We land at a small regional airport and travel by minibus for two hours through rural villages to the most easterly finger.

But if the beginning of the trip is unprepossessing, our destination is  anything but: the five-star Eagles Palace Hotel  & Spa is, officially, a Small Luxury  Hotel of the World, and it's immediately clear why  - all expensive marble and slate design, art and antiques, beautiful  bedrooms, and the kind of guest nibbles that don't turn up in your average taverna.

It's fitting that this is the hospitality peak of a family tradition that began almost a century ago, in 1925, when tobacco trader Konstantinos Tornivoukas opened the first luxury hotel in the city of Thessaloniki (where the airport now is).

His son opened the Eagles Palace in 1973, and his grandson, also Konstantinos, and his wife, Lena, have run it since 1999, constantly improving it, with a full refurbishment as recently as last winter.

The hotel offers 164 rooms, suites and bungalows, some with private pools, perfect for guests seeking more privacy. (One is named Maria Callas in honour of a celebrity visitor.)

We're happy to be out in public, taking advantage of the four different restaurants and four bars.  Again, any preconceptions of moussaka, souvlaki, and feta have to be put aside, with the chefs producing exquisite plates of sea bass, squid, octopus, local fish Ubrina, and salads of delicate vegetables and herbs. All washed down with some exceptional wine, made from Greek grapes.

Sated and refreshed, next on the agenda is use of the superb facilities at the Eagles Palace. Hard to ignore the beach, but just next to it - for the less adventurous - is a large seawater pool and a children's pool, surrounded by teeming Mediterranean gardens.

For the more adventurous, there is a watersports  and  diving centre. Sea kayaking, mountain biking, tennis, sailing and gym work are also catered for.

And if the dining and exercise don't leave you needing a siesta, you can relax further in the Elemis spa, which provides a full range of therapeutic massages, exotic spa treatments, or a simple sauna or hammam.

In short, we could have spent our break without leaving the sumptuous embrace of the Eagles Palace. But a special, intriguing extra lies just up the coast. It's best seen by boat, although the unique qualities and rules of the area mean you can't get too close.

This is Mount Athos, a centre of Orthodox Christianity for almost a millennium, and now a Unesco world heritage site.  Covering an area of just over 33,000 hectares, the Holy Mountain still has 20 monasteries, occupied by 1400 monks...and  vast wealth in the shape of precious icons, gold objects, embroideries, and illuminated manuscripts. Anecdotally, we're told, when the Greek economy collapsed, Mount Athos was completely detached from the crisis.

It is a state separate from Greece, with its own legislature: all children and women are banned, even female animal and insect species.  But rich and powerful men are welcome: the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince of Wales are officially friends of Mount Athos, and Vladimir Putin is known to have made many trips.

We didn't visit, since there were females in our party, and the vetting for male visitors is rigorous, but even sight-seeing from offshore provoked a lengthy debate about politics/religion/sexism/economics.

None of which would automatically be prompted by a beach holiday on a Greek island. But then, as noted at the start, Thessalonika is very different. And all the better for it.

For more information on the Eagles Palace Hotel  & Spa, go here

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