While reclining on the private veranda of our Sani Beach suite, my wife and I, skin-blushed and blissfully relaxed after a memorable family beach day, joke about how the setting of the sun over the Aegean Sea is akin to our son’s smudge paintings. Vivid pinks, greens, yellows and oranges lazily blur.
Armed with a glass of locally produced red wine, we kick back ahead of a meal – prepared by a two-Michelin starred Grand chef – at Water, one of a cluster of top-quality restaurants close to the complex’s marina, just a short shuttle-buggy ride away.
From inside we can hear two-year-old Freddie happily squawking words of a favourite book to his babysitter, who is winding him down for bed. This is a perfect snapshot of Sani, a resort in northern Greece which, once unearthed, is treasured by parents and children alike.
Indeed, a whopping 40 per cent of Sani’s clientele are returnees (some notching up more than 30 visits), and there is something pleasingly cultish about it. But what makes it so very special?
New parents inevitably blunder into a number of holiday boobytraps. Initially, it is a shock to have to pack up and lug the kiddy circus: highchair, child seat, buggy, food, nappies, clothes, and enough noisy toys and stuffed animals to open a branch of Mothercare.
Additionally, you may have to contend with lengthy, meltdown-inducing flights, inadequate hire cars and sub-optimal cuisine and entertainment options, for both youngsters and their weary folks.
And one common mistake is to continue as if still offspring-less, selecting vacation destinations without a fleeting thought about suitability for little ones.
Take it from me: a one-room villa at a luxury resort in the Caribbean – replete with a sea view, an infinity pool, and al fresco bathroom facilities – can be an unmitigated disaster. It’s something of a fun-killer to be constnatly riddled with anxiety about your child’s safety, coupled with the silence and lights-out at 7pm, so our son could slumber in his travel cot.
Similarly, holidays organised with fellow parents are appealing in theory; though in practice such trips rely on everyone pulling their weight equally, which seldom happens and can often fuel resentment and splinter relationships.
In sum, if the elements are not quite right, holidays with kids can be so stressful they leave you more frazzled than refreshed. The winning formula, for all the family, can take years to discover.
This frustrating trial-and-error process propels us to Sani: a truly unique five-star resort in Halkidiki, a 45-minute private transfer from Thessaloniki airport, which is reached in less than three hours from London Gatwick by British Airways.
Sani has been making life incredibly easy for holidaying parents since the mid-1960s, when the undeveloped land was acquired from monks. Here mums and dads are – rejoice! – afforded the time and space to enjoy a proper break, in sumptuous style, and energy levels depleted by parenthood have a rare chance to be replenished.
The family-owned ecological reserve spans a colossal 1,000 acres, and has been lovingly crafted over the last half century, with affluent, active parents in mind. The plentiful facilities – indoor and outdoor heated pools, fitness centres, spas, tennis courts, bike trails, crèches, kids clubs and much more – are of exceptional quality, and bettered only by the service provided by cheery staff who genuinely want to make your stay as pleasing as possible.
Further, an exhaustive number of activities (paddle-board yoga, sunset cruises, large-scale live musical productions, themed parties, children’s discos, et cetera) ensures there really is something for everyone. And Sani Resort’s handy, handsome smartphone app – new for 2016 – allows guests to scroll through daily schedules and make dinner reservations.
Those on full- and half-board deals are encouraged to take advantage of the resort’s ‘dine around’ programme, and tuck in to copious three-course set menus spanning Greek, Italian and Asian cuisines. There is even a caviar restaurant, geared towards Russian visitors, and also adult-only eateries, including Jacques Chibois’s aforementioned Water.
For those whose goal is to simply relax between gourmet meals there are six golden beaches, each framed by the Aegean’s crystal-clear waters and pine forests, to sample. At nine kilometres long, and with a gentle incline into the water making it ideal for paddling toddlers, Bousoulas, a five-minute stroll from Sani Beach, was our favourite.
Bousoulas is also where the weekly ‘White Nights’ beach party – complete with lasers, fire lanterns, DJs and enthusiastic masquerading dancers – takes place. It’s not one to miss, and you may wish to book a babysitter (for around €10 an hour).
Another big plus is that buckets and spades, balls and bats, and so on, are provided gratis. And the wonderfully named ‘Babewatch’ service permits parents to leave their little ones with on-beach carers for 30 minutes, free of charge. Even The Hoff wouldn’t scoff at that.
From next summer guests will be able to choose to be accommodated in one of five Sani Resort locations, each with a distinctive vibe. Sani Club, the oldest, having opened in 1968, offers generous bungalows to the south of the impressive marina – packed not only with rows of multimillionaires’ yachts but also 24 high-end shops and 10 bars and restaurants – which are discrete and refined. Notably, €15 million is to be spent in the off-season to further upgrade Sani Club.
At the opposite end of the marina stands Sani Beach a lavish and vibrant hotel that was established in 1984. Elsewhere the Porto Sani has a more open layout but relaxed feel. Sani Asterias, which was added in 2003, comprises seven 500sqm villas, and is the most exclusive of the Sani Resort collection.
During my stay in late September, I was shown the site of Sani Dunes, an adult-friendly beachfront destination next to the marina which will be built this winter at a cost of €30 million.
It promises to offer sophisticated getaways for couples and families with older children – guests have to be aged upwards of 12 – from June 2017. Accompanying dance, football and sailing academies will also be introduced next summer.
With Freddie just two, we have a fair wait before we can qualify to stay at Sani Dunes. Regardless, we’re already saving up for next summer’s trip to Sani, having finally – and thankfully – cracked the code to an A-star family holiday.