Despite the shock of losing the U.S. tourists this year, there are places in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean that hardly seem to notice the total absence of visitors from the United States. Indeed the northern section of Greece bordering with Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, whose major seaport is Thessaloniki (Salonika to the British), seems to be almost unknown to U.S. visitors.
The Halkidiki Peninsula, which projects into the North Aegean Sea southeast of Thessaloniki, has become one of the major tourist areas for Europeans. Three sub peninsulas, Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos, dangle on south from Halkidiki like three fingers probing the sea. From England to the Balkans and Northern Greece the summer vacationers flock to this rapidly developing Riviera of the Aegean just an hour or two from Thessaloniki airport.The most comprehensive development in the entire Halkidiki peninsula is Porto Carras on the West Coast of the middle finger, Sithonia. The 5,000 acre development with seven miles of sea front is the creation of John Carras, at 80, the third generation to enjoy the fortune spawned by a once mighty Greek shipping concern. His father was the first Greek shipping magnate to add steam power to his largest sailing ships.
Mr. Carras began buying and draining the swampy real estate populated by rats and mosquitos in 1963. At the same time he imported wine experts from France and began to build up from scratch the Chateau Carras winery. This year it will sell 2.7 million bottles of its fine dry white, red, and rose wines. The vineyards sloping down the hillsides below Mr. Carras's magnificent villa, built atop his private acropolis, are only 10 to 16 minutes from the winery insuring no premature fermentation before the grapes reach the presses.
When, in 1970, John Carras was ready to transfer considerably more of his personal fortune from shipping to real estate development, he engaged the world renowned architect from Boston, Walter Gropius, to design the hotel complex that would grace his by now drained and landscaped property. An early proponent of the atrium concept, Mr. Gropius planned and supervised the early stages of the building of two stately hotels and a village inn with 1,000 rooms. Opened in 1980, the 2,000 beds at Porto Carras are almost entirely occupied from May to October, the occupancy nudging 95 percent in July and August. This season has been no exception to the success of the hotels.
Neos Marmaras, the nearby village made up of Greek refugees forced to leave their homes in Anatolia during the war with Turkey in the 1920s, boasted a population of 350 people in 1963, women, children, and old people. The young men had to go elsewhere to find work. Today there are 4,800 residents, over 3,000 are employed at Porto Carras.
Manager of all the Carras enterprises at Porto Carras is Gregory Leventis, who spent many years in the United States as director of the Greek Tourist Organization. He points out that Americans never came to Porto Carras and the capacity European trade has never deserted the resort. With hotels dying all over Greece, the owners of facilities in the Halkidiki Peninsula are hardly aware of the hard times throughout the rest of their country. The Hotel Meliton Beach, Hotel Sithonia Beach, and Village Inn at Porto Carras offer rates of $70 a day for two people including breakfast and one other meal, so vacationers can hardly afford to stay away.
In 1980, Mr. Carras appointed a partner of the famous golf course designer, Robert Trent Jones, to build the finest golf course in Greece at Porto Carras. The course is in its third year of play and is certainly just what Mr. Carras ordered. Golfers from all over Europe swell the ranks of the vacationers, who also come for the 34 private beaches and coves, the horseback riding and water sports, and the marina that accommodates boats up to the size of Mr. Carras' own 200 foot sailing yacht, which he recently sold.
Mr. Carras, with over $180 million of his own money in the project, is ready to accept outside capital in further ventures at Porto Carras. The fishing village with its inn and theater, The Gina Bachauer Hall, which can accommodate an audience of 450 and is used for business conventions by European firms, has a complete infrastructure. It is laid out with telephone lines, water mains, sewers and foundations to support a 240 condominium development with almost unlimited prepared land for further expansion.
Mr. Carras is presently looking into selling condominiums on a time share basis. It could be one of the more successful time-sharing promotions ever to come along in Europe. Scandinavians and British are the largest national groupings of current customers.
Mr. Carras has no successors. His two sons are academicians who want nothing to do with business. The family is indicative of a maxim of Greek history going back to ancient times.