Safe harbor in Turkey: The posh beaches and quiet coves
KAPUTAS BEACH — From my perch on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, I watched Turkish families picnic under red and white umbrellas and Brits with sunburned shoulders wade in the topaz waters of the Turkish Riviera. This was after a morning touring the nearby ancient ruins of Patara, a Lycian city said to have been founded by the son of Apollo. The beach was clearly the more popular option as temperatures climbed into the 80s.
The water and sand were so bright that I was squinting through sunglasses. Lunch was mezes in nearby Kas, inevitably ending with baklava saturated with enough honey to feed a family of bears for the winter. It’s exactly how I had pictured my road trip of southwest Turkey when I started planning at the beginning of the summer.
But by the time I arrived in late September, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I never could have anticipated that my breezy exploration of the beaches of that region would turn into a crash course in current events. As I explored small coastal towns in Turkey’s west, I read about violent skirmishes in the east. While I sat in beach clubs on the opulent Bodrum peninsula, dubbed the Saint-Tropez of Turkey, a curfew was imposed to curb the fighting in the Cizre, a Kurdish city more than 1,000 miles to the east, near the Syrian border. On top of the fighting, there were more headlines of refugees fleeing Syria through Turkey.
A week before the trip I was still undecided and tilting toward cancellation. I didn’t tell my parents I was going until I sent them a text from the airport as I boarded the plane.
Two weeks after my return, nearly 100 people were killed at an explosion at a peace rally in the capital, Ankara. And now I sit in front of a computer, drumming my fingers while pondering how to write a travel story about one of the most gorgeous beach regions I’ve ever seen, in a country rocked by political and civil turbulence.
After overthinking and over-analyzing, I decided to take a Rodgers and Hammerstein approach to the story: “Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start.”
I was still apprehensive on my first morning in the town of Alaçatı, despite the pastoral setting and traditional Turkish breakfast under the serene olive trees at Zeytinalti Restaurant. I was off the beaten path, near a dusty road where you could leisurely sample yogurt, tomatoes, olives, and simits alfresco. There was nary a pancake in sight. Generally devoid of US tourists, much of the area is where Turks from Izmir and Istanbul come on holiday.
After a few days in similarly tranquil, sun-baked villages, I realized the biggest dangers I faced were spending too much money — the dollar has never been stronger in Turkey — and stuffing my face with so much köfte and manti that I wouldn’t be able to squeeze my ample muffin top back into the seat for the flight home. This is not to be dismissive of travel warnings, but over the seven days I spent driving from Çesme to Kalkan (and stopping everywhere along the way), I never felt I was in peril — with the exception of getting caught in a small flood that nearly washed me out to sea.
I wasn’t blasé about my safety. I stayed up-to-date on the news and purchased an international phone plan. I also regularly used free Wi-Fi-based apps Whatsapp and Talkatone to stay in touch with friends and family. I did not travel east toward the Syria-Iraq borders. I didn’t take part in rallies or protests, and there were none to be had in my holiday paradise. In short, I traveled as smartly as possible, something that should be done anywhere in the world.
I was drawn to this part of Turkey, which is made up of a series of peninsulas and coves, because the landscape is dotted with pristine beaches that resemble the coasts of Greece, Italy, or southern Portugal but with fewer garish poseurs. Dramatic cliffs plunge toward the Mediterraneanand the Aegean. But unlike mentions of Italy or Greece, I never heard friends talking about vacationing in southern Turkey.
This is partly because the region is relatively young in tourism years. Thirty years ago, towns such as Bodrum, Kas, and Kalkan were small fishing villages. Now they are booming with posh hotels and hip beach clubs. Alaçatı has become world famous for its windsurfing. It’s now commonly called “the Hamptons of Turkey.” I planned to take a lesson at the windsurfing school owned by Bora Kozanoglu, a world champion in the sport, but the weather turned — much to my relief. I failed to mention to anyone at the school that my swimming abilities are on par with a bloated armadillo’s.
I had an opportunity to talk to Kozanoglu, who is a celebrity in Turkey and appears to be allergic to wearing shirts. He explained that when he came to Alaçatı as a boy, the town was a backwater farming village. Now it’s filled with stores and restaurants. Clubs stay open nearly all night for partying windsurfers and their admirers. Kozanoglu even took me to his windsurfing-themed boutique hotel nearby. The crowds here are worldly, metropolitan, and sophisticated.
This is a good time to mention that everyone I encountered was perfectly lovely. When I returned to the United States, I heard the odd question “How were the people?” or “Did they treat you well?” one too many times. I can only speak to my experience, but people were warm, open, and kind. One night I met a group of fashion-types, and they invited me, a total stranger, to tag along to a private dinner party. I was warned of scams, but no one tried to scam me during my trip or sell me a defective carpet. With the number of tourists to Turkey plunging rapidly, I suspect I was a welcome sight.
When I went to BeyEvi Alacati hotel for lunch, owner Celal Bayraktaroglu plied me with Turkish wine and Turkish pizza and pita. When I said I could take no more, he proudly poured more varieties of Turkish wine. I stumbled out of the restaurant, camera in hand, and took a lot of blurry pictures, mostly of cats. Turkey is a cat-lovers’ paradise. Fluffy bundles of feline joy watched the world from window sills and sunned themselves on the streets.
I spent much of the next day in the ancient city of Ephesus, about an hour from Alaçatı, and founded by Greeks in the 10th century BC. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, it was almost four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens.
This is one of the joys of traveling in Turkey. When you’re tired of the sand sticking to your sunblock-covered, coconut-scented back, you can do something historical. Or just go back to town and take more pictures of cats.
My big beach day was slated to take place in Bodrum, the resort town of the region. I studied up on the beaches and the night life. I was ready to make like the locals and sip liberal amounts of raki, a local spirit that tastes like anise and blurred vision (that is if blurred vision had a flavor). But the day I rolled into Bodrum, a storm of epic proportions followed me. About nine inches of rain fell in less than less than 24 hours. Streets turned to rivers, cars were washed away in angry waves of mud. I sat in my hotel room and glumly admired the ocean view through sheets of rain.
It could have been worse. I was staying at the Casa dell’Arte Hotel. It was once a palatial house that was converted into a 12-room boutique hotel and filled with local art. My dinner and club plans for the night floated away in the rain (the streets were impassible), so I sat at the giant wood dining table in the lobby and sampled chef Bengi Kayhan’s six-course (!) tasting menu. One of the petite dishes included scallops, cherries, and seaweed-flavored cucumber in turmeric foam. Dessert was chocolate soil (not literal, of course), mastic ice cream, a thin sheet of gelatinous rosewater, and raw almonds. This was the night I gave up any delusions of ever publicly wearing a bathing suit.
As the rain subsided, the city was a muddy mess. But the next day the gunk on downtown streets had been swiftly cleared away. This is where vendors sold fake Chanel and Louis Vuitton bags in an extensive market. There were as many designer knockoffs in Turkey as there were cats. There was even a store called Harrools, which, when you look at the sign quickly, reads like Harrods. The difference: Harrods doesn’t sell fringe-top bikinis.
A day walking around Bodrum and absorbing the wealth (the million-dollar boats filling a gorgeous marina), juxtaposed against the handful of Syrian refugees lingering downtown, left me in the mood for something quiet. I initially planned to use my second Bodrum night for a lavish club crawl; instead I went with a backup plan of lingering at the tip of the Bodrum peninsula in the Gumusluk area. I watched the sunset at a bohemian jazz club on the beach while a lone trumpeter played “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
A second attempt at a water sport adventure the following day was mercifully cut short, again by the weather, saving me from displaying my nonexistent swim skills yet again. Akyaka, two hours east of Bodrum, is a town known for its budding culinary scene and kite surfing. There wasn’t enough wind to propel my kite when I arrived, so I quickly jumped in the car and drove off before the wind had an opportunity to pick up. I was much more comfortable watching the ducks at Azmakbasi restaurant or walking around the yacht-filled town of Göcek.
I finally had a proper beach visit on my final day, and fortunately for me it was at Patara Beach, the longest beach in Turkey. Later in the day I visited the beaches at Limanagzia, which could only be reached by boat. I was so close to the Greek island of Meis that my cell service flip-flopped between Turkey and Greece.
It felt, and still feels, that I visited a different country from the one I now read and hear about daily. What stood out to me was the sand and seafood, although I certainly had plenty of discussions about the state of Turkish politics with locals.
I wrestled with the idea of shelving this story because of the current unrest. But then I thought this is probably the best possible time to share my road trip experiences and show a side of Turkey that sits serenely outside the headlines. The resort side — where the sun shines 300 days a year, olive trees outnumber people, and strangers invite me to join them for dinner.