A Weeklong Adventure in Turkey

by  Jim Sherman | May 3, 2010
Haga Sophia in Istanbul
Haga Sophia in Istanbul / Explora_2005/iStock

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I am surprised by how many well-traveled Americans have yet to visit Turkey. This is one place to put on your list. I spent a good deal of time researching the perfect trip there, and I believe I succeeded in mapping out an ideal itinerary. My first stop was Turkbuku. This seaside town in the south is about a 45-minute drive from the airport in Bodrum (fly there via Istanbul). Our taxi van passed through a number of sleepy villages that dot the coastline and then, all of a sudden, came upon this hidden gem of a town.

I stayed at the Maca Kizi hotel (from $285/night), a smart splurge given its luxe, chic boutique qualities. The rooms were spacious, and most had terrific views of the crystal blue waters and yachts along the inlet. By day, guests lounge on the hotel’s jetties, enjoying seaside lunches and bar service. I couldn’t help but notice the plethora of waif supermodels, Chanel sundresses, and Prada sunglasses.

One can swim along the coast (there are no beaches per se, just jetties); rest on a raft; or, for a drink, walk to the nearby Maki Hotel, which seemed to be a hangout for young, trendy Turkish people. Periodically one hears the call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

At sunset, the beach clubs come alive. The Maca Kizi set the right tempo for me as it was relaxed and did not turn into a loud scene at dusk. But I did enjoy visiting other nearby clubs to get a taste of the seaside partying culture as young people and older adults mingle.

At night, I discovered how special this bay really is. All the restaurants in the small town are out by the water. There is a pathway along the waterfront where people stroll at night. No cars travel there; it’s just a footpath. This reminded me of some traffic-free seaside towns in Italy. The waterfront has several boutique shops, a view of sparkling lights from the yachts anchored nearby, and a number of lounge bars and smartly designed restaurants floating over the water.

My favorite spots for eating were the Mayflower Restaurant Kusadasi (90/256-612-2097) in nearby Bitez—perfect for a traveler’s first night in the area because everything is pre-selected on the set menu of meze plates—and Bar Fidele Bodrum (90/252-377-5150), which also has excellent food in a dreamlike setting.

While visitors can spend all their time at a resort, I recommend taking a one-day boat tour from Bodrum to see some of the gorgeous southern coast. The tour I took visited four coves, where I swam in the most amazing turquoise water. Or take a multiday tour by gulet, known as a “blue cruise.”

I left Turkbuku, arranging for a driver and guide to take me to Ephesus, about three hours away. The ancient city is fascinating with its baths, a huge library for scholars, a marketplace, and even the ruins of an ancient brothel. Visit Ephesus for a day and then hop a plane in nearby Izmir for a short ride to Istanbul.

When approaching Istanbul, one immediately sees the expansive urban sprawl. This city of 12 million (with about half its population under age 30) has had several names over the years: Byzantium, Constantinople, and finally Istanbul. The city straddles the Bosphorus, with one half resting in Asia and the other in Europe, and has a cultural mix to match.

When I arrived, I went immediately to the Ciragan Palace Kempinski (from $546/night); the name of the former palace is pronounced “Shiran.” The 19th-century palace has been converted into quite a regal hotel. The new addition, which is less expensive but still resplendent with spacious rooms, terraces, and Ottoman-style furniture, is a terrific smart luxury option. I consider my stay there one of my very best hotel experiences.

Since traffic in Istanbul can be heavy, I recommend visitors hire a guide for a day to tour its main sites by foot. These include the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Cistern Basilica, and the Grand Bazaar. In particular, I enjoyed learning about the harem in the Topkapi Palace where an Ottoman sultan is said to have housed more than 400 concubines from all over Europe. The women were presented to the sultan as gifts. These women studied and typically received pay from the sultan. After seven years, some of the women were allowed to leave and had their pick of men because they were educated and had money.

I also visited Tesvikiye Street in the Nisantasi district for its upscale shops—stop off at the House Café Tesvikiye for a snack—and the very quaint Ortakoy area for an afternoon visit and lunch at Anjelique. Lastly, try a hammam. The Turkish sauna is a great way to cool down, even in summer.

For evening dining in Istanbul, I recommend Vogue and Mikla. They are both stylish, international restaurants with excellent food and views. For a commanding view of the Bosphorus, head to 360Istanbul. And don’t forget to try the Turkish wines, like antik; it’s inexpensive and great.

From the Spring 2010 issue of Sherman's Travel magazine.

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