The Ottoman House, a restaurant in the cobbled back streets of Kalkan, is like the resort itself writ small. Having been asked to remove our shoes before stepping over the threshold, my sons and I lounged around on big colourful cushions playing backgammon while my daughter puffed a shisha pipe and my wife sipped mint tea. If only we hadn't looked so English, we could hardly have looked more Turkish.
We checked out the menu, wondering whether to eat there or move on to another of the small town's estimated 200 restaurants. Baklava was listed as one of the Ottoman House desserts. But then so was lemon drizzle cake. I know poet Rupert Brooke wasn't referring to lemon drizzle cake when he wrote about a corner of a foreign field that is forever England, but if he had been, Kalkan would have fitted the bill perfectly.
From afar, of course, there's nothing about Kalkan that looks anything other than Turkish. A town of pretty whitewashed houses built on steep lanes tumbling down to the sea, with nothing high-rise except for the odd minaret, it overlooks a sheltered bay on south-western Turkey's dramatic Lycian coast. From the sea the mighty Taurus mountains form a spectacular backdrop, while the Mediterranean at its bluest is the similarly spectacular backdrop from inland. The journey from Dalaman airport took almost two hours – it was worth every "are we nearly there yet?"
I'd never been to Turkey before and I'd certainly never been anywhere quite like Kalkan. Yes, parts of the Costa del Sol are like Southend with sunshine, but you still find plenty of Germans and Scandinavians. In Kalkan, everyone who isn't Turkish is a Brit. I mean everyone. If the resort's very considerable charms are being trumpeted elsewhere in the world, then they must have something stuck in their trumpets. During a week there, with the Med at its sparkling best, I didn't hear a language other than Turkish and English even though, in the call of duty, I did plenty of eavesdropping
Strangely, this didn't bother me at all. In fact I liked it. At least the Turkish way of satisfying the whims of the British on holiday is with lemon drizzle cake rather than Guinness and karaoke. And the preponderance of Brits engendered some jolly camaraderie, especially the day we spent with two other families, one from Esher and the other from Guildford, on one of those characterful wooden sailing boats called gulets. It was a marvellous day, spent mooring in pretty coves and diving like Tom Daley – or in my case, Arthur Daley – into a turquoise sea.
Turquoise is a Turkish word, incidentally; in fact, everyday English owes more than you might think to the Turks. Next time you suggest meandering, with a yoghurt, through chock-a-block streets, you will be speaking their language, not ours.
Not all Turkish customs suit British sensibilities, of course. Some friends were coincidentally staying in Kalkan at the same time as us, and related one evening the story of their pitiful attempt to haggle for a shirt. The price tag said 27 Turkish lire. "I'll give you 20," said genteel Bill from Shrewsbury, slightly apologetically. "Thirty," the shopkeeper demanded. "OK, let's say 27," said Bill firmly, brooking no further argument.
I was more successful with my full Turkish shave, a splendid ritual that involves a vigorous shoulder and head massage, doubtless intended to put the male British holidaymaker at ease before the barber whips out his cut-throat razor. There are barber shops by the dozen in Kalkan, including one called "Sweeney Todd" to which I gave a wide berth. I chose a less touristy-looking place down an alleyway, despite the protestations of my daughter Eleanor, who had melodramatic visions of my throat being cut and me ending up as baklava filling. In truth, I'd have preferred it if my barber, Ahmet, hadn't been telling his friend an evidently uproarious joke while his razor glided around my gills (unless it was my watery smile they were laughing at), but by the time it was all over I felt like a million dollars, a reasonable exchange for 10 lire (£4). Wafting clouds of lemon-scented cologne, the Turks being of the view that men should be no less perfumed than women, I fair bounced back to the hotel.
The hotel was the Regency, which rather evokes the seafront at Brighton, but only in name. Its location is marvellous, on a promontory overlooking the bay, but the Regency owes its singularity to more than that. It is family-owned and run, and I confess that I raised a cynical eyebrow when the charismatically matriarchal Nuri Tomanbay greeted us with the assurance that for the next week we would become part of the family. However, that was indeed what it felt like, especially on the Wednesday night – barbecue night – when guests are seated around a candle-lit swimming pool and encouraged to join the staff in a semamme, an exuberant ethnic dance which turns even the most lugubrious waiter into a grinning dervish.
This might not be everybody's cup of mint tea, and if your idea of a holiday is getting away from your fellow Brits, then the Regency is not for you, for its every room is filled by an upmarket, Richmond-based tour operator called Exclusive Escapes. But a remarkably high percentage of repeat guests, most of whom have been holidaying there for years, testifies to the beguiling qualities of the place. And when we did tire of fraternising with John and Marjorie from Maidenhead, we could always retire to our own private deck, with its perfect little infinity pool and, a nice touch, a
powerful telescope, which I think is intended for star-gazing rather than spying on folk in villas across the bay (though we did both).
The gulet trip was part of our package, and so was a family hammam in the Regency's swanky spa, doubtless a tamer experience than one finds in the back streets of Istanbul, but great fun, in fact probably more fun. We were hammammed, if that's the verb, by two swarthy men stripped to the waist: I'll call them Chock and Block.
Chock's job was to lie us on a huge marble slab and scrape us down with a massive Brillo-pad, and then it was over to Block who inflated a soft linen bag by blowing into it, and used it to soap us all over, building improbable towers of bubbles for, at least when my turn came round, the rich amusement of the rest of the family. My role as official laughing-stock was then compounded by Chock, who beckoned my son Joe while I sat with my eyes closed, and got him to chuck a bowl of ice-cold water in my face. How they all hooted.
I took my revenge by insisting on a family expedition to the ancient ruins at nearby Xanthos, nobody's idea of enjoyment on a searingly hot afternoon. Even in the heat, however, it was impossible not to be impressed by the scale of the place, which in Roman times was home to 8,000 people, though it grew a little dispiriting to be told time and again by our guide that the tomb or basilica or whatever we were looking at was "not the original; original is in British Museum". It seems archaeologist Sir Charles Fellows (1799-1860) was the villain of the piece.
On the way back to Kalkan we stopped for dinner at a trout farm, which was lovely, although our favourite meal away from the Regency was at a restaurant called Kuru, in the hills just out of town. The proprietor, an effervescent young fellow called Huseyin, came to the hotel to pick us up, which enabled him to point out the posters of himself plastered all over the place – he is Kalkan's very own celebrity chef. He advised us to eschew the menu and to rely on him choosing for us, which I have come across before as a tactic for ripping off gullible tourists. Yet Huseyin made me feel guilty for doubting him. The bill was reasonable and the food glorious: to his particular delight we loved the manti, tiny pieces of pasta cooked in butter and paprika and mixed with yoghurt. Apparently, not many Brits like manti. Apparently, too, its home is a town called Kayseri, where it has to be delicate enough to fit 40 pieces in a single spoonful.
From the food to the almost overwhelming hospitality of the people, we loved everything about Kalkan, and I can't think of anywhere, except possibly Rock in Cornwall, better for listening in on middle-class Brits at play. At the Palm Beach Club, in reality a kind of wooden platform, we watched a woman gingerly lowering herself into the sea, and encouraging her friend to join her in water that was chillier than expected on account of being fed by mountain springs. "You'll be used to it from your river, India," she called. That was Kalkan all over.
Travel essentials: Turkey
Exclusive Escapes (020-8605 3500; exclusiveescapes.co.uk) offers seven nights' B&B at The Kalkan Regency from £850 per person, including flights (from Heathrow, Bristol or Manchester) to Dalaman, transfers and a gulet cruise.
Kalkan Regency, Kalkan, Antalya (00 90 242 844 23 33; kalkanregency.com.tr).
Eating & drinking there
The Ottoman House, Kalkan(00 90 242 844 1013).
Kuru Restaurant, Kalkan (00 90 242 844 3848; kalkanguru.com).
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