Sun, sand and style: Welcome to Turkey’s jet-set destination
The sophisticated Cesme Peninsula – for years the preserve of well-heeled locals – has begun to lure British travellers with the promise of a very different kind of Turkish beach holiday
Saturday 13 August 2011
More than 120 hotels are said to be scattered throughout the cobbled streets of Alacati, though I challenge you to find even one. The town, a charming muddle of farmhouses and windmills bordered by olive groves and artichoke fields, doesn't bother with street names or signs. Discretion is the watchword. Bijou eight-room inns hide behind whitewash and pale-blue painted shutters, their rooms overlooking silent, shady courtyards.
Just occasionally, if you poke your nose around the pretty wrought-iron railings, you might glimpse a flash of turquoise pool in a back garden. Shops selling expensive fripperies – gold jewellery, linen dressing gowns, gaudily embroidered cushions and olive-oil soaps – whisper their wares from behind tiny windows. Bodrum, this ain't. Only at night, when the bars and restaurants spill out of their cool, white interiors and off their tiled floors onto the streets does Alacati start to resemble a typical Turkish resort.
Perched above the Aegean Sea on Turkey's west coast, Alacati has been the best-kept secret of Turkish holidaymakers for a few years now. Even the locals – many of whom holidayed here as children and have returned to embark on second careers as hoteliers and restaurant owners – spend hours arguing as to who discovered it first. In fact, it was windsurfers who colonised Alacati in the 1990s, flocking to the flat waters of Alacati Bay where the northerly imbat winds blow for 330 days a year. It was then embraced by wealthy weekenders from Istanbul as a kind of Turkey-flavoured Hamptons. And lately it has become a magnet for celebrities, politicians and pop stars. They come to sunbathe and party around the 29km coastline of the Cesme Peninsula, mooring their yachts at the marina, kitesurfing at Alacati port, spa-ing at Ilica and eating and shopping wherever they can along the way.
The Turkish jet-set have managed to keep this to themselves. But this summer, the local airport at Izmir – 45 minutes away by road – joined the easyJet set, with two flights a week from Gatwick. For now, at least, the region remains largely un-starstruck, and stubbornly unspoilt. "It doesn't matter who comes here," says Husnu Baylav, president of the Alacati Tourism Association, "Alacati is the real celebrity." In other words, there's more to the area than chi-chi hotels and chic visitors. Understated, laid-back luxury is the speciality – although it doesn't come cheap.
For those who rouse themselves from their Egyptian cotton sheets, there are also ancient ruins to visit, thermal mud baths to wallow in, sparkling bays to surf and sail across, herb markets to explore and culinary novelties to savour, such as cinnamon-flavoured kofte and mastic ice cream. Cesme was even praised by antiquity's own Alan Whicker, Herodotus, for its location "in the most beautiful climate and under the most beautiful sky on earth".
The Cesme Peninsula extends elegantly out from Turkey's west Aegean coast to within a fingertip of Greece. Here, the island of Chios is just 8km (or a 45-minute ferry trip from Cesme) away; its brooding outline visible even on the mistiest day. In the mid 19th century, the Ottomans shipped islanders over to dry out the malarial marshes. Many stayed on, planting the region's first vineyards. Today, wandering among the blue-and-white painted stone houses, you could easily be in Greece. Signs of shared history are all around – not least in Alacati where the enormous Ayios Konstantinos church has had a minaret stuck on the top and functions as the local mosque.
I began my trip on the coast, in Ilica. This was the region's original holiday hotspot thanks to the healing thermal springs that bubble beneath the waves. Tusun Pasha, sickly son of the founder of modern Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, came here in the early 1800s to take the waters, which probably makes him the winner of the I-discovered-it-first contest. So impressed was he that he built a beautiful stone house on the seafront.
Three years ago, the building became Nars Ilica, an eight-room luxury hotel, named after Narcissus and dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. The airy rooms, with stripped wood floors, shuttered windows and linen curtains are decorated in a palette of duck-egg blue and cream to make Nigella swoon. The public rooms, meanwhile, are crammed with a mix of antiques, modern art and avant-garde 1940s light fittings. The feel is more like a private mansion than hotel, and strenuous efforts are made to ensure that you rarely set eyes on another guest. Premium rooms have their own staircases and private breakfast rooms overlooking the sea; every morning staff arrive with a procession of platters of sheep's cheese, gozleme (savoury pastries) and tomatoes, curd cheese with mulberry compote and simit (sesame bagels) with sour cherry jam and honey.
The spread comes fresh from the hotel's own farm where the workers at the hotel – and those at its funkier, smaller sister in Alacati – live. Up here in the hills, there are lemon and orange groves, sheep and horses and some 5,500 olive trees, alongside workshops where stonemasons and carpenters built the hotels by hand. The olive-oil products in the bathrooms come from another farm nearby. "If you do it yourself," shrugs Murat Pirimoglu, the co-owner, "you know it's the best."
The hotel also has a Jacuzzi filled with thermal waters in its walled back garden. For the full spa experience, though, you need to walk a little further along Ilica's 2km sands to the Sheraton Cesme. This is where the VIPs hang out. The vast hotel offers the full, five-star luxury experience with its own beach, private pier and floating restaurant. Each of its three €5,250-a-night penthouses has an "infinity bed" positioned by the windows so that you feel like you're sleeping in the sea.
A rooftop pool overlooks the terracotta roofs of million-euro holiday homes, clustered below like a mini Beverly Hills. To ease your travel plans, there's also a helipad.
The main attraction, though, is the prize-winning spa, just voted the world's Best Mineral Spring Spa. Alongside sweltering thermal pools and steam rooms, you can enjoy more esoteric treats including "adventure showers" which provide a soundtrack of your choice (rainforest, seashore, no Jedward) and Balinese tea houses where couples can enjoy private treatments around a heated seawater pool.
I opted for a traditional hammam in the hotel's beautiful white-tiled Turkish bath. After being steamed, splashed, scrubbed (vigorously) and swaddled in bubbles on a marble slab for an hour, I emerged, light-headed and smoother-skinned. If you don't want to spend 145 lira (£55), there's a natural spa at Sifne, 10 minutes down the road, with its own mud bath and thermal pools.
Windsurfing is near-mandatory in these parts: indeed, the Professional Windsurfers' Association World Cup event reaches its climax in Alacati today. Seven surf schools are ranged along Alacati bay, which provides ideal conditions – warm, wave-free shallows and constant wind – for beginners. The breeze also makes the fierce summer heat a little more bearable for sun-seekers. And, being a peninsula, there's a beach for every occasion on Cesme. Ask the locals and they'll point you to Ilica with its thermal shallows or to Altinkum with its golden sands, depending on which way the wind is blowing.
If you're on a boat – and why wouldn't you be? – the beautiful bay of Aya Yorgi is the place to go. By night, the beach clubs turn into glamorous nightclubs – Marrakech, Babylon and Paparazzi are the most popular – where you can sip champagne while the waves lap at your stilettos.
The area caters for the amateur historian, too, with Ephesus, the marvellously preserved ancient city, 90 minutes' drive down the coast near Selcuk. Much closer and less well-known is Erythrai, which dates back to 3000BC and is set on the hillside above Ildiri, a tumbledown village also suspended in time.
Declared a heritage site when Erythrai was re-discovered in 1964, Ildiri is now a half-abandoned hodge-podge of farmhouses and fishing boats. The ruins themselves, guarded by a pensioner and his cat, are reached via fields of artichokes, speckled with poppies. It's a steep clamber up to the acropolis via a neglected amphitheatre, which provides a dramatic view of the countryside and coast. I watched a sunset over Chios before heading back to enjoy a traditional seaside dinner of barbun (red mullet) and raki, which gets nicer the more you drink.
There's more history to be found at Cesme town, once the final stopping point on the Silk Road for the camel caravans before they were shipped off to the Mediterranean. The caravanserai is now a hotel but the bustling port still ferries tourists across to Chios and Donkey Island (exactly what it sounds like) several times a day.
A 16th-century fortress, magnificently restored with piles of cannon balls and excavated ancient tombstones ranged around its walls, looms over the town, offering wonderful views across the water and beyond. A new marina, with an array of surf shops and galleries, restaurants and wine bars, has become a destination in its own right.
The stylish development is typical of the region where a tourist industry is being carved out of the landscape wherever you look. New pastel-coloured villas line the roads to the port; stone houses are under renovation on every corner. But lessons have been learned from the over-developed resorts of Marmaris and Antalya. The policy here is "conservative tourism". Alacati is the jewel in its crown.
Ten years ago, there were no hotels in the town. Now, one in 10 of its stone houses has been converted into a boutique inn. Nevertheless, Alacati's character is fiercely policed. Only two-storey stone houses are permitted, and, according to the official tourist guide, "anything that has a strong smell or is an eyesore is forbidden". So, neon signs are banned, and kebabs are served until 3pm, not 3am.
Already, though, Alacati struggles in summer when the population of 11,000 welcomes more than a million visitors. I arrived as Alacati was coming out of hibernation; every day another bar or hotel dusted down its shutters, while entrepreneurial types opened tiny cafés in their front rooms and driveways.
Hotel Incirliev is typical of Alacati's homespun hospitality. The hotel is named after the 100-year-old fig tree that casts shade over its central courtyard. It is run by Sabahat and Osman Poshor, whose warmth and generosity make staying here feel like a weekend at Grandma's. Having been shown my terrace room – a cool stone chamber with original fireplace and floor-length windows – I was ushered straight back down for a glass of home-made cherry liqueur and freshly baked apple cake under the tree.
Incirliev proved the perfect base to explore Cesme cuisine. Every day begins with breakfast served al fresco from the open kitchen. The table sagged with cheese, fruit, bread, olives and – the undoubted highlight – an ever-changing selection of Osman's homemade jams. Each morning, there was also an extra surprise: "egg casserole" scrambled with peppers and chilli, or ricotta pancakes with "crispy butter".
Suitably fuelled, I left to watch the daily 11am ritual of fresh fish being auctioned from marble slabs behind the mosque. On Saturdays, the bazaar – a shanty town of herbs, cheese and spices – also comes to life. After that, it's time to repair to Kose Kahve for Turkish coffee flavoured with medicinal-tasting mastic, harvested from the trees on Chios.
At the fishing village of Dalyankoy, I picked meze out of a chilled cabinet, pointed at the sea bass I wanted and ate the lot sitting by the water as fishing boats bobbed beneath my feet. At Okan's Place, a secluded stretch of beach at Ciftlikkoy, crispy sardines were delivered to my sun lounger. The finest place I found to experiment, though, was Asma Yapragi, a one-room restaurant in the undeveloped Haci Memis district of Alacati. Here, hearty tin dishes of meze – marinated artichokes, broad bean and mint stew, cacik and cigarette-thin stuffed vine leaves – are served straight from the stove to a communal table in the middle of the kitchen.
As I left Incirliev, my suitcase stuffed with fig jam and olive soaps, Sabahat and Osman threw water at the car, a tradition intended to ensure the traveller will return soon. I do hope it works.
Travel essentials: Alacati
* The writer flew from Gatwick to Izmir with easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com); Izmir is also served by Pegasus (0845 0848 980; flypgs.com) from Stansted.
* Avis provided the writer's car (0844 581 0147; avis.co.uk); rates from Izmir airport from £48 a day.
* Nars Ilica (00 90 232 729 0001; narsilica.com). Doubles from €300, with breakfast; Nars Alacati (00 90 232 716 0900; narsalacati.com). Doubles from 350 lira (£122), including breakfast.
* Hotel Incirliev, Alacati (00 90 232 716 0353; incirliev.com). Doubles from 180 lira (£63), with breakfast.
* Myga Surf City, Alacati (00 90 232 716 6468; myga.com.tr). Beginner's windsurfing lessons start at €60 per hour.
* Botanica Thermal Spa, Sheraton Cesme (00 90 232 723 1240; sheratoncesme.com).
* Cesme Marina (00 90 232 712 2500; cesmemarina.com.tr).
Eating & drinking there
* Paparazzi, Aya Yorgi (00 90 232 712 6767; paparazzi.com.tr).
* Marrakech on the Beach, Aya Yorgi (00 90 232 712 0403; marrakechonthebeach.com).
* Babylon, Aya Yorgi (00 90 232 712 6339; babylon.com.tr).
* Kose Kahve, Alacati (00 90 232 716 0413).
* Okan's Place, Altinkum Mevkii (00 90 532 394 0131; okansplace.com).
* Asma Yapragi, Alacati (00 90 232 716 0178).
* Turkey Tourist Board: 020-7839 7778; gototurkey.co.uk
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