Turkey: Hidden pleasures

Avoiding the mass tourism and the madding crowds of Turkey's coastal resorts is easy – you just have to know where to look. Brian Viner reveals the best-kept secrets, both ancient and modern

Marmaris is one of those place names, like Biarritz and Dubrovnik, that had always appealed to me. It seemed to evoke bazaars and minarets and characterful spice shops in Ottoman back alleys, and I was very much looking forward to visiting. Not that I could tempt the rest of the family to make a crack-of-dawn start from our lovely hotel an hour's drive away along the mountainous Bozburun peninsula.

So it was just me and the hotel manager, Murat, making his regular Thursday trip to Marmaris market, rattling along in his refrigerated van talking football. There was plenty to discuss, the start of the Turkish season having been postponed for a month because of a corruption scandal, which had seen the president of Fenerbahce, one of the country's biggest clubs, thrown into jail.

This was last August, and the postponement at least offered the players, and supporters, some respite from the searing heat of a Turkish high summer. On the return journey I was sorely tempted to clamber into the back with the watermelons.

By then, my romantic image of Marmaris had been firmly punctured by the spectacle of the Poundtown Shopping Centre and a branch of Wetherspoon's. The food market was all that I had hoped for: a cornucopia of nuts, honey, dried herbs, and unfamiliar vegetables – I counted half-a-dozen different varieties of aubergine. But upstairs was a clothes market of the stuff nightmares are made of – a sweaty throng of overweight and oversunned western Europeans fingering fake Lacoste shirts.

Too late, I learnt that Marmaris was first dragged downmarket by the heavy-drinking Finns, then the Germans, and now the British, who have also stamped their presence on the much smaller town of Turunc. Del Boy's Big Bazaar is what passes for a shopping opportunity and even my 13-year-old son could recognise the naffness of a T-shirt that read: "I'm A Sex Teacher – First Lesson For Free".

Later, wandering round the well-preserved remains of an amphitheatre in nearby Amos, it was all too easy to question what progress civilisation has made these past 2,300 years. Still, I suppose there was a version of naffness even in the 3rd century BC.

Amos was our reward for a challenging 30-minute walk down a precipitous path from our hotel, the extraordinary Dionysos Estate. In Greek mythology, Dionysus was the god of the grape harvest, winemaking, and ecstasy. In other words, he knew how to show people a good time, and in that respect his modern incarnation might very well be Ahmet Senol, the scion of an Istanbul steel-manufacturing family, who a decade ago looked up at a vast canyon above Kumlubuk Bay and, somehow or other, envisaged a hotel perched on top of it.

It is a remarkable place – affording the finest views I've seen from any hotel anywhere, across the bay to the distant Taurus mountains – and a triumph of graft as well as vision, for it took 40 stonemasons more than 18 months, and in excess of 1,000 lorry loads, to realise the dramatic picture in Ahmet's mind's eye.

The estate also now includes an organic farm and an olive oil processing plant, which turns the fruit of the Dionysos olive groves into one of only three Turkish oils to feature in Flos Olei, the reference book that is to extra-virgin olive oil what Wisden is to cricket. According to Flos Olei, the hotel's Amos olive oil is endowed with "elegant fruity notes of medium-ripe tomato, white apple, banana, enriched by fresh hints of basil and nut". Never again will I describe any olive oil as "nice".

Naturally, the hotel's own organic produce features abundantly in the menus, which are supervised by Ahmet's daughter Didem Senol, who runs a celebrated restaurant in Istanbul. We brought her excellent cookery book home, though pine nut and minced-meat borek definitely needs the Aegean in the background, rather than Coronation Street.

We saw plenty of the Aegean, because a day aboard one of the Dionysos's two boats – one a swanky catamaran, the other a 1950s wooden lifeboat, charmingly converted – was included in the package. Ours was hosted by Ahmed himself, who proved the consummate guide both to the spectacular Bozburun coastline and to Turkey's maritime history. Sitting on deck listening to tales of the pirate Barbarossa while chomping the delicious circular pastries called hanim gobegi – or in English, ladies' belly-buttons – was not an experience any of us will quickly forget.

Nor was the swimming itself; straight off the boat into crystal-clear water and millpond-calm except when the skipper tossed in the remaining ladies' belly-buttons, which were soon demolished by surfacing red mullet.

We moored in several bays, including the splendidly named Pregnant Church Bay, so-called on account of the centuries-old church where young married women were sent if they were struggling to conceive, and where we were astonished to see a small herd of cows ambling down to the water's edge, as if to bid us good day. Turkey is full of happy surprises.

Another was the Mehmet Ali Aga Mansion, set in glorious gardens on the Datca peninsula about a three-hour drive east from the Dionysos Estate. This too is a charming, idiosyncratic property, if a little quiet for the tastes of our three teenagers. The soundtrack to our three-day stay there was provided almost exclusively by crickets, and by distant muezzin summoning the faithful to prayer.

For some, though, this was clearly a close approximation of heaven on earth. North Americans are always inclined to over-egg the comments book, but here they had done so with manifest feeling. "We came through the gates and became royalty," wrote the people from Chicago.

Certainly, the mansion, built in 1809, has an ethereal quality, and like the Dionysos Estate, owes its existence to the vision of wealthy Istanbullus. Mehmet Ali Aga was a 19th-century big-shot, but none of his four children had children themselves, so the family died out and his handsome home became, by turn, a school, a tobacco warehouse, a wedding hall and a cinema. By the time it was bought by the Pir family in 2002, it was more or less derelict, but they lavished untold millions on restoring it at least to, if not beyond, its original grandeur.

We stayed in a converted stable, which was more than comfortable enough, but the grandest rooms are in the main house. These include the Mansion Suite, which was the Aga's bedroom, and where restoration uncovered a secret tunnel, probably designed, we were told, to give him discreet access to the female quarters. Either way, I think we can be sure that the Aga knew what ladies' belly-buttons really looked like.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Brian Viner and his family travelled as guests of the Turkey specialist Exclusive Escapes (020 8605 3500; exclusiveescapes.co.uk), which offers 10 nights split between the Dionysos Estate and Mehmet Ali Aga Mansion from £1,184 per person. The price includes flights to Dalaman from the private-jet terminal at Stansted, transfers, breakfast and a day's sea cruise.

More information

Turkish Tourist Office: 020 7839 7778; gototurkey.co.uk

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