Turkey uncovered: Sun, sea, sand and sightseeing off the beaten track

Persuading children to visit the historical wonders on Turkey's Mediterranean coast isn't plain sailing, but the promise of a ride on an inflatable banana helps, says Caroline Stacey

Xanthos is a World Heritage Site. This information does not impress an eight- and 10-year-old who have been in the car far longer than promised. Nor does it mean that it's easy to find. Because it is so badly signposted, we have driven past the ruined city twice. We have sought directions once in a petrol station, where we felt obliged to buy large bottles of water; then from a group of backgammon players at a shaded roadside café; and, lastly, from three men loading tomatoes on to a lorry. When we eventually spot the craggy silhouette on the hill above Kinik, and pull off the main drag into an empty car park, we still need the self-appointed guide on a motorised trike to show us the way to the ticket office.

The glorious Mediterranean coast of Turkey, haphazardly but not disastrously developed over the past few years, was once the province of Lycia, and Xanthos was its largest city. But Turkey, allegedly, has more Greek ruins than Greece itself. And the remaining evidence of Greek and Roman occupation, combined with the Lycian tombs, is all the more fabulous for being treated with a casual disregard.

We persuaded one child that striding round the sweep of the amphitheatre and hopping over collapsed stone walls was a sport worthy of his time. Then almost spoiled it by pointing out the bas-relief of harpies on a family sarcophagus, the originals of which are down the road from us at home, in the British Museum, removed thence by Sir Charles Fellows in 1842 (a detail we left out). "We came all this way to see a fake," he snorted.

With swims in the sea or rides on an inflatable banana pulled by a speedboat to offer as a reward for a museum visit, all sorts of deals can be struck between family members with opposing interests. The other child was also cajoled into clambering over the surprisingly extensive remains of a city that had successively suffered the ravages of Persian invasion, mass suicide, fire, punitive taxation by the Greeks, war and earthquakes, time and neglect. As usual, after half an hour, they forgot that they were somewhere fascinating to adults and just enjoyed jumping around.

We were staying in Kalkan, a ramshackle village with two small beaches and far more newly built (and unfinished) accommodation - most of it reasonably well-disguised apartment developments - than visitors. A knot of pretty, old streets led down to the harbour where gulets (traditional wooden boats) wait to take you out towards the islands, one called Sican (mouse), the other Yilan (snake). These dominated our view from the Stone House. Newly built, but with traditional materials, if there's a more tasteful villa in all Kalkan, I'll eat my sunhat. Furniture inside and out was all black wrought iron; upholstery and billowing curtains white; the floors terracotta and the rugs bright and beautifully coloured.

The pool was big enough. And a big hit. We were dragged out of bed every morning by gleeful children demanding a supervised swim. We had to watch from the side and award marks for the challenges they set themselves: "Mum, time me! See how long I can stay underwater." "How many lengths underwater can I do with only five breaths?" "How long will it take to pick up three sets of broken goggles (two of which were bought yesterday) off the bottom of the pool?"

Kalkan was quiet compared with home. There were no traffic lights, a couple of roundabouts and no wailing sirens in the night. True, the birds sang louder and there was the distant rat-a-tat of construction work, carried out without much conviction. But a holiday with children and a swimming pool has a parallel soundtrack. "Ow, gerrof, you're hurting me!" "I hate you, bogey breath." "Mum, Mum, Mum, Mumeeeee, he's taken the ball!" "It's mine." "No it's not!"

For the sake of some peace, the visit to Xanthos cost us more than the few lire spent on the tickets. The price was a ride round the harbour on the inflatable banana. It was fast, fun and a fair exchange for the morning's excursion. The half-day out in a gulet, with a lunch of grilled fish and salad on board, several swims at otherwise unreachable beaches, and tea and cake as we headed back to the harbour, was an even better deal than we'd realised. We had struck that one in exchange for the visit to Patara a couple of days earlier.

This endless stretch of sand is interrupted only by one café and a patch of sunbeds and parasols halfway along. Thanks to the loggerhead turtles that breed here, it's been declared a conservation area and is blissfully unspoilt. You park amid the trees and walk along duck-boarding. The sea is shallow and safe.

But this wasn't why we needed bribery. About 1km inland are the remains of what was once the main port and headquarters of the Lycian League (one of the earliest democratic unions consisting of 23 city-states). It can also claim to be the birthplace of Father Christmas: Saint Nicholas who, AD300, became the Byzantine bishop of Myra, came from here. But still the place feels like an extraordinary discovery. Until recently, it was almost completely submerged in sand.

Earthquakes in early Christian times destroyed the port, and the harbour silted up. Even now that the amphitheatre has been cleared, there's no admission fee and only a few other people exploring the Greek, Roman and Byzantine ruins. On the way back to the car, we came across an almost biblical scene - a goat stuck in a thorny bush.

Patara village is a traveller-ish collection of guest houses and shops. Development is restricted but it's being gussied up for the US visitors coming to mark the Lycian League's influence on the framing of the American constitution 220 years ago. More conventionally colonised by tourism, you'd never guess that Kalkan had only been permanently inhabited since the 1950s, when the mosquitoes no longer carried malaria. In summer, the locals used to migrate inland to escape the hazard. Now, while Kalkan buzzes with mozzie-repellent-spraying visitors, up in the Toros mountains, on a fertile plain that was once a lake, the former summer haven of Bezirgan is still untouched by tourism.

Kalkan has The Swan, with an eat-as-much-as-you-can buffet for the 80 British families living in and around the little town, and any other lager-lovers. Bezirgan has Vas Yezem. After a mountainous drive, at the far end of the completely flat village we came to what looked like a mini ranch, with a row of two-storey coops for giant chickens or small huts for scouts - we never discovered their purpose - on the rising land. There were hollyhocks in the garden, free-range chickens and baby partridges. A tortoise wandered past the rusting chest-freezer, and there were piles of Coke and beer crates beside the home-made-looking house on stilts. The sign outside said Vas Yezem restaurant.

We sat on one of three mats and cushion-covered raised daises built around tree trunks, and assumed that was our supper scratching and clucking in the vegetable patch. But Vas looked surprised when we asked if we could eat, went away, and came back with a supermarket pack of chicken legs that he offered to cook. They were frozen solid. When, some time later, the chicken came back fried, with fat golden chips, raw onion, tomatoes and green peppers, the children, who have been warned about the risks of partially defrosted chicken, ate gingerly and unenthusiastically.

In Kalkan, there's plenty of good food. Although the poshest restaurant in the town claims that it's famous for its mild curry sauce, the bream and snapper on rough-chopped tomato sauce with garlic potatoes, and juicy prawns weren't what you'd get in a tandoori. And the Ibo Terrace Restaurant not only offers much hand-shaking and shoulder-squeezing by the owner, but terrific carrot sticks in batter with a garlicky yogurt-and-dill dip, and a lovely salad of orange, feta and walnuts, typical of the varied and delectable mezze. That's before you get to the stonking main-course grills. The humblest-looking ocakbasi grill, where meat is expertly barbecued over a trough of coals, puts on a tremendous spread.

One sure-fire way of working up an appetite for supper is to canoe down the Xanthos river. It sounded energetic and turned out to be satisfyingly exhausting. Guided by a leathery American who had stayed on after a two-week holiday 10 years ago, we canoed, the children with a professional each, parents in bickering pairs careering towards the river banks, through lush National Park. We saw a tortoise stranded on the bank, a pair of storks following the path of the river, swallows swooping, and a man with a dog sitting on the bank beside a rope attached to a tree overhanging the river - had he been positioned there to look picturesque, too? En route, we bathed the Lycian way in mud, swam, and stopped for a lunch of grilled trout, buttery pasta and salad, under trees invaded by goats.

So far, so idyllic. However, the last couple of kilometres through choppy water approaching the sea was unexpectedly tough-going. We were concentrating furiously, switching the paddle from side to side, for what seemed far too long. But the effort made it all the more exhilarating to reach the mouth of the river, where the muddy water merges with the blue sea at Patara beach. There was a family of locals camped on one bank, a herd of goats on the other, and nothing else as far as the eye could see.

The children had been canoeing for five hours and still wanted to swim at the other end. But not in the sea. More than anything, they wanted to go back to the villa and jump in the pool.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Kalkan can be reached from Dalaman and Antalya airports. The former is served by GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com)

from Gatwick; Cyprus Turkish Airlines (020-7930 4851; www.kthy.net) from Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester; and XL.com (0870 320 7777; www.xl.com) from regional airports.

Antalya is served by Cyprus Turkish from Heathrow, Stansted and Manchester; and SunExpress (0845 600 1521; www.sunexpress.com.tr) from Stansted. Charters such as Thomsonfly (0870 190 0737; www.thomsonfly.com), First Choice Airways (0870 850 3999; www.firstchoice.co.uk) and Thomas Cook (08707 520 918; www.flythomascook.com) fly to both.

STAYING THERE

The writer travelled with Simply Travel (0870 166 4979; www.simplytravel.co.uk), which has several self-catering properties in Kalkan and other resorts around Dalaman. A seven-night break at The Stone House, Kalkan (which sleeps six) starts at £419 per person. The price includes return flights to Dalaman and transfers. The price for a family of four starts at £340 per adult per week and £185 for the first child (the second goes free), including return flights from Stansted and transfers.

MORE INFORMATION

Turkish Tourism Office: 020-7839 7778; www.gototurkey.co.uk

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