From bustling bazaars and traditional cruises to ancient wonders and coastal hideaways, Jeannine Williamson offers the best of Turkey
Beguiling is an often-used but perfectly apt description of Turkey. Straddling two continents, with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, this varied country features incredible landscapes and natural wonders bordered by four different seas, while the principal city of Istanbul is an exotic meeting point of different cultures and former capital of three successive empires — Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman.
Turkey became the world’s sixth most visited country by tourist arrivals in the World Tourism Organization’s 2012 annual top 10 ranking, and in the same year US visitor arrivals increased by nearly 2%. With US travelers typically visiting Turkey on cruises, the tourist board has launched a marketing drive to encourage Americans to take longer vacations and venture outside Istanbul.
“Turkey has so much to offer and is a country for all tastes,” says Mehmet Secilmis, principal, Discover Turkey Travel. “It has breathtaking natural beauty, a steadily improving hotel and tourism infrastructure and a tradition of hospitality and competitive prices. It’s also blessed with majestic mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers, waterfalls and grottoes and is perfect for winter and summer tourism and all kinds of sports.
“Above all, Turkey is an open-air museum, and the huge amount of historical and archaeological wealth seems more appropriate for an entire continent than a single country. For centuries Turkey has been a crossroads of religions and its cuisine has been influenced by many cultures.”
There are direct flights from the US — United Airlines recently launched its first-ever service to Turkey — and with the country fast becoming a top global tourism destination plans have been announced to build the world’s largest airport in Istanbul. Able to handle 150 million passengers annually, the first stage of the $9bn six-runway project is scheduled to open in 2017.
“Turkey is attracting US travelers because of its many features,” concludes Leila Dada CTC, of Cruise Planners. “A unique country extending over two continents, it is truly where ‘East meets West’. Istanbul is one the world’s greatest cities and a treasure house of history — you feel you’re stepping back in time when visiting Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar — and Cappadocia is a ‘must see’ with its lunar landscapes, along with the ruins of Ephesus. Turkey is definitely a ‘must do’ bucket list destination.”
Haggling in Istanbul’s Bazaars
After seeing city highlights such as Topkapi Palace and the vast Blue Mosque, no visit to Istanbul would be complete without haggling at bazaars where little has changed over the centuries. The Old City’s 15th-century Kapali Carsi, or Grand Bazaar, is one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets. A labyrinth of 61 streets and passages, with more than 3,000 shops and stalls stacked high with jewelry, carpets, clothes and ‘magic eye’ symbols, it’s a real Aladdin’s cave with getting lost all part of the fun.
The 17th-century Egyptian Market, or Spice Bazaar, near the Eminonu ferry terminal, is filled with the pungent scent of cinnamon, caraway, saffron, mint and every other imaginable spice shaped into neat conical piles on the stalls. It’s the place to buy real Turkish Delight — studded with nuts or more subtle flavors — together with dried fruits and olives that you can taste before you buy.
In the bazaars any interest in the goods will be met with some welcoming banter from shopkeepers eager to strike a deal and, in the case of larger items, haggling over cups of sweet tea. Pestering is usually good-natured and all part of the experience, and by offering a third of the asking price and negotiating from there you can secure some fantastic bargains.
Cruising the Turquoise Coast
With more than 5,000 miles of coastline, one of the best ways to enjoy Turkey is from its seas, and arguably the most beautiful stretch is the Mediterranean shoreline known as the Turquoise Coast. Easily reached from the airline gateway of Dalaman, it spans nearly 1,000 miles and stretches east to Antalya and west to Marmaris.
The most authentic way to sail here is onboard a gulet, a traditional Turkish wooden boat. Half- or full-day cruises are available out of all the main resorts. Longer cruises can be added to a land-based touring itinerary with anything from one to seven nights on board.
Gulets are custom built for cruising, with cozy saloons and cabins, and enable travelers to reach secluded bays not accessible by land. There are daily stops at beaches away from the main holiday resorts, small villages, archaeological ruins, historic sites and tiny offshore islands. These cruises are also excellent value with all meals served on board.
Ballooning Over Cappadocia
Situated in Central Anatolia, Cappadocia is best-known for its unique moon-like landscape, underground cities, cave churches and houses carved into the rocks. It’s also renowned as one of the best places in the world for hot air balloon flights. The spectacular and surreal rock formations on the volcanic lava-covered plain were created through erosion by water and strong winds over thousands of years and the most distinctive features are the incredible ‘fairy chimneys’ resembling mushrooms and cones.
The region is 450 miles from Istanbul and the easiest way to get there is on an hour-long flight to Erkilet or Nevsehir Kapadokya airports. Well-established companies offer 1-1hr30min flights in balloons carrying between eight and 24 people. Passengers are collected from their hotels early in the morning, usually before sunrise, for a light breakfast and briefing at the take-off site.
Cappadocia’s excellent flying conditions allow balloons to gently drift over and between the fairy chimneys and houses hewn into the rock, to soar over orchards and vineyards and through impressive valleys and ravines, offering breathtaking views of the region and an exhilarating experience. Champagne is served on landing and participants receive a commemorative flight certificate.
With historic treasures spanning 13 successive civilizations over a period of 10,000 years, Turkey is packed with cultural sights. The main attractions include two of the Seven Wonders of the World — the ruins of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and the tomb of King Mausolus in Bodrum.
Ephesus is always offered as a day trip for cruise passengers calling at Izmir and is the best preserved classical city on the Med — its grand scale provides visitors with a real feeling of what life was like in Roman times. It became the second largest city in the Roman Empire and while little remains of the Temple of Artemis, Ephesus contains many impressive ruins, including a large theater, mosaics, statues and frescoes.
Another prominent historical site is the ancient city of Halicarnassus, in the resort and yachting port of Bodrum at the southern end of Turkey’s Aegean coast. It houses the remains of the original Mausoleum, the elaborate tomb which, like Ephesus, dates back to the 4th century BC.
Increasingly known as the ‘adventure capital of the Mediterranean’, this attractive seaside town is a good base for exploring the surrounding Turquoise Coast. Built on a hillside overlooking the sea, Kas is also a wonderful spot to relax with many restaurants and bars in the narrow streets, which are lined with old wooden houses. The town is very family-friendly and is popular among travelers of all ages.
From Kas visitors can embark on easy hikes, more challenging treks, whitewater rafting trips, jeep safaris, mountain biking, diving and snorkeling. There are boat trips out to the small island of Kekova and an unusual attraction on the northern side of the island is Dolchiste, a town destroyed by an earthquake in the second century AD — a sea-kayaking expedition is the best way to see the underwater ruins.
Attractions near Kas include UNESCO-listed Xanthos, the capital of ancient Lycia, and the Saklikent Gorge, the second largest canyon in Europe. There are also excursions to Tlos, one of the most important religious centers in the Lycia region.
PUBLISHED IN THE SUMMER 2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork