Turkish Delights

Sprinkled around the coastline like jewels in the sea, a group of little-known islands give travellers a chance to dive into the ancient history and melting-pot culture of this captivating part of Europe.

Look at an itinerary for any modern-day Mediterranean cruise and you’ll likely find it sails from the Greek islands straight over to mainland Turkey with no mention of any one of the 500-odd islands scattered across the Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Seas.

True, Turkey’s islands may not have the slick sophistication of Santorini or the buzz of Mykonos (in fact, most aren’t even inhabited), but travellers who take a detour off the well-trodden path can expect untamed beauty, a varied history and endless sleepy fishing villages untouched by time. If you’re coming from Istanbul or the Turkish capital, Ankara… well, you could probably do with some beach time, so here are our top five Turkish islands.

Gokceada

At first sight of Turkey’s largest island, it is immediately clear that, although its name directly translates to ‘heavenly island’, this windswept place is not blessed with the best looks. Its beaches can be pebbly and the rows of non-descript homes stacked on the hills detract from its charm. But what Gokceada, located in the Aegean Sea at the entrance of Saros Bay, does have is a chequered history, which provides a snapshot into the complex relationship between Turkey and Greece.

Originally a Greek island (its name changed from Imbros in 1970), it was exempt from the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne at the conclusion of the Turkish War of Independence that obliged the Greeks of Turkey to return to Greece and for the Turks to do likewise. And although its population is mostly Turkish, the island still has a large Greek contingent, meaning a trip to Gokceada can simultaneously feel like a trip to both Greece and Turkey. It’s worth dropping in on some of the traditional Greek villages, such as Eski Bademli, home to coffee and olive shops and lovely cobblestone streets, where meandering is considered an Olympic sport. Throw in a trip to Aydincik Beach (the conditions are ideal for windsurfing) and spend an afternoon at the nearby salt lake where you can view migratory flamingos drawn to the minerals while you wallow in the mud (it’s said to have healing properties).

Eat

For traditional fare, Gul Hanim Manti Salonu (Ataturk Caddesi) specialises in Turkish ravioli. Over at the Barba Yorgo tavern, the festivities continue well into the night.

Stay

 With vistas of rolling hills and luscious gardens vying for your attention, the boutique hotel Anemos has 24 stylish rooms.

Getting there

Journey from Istanbul to Kabatepe (on the Gallipoli Peninsula), then catch the 75-minute ferry.

Kekova

No trip to the Mediterranean village of Kas - sandwiched on the south coast between tourism big-hitters Antalya and Fethiye - is complete without a daytrip past the island of Kekova.

Once a hangout for pirates lying in wait, the island is uninhabited today. Its main draw is on the northern side, where the partly sunken ruins of Dolichiste, an ancient town that was destroyed during a second-century earthquake, are still visible. The area is protected so you’re no longer allowed to snorkel and swim among the ruins, however you can still enjoy it from the comfort of a yacht (drink in hand) while on the regular run between Kas and Kalekoy (also known as old Simena).

These cruises, complete with food, drinks and swimming hole stops, are enjoyable themselves, but the fishing port of Kalekoy, with its historic church and fortified castle ruins, is undeniably the star of the show. To get to the castle, you must navigate the maze of narrow footpaths - while fending off locals flogging trinkets and side-stepping a sea of 20-somethings taking endless selfies in inopportune areas - but you will be rewarded for your efforts. The summit commands a majestic view of the surrounding islands as well as the Lycian tombs jutting out of the water.

Back down below; stop off at one of the ramshackle seafood restaurants and cafes that line the waterfront. You’ll need a refreshing drink to fortify you for the taxing cruise back to Kas.

Eat

Drop in at local favourite Hassan Restaurant (Kalekoy harbour) and enjoy a traditional mixed meats grill for next to nix.

Stay

Picturesque Mehtap Pansiyon, located under the hills of the castle and surrounded by olive and citrus trees, offers simple rooms and stunning views.

Getting there

Getting to Kas is no easy feat - most fly from Istanbul to Antalya, then get a coach to Kas (an easy three-hour journey). Kekova boat tour operators line Kas’s waterfront.

Bozcaada

It’s surprising that this charming island, with its maze of cobblestone alleys, whitewashed houses and picturesque beaches, hasn’t caught the attention of tourists because it’s certainly a popular destination with locals. Located less than 10 kilometres off the mainland in the Aegean Sea, the island is not only relatively easy to get to, but is teeming with waterfront seafood restaurants, a lively cafe scene and a wealth of wineries (wine production being one of the island’s main industries).

Start your trip by taking time to amble through Bozcaada’s streets - walking around the town will reveal a distinct blend of Turkish and Greek influences. While the Greek district has traditional Greek-style homes, repurposed tavernas and a church, the Turkish side is filled with mosques and hamams (Turkish baths). Visits to the Ayazma monastery, Bozcaada Castle and the museum, which displays many interesting and bizarre artefacts, are essential, as is spending an evening watching the sun set at Goztepe Hill. The island’s best beaches include Habbele, Ayana and Ayazma, but be warned: the water can be on the cooler side and the island is notorious for its sea breeze. Fortunately, you can warm up at any one of the island’s vineyards, such as Corvus. All the wineries here conduct tours and tastings, and foodies should time their visit to coincide with September’s Grape Harvest and International Taste Festivals.

Eat

For traditional ev yemekleri (Turkish home-cooked food) by the sea, try Koreli Restaurant (Ayazma Beach), and follow it up with a post-dinner drink at Fuska Cafe & Bar (Cumhuriyet Mahellesi, Kazanlar Sokak No 20).

Stay

The Bertiz Hotel (Cumhuriyet Mahellesi Habbele Koyu Mevkii, 50 Cadde, No 35) stands out from the crowd, featuring a huge infinity pool with a view of the sea. It’s located at Habbele beach — and between the hotel and the public beach; there is a grove of 130-year-old olive trees. 

Getting there

Regular 35-minute ferry services run between Bozcaada and Geyikli terminal, near Canakkale, an almost five-hour car or bus journey from Istanbul.

Buyukada

Buyukada is the largest of the nine islands that make up the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara, and for many Istanbul locals, it’s the go-to when they need a break from the chaos of living in such a bustling city. Perhaps the magic is in the fact that motorised vehicles are forbidden on the island, leaving visitors no choice but to explore the historic churches, monasteries and Ottoman-era mansions by either horse and carriage or bicycle.

The best way to get to know the island is to take a horse-drawn carriage on a ‘round-the-island’ tour to all the top tourist spots. Ask your driver to stop outside Con Pasa, Yelkencizade and Fabiato mansions (called ‘koskus’) in particular, as well as the grand Aya Yorgi (Saint George) church and monastery, for a taste of the island’s history as a former summer haven for the wealthy.

Back at the main square; spend some time checking out the stores that surround the clock tower before enjoying a few drinks, and a cherry ice-cream, along the waterfront, which is lined with cafes and seafood restaurants. For those who have a couple of days up their sleeve, an afternoon spent at one of the island’s retro beach clubs, such as Nakibey and Anadolu Kulubu, is something to be experienced.

Eat

For waterside dining, Ali Baba Restaurant (Maden Mahellesi, Gulistan Caddesi No 89;) offers a great range of seafood and meze, but it doesn’t come cheap. Those who want something different should head to Ada Kahvalti (Maden Mahellesi Akdemir Sokak No 6;) for a modern twist on a Turkish breakfast. For a drink with a side of live music, pop into By Sukru (Maden Mahellesi Gűlistan Caddesi).

Stay

With its red shutters and metallic domes, the historic Splendid Palace Hotel (Nisan Caddesi No 23) is elegant and centrally located. Its 70 rooms and four suites accommodate up to 134 guests.

Getting there

There are regular ferry services throughout the day from Kabatas, Besiktas, Kadikoy and Bostanci ferry docks, and the journeys can take anywhere between 30 and 90 minutes.

Avsa

Located in the Sea of Marmara, the island of Avsa is getting more popular by the day. Some put the increasing tourist numbers down to the island’s mild climate, but it could be that unlike many of the other ‘girt-by-sea’ cohorts, there’s a little more action to be had in town for those holidaymakers who are chasing some fun with their sun. Pick up fresh produce at the port’s fish markets and have it cooked on the mangal (Turkish barbecue), then head to the main town (also called Avsa). Drop in at the local fairground — Avsa Lunapark — for an evening of thrills and spills, before heading to the open-air bars and tea gardens that line the Plaj Caddesi (beach road).

If you’re a wine buff, the Buyulubag vineyard and winery is one of the best here. Buy a couple of bottles and take them to one of the pretty beaches that fringe the island. Altinkum, located 15 minutes from the town of Yigitler, is a top spot for swimming and water sports. Yigitler village is also home to a lively club scene, particularly in summer.

Eat

Eat seafood on the sand at Erol’un Yeri (Ataturk Caddesi Balikesir), and enjoy a post-dinner raki (the unofficial alcoholic drink of Turkey) with live music at Meydan Lokantasi (Ali Riza Efendi Sokak). They are also well known for their meze.

Stay

Cinar Otel (Degirmenardi Mevkii, Avsa Adasi, Balikesir) is a family-run establishment with 42 rooms and six suites.

Getting There

You can take the almost six-hour cruise from Istanbul, or drive to Tekirdag and get the ferry across, which takes three hours or so.

Dilvin Yasa - Published in Voyeur April 2016
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 12,782,960
Time Zone UTC +3
Languages Turkish (official), Kurdish, Arabic
Currency Turkish Lira
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