As my mum’s 60th birthday loomed closer, she proved her aged wisdom by forfeiting the customary birthday bash for a week-long celebratory holiday and decided to take her three grown-up girls along for good measure. The first family holiday in years seemed like a good way to begin the benchmark year.
After drawing up a bucket list, we squabbled over various suggestions, ruling out India (too hectic), Greece (too obvious), and Mexico (too far away), before finally agreeing on the Turkish Mediterranean coast. The promise of turquoise waters, late-season sunshine and tasty meze all helped sway our decision. Thankfully, it turned out to be a pretty good one, and us four girls spent a wonderful week together there this October.
PART I: DALYAN
After flying into Dalaman airport, we had a quick twenty-minute drive to central Dalyan. In high season, it’s a mecca for rowdy charter flight holidaymakers, but thankfully by October we almost had the place to ourselves. The main street still bore some remnants of its Brits-abroad alter ego – think neon-lit bars and happy hour cocktails – but these were easily forgiven in light of its family-run pensions, atmospheric restaurants and authentic marketplace. The town also made a good base to explore the surrounding sights.
SHOP TILL YOU DROP
Dalyan’s lively Saturday market offers an insight into local life, with stalls selling all sorts of exotic spices, sun-swollen fruit and veg and local linens. After picking up the staples, we tracked down the harem trouser-clad women frying up gozlemas– a speciality pancake stuffed with spinach, local goats’ cheese and fresh herbs that made a perfect mid-morning snack.
On Dalyan’s riverbank we found a fleet of local boatmen vying to transport tourists to the various sites down the water. The four of us collectively paid a water taxi 50 Turkish Lire return (about £15) for a trip to the ancient ruins of Kaunos. The boat trip was also a good way to get a closer look at the series of mystifying Lycian tombs that are carved into the cliff opposite Dalyan centre and date back to 400 BC.
From the drop-off jetty a short, dusty walk past pomegranate groves took us to crumbling Kauonos, with its best remains being the Byzantine basilica, Roman baths and well-preserved semi-circular amphitheatre sunk into the hillside (entrance 8 TL). By early afternoon it’s a sun trap, and we spent a happy hour soaking up rays on the ancient stalls of its stadium, taking in the panoramic views on the sea and the mountains.
The best beach around is Itzuzu – a 5-km stretch of pristine coastline, accessed by water taxi or road. We followed the mountain pass by car, stealing looks over the vertiginous cliff edge to where a fresh water lagoon met the seascape.
The beach itself is a protected breeding ground for caretta caretta, the native loggerhead turtles. Lucky swimmers may find themselves sidling up to a giant shell in the deeper waters – quite an experience! Next to the beach, a turtle hospital is a sobering reminder of the damage caused by human interference; in giant tanks we saw turtles recovering from fungal infections and smashed shells from collisions with boats.
After a hot afternoon on the beach, the best way to cool off is by wallowing around in the nearby mud baths. Although I fear the sulphur-laced sludge may have stained my swimsuit beyond repair, I was assured by the locals that the mineral-rich mud would cleanse both skin and soul.
On the way home, we stopped at Nar Danesi bar for a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice (or for those with a sweet tooth, a home-made pomegranate ice cream). The bar is made atmospheric by a canopied open roof and low-level tables, seated with traditional Turkish cushions. Otherwise, a tree house shack in the garden offers a more secluded hangout. www.nardanesi.com
Our very favourite restaurant in Kalkan was the riverside Beyazgul – meaning ‘White Rose’. Sitting out on a balmy evening under a canopy of lemon trees and knotty vines, we feasted on fresh sea bream, Turkish meatballs and delicious stuffed aubergine. The low-hanging lanterns, sultry jazz music and views across the river towards the lit-up Lycian tombs, eerily suspended in blackness, all contributed to the magical atmosphere of the evening. www.beyazgul.info
PART II: KALKAN
After a couple of nights in Dalyan, we drove two hours to the bustling harbour town of Kalkan. Built around a curling bay at the foot of the Tauras mountains, the town is flashier than Dalyan and attracts both tourists and affluent Turks who can be found dining in the swanky harbour-side restaurants.
The lovely boutique hotel Fidanka lived up to all expectations. Set high up above the harbour, we nearly missed the hotel entrance, draped in brilliant pink bougainvillea. Up the steps we found the bar and restaurant terrace beside a swimming pool, overlooking the bay.
The hotel’s stone façade was spruced up with rustic timber cabins that serve as hotel room balconies. Countless pot plants, tangled shrubbery and fruit-laden lime trees flanked the passage to our family suites.
Quirky details gave Fidanka that special something; I loved the hand-painted mirrors, the wall-hanging plates, the rough-hewn tabletops decorated with colourful beads. The staff – like all the Turkish people we met – were gracious and welcoming and the generous breakfast buffet and supper menu, offering authentic local dishes, were both excellent. www.fidanka.com
GREECE IN A DAY
We spent a blissful day visiting the little Greek island of Meis (Kastellorizo in Greek). One of the easternmost islands of Greece, it’s just a couple of miles off the Turkish coast. The 10am ferry leaves from the harbour town of Kaş – a 25 minute-long scenic coastal drive from Kalkan. From the port, it took less than half an hour before the island came into view.
With a backdrop of craggy mountains, the port is truly idyllic. We sauntered slowly along the central walkway, admiring the colourful little fishing boats that bobbed around in the crystalline waters and peering into the shutters of traditional tiled-roofed houses painted in a pastel hues.
Although the port has no beach, we happily wiled away the day exploring the cobbled backstreet, basking in the scorching sun, and feasting on grilled octopus and Greek salad in a waterside Tavernas. When 3pm and the return journey to Kaş arrived, we were very sad to say goodbye to the little piece of paradise.
Two sandy beaches near Kalkan provided plenty of opportunity to top up on Vit D. Purist sun worshippers (like my older sister) will find nothing to detract them from the sun and sea at Kaputas. Formed by a plummeting gorge that opens out into a stretch of golden sand and turquoise water, it’s astonishingly picturesque. Alternatively, for fidgeter like me who need a distraction to break up the sunbathing, the 18km-long Patara beach charges for entry, but is well worth it for the chance to visit the atmospheric Roman amphitheatre located beside the beach.
From Kaş there are daily morning boat trips to Kekova and the Sunken City. If you decide to go with a group, be aware that boats can be crowded and blaring music on board can sometimes detract from the scenic surroundings. We preferred to drive further along the coastal road and picked up a local water taxi from the nearest point to the island – the little fishing village of Üçağiz . With just a few ram-shackled buildings and a handful of low-key pensions, shops and waterside restaurants, Üçağiz is an authentic retreat that seems virtually untouched by modern life.
Within minutes of arriving, we met local boatmen Abdullah who proved to me a knowledgeable guide and affable host. As we cruised the limpid waters in his wooden boat, we peered over the side to see giant turtles swimming nearby and the the sunken city below us. An eroded hammam, submerged columns and remains of mosaic hinted of the ancient civilisation’s former splendour before it was worn away by the sea and the corrosion of time.
We moored at the beautiful island of Kaleköy (known as Kale) to climb up to the crumbling Simena fortress that was built in the middle-ages, supposedly to protect the land from pirates. Reaching the top rewarded us with a vantage point over the ancient city walls, littered with ubiquitous Lycian tombs.
On our last night in Kalkan, we planned a little birthday surprise for our mum at Hotel Villa Mahal (villamahal.com). Gloriously glamorous, the hotel is spread over various levels that are built into the scarped cliff face overhanging the bay. Past the sleek cocktail bar, we edged down steep steps passed a infinity pool that jutted out over the sea. At the spa below, mum enjoyed an hour-long massage from a treatment room with a sunset view. We enjoyed a similar view from nearby hammock swings before heading to the bar in search of cocktails.
An hour later and with a Piña Colada in hand, mum looked in a pretty good position for sixty. During a delicious supper, she was spoiled rotten by the charismatic waiters who dedicated themselves to making the evening special. As mum unwittingly sat expecting the dessert menu, the restaurant was plunged into darkness, the bluesy music switched for a happy birthday chorus, and a troupe of staff holding giant sparklers emerged with an elaborate cream-heavy birthday cake. It was literally the icing on the cake to what had been a wonderful holiday.