Cappadocia, "the land of the beautiful horses" in Persian, has been captivating travellers for centuries. Millions of years ago, volcanic eruptions created this otherworldly landscape, leaving behind extraordinary rock formations, fairy chimneys and rose-coloured ravines. Numerous civilisations, including the Hittites, Persians, Romans and Ottomans, have also left their mark, and the region is home to ancient cave dwellings, stone-carved churches, fortresses perched atop rocky outcrops and labyrinthine underground cities built in the third and fourth centuries to shelter Christians from persecution.
Once the preserve of archaeology buffs and backpackers, now it's drawing a more sophisticated crowd, with cosmopolitan Anatolian-fusion restaurants and designer cave hotels where you can live like a stylish troglodyte. The terrain also lends itself to adventure sports, from cross-country golf to quad biking, mountain biking, hiking, rafting, horse riding and even skiing in winter. And it's one of the best places in the world for hot-air balloon flights.
A comfortable bed
One of Cappadocia's most luxurious boltholes, the 30-room Museum Hotel (www.museum-hotel.com; 0090 384 219 2220) in Uçhisar has doubles from 275 (Dh1,324). Created from the restored ruins of an ancient village, it's filled with antique tapestries, furniture, robes and jewellery.
Also in Uçhisar, The Argos (www.argosincappadocia.com; 0090 384 219 3130) has doubles from 185 (Dh890). This multilevel complex of 42 rooms - some with their own in-room swimming pools - in five separate buildings and caves has been through several incarnations over the past two millennia: by turns a monastery, Silk Road caravanserai and linseed oil factory.
Hezen Cave Hotel (www.hezencave.com; 0090 384 343 3005), set into the steep slopes of Ortahisar, effortlessly blends the contemporary and traditional within its walls, with plenty of bright colours offsetting the pale stone. Doubles start at US$180 (Dh661).
Serinn House (www.serinnhouse.com; 0090 384 341 6076) is a beautifully restored house in Ürgüp's peaceful hilltop neighbourhood of Esbelli. Five rooms are set around a courtyard that combines ancient cave living and European-style minimalist chic. Doubles from $150 (Dh551).
Find your feet
The larger towns of Ürgüp and Göreme are the traditional tourism hubs, with a range of accommodation, eateries, shops and nightlife. Stylish hotels are opening up in smaller, less-visited villages such as Uçhisar, the highest and one of the oldest villages in Cappadocia, with its own natural rock castle, and picturesque Ortahisar, with narrow streets built around a citadel that offers a real taste of Anatolian life. They all make excellent bases to explore the region by group or private tour. Don't miss the Göreme Open-Air Museum, a Unesco World Heritage site with rock churches, Byzantine art and troglodyte villages dating back to the fourth century, set in an incredible sculpted landscape. You can explore the narrow, winding passageways of the multilevel subterranean cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli. Hike between Uçhisar and Göreme along Pigeon Valley or in the Ihlara Valley, a 14-kilometre canyon lined with cave monasteries, churches, pigeon houses and ancient cave dwellings.
Meet the locals
In markets, shops, coffee houses and tea gardens. To feel like a real insider, take a cooking class with Cappadocia Home Cooking (www.cappadociahomecooking.com; 0090 384 354 5907) in the village of Ayvali. You'll be invited into Tolga Duran's home, meet his family and tour the farmstead, before creating various traditional Anatolian meze. And you get to eat the results.
Book a table
The Museum Hotel's award-winning fine-dining restaurant, Lil'a (www.lil-a.com.tr), is a candlelit room-with-a-view, offering a collection of traditional Cappadocian home-cooked dishes that are increasingly hard to find. You could try Nevsehir tava for 45 Turkish lira (Dh86), an early-1900s recipe comprising lamb, pepper, garlic and tomato cooked in a traditional casserole in a brick oven, and served with rice pilaf. Seki Restaurant (www.seki.com.tr) at Argos serves a mixture of international and local dishes with a contemporary twist, such as 44-hour cooked lamb shoulder, cheese borek and confit apples for 55 Turkish lira (Dh105). Ziggy Cafe and Restaurant (www.ziggycafe.com) in Ürgüp is a favourite with visitors and residents. Try the 12-plate meze menu, including smoked aubergine dip, fava bean purée and garlic chicken skewers, for 50 lira (Dh96).
Cappadocia has been a centre of carpet weaving for centuries. The Indigo Gallery (Orta Mah, Uzundere Sok, No 15/A; www.indigogallery.com.tr; by appointment only) in Göreme specialises in antique and new handmade carpets and kilims. Le Bazaar d'Orient (32 Kayseri Caddesi) in Ürgüp also has a fine selection, and visit the fascinating museum above the shop of rare weavings and textiles from Turkey and beyond. Avanos is famous for pottery, and family-run firms, such as Guray Seramik House, have been producing both ancient - Iznik, Hittite, Ottoman - and modern designs for generations. Spices, onyx, silver jewellery and gemstones also make good purchases.
A sunrise hot-air balloon flight (0090 384 271 3300; royalballoon.com; from 175 per person [Dh842] for a one-hour flight) is a spectacular way to discover the unique landscape.
What to avoid
The large tour groups, by arriving at the most popular sights early in the morning or late in the afternoon. And dodge the underground cities if you suffer from claustrophobia.
Turkish Airlines offers flights from Abu Dhabi to Istanbul in just under five hours, and then from Istanbul to Nevsehir in Cappadocia in just over an hour, from Dh1,578 return, including taxes.
Follow us @TravelNational
Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.