x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 September 2017

The Turkish Riviera beckons

Luxurious seclusion in Bodrum or sailing, diving and shopping in Kas, it's the right time to discover Turkey's treasure coast.

The harbor from St Peter's Castle in Bodrum, Turkey.
The harbor from St Peter's Castle in Bodrum, Turkey.

The black Mercedes SUV speeds around the corner of the narrow mountain road. I spot an odd collection of lights down by the bay: they seem to be deep in the forest, lining this untouched stretch of the Aegean coastline on the north side of Turkey's Bodrum peninsula. "What's that village?" I ask our driver. He laughs as he takes a sharp right turn on to an unlit dirt track. "It's not a village," he says. "It's the resort."

Amanruya is the Indonesian luxury brand Aman's 25th resort and the first in the Middle East, even if it is right at the very edge of the region. Europe starts 50 kilometres south of here at the Greek island of Kos.

At its other resorts, Aman has taken over entire islands and turned palaces into hotels. But here the company has picked an area that has made its name as a jumping-off point for the cheap, package holiday resorts farther up the coast.

We step out of the resort's car and we are now so far away from the main road that I can only just see the headlights streaming along the forest road; I can't hear a sound.

"People come here because they know they will have privacy," says Gabriel Lousada, the Portuguese general manager. "Sometimes people arrive, go into their cottage and I don't see them again for the rest of their stay."

The resort, built at the centre of a massive plot of land stretching as far as the eye can see, is designed to look like a traditional Turkish village. The only problem is that it feels a little contrived - this is no village, and there are no locals, except for the staff who insist on stopping what they are doing and standing bolt upright against the wall as I walk past. It feels like they are about to salute me.

A lot of effort seems to have gone into making sure Amanruya blends in with its surroundings. Many of the trees of this former forest have been preserved, with the villas built around them. "We want the gardens to grow naturally. Let nature take its course," Lousada says. It is not just the trees that they have built around. A hundred metres past the last villa is a small group of ruins that look like deserted stone houses. Except they're not. "These people were here before us, they didn't want to leave," Lousada tells me. As I walk past, an old man comes out with a watering can. "They know how to look after the land, it's good they're here."

There are nods to the resort's Turkish surroundings wherever you look, from the Abdi Coskun album playing on the villa's iPod to the Nazim Hikmet poem left on my bed at night (a Nobel prize winner, he's Turkey's greatest poet). But there is something odd about flying to Turkey for a cultural experience and then cocooning yourself miles from the nearest village.

There is a field, a forest and a dirt track between me and the nearest Turk, excluding employees. Indeed, the senior staff team is like a mini United Nations: the senior guest assistant Sakiko Okazaki is Japanese and her husband Yeshi is from Myanmar; a colleague of theirs is Russian.

In addition to the land that stretches halfway up the mountain, the resort also owns 1.5km of coastline. A track winds through the forest and down to a small pebble beach with some decking for sunbathing. Hidden amidst the trees are more of these tiny seaside platforms. If you are in search of even more solitude, the resort offers cruises on its private motorboat for €700 (Dh3,225) which covers a full day, including meals.

Sailing is one of Bodrum's big draws. Neighbouring Marmaris is the country's yachting capital, and it is not uncommon to see rows of million-dollar boats lined up at the harbour. You can charter a yacht and spend a week cruising along the Turkish Riviera. Or if you are short on time, hire a car and drive along the coast-hugging road through some of the country's most exclusive resorts.

I choose the road route and not long after starting the journey east, my driver and I are stopped at a police cordon on the coast road. It turns out that a group of cyclists is taking the same route, so the highway has been closed off until mid-afternoon. In search of an alternative route, we head north, up into the mountains, and for half an hour we don't pass a single car or building. As the road rolls down to the bottom of the valley, a house seems to appear from nowhere. And then another, and another. Dozens of brand new buildings, completely invisible from higher up the mountain, are now in sight. This is the work of Kamil Ilhan, the son of a farmer who grew up working the land, and dreamt of building his own village: the Secret Valley.

Ilhan now builds villas to order, mostly for rich foreigners looking for a hideaway holiday home. As we tour the development, a Saudi family is being shown around, and we meet an Azerbaijani who is putting the finishing touches to his new property.

The biggest treat at the Secret Valley is down by the stream, where tables are set up along the water's edge. If you feel adventurous, you can climb the ladder to one of the bird's nest tables or walk across the rope bridge to get to one of the platforms hanging over the river. This is one of Turkey's best hidden restaurants, Akkaya Garden. The warm fluffy bread, straight out of the oven, is served with mezze made from vegetables grown on their on-site farm.

With the sun going down, we head back on to the road and continue east. The green mountainside forest gives way to dusty plains before the highway gets narrow and steep. Then as we round a bend, the Mediterranean comes into view, with the sun shimmering off the clear blue sea. The road clings to the cliff, winding around rocks and over hills, past gorges and perching over isolated beaches.

The town of Kas is our destination. Although wealthy Europeans have been coming here for years, it's far enough away from the nearest airport to avoid the mass-market package holiday trade (there's no sandy beach, for a start). This is boutique-hotel heaven. The White House, with its wrought-iron balconies and quaint attic rooms, is one of the most attractive. Tucked away on the hill in one of the prettiest parts of town, it is opposite the oldest of the village's three mosques which was originally built as a Greek church.

Kas is a boating centre. Hitch a lift to one of the nearby sandy beaches that are inaccessible by road. Or get on board the daily sailing to Kastellorizo, the easternmost Greek island, just a couple of kilometres off the Turkish shore. This used to be Ottoman territory until an uprising by the ethnic Greeks who captured the Turkish soldiers stationed on the island. In the years that followed, Kastellorizo was variously ruled by France, Italy and Britain before finally becoming a part of Greece in 1948. The tiny former mosque at the edge of the island bears testament to this small community's rocky history.

I take a hike along the narrow cliffside coastline path, up Castle Hill and down the other side to find the ruins of a handful of small villages, destroyed in the 1926 earthquake. Just a few hundred people still live on Kastellorizo, most of them in the pastel-coloured houses lining the semi-circular bay. Many of the doll's-house-style buildings double up as restaurants, serving fresh seafood at tables right by the water's edge. There are hotels on the island, but there is little to do other than eat, drink, walk or take a motorboat ride around the rocks.

While it can be tempting to spend all your time in Kas out at sea, sailing, sunbathing or diving (a number of easily accessible wrecks make this one of the world's most popular dive sites), don't miss the cobble-stone heart of the village.

A narrow, hilly street is the main shopping area, and because Kas is still not overrun by tourists, there are some great finds. Seda Ergun set up Tuwa Mahal four years ago after moving from Istanbul. She makes hand-painted, limited edition dresses in a Native American style. Her shop draws regular customers who travel down from Istanbul. But she has no plans to move back to the big city. "I can't," she says, "I have so much inspiration in Kas, there's more time to be creative."

It's not just Turks who have found space to breathe in Kas. Kirsten Wagner moved here from Germany six years ago. By day she bakes cakes to sell in her cafe down the road from the amphitheatre, and by night, she hosts book-reading and poetry sessions for the small expat community. Just a few dozen foreigners live in Kas, many out on the 5km-long peninsula, so the village still feels overwhelmingly Turkish.

If you want to meet real locals in a real village, rather than uniformed ones in a pretend village, Kas, squeezed between the Anatolian cliffs and a Mediterranean bay, beats Amanruya hands down. Sure, it doesn't have the luxury nor the seclusion, but Turkey is great because of its people, not despite them. And with €1,000, I could stay one night at Aman or three weeks here.

Eating olives and cheese with honey and jam from the market for breakfast. Sailing in the afternoon. And having fresh fish for dinner. It's easy to see why the Turkish Riviera has become a hideaway for designers looking for some creative space, or CEOs seeking solitude from the BlackBerry. As I sail off into the sunset, the lights of the town blend into the background.


If You Go

The flight Return flights on Turkish Airlines (www.thy.com) from Abu Dhabi to Bodrum, via Istanbul, cost from Dh2,170, including taxes

The stay Villas at Amanruya (www.amanresorts.com; 00 90 252 311 1212) cost from €950 (Dh4,377) including taxes. A double room at the White House Hotel in Kas (00 90 242 836 1513), costs €49 (Dh226) including taxes

The restaurants Dinner for two at Amanruya costs around 200 Turkish lira (Dh403). A mezze meal for two at Akkaya Garden (www.akkayagarden.com; 00 90 252 697 5275) is 60TL (Dh121). Mikro Parisi, in Kastellorizo, serves dinner for two for around €50 (Dh230)