Back in the eighties, one of the invitations coveted by New York's social elite was to cruise the cobalt-blue waters off Turkey's Aegean coast as a guest of Turkish-born Atlantic Records mogul Ahmet Ertegun and his decorator wife, Mica. Aboard the Erteguns' stylishly refitted gulet, a traditional wide-bottomed fishing boat, favored guests uncovered pristine coves, tiny villages, and half-submerged ancient cities. The entourage would set sail from the port city of Bodrum, where the couple's lavish palazzo overlooked the harbor.
By the nineties, chartering a gulet had become easy. Ordinary—if adventurous—travelers were starting to cruise this still-unspoiled part of the Mediterranean. Alas, the onshore accommodations (basic pensions, standard-issue package-tour hotels) were a far cry from the Erteguns' palazzo. But all that has changed with the recent openings of extraordinary hotels in Bodrum and beyond. In fact, it's now possible to explore the Turkish Riviera a whole new way: by land.
The longtime haunt of Istanbul's intellectuals and jet-setters, Bodrum looks seductive from the sea: an up-and-down town of white cubic houses set on bronzed slopes. At its center is the massive 15th-century Castle of St. Peter, so well preserved it looks as though it had been erected yesterday. Glamorous yachts and gulets fill the harbor. Spreading across a hilltop high above everything is the town's newest landmark, the 100-room Marmara Bodrum, a stone-and-stucco hotel that is already attracting a posh crowd.
Crowned by domes and pyramid-topped chimneys, the Marmara is the work of Turkish architect Ersen Gürsel and French interior designer Christian Allart. It's the kind of cutting-edge property that one would expect to find in Miami or L.A. First impressions: The staff—young, attractive, energetic. The public spaces—full of surprises. Lamps shoot up from antique butter churns; Turkish "carpets" are made of pebble mosaics. And the hotel is a virtual modern-art gallery full of site-specific works by Turkish artists, like Mevlut Akyildiz, who welds his small wrought iron figures of gods and politicians onto tables and light fixtures.
"Bodrum has always catered to a select Turkish crowd—but it never had a stylish, modern hotel to go with it," says Aylin Kaltakkiran, spokesperson for the Marmara's owners (a Turkish consortium that prefers to keep a low profile). "The idea was to make Bodrum a bit more like the south of France or the Italian Riviera. And because we had to catch up, we tried that much harder to create something special."
The Marmara's bedrooms feel almost Japanese, with wood and stone floors, rough-hewn chests, and simple platform beds. Inside the shower, however, is something you won't find at any ryokan: an electronically controlled shade between panes of glass that opens for a picture-window view across the bedroom to the harbor and sea. With its two swimming pools—one reserved for lap swimmers—slick health club, handsome hammam (steam bath), squash courts, and numerous salons for reading and relaxing, you could hole up and never dip into Bodrum.
By day, the town is a bustling little place, filled with tourists—many of them day-trippers vacationing on the nearby Greek island of Kós. Wandering the souk-like streets, you dodge small boys who dart about delivering cups of Turkish coffee on big silver trays to shop owners. The pergola-shaded restaurants along Meyhaneler Sokak specialize in mezes—wonderful nibbles of octopus, eggplant concoctions, and dips of yogurt, mint, and garlic.