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.
Bodrum's main attraction is the Castle of St. Peter, which has great stone staircases, chambers, and towers. The gardens are roamed by peacocks and strewn with amphorae, statues, mosaics, and sarcophagi. Built by the Knights of St. John between 1406 and 1513, it was once considered the strongest fortress in the Mediterranean. Today, its walls enclose a small city of cafés, shops, and ateliers where glassblowers and potters show off their skills and sell their wares. The castle also houses the Museum of Underwater Archaeology, with the world's largest collection of artifacts retrieved from ancient shipwrecks, whole cargoes of amphorae and unbroken glassware, as well as the partially restored hulls of several of the ill-fated vessels that carried them.
At night after the day-trippers depart, well-heeled guests frequent restaurants like Sapa, in a stone-walled courtyard with candlelit tables. Another popular spot is Hadigari, which has a number of outdoor tables in the shadow of the castle.
Later, everyone moves on to chic bars. Picante—lizard murals, bathtub full of bottled beer on ice, funky indoor-outdoor space—smacks of Tangier's psychedelic era. Down by the port, people hang at Küba's tree-shaded courtyard. Speakers in the trees blast Latin music; the drink of choice is strong, anise-flavored raki.
Later in the night, the clubs—some of the most famous in the Mediterranean—come alive. At Halikarnas, a vast Doric-columned amphitheater by the sea, top European DJ's cater to the young and the sweaty. The ultimate nightspot is the M&M Marine Club, a gigantic catamaran fitted with futuristic bars, lounges, and dance floors. At 2 a.m., the whole affair sets sail, returning in the wee hours of the morning.
As one who prefers to do his sailing in the sunshine, I opt for a short afternoon cruise aboard a gulet, which I book through the concierge at the Marmara. But it's hardly an original idea. By midday, the waters around Bodrum are teeming: with inflatable banana boats pulled by motorboats, ice cream-selling dinghies, and yachts loaded with partyers. Still, my captain manages to find his passengers a relatively secluded swimming spot. For me, the cruise is a good way to check out some of the other resort areas on the Bodrum peninsula. Gümbet is a virtual British colony of budget hotels, transplanted pubs, and holiday condos for tourists from the United Kingdom. The breezy bay of Bitez draws wind surfers. But Gümüslük is my favorite: a fishing village with a pretty pastel mosque and a row of thatch-covered cafés whose tables are practically in the surf. I stop at Fenerci for a perfect lunch of octopus fritters and grilled mullet served with mezes and a glass of cool white Çankaya wine.
While Bodrum is still a long way from what you'd call overdeveloped, many of its fans miss the days when it was a simple fishing village with no mega-discos. For those people, there's the town of Türkbükü, a half-hour from Bodrum up the peninsula's north coast.
Approached from the road, Türkbükü appears to be little more than a haphazard clump of villas fronting a couple of marginally paved streets. The village parking lot is a makeshift space with shacks on one side, the sea on the other. Beyond it lies another world: a crescent-shaped bay edged with bars, cafés, and guesthouses. Narrow walkways lead from many of the cafés to floating platforms where bathers lounge on oversize cushions. At sunset, these decks are set with tables whose reflections shimmer in the floodlighted transparent waters.
For years, travelers to Türkbüku were forced to stay either in waterfront pensions—fine if your expectations (and budget) were minimal—or at the 60-room Palmira. Set back from the sea amid palms and gardens, the Palmira was too big and too slick (think tennis courts and lots of meeting rooms) for its unpretentious surroundings.
Now there's another option: the 14-room Ada Hotel, one of the Aegean's most stylish and luxurious hotels. Hidden in the rocky hills behind the village, the Ada looks like a restored Ottoman palace, with massive stone walls, secret stairways, and exquisitely landscaped gardens, pools, and terraces. But it was built just two years ago by Turkish architect Ahmet Igdirligil, a specialist in classic Ottoman design. His pièce de résistance is the hotel's hammam, which would please the most demanding of sultans. The changing rooms—dark wood cabins and cubicles—lead to an even more elegant pre- and post-bath salon with a marble floor, fountain, and terry-covered mahogany chaises; the high, domed ceiling is dotted with stained-glass portholes that create magical lighting effects. But the real prize is the steam room itself: an exotic marbled space with an octagonal massage platform surrounded by gargoyle-adorned basins and lit by candles in chandeliers.
The Ada is owned by Turkish industrialist Vedet Semiz and his wife, Süreyya. "My husband has nine companies, but he likes this one best," Süreyya tells me over breakfast in the columned rotunda off the reception lounge. "Eventually we'd like to have a chain of small hotels in interesting places all over Turkey. We chose Türkbükü for the first one because it has the most beautiful bay in the area—still natural, without many buildings."
Sparing no expense, Süreyya and her husband engaged one of Istanbul's most famous decorators, Hakan Ezer. He combed the country, amassing Anatolian carved-marble fireplaces, Ottoman ceilings, inlaid chests, and priceless carpets. At the same time, Ezer boldly incorporated contemporary furniture to create a hotel that's right up there with Twin Farms in Vermont and the Point in the Adirondacks.
But the Ada is remarkably unpretentious. Its staff—54 people to take care of 14 rooms!—is friendly and proud. At breakfast, I compliment one of the waiters on his crisp beige linen shirt. "I am handsome," he answers playfully, "not the shirt."
Some quibble with the hotel's menu —too many trendy European and Asian entrées, aimed at the upper-class Turkish guests who stay here now. But as more Western Europeans and North Americans discover the Ada, the owners plan to add traditional Turkish dishes.
In any case, there's still much to enjoy—two outdoor swimming pools, a gleaming fitness room, an infinity whirlpool. Down by the sea, the hotel has, not surprisingly, Türkbükü's chicest beach club. And Ada's private pier beyond the patio is set with teak chaises and market umbrellas. If that's not enough, a 45-foot yacht takes guests on day trips and moonlight sails.
Some 128 miles south of Bodrum is the village of Kalkan, an overnight stop on most Turkish Riviera cruise itineraries. Lately, Kalkan has been gaining status as a destination in its own right, especially popular with get-there-first sunseekers from Germany, Italy, and Great Britain.
To reach it by car from Bodrum takes the better part of a day. The road is excellent, and the journey offers up views of pine forests, olive groves, and mountains. Roadside stands sell pine-blossom honey or homemade crêpes; some even provide free car washes using water diverted from melting mountain snow.
Most travelers start their tour of this region in Bodrum, an hour-long flight from Istanbul. Another option is to take a one-hour ferry or a 20-minute hydrofoil from the Greek island of Kós. Americans need a visa to visit Turkey.
Marmara Bodrum Bodrum; 90-252/313-8130, fax 90-252/313-8131; doubles from $430.
Ada Hotel Türkbükü; 90-252/377-5915, fax 90-252/377-5379; doubles from $245.
Hotel Palmira Türkbükü; 90-252/377-5601, fax 90-252/377-5951; doubles from $150.
Yonca Resort Göcek; 90-252/645-2255, fax 90-252/645-2275; rooms $50.
BEST VALUE Saint Nicholas Pension Kalkan; 90-242/844-3855, fax 90-242/844-2134; doubles from $40.
Kalkan Customs House Kalkan; 90-242/844-2736, fax 90-242/844-2746; doubles from $120.
Kalkan Regency Hotel Kalkan; 90-242/844-2230, fax 90-242/844-3290; doubles from $120.
Patara Prince Kalkan; 90-242/844-3920, fax 90-242/844-3930; doubles from $155.
Villa Mahal Kalkan; 90-242/844-3268; doubles from $85.
RESTAURANTS AND CAFÉS
Sapa 10 Türkkuyusu, Bodrum; 90-252/316-7093; dinner for two $50.
Picante 6-8 Türkkuyusu, Bodrum; 90-252/316-0270; dinner for two $50.
Hadigari Dr. Alim Bey Caddesi, Bodrum; 90-252/313-9087; dinner for two $25.
Küba Neyzen Tevfik Caddesi, Bodrum; 90-252/313-4450; dinner for two $50.
Fenerci Gümüslük, Bodrum; 90-252/394-3051; lunch for two $35.
Gardenia 2 Yaliboyu Mah., Atatürk, Kalkan; 90-242/844-3360; dinner for two $35.
Tango Kalkan; 90-242/844-3790; dinner for two $40.
Belgin's Kitchen Kalkan; 90-242/844-3614; dinner for two $35.
ON THE WEB
Mediterranean Collection (www.medcollection.com)—Details, including photographs, on a number of small, charming hotels and pensions along the Turkish Riviera.
Feeling flush?Charter a gulet for the day through Hatsail (983 Iskele Mah., Göcek; 90-252/645-1765, fax 90-252/645-1767; from $2,000 a day, including food and harbor charges). Don't miss the submerged ancient Lycian cities around Kekova.