March 09 2012
How out of date can one be? I had long dismissed Bodrum as backpacker Xanadu, a Turkish Ibiza of open-air nightclubs and stoned students. But Bodrum has grown up, and Halikarnas, the notorious disco with dance space for 5,000 liggers, has doused its strobe lights for good. Along the port’s palm-lined promenade is docked a new generation of güllets, handsome wooden galleons optimised for “blue cruising” Turkey’s 8,000km coastline. Forget discomfort; these beauties come with stewards, chefs and en-suite facilities, making them the best way to explore the treasures of the enchanting and largely undeveloped Aegean littoral.
Steel baron Lakshmi Mittal is one of the seagoing cognoscenti to have discovered the Turkish Riviera, along with the Ferragamos, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Roman Abramovich, all of whom point their compasses here. Mittal’s 80m yacht Amevi is anchored up in the Bay of Türkbükü, its owner ferrying a complement of guests ashore in a tender. Their port of call is Maçakizi, a beach club and boutique hotel so chic it leaves Saint-Tropez’s offerings looking tawdry by comparison, where there’s a strict no-bling policy applied by its charismatic owner, Sahir Erozan. But once in, it is like achieving membership to a relaxed and decidedly glamorous international club.
It wasn’t always so. “The peninsula has remained the holiday secret of a sophisticated clientele from Istanbul until quite recently,” notes Andrew Jacobs, one of that city’s leading hotel consultants. Now he is spending much of his time around Bodrum, and for good reason. To longstanding boutique hotel clients such as Maçakizi has been added a world-class luxury resort in the shape of Kempinski’s Barbaros Bay, while the recent opening of Amanruya, the latest Amanresort, is causing a buzz on the international bush telegraph.
Meanwhile, Italian fashion brands are competing for a presence and several boutique hotels are already under construction. Others are complete and open; word of Casa dell’Arte, a funky seafront design hotel built around the owners’ notable collection of contemporary works, is already rippling out through the art world, drawing European galleristas in for the first time. Suddenly, it seems, Bodrum is the sunny place to be. Again.
Homeric heroes were born on this coast, their legacy preserved in magnificent Ionian temples and Roman amphitheatres sufficiently intact that they are still in regular use for events such as the Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival held each June. Troy lies to the north, Ephesus a day-sail or a couple of hours’ drive in the same direction. But it was in Halicarnassus – modern-day Bodrum – that Herodotus, the “father of written history”, compiled his detailed narratives, hair-raising as they were. A century later, the Great Mausoleum was built for the Carian King Mausolus. Although one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, it fell to ruin, the materials eventually being recycled by the Hospitaller Knights of St John into the imposing, well-preserved 15th-century fortress, today called Bodrum Castle, that guards the city’s inner harbour.
Looking down upon it from the surrounding hills of the peninsula are luxurious new villas, their whitewashed walls dazzling in the sunshine. It is on their terraces, shaded by vines and magenta swathes of bougainvillea, that languid summers of fun and flirtation are played out over glasses of (surprisingly good) local rosé and ravishing sunsets. It is a way of life instantly familiar to anyone who has visited the Greek Aegean, the islands of which are visible on the shimmering blue horizon. There is, however, a distinctively Turkish, almost Orientalist, slant to hospitality and cooking, with sublime dishes such as Imam Bayildi, braised aubergine stuffed with onion, garlic and tomatoes. “Who was the imam?” I ask my friend Nilüfer. She giggles at the misapprehension. “It means ‘the imam fainted’ – with pleasure, of course.”
Pleasure has hardly been in short supply over the 34 years in which Maçakizi has existed. It is situated on the cliff-side in the old village of Türkbükü, previously celebrated only as source of the best baklava pastries on the peninsula. What began as a typical Turkish beach club overlooking the limpid waters of the bay at first grew organically, with a simple guest cottage added here, a bar there, a restaurant and even a spa with a glass-fronted hammam, all without uprooting a single olive tree or spoiling the original atmosphere. Critical cool mass was reached last season with the addition of new decks offering sunny and shady areas on which to disport, pose, dive or dance. And recent adoption by the European jet-ski set has now prompted a renovation of the airy rooms and suites to meet the owner’s relaxation regulations, which argue, inter alia, that a guest with Wi-Fi frets not.
The benign climate invites indoor/outdoor life. Slender folk in impeccably cut shorts and spangly bikinis sprawl on squashy sofas in a living room with a rattan roof and working fireplace, but no walls. Fashion and financial journals in half a dozen languages are strewn across coffee tables, providing a clue to the provenance of the bronzed clientele. Music wafts up from the beach bar, tailored to the moment by a DJ of achingly hip but not inaccessible tastes. Life here is a party that goes on late.
Maçakizi cooking is a pared-down version of Istanbul’s striking new interpretation of traditional Turkish cuisine, but with spicing reined in to allow the fresh flavours of the sea to shine through. Chef Aret Sahakyan may live in the US, but he has returned every summer since 1977 for the pleasure of cooking his own exotic fusion of Turkish and Mediterranean dishes for familiar faces. “Here everyone is on an equal footing, and very soon friends,” remarks Jacobs as a seaplane splashes down in the bay before taxiing across to Maçakizi’s dock with the latest arrivals.
Getting here is hardly a problem, as Bodrum is served by multiple daily Turkish Airlines flights from Istanbul, which connect with its international services. A new terminal will be operational in the summer and will increase opportunities for direct scheduled flights. Private jets and helicopters are increasingly in evidence, along with floatplanes and superyachts.
If Maçakizi put Bodrum on the top-end leisure map of Asia Minor, it is the launch of the Kempinski Hotel Barbaros Bay that has attracted the attention of British luxury travel operators and agents to the Turkish Riviera. “So many clients had acquired a taste for Turkey on visits to Istanbul that the opening of such a stylish resort was heaven-sent,” observes Sheena Patton, market manager for Europe at Kuoni. Kempinski, which enjoys a hard-earned reputation for efficient operation in “difficult” destinations such as Croatia’s Istrian coast and the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea (not to mention Mongolia), provided necessary reassurance about infrastructure and service standards. Indeed, when a sudden storm took out local power during my stay, back-up systems at Barbaros Bay clicked in immediately and the internet didn’t miss a digital beat.
There cannot be many locations as exotic, yet as close to Europe, where a new resort could now be built with its own private beach and marina in a bay innocent of other development and likely to remain so. With 148 rooms and 25 suites, all with proper balconies and sea views, Barbaros Bay is large enough to support facilities such as a Six Senses spa, with private suites for couples and a traditional Turkish bath inspired by the 16th-century Cagaloglu Hammam in Istanbul. So authentic is the French Indochinese cooking at the Saigon Club that one diner enquired if the group had a hotel in Vietnam (it doesn’t, yet). Dishes such as Tom Yum Goong, a hot and sour prawn soup with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, have caught the imagination of the villa set, who bring a festive air to proceedings.
A smiling, multilingual staff and a sense of privacy have begun to attract the likes of Richard Gere, Sharon Stone and Bruce Willis. The one paparazzo to make it to the overlooking hillside was swiftly escorted off what proved to be part of the hotel’s property. There are watersports, from sailing to jet-skiing, while the resort’s French general manager, William Latour, recommends a day-sail aboard the hotel’s own güllet or a rather faster expedition to a deserted cove by mahogany day cruisers.
By contrast, Amanruya represents something of an expedition of its own, secluded in a pine forest overlooking a tranquil bay untroubled (thanks to a recently enacted bylaw) even by music from visiting yachts. This is wind-down territory, where the loudest sound is of migrating pelicans. Each of the 36 very private terrace cottages has a personal swimming pool; each is entered through a temple gate into an enclosed garden. The front door leads into one of those subtly livable studio rooms that only Aman seems to get exactly right. The bathroom in silver-flecked white marble is serene and spacious, with a bathtub built for two and an outdoor rain shower in the private garden.
In a departure from the original Aman concept, the four-poster bed faces a television, tastefully concealed until required, almost as if management feared boredom on the part of guests in such remoteness. If so, the fear is misplaced; the four dining pavilions, a beach bar, library, spa suites, cigar den, tennis courts and an art gallery should suffice to keep one out of mischief. A place for partying it may not be, but sometimes it is enough just to be together far from care. Easily arranged are private guided visits to the temple of Apollo at Didyma, residence of an oracle reputed to have been less disobliging than that at Delphi, and to the astonishing 15,000-seat amphitheatre at Miletus.
Closer yet is the 15th-century castle of St Peter guarding Bodrum town. So impregnable that it was never taken, the fortress is characterised by five towers, each built by one of the nations comprising the Hospitaller Order of St John. The three-storey English or Lion Tower still displays the coat of arms of King Henry IV. Today, peacocks strut outside a tower housing a sublime collection of shipwreck glass, some of it dating back 5,000 years.
By the Ottoman dockyard below, güllet owners are sanding hulls and trimming rigs in preparation for the annual Bodrum Cup regatta for wooden sailing yachts, which takes place each October – a great test of seamanship if the previous autumn’s squalls are anything to judge by, and the only major competition to run with passengers aboard. In 2012, foreign vessels will be allowed to enter on a non-competitive basis, adding to a fleet of more than 150 yachts. “Not quite Cowes or Newport, Rhode Island, yet,” grunts one grizzled skipper over a Turkish-coffee ice cream equivalent to a quadruple espresso. “But with the money here these days, anything is possible.”
On the Turkish Riviera, he is assuredly correct.