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Touring Turkey's Bodrum Peninsula

T+L enounters an abundance of Turkish delights: crumbling castles, rugged beaches, sublime meze, and a seaside highway where the living is easy.

By Peter Jon Lindberg

I mean, if you’re going to lounge around on throw pillows at a beach club, sipping chilled raki or rosé while being serenaded by seabirds and Cesária évora, there’s arguably no finer place to do it. And if, like any normal person, your holiday agenda is to sit still—lifting your head now and then to admire a passing sailboat, or the genetic spectacle of some raven-haired Central European heiress—you could hardly do better than the Bodrum Peninsula, a swath of rock, sand, cypress, and cedar that reaches from Turkey’s southwest coast into the stained-glass blue of the Aegean. (“Bodrum” refers to the largest town and to the peninsula as a whole.) Though the region has a wealth of historical and architectural heritage, the majority of its visitors—2.9 million of them a year, mostly Turks, Brits, and other Europeans—come to relax on the beach, to relax somewhere near the beach, or to relax at cliff-top resorts with stunning views of the beach.

They do not, in other words, come to spend their waking hours sweltering in a rented 4 x 4, driving every last dusty road in search of something more interesting than a beach. I, however, have a problem sitting still. Cursed with restless legs, I can never simply enjoy where I am, even if where I am is a splendid Aegean summer resort. (This drives my wife, Nilou, a little crazy, but she indulges me.) Europeans might be jaded by ancient ruins, Crusades-era castles, and centuries-old fishing villages, but we didn’t fly all this way to lie on a beach. Let others laze around sipping rosé: I wanted to see the real Bodrum. From the moment Nilou and I checked into our hotel—Maçakizi, in the north-coast town of Türkbükü, 30 minutes from Bodrum—I was ready to turn around and hit the road.

On a peninsula with its share of opulent villas and over-the-top resorts, Maçakizi (pronounced mahcha-kiz-uh) is a standout, the sexiest hotel in all of Bodrum. That it’s hardly a traditional hotel is one reason: it feels more like the shoreside estate of some globe-trotting Turkish family blessed with considerable wealth but also the good sense to keep things simple. The property unfolds along a hillside studded with olive trees, tangerine groves, and bursts of bougainvillea. Eighty-one guest rooms are minimally but tastefully furnished and swathed in creamy white, punctuated by the bold abstract canvases of Turkish painter Suat Akdemir. Balconies offer knockout views of Türkbükü Harbor.

In July and August that harbor fills up with yachts and impossibly tall sailing ships, their masts piercing the sky like minarets. All day and night, launches glide to and fro across the water, delivering their owners to shore. Many of them alight at Maçakizi, whose beach club is a landmark in Türkbükü: a series of wooden decks over the water, strewn with white cushions and pillows, shaded by sailcloth canopies and twig-roofed pavilions. The water is clear and generally calm, sheltered within a semiprivate cove. Most guests spend their daylight hours—and much of the evening—at the beach. Every so often the muezzin’s call to prayer drifts across the water from the town mosque, a trebly counterpoint to the languid jazz playing at the bar.

Maçakizi is, in fact, owned by a globe-trotting Turkish family. Ayla Emiroglu, who moved here from Istanbul in 1977, runs the hotel with her son, Sahir Erozan, a former restaurateur who spent two decades in the power-dining rooms of Washington, D.C. At Maçakizi, the guest list alone is intriguing: Caroline Kennedy, Chelsea Clinton, Antonin Scalia, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have all vacationed here, along with the requisite Turkish music and film stars. During the summer, paparazzi float in Zodiacs just offshore, training telephoto lenses on Maçakizi’s decks.

While it’s definitely a scene in high season, Erozan does his best to keep the atmosphere refined, the crowd just this side of raucous. And the food—served on a breezy terrace just above the beach—is fabulous, particularly the lunch buffet, with its tantalizing array of Turkish kebabs and meze: flaky spinach börek, stuffed peppers spiked with cloves, and a smoky patlican salatasi (eggplant purée) that haunts me still.

But I couldn’t leave well enough alone. After a single day at the resort, I was anxious to explore. And so each morning—forgoing the beach club and that delectable lunch—my wife and I set out in the 4 x 4, armed with a stack of guidebooks and three useless maps. (More on those later.) We were, I think, the only guests who’d rented a car; most had arrived by boat, taxi, or limousine. We were definitely the only guests who took our car back outeach day, after a hasty sunrise breakfast. The valets didn’t know what to make of us. “You want to go where?” Or, as one guest put it: “Why?” Everyone at Maçakizi seemed happy right where they were.

Too bad for them, for there’s plenty to see around the peninsula. The crumbling windmills and stone churches left by Greek Orthodox settlers. The white-domed gümbets, or cisterns, that dot the parched terrain (and inspire the look of so many villa developments). The rustic villages, tumbling down steep hillsides to the sea, with their beguiling, inscrutable names—Gündog˘an! Akyarlar! Yalikavak! Not least, the Old Town of Bodrum itself, with its trellised pedestrian lanes and its 15th-century Castle of St. Peter towering over the harbor.

Though Europeans tend to treat the Bodrum Peninsula like an Aegean St.-Tropez, in the more rugged corners it better recalls Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast: both share that moody, haunting beauty that attends any place where the long-dead outnumber the living. There were quotidian finds as well, mostly of the edible sort. On a commercial strip outside Bodrum town we stumbled upon a kebapci (kebab house) called Denizhan, and our favorite meal of the trip: skewers of spicy grilled lamb, brick-oven pide (Turkey’s improvement on pizza), and ethereal house-baked lavash bread. And at Bodrum’s Friday produce market, we were the only travelers in sight, ogling sunset-hued zucchini blossoms, musk-scented melons, and peaches plucked that morning, still dewy from the orchard.

What I hadn’t accounted for was the heat. We’d arrived in the vicious heart of July. That week the thermometer hit 104 degrees. Men slumped, like zombies, in café chairs, scarcely able to hoist their frappés. Dogs cowered in doorways, glassy-eyed and whimpering. In the sunblasted courtyards of St. Peter’s Castle—where kids have carved their initials into cacti—we watched one of the resident peacocks trot right up to a Swedish tourist and fan its spectacular plumage, in a vain attempt to cool itself. The Swede just stared blankly at the bird, too hot to bother snapping a photo.

And then there were the maps. At an Istanbul bookshop I’d purchased three Bodrum road maps, so intent was I on missing nothing. By the end of our trip I had torn the first and second to bits and crumpled the third into a tiny, unrecognizable ball. In hindsight, I see my rage was misplaced. It had been my impression that the maps were crudely drawn and poorly labeled. I now realize that Bodrum was crudely drawn and poorly labeled. Street names are nonexistent, road signs a rarity. Endless switchbacks defy spatial logic. Thankfully, locals are willing to help. Driving in from the airport, we stopped to ask three men if they could point the way to Maçakizi. After some confusing back-and-forth, one jumped into his car and led us the remaining six miles to the hotel. “Hard to explain,” he said sheepishly, then waved good-bye.

So the heat and the maps put a damper on our explorations. By 3 p.m. we’d usually turn back, exhausted, to Maçakizi, change into our swimsuits, and hit the decks. Here, people had more sense. None of them had broken a sweat. For the beautiful Maçakizians, sightseeing was limited to ogling their own cartoonish bodies: an all-day parade of gazelle-like women and the men who love them, or at least pay for their drinks. The women change bikinis after every dip in the water—seven, eight times in an afternoon, each swimsuit with a corresponding (and wholly ineffective) cover-up.

Suffice it to say, I have trouble picturing Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg here. What does she wear? A long, black terry-cloth robe? Watching the gazelles and their consorts, we felt simultaneously over- and underdressed: overdressed in that our swimsuits had more surface area than a cocktail napkin; underdressed in that they weren’t encrusted with rhinestones. And my footwear turned out to be all wrong. I’d brought along Havaianas, but in Bodrum the most stylish men wear leather sandals—and the best, we were told, come from Ali Güven.

Güven is 69 years old and has made sandals in Bodrum for more than four decades. He has intense blue eyes and a shock of white hair and refers to himself in the third person. “Ali Güven works by hand,” he told us in halting English, displaying his long, shopworn fingers. “Ali Güven works very hard.” Güven is also semi-famous, having custom-made sandals for Mick Jagger, Sezen Aksu—the Madonna of Turkey—and Madonna. When we visited his Old Town store he had a backlog of several hundred orders. He used to hire apprentices, but “they were impatient with Ali Güven.” Now the master works alone, surrounded by sandal parts and stacks of newsprint bearing the traced outlines of famous and not-so-famous feet. I might have ordered a pair if they didn’t cost $600.

In 1966, the year Güven set up shop, the town of Bodrum was a backwater of 5,100. It has grown around him in seeming correlation with his prices; the summer population now tops half a million. Sahir Erozan recalls a quieter time. When his mother arrived in 1977, “Bodrum was like a little Positano, or Key West in Hemingway’s day—full of bohemians, writers, painters,” he says. “You’d sit at a café and see Nureyev; at the other table, Mick Jagger.” (There he is again!) In the shadow of Bodrum’s castle, Ayla Emiroglu opened a modest bed-and-breakfast, and called it Maçakizi—after her own nickname, Turkish for queen of spades. Over the years she upgraded and expanded the place, eventually relocating it to the north coast. “There were no roads in Türkbükü at the time,” Erozan says. “If you wanted to build, you carried everything in from the sea.” In 2000, Maçakizi moved across the bay to its current site. Emiroglu still lives above the resort, in a house with views of the once-sleepy bay that she, as much as anyone, helped put on the global map.

Erozan admits to misgivings about Bodrum’s explosion of development. All around the peninsula, hillsides are filling up with extravagant villa complexes (including one designed by Richard Meier), while formerly isolated coves are colonized by international resorts. “Sometimes I think we grow too much in this country,” Erozan says. “In Italy, the old things stay in place, like in a painting. But here we build so much that we’re losing the charm of what Bodrum was.”

Bodrum today is really two places, depending on when you visit. July and August bring the Arabian princes, Scandinavian swimwear models, and assorted Eurotrash scenesters. Better to come in late spring or early fall, when the peninsula returns—somewhat—to its quieter, less pretentious self.

Or you could go at any time of year to GümüĊŸlük (pronounced ga-moosh-luk), on the peninsula’s west coast. Since the seventies, the village has drawn a hippie/lefty contingent; in the shops along the main drag, women with henna-dyed hair sell scented oils and evil-eye bracelets. The beach is lined with fish restaurants, from boisterous family joints to romantic, votive-lit spots with tables in the sand. A sign outside one of the latter, Mimoza, proclaims: we are probably the best in the world. I’m not sure about that, but their grilled octopus and calamari were sensational. A few hundred yards offshore is Tavsan Adan, a.k.a. Rabbit Island, which you can wade to at low tide to hike among the resident colony of wild bunnies. When the sun is high and the water clear, you can glimpse the remains of ancient Myndos—the Hellenic village that now lies submerged in the lagoon, yards below the surface. You’d hardly notice if you didn’t know to look.

Speaking of things hiding in plain sight, I’m ashamed to say that it took us six days of driving all over the Bodrum Peninsula before we discovered that our favorite place was right next door: the pedestrian promenade that fronts Türkbükü Harbor, starting from just south of Maçakizi. Why we didn’t venture here earlier is a source of great embarrassment. (From our cove it was obscured by a hill.) It turned out we could walk there in two minutes. The promenade traces a half-moon along the shore, winding around (and occasionally through) the many waterside restaurants, guesthouses, boutiques, and nightclubs. The northern section, closer to Maçakizi, is trendier, louder, and more international; farther south, the crowd and vibe grow more local. Here, Turkish music—not Kanye—plays in the bars. Families stroll the waterfront until late in the evening, stopping at snack carts for roasted mussels, grilled corn, and cups of tart, fresh-pressed mulberry juice.

And if you really want your mind blown, you’ll follow the path almost to the end, until you come upon the perpetual line outside Dogal Dondurma. I’m going to go out on a limb here and call this the best ice cream in all of Turkey, because I simply can’t conceive of anything better. Dogal’s ever-shifting flavors include kavun (honeydew), visne(sour cherry), seftali (peach), and, best of all, mandalina, a sorbet made from tart Bodrum tangerines.

Once we found it, a walk along the harbor became our twice-daily routine—always ending at Dogal Dondurma to try some exotic new flavor, usually consumed on a pier with our feet dangling in the water. Afternoons on the promenade proved far preferable to sweating in the 4 x 4, which we now happily left to bake in the hotel parking lot. There was surely more to see, but here in Türkbükü we had all we needed: the sun warming our backs, the Aegean cooling our toes, and untold flavors of ice cream to taste.

Peter Jon Lindberg is Travel + Leisure’s editor-at-large.