(CNN) — As our flight from Istanbul sweeps over Turkey’s southwestern coastline, my first thought is: “Ah, so that’s why it’s called the Turquoise Coast.”
My second thought, looking around the airplane, is that everyone else is probably thinking exactly the same thing.
The water, clear as Baccarat crystal, is, after all, a surreal kaleidoscope of electric blues, teals and greens. And outlined dramatically by thickly forested hills and ochre limestone cliffs, it’s etched into the coastline in a series of protected coves and bays each more inviting than the last.
The best part? There’s more than 600 miles of this spectacular shoreline, extending from the province of Antalya in the south to the Cesme peninsula in the north.
Less crowded than Santorini and St. Tropez and considerably more affordable, Bodrum remains blessedly free of the kind of overtourism that comes with cruise ship day-trippers, since its port can accommodate just two large ships — and infrequently sees those.
Yet it’s definitely on the rise, as evidenced by the opening of several hotels and resorts from top luxury brands, including the Bodrum Edition, designed by Ian Shrager for Marriot’s elite brand, the Six Senses Kaplankaya, and a Four Seasons slated to open in 2020.
Oliver Pilcher’s photographs in ‘Turquoise Coast’ make a strong case for traveling to the region.
The Mandarin Oriental, where we based ourselves, is also a relatively recent addition to the scene. With its secluded cliff-side perch, pristine private beach and convenient location, the property is a fine choice for first-time visitors. The number of private villas is also on the rise, with developments creeping up the steep hillsides.
Despite all this new construction, Bodrum is no upstart. Founded as the ancient city of Helicarnassas, it was first mentioned by Homer in the “Odyssey” and then by Herodotus, and was a thriving trading port when it was captured by Alexander the Great in the fourth century.
Spreading upwards from a crescent-shaped bay dominated by the towering 15th-century castle of St. Peter, Bodrum today is popular for its markets, its nightlife, and its ferry port, from which boats make daily day trips to the Greek island of Kos, 50 minutes away.
While much of the castle — including its famed museum of underwater archaeology — is closed for renovations until early 2020, enough is open to experience the grandeur of the setting with its commanding views of the harbor.
The nearby 4th-century Tomb of Mausolus — one of the original seven wonders of the ancient world and from which we get the world mausoleum — and the Greek amphitheater above it give a sense of Helicarnassas’ storied past.
The lively village of Göltürbükü occupies a pretty bay where restaurants jut over the water on floating docks and bars thrum with live music.
But the primary lure of Bodrum, which also encompasses the entire thumb-shaped peninsula north of town, is its golden sand beaches, and there are quite literally dozens to choose from.
Favorites include Bitez, Torba, Yahsi and Gümbet, all of which are lined with shaded sun loungers and boast calm waters and easy access to cafes and restaurants. As the road dips and weaves along the coast, humble fishing villages alternate with glitzy yacht harbors for a dizzying variety of seaside experiences.
Stop by Yalikavak’s Palmarina harbor to admire the mega-yachts of Ukrainian billionaires and watch the jet set browsing Armani in the marina’s ultra-modern mall, then head to the slightly ramshackle fishing village of Gümüslük, where a string of waterside cafes serves up fresh seafood under trees bedecked with carved gourd lanterns.
There, you can sample the stuffed mussels known as midye dolma, a local staple, before moving on to traditional Turkish dondurma ice cream, its characteristic chewy texture derived from the addition of orchid root flour and a type of natural gum, or resin, called mastic. Refreshing flavors include fresh melon and mint.
As the tide drops and the late afternoon sun’s rays illuminate the water, it’s a good time to spot the King’s Road of the ancient city of Myndos, its enormous stone blocks now submerged in the waters of the lagoon leading to Rabbit Island.
The ruins in Ephesus, about one hundred miles north of Bodrum, are worth a visit.
Closest to our hotel, the lively village of Göltürbükü occupies a pretty bay where restaurants jut over the water on floating docks and bars thrum with live music. Most visitors to the area take at least one half- or full-day boat trip, which is highly recommended as the best way to appreciate the craggy beauty of the coastline, which can’t be seen in full from the road.
Depending on the itinerary, boat trips may include snorkeling, a stop at one of the many small islands offshore, lunch — or all three if it’s an all-day trip. Our boat trip featured a stop at Black Island (Kara Ada), known for its mineral pools, and a lunch spread of traditional mezze small plates.
A lavish spread of cheeses, olives, sausage, honey and jams served with cucumber, tomato and fluffy bread to be dipped and slathered in any combination you choose is a traditional Turkish breakfast.
No matter what our day’s plan, we start off with a traditional kahvalti — or Turkish breakfast — a lavish spread of cheeses, olives, sausage, honey and jams served with cucumber, tomato and fluffy bread to be dipped and slathered in any combination you choose.
On the wheels of history
One hundred miles north of Bodrum, the UNESCO world heritage site of Ephesus is on the must-go list of most visitors to the Turquoise Coast. With some parts dating from the 10th century BCE and splendid examples of early Greek and Roman architecture, Ephesus is both the oldest and most complete ancient city ever excavated.
And it doesn’t disappoint: Standing in the middle of the broad Arcadian road, its massive blocks of marble still perfectly fitted and smooth from 2,000 years of use, it’s not hard to imagine the thunder of chariot wheels or the march of gladiators en route to the enormous amphitheater that stair-steps up the hill above it.
While it is possible to do Ephesus as a day trip from Bodrum, staying in the adjacent village of Selcuk or the nearby port city of Kusadasi makes it easier to be at the gates when they open, an advantage for those who want to experience the ruins before the large tour buses arrive.
Either way, plan for at least four hours (and more if you’re a history buff) to see all the main sites, which in addition to the great theater include Hadrian’s Gate, the agora or marketplace, the terrace houses with their well-preserved stone mosaic floors, and the awe-inspiring Library of Celsus, with its intricately carved façade and smooth-faced statues of the four virtues.
Also on most visitors’ itineraries are the area’s other historic sites, chief among them the Maryemana, or Virgin Mary’s House, where the devoted light candles in the tiny chapel and tuck prayers between the stones of the wishing wall, and the Basilica of St. John.
This simple pillared tomb is believed to be the final resting place of St. John the Apostle; above it, Ayasoluk Castle makes a perfect spot to watch the sunset.
In Gümüslük, you’ll find string of waterside cafes serving up fresh seafood under trees bedecked with carved gourd lanterns.
There are times when Turkey’s Aegean coast feels like the best kind of Mamma Mia Greek island fantasy, and nowhere is this more true than in Alaçati, an 18th-century warren of cobblestone streets topped by a cluster of round stone windmills.
Located on the Cesme peninsula an hour and a half north of Ephesus, Alacati makes a perfect final stop for those who choose to make their return flight from Izmir.
Settled by Greek workers who came to tend the area’s vineyards and olive orchards, Alaçati is almost absurdly photogenic. Substantial houses of oatmeal-colored stone draped in clouds of bougainvillea, each with its bright blue, red or yellow door and overhanging balcony windows line the streets.
All but abandoned in the 1920s when Turkey’s Greek immigrants departed the country in a religion-based population swap, Alaçati was rediscovered by windsurfers who came to take advantage of the peninsula’s stiff breezes, then stayed to restore the dilapidated structures into artsy hideaways.
Now, in the classic tradition of fishing villages turned art colonies a la the Hamptons or California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea, Alaçati has become the favored retreat of Turkey’s elite, who stake out space on its white sand beaches by day, then take advantage of the warm evenings to shop its bohemian boutiques and gather in its open air cafes.
Boutique hotels define the experience here, among them our choice of Alavya, an artful enclave in the heart of the village made up of five historic houses joined together around a restful garden that was once the town’s open-air cinema.
In the past five years, Alacati’s popularity has begun to extend to outsiders, but you can still feel as though you’ve stumbled onto a secret as we do, toasting our luck with the region’s rich red Urla wine, the perfect accompaniment to the aromatic clay pot fish casserole known as guveç.
Still a center of Turkey’s wine and olive production, Alacati is renowned for its produce and artisanal food, and the Saturday draws shoppers from far beyond the region. Stalls line the main road through town and extend up numerous side streets, tables laden with fruit and vegetables, fresh bread, and the day’s fish catch on ice.
Local cheesemakers hand out dollops of thick curds, spice sellers tout figs and saffron, and booths display hand-labeled jars of local olives, gallon jugs of honey, and jams in exotic — at least to us — flavors like walnut and preserved lemon.
Afterwards, admiring a pair of turquoise earrings in the open air craft market surrounding Alaçati’s central mosque, I’m reminded that the name Turquoise Coast has an additional meaning as well.
While aptly describing the landscape, it also refers to a little-known fact of Turkish history — the origin of the beloved gemstone. When European traders first discovered a previously unknown bright blue gem in Turkish bazaars, they called it Turkish stone, or pierre Turquoise in French. And thus a name — and a color — were born.
It’s this multi-layered history that I’ll be thinking of as I strain to catch a last glimpse of the Aegean’s brilliant blue waters on the return flight home.
Tomb of Mausolus: Tepecik Mahallesi, 48440 Bodrum/Muğla Province, Turkey
Meryemana: Sultaniye Mahallesi, 35922 Selçuk/İzmir, Turkey
Ayasoluk Castle: Atatürk Mh., Atatürk Cd. No:2, 35920 Selçuk/İzmir, Turkey