As a world traveler, I had one goal on hold until three things aligned: finances, timing, and motivation. But with rumors of a travel ban on the horizon, I accepted the reality that money burns, time melts and memories are the only impressions we can cherish.
Before masked smiles and elbow bumps became an international form of communication, my husband Benjamin and I put our hands together in Turkey and gave what was to be our last trip for 18 months. We have longed for the sub-pink side of Turkey by dividing our trip into three parts: City, Country, Coast. It was our own geographic version of “Eat, Pray, Love” with no self-reflection.
From LAX we traveled non-stop with Turkish Airlines, offering free city tours and hotel accommodation for stops over five hours. Going “all in” for us meant, in part, that this would be a journey of firsts (and possibly lasts), including flying business class. I had to try everything including Turkish delight, turndown service and Versace amenities. Fifteen hours later we landed at Istanbul Airport – the largest in the world costing $12 billion.
We checked into the Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul, adorned with marble columns and chandeliers taller than my truck. As the only Ottoman palace hotel on the Bosphorus, it introduced us to this narrow strait between Europe and Asia.
The best view of the water was from the hotel’s restaurant, Tugra. Black-tie waiters, candle-lit tables, and paintings by Fausto Zonaro made me and my husband financially anxious.
Ottoman and Turkish dishes of lamb shank and duck tandir were served with olives in oil, hummus, eggplant, feta and other mezze. Benjamin leaned forward and whispered, “Exhale. An appetizer costs less than $30.”
Living big with no regrets, we chose full sultan mode. During the day we sight-seeed the area, and at night we sank into tasseled pillows as we devoured home-made desserts: dried fruit, flaky baklava, and chewy lokum cubes of pomegranate, orange, and honey.
Calories were burned during our four days in Istanbul with Sea Song Tours. From the meditative Suleymaniye Mosque to the Constantine Column of the Byzantine Hippodrome, history came alive in this tangible textbook.
While Benjamin received insights into religion and architecture, I was mesmerized by some of the 250,000 stray dogs and cats that roamed the city. These healthy looking fur babies were everywhere, passed out on the sidewalk, bellies to the sky. The local government provides food and medical supplies, so technically they are “home” on the doorstep of a 16th-century mosque.
How could they not be? Between the mosaics and domes of Hagia Sophia, we too felt the comforting awe of this architectural masterpiece. Built in AD 537, this Orthodox cathedral-turned-Ottoman mosque honors both Christian and Muslim faiths in homage to one of Byzantine’s most important structures.
Religious freedom seemed almost celebrated in Istanbul, transforming my preconceived notions of a turbulent nation into one of peace. On the Asian side of the Bosphorus, the bohemian district of Kuzguncuk — known for its colorful townhouses with gingerbread balconies — had mosques, synagogues, and churches practically sharing walls. English services rang out from Christian churches while the Islamic call to prayer rang out from 3,000 mosques in the distance.
In a city of 15 million people, this testimony to religious pluralism and multicultural identity inspired a sense of coexistence and prosperity. Waterfront mansions framing the Bosphorus dwarfed Beverly Hills, but despite the affluence, locals were unpretentious and welcoming, especially in Bomonti.
This Brooklyn of Turkey has a community vibe where everyone knows their neighbor. At the House Hotel we met locals who invited us for Turkish coffee in Halisunasyon and dinner in Batard. We stumbled across farmers markets, the Ara Guler Museum and Glories Chocolate to try truffles with rosehip and lemon.
Stripped of burqas, musculature and din, Istanbul was brilliantly alive, poised in an urban stance with European play. I was addicted to Karakoy, a maritime trade hub that has transformed into a trendy arts, fashion and food district. Cobblestone lanes were lined with funky cafes and shisha bars tucked away beneath palatial old apartments veined with ivy and graffiti as if they were the hipster descendants of Marseille and San Francisco.
Paradoxical Istanbul soothed us in the Serefiye Cistern and woke us up in the Grand Bazaar. Among the merchants who haggled copper and carpets, there were courts that offered respite from chaos. Pungent aromas of leather, coffee, tobacco and spice were framed by a vibrancy that dismantled false perceptions of a dark and monochromatic city.
Our second hotel certainly helped. In the Zorlu Center of the Besiktas district, Raffles Istanbul is the core of around 3,000 boutiques, restaurants and galleries. This cosmopolitan property boasts an impressive art collection, Michelin-star chefs and the largest spa in Istanbul.
From the hand-blown chandeliers to the bespoke murals in each room, the design is meticulous with Byzantine silks, Turkish textiles and golden mosaics. After the pan-Asian fusion at Isokyo, we headed to the spa for a traditional hammam treatment.
As if lying naked on a slab of marble wasn’t strange enough, we had our hair washed, bodies scrubbed and bucketfuls of water poured down our thighs. With sandpaper gloves in motion, I rolled over to find Benjamin buried in a mountain of foam. “I think I’m missing a mole,” I whispered.
After the scrub, my skin felt like butter and my hair felt like silk. But once was enough as we embarked on the “land” portion of our journey to Cappadocia.
Fairy chimneys, drawers carved into cliffs and Dr. Seuss-like rock formations sculpted by centuries of wind and rain covered the Anatolian steppes of central Turkey. Beneath this lunar landscape are 36 underground cities including Kaymakli, dating back to 3000 BC.
To maximize our experience we relied on Ismail from Travel Atelier. From the rock sanctuaries in Goreme National Park to the tandir lamb in Aravan Evi, Ismail has delivered on all fronts, including a last minute 4am hot air balloon ride
Soaring 1,500 feet above Rose Valley, we were one of 100 hot air balloons peppering the sky.
Perhaps the most impressive viewpoint of the balloon colony was from our Hotel Argos in Cappadocia. In the mountain village of Uchisar, this ambitious transformation project turned 51 caves into luxurious rooms with reading nooks and private plunge pools.
Her Seki Restaurant has a sweeping view of the Pigeon Valley with vineyards, apricot orchards and stone spiers sticking out of the ground. In this historic cradle of silence, monks retreated into solitude, and today travelers enter a monastery of silence moved only by the song of nightingales and the wings of doves.
Our journey could have ended happily there, but we headed east to Alacatı on Turkey’s Cesme Peninsula. This seaside playground near İzmir is famous for its beaches, vineyards and stone houses, but it was the boutique hotel Alavya that wooed us.
Six historic homes face an open courtyard lined with white mulberry and olive trees, where a lap pool, garden restaurant, and yoga pavilion find shade under the canopies. The elegant rooms have beamed ceilings, linen robes, patchwork rugs and Carrera marble bathrooms. Our breakfast was almost sinful, with heaps of figs, plums, olives and honey-soaked cheese.
We would never have left our hotel if the city hadn’t been our victorious temptress, enticing us with whitewashed storefronts adorned with bougainvillea. Lazy dogs posed under Greek-blue shutters in Instagram-worthy moments, perfected only by kissing couples, yellow sundresses and gleaming Vespas.
That evening we ate at Asma Yaprağı (Grape Leaf) where Chef Ayse Nur invites guests into her kitchen. Pyramids of Mediterranean and Turkish dishes included braised artichokes, stuffed zucchini flowers, and baked pumpkin with sun-dried tomatoes.
Despite our morning craving for beach lounge, we couldn’t leave Alacatı without visiting the wine region. As the birthplace of Vitis vinifera (grape vine), Turkey’s Aegean coast accounts for 20% of the country’s wine production. After an hour’s drive, we arrived in Urla, where we tracked seven vineyards producing award-winning blends such as Urla Vourla and Nero D’Avola.
Finally we got our day in the sun in Bodrum on the south west coast of Turkey. This gateway to beach towns and five-star resorts has landed us at the Mandarin Oriental. Golf carts whisked guests between nine restaurants, a private beach, and rooms overlooking Paradise Bay.
Like hot air balloons to Cappadocia, so are sailing boats to Bodrum. We joined the crowds and cruised across the mesmerizing peninsula to nestled coves, where we hopped into the turquoise sea from the top sun deck. I must have snorkeled for five hours while floating over glowing coral and chasing schools of glitter. We ate roasted squid, tuna tartare and lobster tagliolini. And then I stretched out on the bow, rocked to sleep and dreamed of Turkey.
In my dream were utopian visions of a united metropolis with many faces. There were mysterious caves, satin pillows, and dogs and cats living in harmony. I saw a coast painted five shades of blue. Hundreds of hot air balloons floated over stone walls carved in time. And in the distance the echoing call of prayers echoed through the valleys and canyons.
My reverie ended in a familiar voice. “Wake up, sleepyhead,” said Benjamin. “It’s time to go home.”