And there it was, as blue as I’d been promised, the Turkish Riviera, the Turquoise Coast. I’d checked in to Maçakizi, one of the splashiest, most storied hotels on the Bodrum Peninsula. Built on a hill, from the top-level check-in, a view, framed by pink bougainvillea, of the bay: two pine-covered mountains stand indifferent as a dinky fishing boat puts-puts silently past a white-sailed gulet, the two or three-masted wooden boat native to this part of Turkey. I’d arrived in the small village of Türkbükü, a place that, again and again, has been described favourably as “the St Tropez of Turkey”. Actually, scratch that: it’s the “Hamptons of Turkey”, I’d soon be told. Where the pretty people of the country’s big cities come to party; the fancy bit of Bodrum, where well-off Istanbullus come to be well-off in second homes by the sea. Still, with the economy hit and the terrorist attacks of 2016, it, like much of Turkey, had had a tough time.
But now it was back: with a slew of new openings, Bodrum was, apparently, this summer’s chicest hang-out on the Med. And Maçakizi, I was told, was the centre of it all. So, I’d dressed up; well, dressed yachtie, anyway: white T-shirt, beige slacks, tennis shoes. Would I fit in, I wondered, as I entered the open-air bar to the sound of soft, lilting jazz and that sonic motif of holidays of a certain kind, the clink of ice on glass. Well, yes and no, it turned out. I was dressed identically to the staff. Still, that wasn’t what bothered me. It was Saturday, late June, and, while I wasn’t complaining, easily one of Europe’s most famous beach clubs was oddly quiet. This close to cocktail hour it felt reasonable to ask: where was everyone?
Manager Ayhan Hanagasi has one of those un-fakeable, life-is-good smiles you only see on people who live in reliable sunshine.
“Well, it’s funny…” he said, doing a kind of nervy, up-down juggle of the hands. “Everyone’s back in Istanbul for the election.”
I would hear the same thing several times on the trip. A re-run of the mayoral election in Istanbul was being considered a kind of watershed moment in Turkish politics. So, anyone that could, had gone back to vote. As a result, summer here was on hold; but only briefly, said Hanagasi; a small, halting blip in Bodrum’s new boom.
Fair enough. Still, that Turkey’s politicians had emptied its coastal resorts, if only for a weekend, was no small irony: it was the country’s political class, after all, that first opened them up. As shown in an excellent exhibition at the Pera Museum last year, Istanbul’s Seaside Leisure, before 1923, swimming in the sea was taboo. But, as part of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s grand modernisation of Turkey, a brave, new, urbane beach culture was encouraged. So much so, wrote Sarah Jilani, who reviewed the exhibition for the Times Literary Supplement, “Istanbulites of all classes began to embrace days out at the beach with patriotic enthusiasm”.
“Where else can you order a $35 bottle of rosé and air-cheers A-listers?”
At a similar time, by odd luck, Bodrum had its own champion. Born in 1890, writer-thinker-all-rounder Cevat Şakir Kabaağaçlı was condemned to internal exile in 1925 to Bodrum. He liked it; and, as a historian, there was much to like: Mugla, the province to which Bodrum belongs, has the greatest concentration of Greco-Roman ruins anywhere in Europe. Many of which, then, as now, were only accessible by boat.
Credited as Turkey’s first professional tourist guide, Kabaağaçlı founded what became known as Mavi Yolculuk or “Blue Voyages”, gulet trips to the region’s ancient ruins that became popular with writers and poets and boho types in the 1950s and 60s. As word got out, foreigners soon began coming to hear the Fisherman of Halicarnassus, as he was known, recite chunks of the Greek Classics on trips to Aegean ruins. According to Roger Williams, author of The Fisherman of Halicarnassus: The Man Who Made Bodrum Famous, one high-profile guest was Georges Pompidou, the former French president, who, after a trip to Ephesus, declared, “I have finally met Homer.”
Bodrum’s A-list allure would continue into the 1980s. In 1977, Ayla Emiroglu opened a small pension in Bodrum town that she hoped would be a lure for creative types. What luck: at a similar time, the founder of Atlantic Records, Turkish-born Ahmet Ertegun (who signed the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, among others) bought a house nearby (purchased for $60,000, it sold in 2014 for $13m). Soon, Emiroglu’s hideaway would become a kind of unshowy, sleeper hang-out to stars such as Mick Jagger. She herself would earn cult status (“The Régine Zylberberg of Turkey,” I was told, referring to the famous disco doyenne of 1950s Paris). Her son, Sahir Erozan, assumed the legacy and reinvented it as a hotel-beach club in Türkbükü in 2000. He named it after his mother: Maçakizi – the Queen of Spades.
I was promised Erozan would be a character and he is; in the best possible way – a plus-sized personality on the peninsula with the unenviable job, it turns out, of being permanently on. We met at Maçakizi on the second day of my trip, after lunch (which is excellent and, as per tradition, served, buffet style, at 2pm daily, to the sound of a bell). He was late so I sat at the bar, and waited. It was busier but not packed (and, said the DJ, later that afternoon, it does get packed): to my right, a woman in assertive eyewear and the unmistakable sheen of wealth arrived, as if on set, to double-kiss her friend; to my right, a guy on his own lifted his beer and raised his head with a big, boyish, I-got-away-with-it smile.
“Oh, you know this guy?” said Erozan, as he took a seat and beamed a smile across the bar. “You know why he’s in a good mood, right?” (I didn’t but it was probably reasonable to think I might: it was Selçuk İnan, captain of Galatasaray, Turkey’s biggest football team, who’d just won the league. “Celebrities feel comfortable here because Sahir doesn’t play the game,” I was told, by someone outside Maçakizi, who asked not to be named. Meaning? “Well, other places will tip off the press if they get someone in. But he doesn’t, never has.”)
Erozan’s time as a nightlife impresario in Washington DC means he’s used to being around important people. Still, beyond the clubs, over the years, he’s also backed a number of humanitarian causes. But that afternoon his cause was Turkey.
“I mean, where else in the world do you get water like this? Spain? No, you’ve got to go to the islands. Mykonos? Sure, yes, but it’s busy. It’s a battlefield, it’s not a vacation. And super expensive.”
He was right about that, I thought, later that evening. I couldn’t think of anywhere else where I could order a bottle of $35 rosé and air-cheers A-listers; none that would let me in, anyway. Still, I wasn’t going to let him tell me Bodrum wasn’t busy. Fair enough, he conceded. “In summer, the population here goes up to 1.5 million – in my mother’s time, 4,000.”
“Bodrum was now, as before, a destination for ever-higher rollers”
Even so, oddly enough, very few foreign tourists bother with Bodrum’s small villages. On the far west of the peninsula, to call Gümüşlük a quaint fishing village, as one recent report did, might be a bit of a stretch. But it’s definitely charming, and even though it’s decked out for tourists, it still has a sense of place: it’s a very Turkish; like much of old Bodrum, it still belongs to Turkey.
I arrived at golden hour as the orange sun bounced off the bay onto a terrace of seafood restaurants. It was here I’d find chic bar-restaurant Mimoza, another Bodrum institution, which opened around the same time as Maçakizi. Owner Fikret Alphan told me how, thanks to the fashion for package holidays and the proliferation of all-inclusive resorts, brand Bodrum had taken a hit in the 1990s. But, thanks, in part, to the arrival of plusher new hotels, it was headed back up the value chain; Bodrum was now, as before, a destination for ever-higher rollers. And the change was fast.
“Let’s say, three years ago, of the 300 people at my restaurant, I would know 250 of them, regulars. Now, tonight, I’ll know 40, max.”
Likely no other hotel has bought Bodrum to wider international attention than The Edition, one of a chic chainlet of hotels by New York hotelier Ian Schrager, which opened here last year. I checked in the next day. Set on a steep, well-gardened hill of olive trees and bougainvillea, it layers down to a white-sand beach and a wood-decked jetty of private, taupe-beige sea cabanas. That night, I ate at Brava, its open-air restaurant with a beach-clubby vibe that, you sense, is clearly going to win with the same money crowd as Maçakizi. On the next table, a group of well-turned-out twentysomethings, who’d flown in from the UAE. They’d spent the day at a beach club, I gathered, and one was clearly disappointed. Where was everyone?
“Dude, I told you this wasn’t going to be a party trip,” said one. “Well, not party party, anyway.”
Clearly, they hadn’t heard about the election.
They would’ve doubly hated my next stop. Remote, quiet, cut-off: Kaplankaya is a sort of micro-city built up the coast that, someone told me, “isn’t really Bodrum at all”. And it isn’t. But that’s the whole point. A property mogul of serious means, Burak Öymen had tired of the packed-out peninsula so decided to build his own Bodrum, literally.
“I wanted to create the kind of place I remembered as a kid,” he told me over email.
Six Senses, its first hotel (others are coming along with a Norman Foster-designed marina), is an hour from the airport. But I took the boat from Türkbükü that passes the north coast’s other new openings: Mandarin Oriental, Amanruya, Hilton. We docked at one of the seven private bays and transferred to check-in by buggy.
Admittedly, it’s a bit daunting. At first, anyway. Still, while the building itself seemed a little austere, the scale of the estate meant it’s easy to disappear. I took the walking track that winds around the rocky coast and found my own private beach. I didn’t see anyone for four hours. Food, too, is its other win: instead of the dreary, made-by-committee menus of other five-stars hotels, the Turkish mezze at Wild Thyme felt like real, country-bistro cooking. Again, it had a sense of place. No wonder. Many of the ingredients are grown on site, I was told, by resident gardener Bülent İnci. I didn’t find him that afternoon at his garden. Instead, we met, by chance, at Anhinga, the estate’s chic, K Studio-designed beach club on Civit Koyu (Indigo Bay) where everyone comes for sunset. Over pineapple punch, I asked him about Bodrum which, on a clear day, is visible across Güllük Bay.
“I’ve never been!”
“You’ve never been to Bodrum?”
“No, I’m born and raised in Istanbul, why would I go there: busy, busy, busy…”
He raised his glass; cheers to that. It was my last night in Turkey and I felt slightly guilty at the sentiment. Even though I’d only seen a small part of it, I liked Bodrum. It struck me as the kind of place that, like Ibiza, or Bali, was a place of layers, which peel away: the more times you go, the more people you know. Still, I let it go. Tired by the language barrier, we cheers-ed again, to being here, not there, and passed the next few moments in silence, looking out to sea, rougher this time, but still beautiful, as blue as I’d been promised.