As we set off down the coast of Turkey on a 500km drive from the Aegean to the Mediterranean, via the Datca and Bozburun Peninsulas where the two seas meet, my guide Burak Doganay puts me in the picture.
Turkey has eight national borders influenced by several different religions and cultures,’he says. the south and east, there is an Arabic effect and a Christian effect. In the north, there is a Russian Orthodox effect. And in the west, there is a Greek effect.’
The last is clearly evident as we progress from fertile plains planted with cotton, grapes, olives and figs to dizzying views over the Gulf of Gokova, dramatic peaks bristling with pines and the Taurus Mountains towering over the sea.
It is evident, too, in the ancient sites of Ephesus and Knidos, which were largely Greek from the eighth century bc until the Romans arrived in the second and first centuries bc. It is evident in the shuttered, stone houses of Alacati, Kalkan and Kas, where Greek wine-growers, farmers and fishermen lived until they were forced to leave during the population exchange that took place between Greece and Turkey in 1923. The Greek influence is even evident, so I m told, in the celebrated beauty of the women of Izmir. And in some places along the coast, the Greek islands of Chios, Symi and Kastelorizo look almost close enough to touch.
Mass tourism has taken over parts of this coastline, but there are still plenty of other areas with great character, protected stretches of beach and beautiful, small boutique hotels from which to explore.
With its hot springs and Aegean breezes strong enough to drive wind turbines, the Cesme Peninsula has long been a favourite of the Istanbul and Izmir elite. But these days the rustic-chic village of Alacati and the world-class windsurfing at its nearby beach resort are beginning to attract an international crowd, too.
The Datca Peninsula, a bony finger of land with one isthmus so narrow it is called the leap’, is celebrated for its almonds and pine-covered mountains which plunge down to hidden coves, but until recently the road was so bad that access was largely restricted to boats.
More accessible but still relatively quiet, the neighbouring Bozburun Peninsula has villages shaded by ancient plane trees, painted beehives scattered along the roadside, and limpid bays such as Orhaniye, with its curious spit of submerged sand streaking through the blue.
Even the thriving holiday resorts of Kalkan and Kas, subjected to a recent building frenzy, retain something of the character of the Greek villages they once were. They also provide handy bases for visiting the historic sites along the Lycian coast, which was named after a people so proud that they twice opted for mass suicide rather than be forced to surrender to the Persians and Romans in the Lycian capital, Xanthos.
Nars Ilica and Nars Alacati Cesme Peninsula The sky above Nars Ilica is so intensely Wedgwood blue that it looks as though it would break if you were to throw something at it. The timber decking of the beach club is gently lapped by the glassy-green Aegean. The club is understated, and the eight-room hotel even more so.
Originally built by the son of Muhammad Ali Pasha, the one-time Ottoman ruler of Egypt, the 18th-century mansion has been beautifully restored by architect Sureyya Saruhan, who has also worked his magic on the Egyptian Consulate in Istanbul. The designer Hakan Ezer has added vintage mirrors, antique, botanical prints, olive-coloured paint and white-linen drapes to Saruhanfragrant, cedarwood framework. Charming staff administer aromatherapy massages and prepare the thermal pool in the hotel s private courtyard. The overall effect is wonderfully soothing.
The one downside is that the village of Ilica is rather charmless. For a prettier backdrop, you need to go to Nars Ilicasister hotel, Nars Alacati, in a village of 19th-century limestone houses built by the Greeks, recently restored and now the darling of the Istanbul jet-set. With its Moroccan detailing, this seven-room hotel has a more rustic and eclectic feel than Nars Ilica, but it is still a lovely base from which to go shopping (for linens at Ayse nin Dolabi or fruit at the Saturday market) or just enjoy people-watching.
While staying at either hotel (and I happily spent two nights at each), you can learn to windsurf at Alacatis almost-enclosed bay, taste Turkish wines at the New World-style winery Urla Sarapcilik or visit Ephesus. The two-hour drive there is worth it for the astounding view of the Celsius Library along colonnaded Curetes Street. As my guide Doganay put it: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, St Paul and St John all walked this street before you. Nars Ilica (00 90 232 729 0001; www.narsilica.com). Doubles from €300. Airport transfer €80 (takes an hour). Nars Alacati (00 90 232 716 0900; www.narsalacati.com). Doubles from about ?120. Airport transfer about ?55 (takes an hour)
Mehmet Ali Aga Mansion Datca Peninsula
Until recently, the Datca Peninsula had terrible roads. In fact, in the 20 years that Sibel Romano lived in nearby Marmaris, she only went twice. But once the new road was in place, Romano jumped at the chance to run Mehmet Ali Aga Mansion, where she is manager.
Dating back to 1809, the galleried Ottoman-style mansion was built for a governor who would sit drinking raki in his namazga (praying area) as the call to prayer drifted over from the village mosque. But after his sons and daughters died leaving no heirs, the building fell into disrepair and lay empty until it was bought in 2002 by a Turkish businessman called Mehmet Pir.
Authentically restored by a team led by Sureyya Saruhan (the same architect who renovated Nars llica), it is now a beautiful building set in spectacular grounds which include a rose garden, citrus grove, swimming pool and wood-fired hammam.
An elaborately carved door leads to an extraordinary suite that seems frozen in time, with embroidered, white-divan seating and frescoes in the Ottoman-miniature style with baroque embellishments. The bathroom has a marble basin concealed in a cedarwood wardrobe. There are four more mansion rooms, plus 13 modern Ottoman rooms in three stone buildings. And the hotel s meze (fresh almonds and dreamy borek filled with cheese and spinach) are an absolute feast.
The seafront resort of Kizlan, where the hotel has reserved a stretch of coarse-sand beach for guests, and Nirva, a fashionable new beach club, are both nearby.
However, I was more taken with Eski Datca (Old Datca), where the satirical Turkish poet Can Yucel used to write and drink, and the seaside village and cove of Palamutbuku, where Semra Uzun, the owner of Le Jardin de Semra, conjures up delicious calamari. At the ancient site of Knidos, the ghost of PraxitelesAphrodite of Cnidus-the first life-size, female nude in classical sculpture, created for this site but long lost —hovers over the remains of a once-great, terraced city in an astonishing setting that overlooks a double harbour.
00 90 252 712 9257; www.kocaev.com.
Doubles from €160. Airport transfer €150 (takes about two hours)
Hotel Villa Mahal Kalkan
The road to the Hotel Villa Mahal descends so dramatically towards the sea that for a moment I think we might shoot off the edge. At the bottom of a steep flight of steps, the property s owner, Ipek Tolbas, is waiting on the terrace. She has an elfin haircut and an infectious sense of fun. We set off past an infinity pool to the hotelbeach club and restaurant, where her brother Murat and sister-in-law Sibnem are mingling with the guests. The logo on a waiters T-shirt seems to sum up the scene perfectly: ‘steps to heaven’.
Kalkan is now a thriving holiday resort with a new road slicing through the mountainside above it, but when Tolbas first came here in 1982 there was a beautiful bay, a white mosque, a few houses and lots of olive trees . She bought a large plot and started building, using donkeys to heft the stones. Five rooms and two pool suites have since been added to the original six rooms, and all are lovely.
It would be easy to spend all your time at the hotel, swimming or kayaking round the floating platform, eating pide (Turkish pizza), relaxing after a massage in a cave, dining at the wateredge, perhaps occasionally taking the hotel s boat to one of the harbour-side restaurants across the bay (try Trio on the marina). But then you would miss out on Patara. Stretching back from an 18km sandy beach, the scattered ruins of this Lycian port are home to one of the world s first parliament buildings and to the partially rebuilt, oldest standing lighthouse in the world, recently unearthed from the shifting sands.
00 90242 844 3268; www.villamahal.com. Doubles from €200. Airport transfer about ?60 (takes one-and-a-half hours)
Peninsula Gardens Hotel Kas
High in the sky, tandem paragliders hover like dragonflies over green mountains. They float down to the old harbour of Kas, from where the Cukurbag Peninsula snakes out into the Mediterranean to almost touch the Greek island of Kastelorizo. In this dramatic setting, staggered down the hillside and with glorious sunset views, is the new Peninsula Gardens Hotel.
The owner, Aslan Uzun, already has four hotels in Kalkan. This one is unusual in that, despite the awkward hillside location, 13 of the 18 rooms have plunge pools. I visited a month before the hotel opened, but its promise was obvious: a vision in limestone, green glass and juniper wood, where honeymoon couples emerging from their rooms have the choice of heading to the Turkish bath, the indoor or outdoor pool, the tiered decking or the sparkling sea.
Other activities include gulet trips, a tour by boat or kayak of the sunken city off Kekova Island (book through Xanthos Adventure Travel; www.xanthos travel.com) and exploring Kas. The old town is less charming than Kalkan s —it has a vast new marina, as well as the original one —but there is a gorgeous street called Uzungarsi Caddesi, where ancient houses have been converted into shops selling pestamals (Turkish bath towels) and antique prints. When you ve finished shopping, head to Nur Beach Hotel; the owner, Mehmet Kocakaya, went into business at 16, selling ice to yachtsman. Below the hotelrestaurant, you can sunbathe on floating platforms in the sea and watch the paragliders as you swim. 020 7722 2288; www.peninsulagardenshotel.com. Doubles from ?190. Airport transfer ?150 (takes one hour and 45 minutes)