Bodrum’s Eternal Blue
While some people consider Bodrum to be "the Hamptons of Turkey," for me, flying into Bodrum was a bit like finding Brigadoon. From the window of the plane, I watched as a series of misty blue islands rose almost chimerically out of the silvery gray sea.
Situated in southwest Turkey, the Bodrum Peninsula sits on the Aegean Sea, cradled by two bays and surrounded by 32 islands and inlets. With a hundred-mile coastline dotted with fishing villages, olive groves, and tangerine orchards, these are the fabled shores from which Homer’s heroes launched themselves into history and where Greeks consulted their oracles and along which the Romans built temples.
Known as Halicarnassus during the time of Alexander the Great, Bodrum was the birthplace of Herodotus, the father of written history, as well as the locale of one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World: King Mausolus’s tomb, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. (And yes, he is the one from whom the world "mausoleum" derives.)
Today, the city of Bodrum recalls elements of the heyday of the French Riviera - and particularly during high season when the yacht-lined marinas and chic nightclubs are home to Russian oligarchs, Arabian royals, and one-name superstars such as Beyoncé and Sting. In summer, when the population swells from 50,000 to half a million, the peninsula becomes the catwalk for Hollywood stars like Selma Hayek and Nicole Kidman and numerous other boldfaced names such as Chelsea Clinton and Caroline Kennedy.
Similar to the Hamptons, the Bodrum Peninsula was, for years, a series of small fishing villages punctuated with pebble beaches, bays, and pine barrens. Instead of the potato fields of the Hamptons, there were olive groves.
Much of Bodrum’s development as a global tourist destination can be attributed to the writings of Cevat Sakir, who later became known as the father of modern Bodrum. Writing as "The Fisherman of Halicarnassus," Sakir helped transform the former sleepy sponge-diving village of Bodrum and environs into a global destination - so much so that by the 1970s, it was not uncommon to see jet-set celebrities such as Nureyev and Jagger seated at neighboring cafés along the water.
Prior to the most recent wave of development (including brand-new and upcoming outposts of Aman Resorts, Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, and a Richard Meier-designed residence), most of the homes built in Bodrum were two- and three-story white structures. Balconies were constructed so as not to obstruct a neighbor’s view and the hills above Bodrum harbor are a series of setbacks, which resemble the white rows of balconies on the prow of a cruise ship.
In October, during the shoulder season, Bodrum settles back into a life dictated more by maritime rhythms than by the whims of globe-trotting tourists. The calm of the Aegean in autumn enables a more profound reflection of the region’s natural attributes. There’s time for a visit to a local artisan who carves driftwood into the figures that frequent his dreams - and then populates the hillside with hundreds of his hand-carved sculptures. There’s time for Turkish tea with a renowned Turkish glass artist who spent sixteen years in Australia and who created a glass mosaic street park in Sydney. And there’s time to sip fresh limeade with mint amidst a profusion of birds of paradise and fuchsia bougainvillea as the sun sets over the bay.
Late one autumn evening, I dine alone at a table along the water in the art-strewn gardens of Casa Dell’Arte in Torba. Tucked into a tiny bay, Torba (meaning "handbag" in Turkish) is a small seasonal village evocative of those waterfront enclaves along the Maine coast where the same families have maintained summer homes for generations. There are only three of us basking in the understated luxury of this seaside hotel restaurant: a French couple dining à deux - and me. There’s a first hint of autumnal chill in the air and the French woman is wrapped in scarves. Summer is over - and yet here we remain in the evening splendor of Bodrum along the Aegean.
The in-house collie wanders onto the patio - and two stray cats shoot across the lawn, their hissy howling echoing across the night. Two evenings before, I dined in this restaurant with the hotel’s owner in a party of eight, and long after the other tables had cleared, we remained in the moonlight, discussing the future of Turkey. With more than 5,000 years of Greek and Roman history, the Bodrum peninsula has witnessed military campaigns, naval victories, knights and conquests - and today, Bodrum is somewhat like Hong Kong: the region in the south where rules and convention matter less than in the rest of the country. What matters more is how you fill your days.
Across the lawn, a large piece of art is illuminated in white lights to reveal the words: "The people you love become ghosts inside of you - and like this you keep them alive." For the past three mornings, at breakfast in this restaurant, I have enjoyed watching an elderly German couple. The male with a camera, he photographs her repeatedly - and it’s clear that her wizened face is as beautiful to him now as it was when he first saw it as a youth. In the early light of morning, the German woman’s eyes close as her head nods over her fruit. She sits there, eyes closed, until he arrives to join her, his hand lightly touching her shoulder as she lifts her face to his. This is what matters, who we spend our lives with and how we treat them.
Speakers suspended above the garden play a track from the Seventies, a song by the Isley Brothers. One definition of heaven: the murmur of French from a neighboring table while an R&B ballad sprinkles the night with romance and a tinge of elegy. Summer in Bodrum has ended but, in the words of Homer, Bodrum goes on, a "land of eternal blue."
(Travel feature continues on next pages: Where to Stay, What to Do, Where to Shop, Where to Eat, Getting There...)