Turkey: All the trimmings

By Chris Leadbeater

A wave of luxury hotels is transforming this dramatic stretch of Aegean coast. Chris Leadbeater takes in the view from his veranda at Amanruya.

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Dressed in white, from tip of bow to drowsy flutter of sail, the yacht has halted in the bay. The image of indecision, it seems stuck in two minds, unsure whether it wants to pull in to shore at the jetty to the right, or continue to throw poses like a survivor from a mid-Eighties Duran Duran video amid the sea-sparkle and lazy warmth that envelops it.

Perhaps it is merely admiring the setting. On the deck, its passengers all similarly clad in pale hues are shielding their faces as they gaze at the sweep of land that frames the scene. Here, the Turkish coastline thrusts a hard green shoulder into the shallows of the Aegean, forested flanks rearing away from the rocky roughness of the water's edge, the horizon blocked by a fragrant mixture of swaying firs and steady olive trees. And the afternoon drifts woozily, the sky above wholly cloudless, the beauty of it all seductive.

Keeping a casual eye on matters from my veranda a few hundred feet away (the yacht eventually glides off, taking its sailors in search of a party), I am also enamoured with this middle-distance splendour. But then, the view at my feet is no less intriguing a day-bed, a small pool, a pair of lemon trees nodding gracefully by the wall.

Behind, the villa where I have dropped to sleep for three nights keeps its composure, waiting for evening's arrival, when its elegant sofas, plump four-poster and wide bathroom will be of more use.

It is a luxurious state of affairs though this is precisely the point. Amanruya opened its doors on the Bodrum Peninsula that weather-blessed nugget of Turkey that juts from the country's south-western corner last year. In doing so, it ushered in a subtle style of sophistication that has whispered its existence in 25 resorts in destinations as varied as Bhutan, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka during the last quarter of a century.

The Aman ethos a quiet, understated calm has long been suited to tranquil coves in South-east Asia. But it also appears to fit neatly with brash, sometimes bawdy Turkey. When, in the cool of a Friday evening, I step into the cobbled courtyard that passes for its main entrance, I am half convinced that I have stumbled into a lost Ottoman village. Honey-coloured buildings perch on different levels. Arches and alcoves crop up here and there. Paths and passages dart between them, often seeming to lead to dead ends. Indeed, were it not for the 51-metre infinity pool at the heart of the complex, or the spa alongside, it would be easy to subscribe to the notion of a forgotten citadel, hidden from the world.

In all, 36 villas lie strewn across a slight hillside, making up an enclave of undeniably fashionable appeal.

And yet, if this sounds an incredible sum for an escape to a country better known for bargain breaks, the price is also in keeping with the ambience of an area that is rapidly gaining an upmarket reputation. Increasingly, the north side of the Bodrum Peninsula is the parade arena of jet-setters and high-flyers. Just west of Amanruya, a new Mandarin Oriental project, due to open early next year, is almost complete. Adjacent, a Hilton compound reopened in 2011 after sizeable renovation. And the chic retreat of Macakizi has been welcoming wealthy guests and their holiday boats to tiny Turkbuku since 2000.

Five miles from Amanruya, on the southern lip of the peninsula, Bodrum has witnessed this influx of the rich and famous before. Low-slung and pretty, yet steeped in history, it has been catering to prestigious guests for more than two millennia not least since the 1st century BC, when the star-crossed Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the controversial power couple of the age, used it as a pausing port for their voyages in and out of Egypt.

Back then, the town bore a more romantic title etched onto the map as Halicarnassus. That this name still rings through the centuries is indication of its one-time significance. It stood as the capital of the ancient province of Caria a coveted region that switched between Greek, Persian and Macedonian possession before the rise of the Roman Empire.

Memories of this era linger in the modern town. On the northern outskirts, a half-restored Greco-Roman amphitheatre sits unobserved at the roadside, eternally awaiting its actors. It has company, too though it is not immediately easy to locate Bodrum's most iconic parcel of antiquity. It takes me several minutes of wandering down lanes alive with wild flowers, past homes where doors are open and unattended to find the Mausoleum Museum. Even then, I practically trip across its threshold, so unobtrusive is its presence.

Yet here is a ghost that was once one of the most revered sites on the planet. Constructed around 350BC, the Tomb of Mausolus was so glorious a 45-metre-tall feast of marble, reliefs, statues and friezes that it was recognised as one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. And such was its aesthetic majesty that it ensured immortality for the man it would shelter in death, the Carian ruler whose name lives on as the word "mausoleum".

Of course, the mausoleum itself is largely gone. A 14th-century earthquake proved its final undoing, after which architectural magpies found new uses for its dislodged masonry. All that remains is a clutch of fallen pillars, a disembodied stone head or two, and a sense of sadness. But I experience a silent thrill nonetheless as I stroll this pocket of the past, knowing that, in another epoch, it was considered the equal of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

If 21st-century Bodrum is only vaguely concerned with its ancient heritage; it is more confident of its present, spreading whitewashed and picturesque on its natural harbour. And, for the most part, there is the feeling of a place that has been developed but not devoured by tourism. A sun-dried charm haunts the marina, with its crowd of masts, and there is a parochial babble to the cafs on the front, where young men drink dark teas from curved glass beakers, and their fathers mull the big topics of the day from the chairs in the shade.

Perhaps a little authenticity has been eaten away on the main drag, where Cumhuriyet Caddesi has sold its soul to gaudy karaoke joints and shops touting fake designer goods. But even here, there are intriguing exceptions Gallery Mustafa, with its ornate carpets and cushions; Alem Bar dispensing cocktails on a back terrace that overlooks the water.

Ambling east along the promenade of Pasatarlasi Sokak, I find myself stopping for lunch at the unassuming Eksi. I am drawn in by the position of its tables, plonked unceremoniously on to the shingle within splashing range of the tide and by the fact that there is no menu. Instead, the lady of the house emerges with a platter of fresh fish and I choose an angry-looking snapper. It reappears minutes later alongside a leafy salad and a crisp bottle of white.

From my seat, I can see the most obvious of Bodrum's relics. Preening on its bayside crag, the Castle of The Knights of St John is still imbued with the 15th-century spirit of the Crusaders who built it. "Lord protect us in our sleep, save us when we awake" reads the Latin inscription above the gateway the supplication of strangers in a strange land.

Their imprint lingers in the English Tower (whose walls contain recycled chunks of the Mausoleum), aristocratic titles carved into the walls next to windows of stained glass. The chapel, meanwhile, tells a familiar tale of religious cross-pollination, its inherent Christian stockiness softened by the minaret that has replaced its spire. But there are many stories here, particularly in the attached Museum of Underwater Archaeology, an exhibition space which holds artefacts goblets and amphorae salvaged from the wreck at Uluburun, a Bronze Age vessel that sank off the Antalyan coast in the 14th century BC.

This is another reminder that this region is woven into time's tapestry. Those with a taste for such things can find others. Maybe Ephesus, 100 miles north at Selcuk, where visitors swirl around the traces of the Temple of Artemis, another of the ancient Seven Wonders.

Amanruya also pays attention to the gods and heroes who once stalked the area, offering jaunts to Labranda a cluster of Carian fragments, difficult to reach independently, that lurks above Milas at the end of a pitted, twisting road in the Besparmak Mountains. The location was much loved by the heralded Mausolus, who, after surviving an assassination attempt here at a feast in 355BC, expanded it into a remote but important sanctuary.

At first glance, the site seems overgrown and under-appreciated. Thick grass swarms over columns and cornices and it is only when I climb a small bluff and peer down that the lay-out of a Temple to Zeus, scattered and indistinct at ground level, becomes apparent. Bodrum may be rising to prominence among luxury travellers, but here, amid butterflies flitting in the heat, is proof that subtle sophistication has long been part of its landscape.

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