Exploring Turkey’s Historic Turquoise Coast

You’ll find alpine idylls, upland meadows, and trout-filled mountain lakes. Hiking and horseback riding through the pine forests are popular pastimes, and if you like climbing, some of the peaks are 10,000 feet high. But for most visitors, the number-one draw in this part of southwest Turkey is the ocean.

Called the “Turquoise Coast,” the water really is turquoise—usually a brilliant shade of the color. You may argue that it’s cyan, azure, or a shade of blue-green, but you won’t dispute its beauty.

If you like sailing, you will love it here. Until the 1970s, access to most villages was by sea only. There are still beaches and hidden spots you won’t reach without a boat. You can easily and affordably take a cruise aboard a traditional wooden gulet (a type of sailboat), or charter one and go it alone.

And then there are the beaches. Not miles and miles of them—the mountains sweep right down to the sea in most places—but those that are here are among the world’s most beautiful. And where else can you relax on white sands in the shade of the world’s first parliament building, built in the 1st century AD, or paddle a sea kayak over the submerged ruins of an ancient city?

The remains of the Lycian civilization are everywhere. The rock-cut tombs, grand theaters, and temples of these mysterious people still stand at the heart of towns like Fethiye and Kas. Or, for the real Indiana Jones experience, you can explore ancient mountain cities like Tlos or Xanthos in the interior.

This coast is where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Aegean. The scattered islands offshore are far-flung outposts of Greece, and you can take ferries to Rhodes and Kastellorizo.

The Turquoise Coast is popular with Europeans, and there are seasonal direct flights to the region’s Dalaman Airport from London, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt.

It gets hot here in the summer (think 95 F), although escaping to the mountains’ cooler climes is always easy. But I say go in spring, when it’s lush, fresh, and the tourists are only starting to come.

An hour from Dalaman Airport by bus ($10 round-trip), Fethiye is the hub of the Turquoise Coast. Built on the ruins of Lycian Telmessos, this vibrant market town has 2,000-year-old tombs carved into the cliffs above it.

Home to 85,000 people, Fethiye is the best place for deciding which cruise to take. The town’s marina bristles with masts and the outdoor cafés along the promenade are a great place to sip a cold Efes beer ($3) and ponder your options. There are lots of day trips, but for real value consider a cruise of a few days and nights. There are plenty of operators and itineraries.

A 15-minute dolmus ride from Fethiye, Oludeniz is Turkey‘s most famous beach. (Dolmus are the small vans and buses that ferry folks on set routes. Just shout when you want to get off.) In summer the beach is packed. There’s a $1.60 entry fee, too. But there are other beaches nearby. Try Kidrak, where you can take shade amid pine trees and watch the paragliders land.

The town of Kalkan, an hour or so down the coast from Fethiye, doesn’t have a whole lot to recommend it, but 20 minutes farther on you get to Kas. Lemon trees perfume the air around the old acropolis and chickens peck their way through the corridors of a Hellenistic temple. Along with ancient ruins, Kas has a small but perfectly-preserved Ottoman townscape—white-washed, timber-framed houses on narrow lanes. It’s in a pretty location, too: nestled at the foot of dramatic cliffs, complete with rock tombs and wrapped around the curve of a bay.

The town is a good base from which to explore the beach and ruins at Patara, but it’s also a nice place to spend time. It’s more boutique—and expensive—than Fethiye. You’ll find lots of yachters here, and a mix of continental European expats.

For good eating, I made a great find with Mama’s Kitchen, near the harbor in the old quarter. To overcome the language barrier Mama herself took me to the kitchen to show me the menu, literally, by revealing dish after dish of delicious Turkish specialties like stuffed eggplant. For just $14 I had two beers and a feast of mezes (appetizers), followed by a delicious kebab. The sunset view from the terrace was free.

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