I arrived in Cesme, Alacati, Turkey knowing almost nothing about the place. Several Turks, people “In the know,” that I had met from different parts of Turkey said Alaçati and the Cesme Peninsula were their favorite spots in Turkey. But, I was skeptical. My English guidebooks gave but a mention. Online there was more information, but much of it was in Turkish and indecipherable to me. Still, my intuition said I should go.
Since I had a late arrival, I didn’t want to take a chance on finding a good hotel, so I booked ahead at the Alacati Luce Design Hotel. The Luce is a member of the Turkish Small Hotels Association, an affiliate group of small and exclusive boutique hotels spread throughout Turkey, and I had been having great luck finding great places through them.
After I had put my bags away, I went to go check out the amenities of The Luce. I sat at the bar and started talking to the bartender about his unusual (for Turkey) choice of music – American country. It wasn’t just country music; it was that one unique subgenre of country music that I enjoy, Texas music, and he was a true aficionado. Here I was, thousands of miles from home and the familiar sounds of Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keene, Waylon Jennings and more favorites of mine were playing played in the bar of this tiny boutique hotel in Turkey. It turns out that, before he returned home to Turkey, the bartender was a student in the U.S. and worked part-time at one of my favorite seafood restaurants, Gaido’s on Galveston Island. It was there he became a fan. I had been in Alaçai only half an hour, and already I felt at home.
The next morning I met Levant and Aysun, the owners of the Luce, for breakfast by the pool. They both have that sparkle of people that love what they are doing and I liked them both right away. A few years ago they decided to quit their stressful, high-level corporate jobs, in Istanbul and move back to their hometown of Alaçati to open an exclusive hotel. Their idea, and it is a successful formula, is to host discriminating people who love traveling and the intimacy of staying a small, but luxurious and well-tuned, specialty hotels. It turns out they are both avid travelers as well and — between bites of fresh pastries, strong farmer’s cheeses, mouthwatering local jams and an infinite variety of other locally sourced breakfast delights – we became friends.
We made plans to meet up later, and I went to explore the old town of Alacati. Still mostly unknown outside of Turkey, Alaçati is a charming mix of cobblestoned streets, small restaurants, cozy cafes and beautiful shops situated behind bougainvillea-draped, blue pastel and ivory-colored walls. Located in the middle of the peninsula, Alacati offers a choice of blue Aegean white sand beaches both to the north and the south of the old town. Alaçati is also a famous windsurfing destination with a professional windsurfing competition held here every year.
I decided to go to Ilica Beach, on the north side, since Levant, Aysun and I were going to meet their friends and go sailing from the marina near the southern beach later in the afternoon. The sky was clear, the water was blue, and the sand was white. I wandered around a bit and found a comfortable spot under an umbrella to get a falafel and people watch. I spent a few hours just reading a book, looking at the surf, and soaking in the ambiance. I had been in Turkey for almost ten days at this point, and I couldn’t believe the variety and how different it was from my previous perceptions.
Later, I met up with Levant and Aysun back at the Luce, and after tea, we left for the Port Alaçati Marina. I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t anticipate having flashbacks of my times in the South of France. It turns out that the Yacht Marina, which resembled a spot on the Cote d’Azur, was designed by a French architect, who also designs beachside attractions on the French Mediterranean.
We met up at their friend’s yacht and cast off for a sunset sail in the Aegean Sea. I had forgotten how enjoyable it could be, cruising over blue waters, the wind in your hair, watching other boats and just laughing and basking in each other’s company. They had brought along plates of fresh fruit, pita bread, cheese, olives and some wine. It was a perfect day on the water and, although it was beautiful, I was a bit sad when the sun set because it was time to return to port.
Sadness didn’t last long because, after we had said goodbye to the sailors, we went straight to Bal?kç? Niyazi Restaurant, right there in the harbor, for one of the best, most indulgent, seafood meals I have ever enjoyed. Plate after plate of small dishes or appetizers, known as mezes kept arriving. There were tiny packets of prawns wrapped in grape leaves, octopus cooked in wine, taramosalata, grilled sardines, fresh pasta with crabmeat and cheese, and huge fillets from fish caught that day and delivered directly to Ali’s dock.
At first, I resisted, then indulged in a bit of Raki, an unsweetened, Turkish, anise-flavored drink that is not only delicious, but it also acts as a digestif which enabled me to eat even more. Out came the fish kebabs, seafood lasagna, and … Okay, I lost track. Between the Raki, Ali’s hospitality, the sailing, the salt air, all the food, both on and off the water, I was about to enter a blissful coma. Aysun drove us home in her Mini Cooper, and the last thing I remember after falling into bed was how contented I felt in this “secret” place.
The next morning, after much coffee and repeating the indulgent breakfast, this time with Menemen – a classic one-pan Turkish egg dish with tomatoes and green peppers – Levant and I decided to see more of the Cesme Peninsula. He took me to the village of Ildir where we visited the morning market and climbed through the narrow alleyways to get a better look at the sea. From there we could see some 2,000-year-old ruins, just waiting their turn to be excavated and their history revealed.
From there we went to a couple of the beach clubs to get a taste of the variety the peninsula has to offer. We set up on some comfortable cushions above the deck and watched the revelers soaking up the sun and enjoying the party beats blasting from the sound system. It was a little more activity than I wanted at the time, but I couldn’t help, again, thinking to myself, “This is Turkey?”
I had a ferry to catch to Greece in a few hours, but Levant wanted me to try just one more special restaurant; Noni’s House. Noni is a dog (literally), but the owner Celine is a beautiful woman, an amazing cook, a nice person and an all-around fantastic hostess. I was still stuffed from all my other meals on the Cesme Peninsula, but Celine insisted on me trying, “just a little bit.”
Everything at Noni’s place is made or produced on site. The olives, the olive oil, the grapes, the cheeses, the wine, the hummus, the yogurt, the vegetables; even the meat comes from animals she and her husband raise. Plate after, bowl, after platter of this wondrous organic food just kept pouring from the kitchen. Just when I though I couldn’t have another bite, because I am American, she brought out the most mouthwatering cheeseburger, on a homemade bun, with fries, and olives. I ate it all. As if all of this wasn’t enough, she followed up with a moist, flourless cake and a cup of strong Turkish coffee for dessert.
I didn’t want to leave Noni’s. I just wanted to crawl into a hammock and fall asleep. I didn’t want to leave Turkey either, but I had tickets for the afternoon ferry to the Greek island of Chios. Reluctantly, and with much difficulty, I lifted my food laden self out of my chair, and Levant took me to the ferry terminal.
This adventure to Alaçti and the Cesme Peninsula was one of the most extravagant, indulgent, fun-packed day and a half, I had had for a while. The hospitality shown to me by Levant, Aysun, all of their friends and the staff at the Alaçati Luce Design Hotel was truly humbling. I have made new friends and I will visit again.
I had no idea what to expect before I arrived in Turkey, but I know I will be back. We all form impressions of places we have never been, and I have to admit, my impressions of Turkey were all wrong. There were, of course, the great bazaars, architecture, and scenery. The historical sites were to be expected, but much more impressive than I expected. What I didn’t anticipate, for whatever reason, were the clear water and white sand beaches, the scrumptious food, but above all the hospitality of the Turkish people.