There’s a deceptive seaside vibe about Alaçati. Despite the fact this little whitewash village lies 3km inland from the nearest stretch of coast, at the end of each of its rough-hewn cobbled streets I expect the sea to be suddenly revealed, a blue band painted on the horizon.
The artfully arranged fishing nets and chunks of driftwood strewn around the shopfronts of this little town near the Aegean conspire in this delusion, bolstered by the briny stink from a tray of sardine heads a local man is setting down for a group of scrappy street cats. He gives me a grin; I give the cats a passing scratch behind the ears and move on.
To add to this coastal confusion, Alaçati (pronounced al-ur-cha-tur) first appeared on the tourist map back in the 1970s as a hub for a band of backpacking windsurfers who ‘discovered’ this otherwise obscure village on Turkey’s somnolent Çesme Peninsula. Then, bit by bit the surf shacks and board shops that had colonised the nearby beaches and port gave way to a shiny new marina development, as the smart set from Izmir and, more recently, Istanbul started to arrive.
Alaçati’s affordable, tumbledown villas and townhouses, which hadn’t suffered from inflated coastal prices, slowly began welcoming vanguard chefs, drop-out designers and innovative hoteliers, who decamped from the Turkish capital to set up boho-chic shops in the sticks. Today, behind every crumbling stone barn is an impeccably dressed boutique hotel; each rough-hewn cobbled alley conceals a ‘country restaurant’ where the look is rustic and the food refined.
Lately, you’ll find Alaçati dubbed ‘the new Bodrum’ by the lifestyle glossies, but in truth it’s far less bling than its glitzy neighbour. Its oh-so-pretty Grecian houses (the town was settled by Greek workers back in the 1800s) are home to indie boutiques rather than international brands. Each of its stone buildings is thoughtfully rustic — a distressed plaster wall here, a roughly finished hand-hewn wooden bench there.
I pull up a chair — sculpted wrought iron, of course — and order a glass of Chardonnay, from the local Urlice Vineyard, at Kose Kahve. This cafe-boutique is something of a social — if not socialite — centre of the village; the place to pick up a haute couture kaftan along with the latest gossip from diplomats and designers in from Istanbul. While I drink, a sharply dressed lady from the French embassy breezes up to the pastry counter for air kisses and a catch-up with the Belgian chef. He in turn rejoices at how much weight he’s lost on the latest diet (“metabolic balance” — managed expensively by a German doctor). Kose Kahve may translate as ‘corner shop’ but it feels more like a 20th-century Paris salon.
Meanwhile a Belgian photographer strikes up friendly conversation. This self-appointed ambassador for Alaçati delivers praise for the village’s indie spirit with the wide eyes and machine-gun-fire delivery that suggests a man just arrived in the Promised Land. But he’s no newbie; married to a Turkish artist, he’s been here 10 years; his wife thriving in this creative enclave.
“What I love about this place, is the opportunities it has for us women to show our talents,” says Kose Kahve’s owner, Tomris Maravent, a designer originally from Istanbul. “There’s not many places in Turkey that a woman can do this.”
The creative capacities of two generations of Turkish women are on show around the corner at Asma Yapragı, one of Alaçati’s ‘country kitchen’-style restaurants set in village houses. This is the place to eat hearty, home-cooked food made by chef-owner Ayse Nur Mihci to her aunt’s recipes. You’ve not eaten baba ganoush (or ‘patlıcan salatası’ by its local name) until you’ve dined here: yoghurty, silky and zinging with garlic. And what Ayse does with artichokes illustrates generations of practice, complemented perfectly by the restaurant’s ‘grandmother’s kitchen’ aesthetic — all cut-glass tableware, cute teapots and lots of lace.
A short hike up a steep hill, by way of postprandial exercise, is rewarded with views of Alaçati’s windmill-studded coast, and some ambitious molecular cocktails at Alancha. With a sister restaurant in Istanbul, Alancha is at the forefront of the town’s burgeoning Slow Food movement, headed up by chef Kemal Demirasal. I sit watching smoke rising off my ‘fume’ cocktail while the sun finally dips below the horizon; the windmills powering round in the perennial gusts.
That whiplash wind blows the cobwebs away the next morning, chasing me out to Alaçati Port, hampering then helping my progress on the bike I’ve borrowed from my hotel. I sail past the new marina with its mega yachts and wannabe Venetian villas, following the inlet out to the bay where windsurf sails snap and cut at the sunburnt air. A lazy morning is spent on the sands in the company of just one family, watching windsurfers tack and jibe, before I barefoot over for lunch (delicate, cumin-scented meatballs) at Makah Beach Cafe, one of several wooden shacks lining the water.
It may now be better known for boutique hotels but Alaçati is still big on windsurfing. Its shacks offer equipment and lessons for all levels, and it hosts several international competitions, with pro teams training here year-round. Back at my hotel, I’m given a run-down of a windsurfers’ rigorous daily training regime by manager Ilknur. Herself a former pro and married to a former Olympic champion windsurfer, Ilknur’s schedule now involves navigating the winds of fashion, heading up Alaçati’s most starry boutique address, Alavya. Since it opened a couple of summer’s ago, this 25-room retreat, spread across six stone houses hidden behind a walled garden off one of the town’s main drags, has become the place to play pasha.
Centred on a catwalk-narrow swimming pool jewelled with mirrored mosaics, this is a whimsically elegant place to stay, packed with statement art gathered by the globetrotting owner and wife, and home to one of Alaçati’s best restaurants: Mitu. More of a hamlet than a hotel, the vibe is homespun (if your home is the country house of one of Turkey’s wealthiest couples), with playful touches that include the very name of the place itself. Alavya was an endearment the owners’ son used to say to them as a toddler (‘I love ya’, in heavily accented English); Mitu, their riposte.
Breakfasts here — a Mediterranean-Middle Eastern banquet of fruits, cheeses, flat breads, homemade yoghurts and local honey dripping on the comb — come in a succession of plates that often requires heaving side tables, making it hard to start the day with any hurry. Lunches, followed by a siesta on palm-shaded day beds or a treatment in the cool underground hamman-spa, also threaten to usurp the day. But, post siesta, I head by bus 20 minutes out to Çesme, a port town whose 16th-century Genoese castle is well worth the TRY5 (£1) for a bracing clamber around.
Built to protect the coast from pirates, the castle’s cliff-like battlements offer hulking displays of naval weaponry and equally dramatic views of Çesme’s new marina beyond. The Greek island of Chios, just four miles out to sea, is a day trip by ferry. But I’m content to remain in town, ambling around shady side streets, poking my head into mosques and Orthodox churches, and wondering at the ‘population exchanges’ that wrenched communities apart here in the 1920s. Like Alaçati, many villages on this coast had a long history of settlement by Greeks, and likewise by Turks across the water in Greece, with intermarrying spanning generations until the Turkish War of Independence saw enforced repatriation on both sides. Today, people here often consider themselves Aegean first, rather than Turkish, and Greek can still be heard.
The sunny yellow Aegean sands of Ilıca Beach are on view from the bus on my return to Alaçati; a 1.5km stretch of pristine silica I’ll bike out to the following morning for a few indolent hours blown about by wind and surf. But for now, Alaçati’s cobbled streets are calling. At sunset, street vendors gather to sell lemon-steamed mussels to linen-clad couples, cafes ply chilled glasses of biodynamic rose wine in the shade of overhanging timbered balconies, and boutiques heave open their barn-like doors to reveal some real Turkish treasures.
I navigate the narrow, toy-stuffed aisles of retro outfit Pop Alacati, selling everything from 1950s cameras to 1980s keyboards, while a couple stops for an impromptu waltz outside, dancing to a turntable playing the crackly soundtrack to a 1960s Turkish movie. At Eskiden Alaçati, I find antique wine and water vessels, gathered by owner Otkay Durna, who’s spent 25 years crisscrossing Anatolia’s rural villages in search of this storied blue and green glassware. Standing in his workshop, amid a mesmerising expanse of watery colours, I’m once again all at sea in Alaçati and all the happier for it.
Pegasus Airlines flies direct from Stansted to Izmir year-round; Thomas Cook Airlines flies from Stansted, Gatwick and Birmingham, while Thomson and EasyJet fly direct from Gatwick.
Average flight time: 4h.
Alaçati is a 45-minute drive from Izmir. There are plenty of car rental outfits and a taxi rank at the airport but Alaçati, the nearby beaches and Çesme are easily explored by bus, bike or on foot.
When to go
Peak summer can get very crowded, although winds keep it cool. Thermal springs make winter beach breaks doable but spring and autumn are best, with plenty of sun and temperatures in the mid-20Cs.
Need to know
Visas: Tourist visas cost $20 (£13) and you can apply up to three months in advance online, or on arrival. evisa.gov.tr/en
Currency: Turkish lira (TRY). £1 = TRY4.
International dial code: 00 90.
Time difference: GMT +3.
How to do it
Exclusive Escapes offers three nights’ B&B at Alavya from £640 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights to Izmir and transfers.
Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)