Discover Why Families Are Flocking to Turkey's Turquoise Coast
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When I started planning this summer’s vacation, the goal was to take the kids to Greece, long a dream destination of mine. Greece is also an obvious choice for a family trip because it meets two of my key goals: visiting spectacular historical sites and beautiful beaches. But the more I researched, the more a different destination -- Turkey's Turquoise Coast -- seemed a more ideal choice.
European and British families have long made the Turquoise Coast -- also known as the Turkish Riviera -- their summer playground. Now Americans are getting in on the secret too. With harbors full of colorful boats, whitewashed buildings stair-stepping down to a deep blue sea, spacious sandy beaches well supplied with lounge chairs and lively seaside cafes, it checks all the boxes for the perfect seaside holiday. With the dollar strong against the Turkish lira, cost-conscious families can vacation in high style while relaxing in the knowledge that they’re getting maximum value from their holiday purse.
So-named for the brilliant blue-green color of its many coves, the Turquoise Coast stretches from the Mediterranean in the south to the Aegean in the north, anchored by the twin cities of Bodrum and Antalya. Our itinerary featured stays in both places, allowing us to fly into Bodrum and out of Antalya without retracing our steps.
While it's easy to fly from Bodrum to Antalya, we drove in order to see the sights in between.
Our first night in Bodrum, we spread a good old-fashioned paper map over the coffee table in our comfortable room at the Mandarin Oriental hotel and plotted out the sights that were highest on our list.
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Highlights of the Turquoise Coast
There's so much to see in this region that you could extend your vacation by weeks and never get through even the top attractions in most guidebooks. But here were our favorites:
The Town of Bodrum
Sloping upward from a crescent-shaped bay, Bodrum today is a pretty port city with a harbor full of fishing boats, yachts and the two- and three-masted sailing ships known as gulets that are popular for chartered day trips. It’s known for its excellent seafood restaurants, lively nightlife and as the ferry port for boats departing for nearby Greek islands.
But this strategic harbor, located at the meeting of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, was once the ancient city of Halicarnassus, a port so grand it was mentioned by Homer in the "Odyssey" and described by the historian Herodotus. Towering above the harbor, the 15th-century castle of St. Peter is open to visitors, though large sections are currently closed for renovations. Within the fort but also currently closed for renovations is the Museum of Underwater Archaeology, which houses a spectacular collection of ancient artifacts rescued from shipwrecks and underwater ruins. It is scheduled to reopen in 2020.
Northwest of town, the Bodrum Peninsula juts into the Aegean sea, its craggy silhouette punctuated by inlets, coves and bays, each occupied by a picturesque village or a resort’s private beach. Yalikavak is the area’s glitziest yacht harbor, and its here that you’ll find many of Bodrum’s fine dining restaurants, as well as shopping and nightlife. From Yalikavak, as well as from Turgutreis and Bodrum itself, gulets depart for half- and full-day boat trips that give you a chance to see the Turquoise Coast as sailors do, and include snorkeling and visits to nearby islands.
Two and a half hours north of Bodrum, the ancient Greek and Roman city of Ephesus is one of the largest and best-preserved ancient ruins in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking from one end of the vast 550-acre site to the other on a 2,000-year-old marble road, you enter a world of gladiators, charioteers, kings and emperors. Leave at least half a day to see the towering Library of Celsus, climb to the top of the great amphitheater, walk through the sprawling agora and visit the mosaic-floored terrace houses that give a surprisingly fresh sense of what like was life for a noble family in the 2nd century BC.
Note: If your kids are like mine, they will be fascinated by the communal bathhouse with its rows of stone toilets -- looking remarkably like modern outhouses -- and the bathtubs in the terrace houses, which featured hot running water and heated floors.
Head straight for the walled Old City, a warren of cobblestone streets and bougainvillea-draped walls, where cafes are tucked into lush courtyards, shops sell traditional handicrafts and small churches ring their bells every morning and evening. Follow the streets all the way to the water and you’ll find a lovely city park where families picnic on benches and a lookout that juts over the water is the perfect place to watch the sunset. Within a short distance of town are two impressive ruins, the Aspendos Theater, one of the largest and most intact Roman amphitheaters in the world, dating from 80 AD, and Perge, the remains of a rich trading port with columns and arched doorways still standing.
One of the highlights of our trip was Antalya’s Archaeology Museum, where 13 splendid halls house prized statues and sarcophagi removed for safety from the area’s most prominent excavations, including Perge and Ephesus.
Antalya’s beaches are both wide and long, so despite their popularity it’s not hard to find a spot to yourselves. Konyaalti, protected by cliffs on both sides, has a very gradual slope with a wide shallows perfect for young swimmers.
Where to Stay
Resorts at both ends of the Turkish Riviera cater to families, competing to have the best maintained beaches and most elaborate pools, waterslides and play areas.
In Bodrum, use Marriott points to book Caresse, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa (from 50,000 points/night), Delta Hotels Bodrum (opening May 2020 as a Category 4 property) or go all out for brand new Edition Bodrum by Ian Schrager (from 35,000 points/night), which just opened this year to worshipful reviews. While this hot new property is currently not taking redemption bookings, that could change in the fall. Another over-the-top spectacle is The Bodrum by Paramount, with its opulent décor and spectacular entertainment programming.
You can earn Marriott points with the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card and Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant® American Express® Card. Or earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points with cards like Chase Freedom (No longer open to new applicants) and Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and then transfer those points to your Marriott account at a 1:1 basis.
For Hilton Honors points, book the Hilton Bodrum Turbuku Resort & Spa (though you may have to wait until after the summer to do so with points). It’s a family favorite for its four pools (one indoors and three outdoors) complete with waterslides, plus a spacious playground and kids club.
With Bodrum a destination fast on the rise, several new properties are in progress, including a Park Hyatt Bodrum slated to open in 2020. Start collecting Hyatt points now with the World of Hyatt Credit Card.
Outside the limits of loyalty programs, Bodrum’s local resorts are even more extravagant in their family offerings. Kefaluka Resort has two kids’ pools and a waterpark with five slides, along with a cinema room, game room and even a shooting range. Ersan Exclusive Resort & Spa also has two pools and multiple waterslides, along with an on-site dive center that offers Jet Skis as well as non-motorized water sports and an amphitheater hosting performances of Turkish folk dance, circus acrobatics and more. Xanadu Island has a bowling alley, an amphitheater with entertainment and a dive center.
Then there’s the Mandarin Oriental Bodrum, where we stayed, which has been chosen best family resort many times in polls for its private cove beach, well-outfitted kids club, beautifully designed children’s pool in a separate family area, game room and babysitting services. Not only does the Mandarin Oriental’s main restaurant have a full kids’ menu, but it also features an entirely separate children’s dining room set up with brightly colored kid-sized tables, chairs and dishes. The space feels like a private “no parents allowed” clubhouse and rang with laughter every night. The hotel happily supplies families with rollaways, cribs, high chairs, car seats, iPads and xboxes, board games and beach toys. I just made the leap to the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which earns 3x points on all travel expenditures and dining, so I used it to pay for the Mandarin Oriental, all our meals and extra costs such as day trips.
In Antalya: Hilton Honors points holders are in luck with a DoubleTree by Hilton Antalya-Kemer (from 46,000 points/night) while IHG Rewards Club members can book the Crowne Plaza Antalya (from 20,000 points/night) or the Holiday Inn Antalya - Lara (from 15,000 points/night). Wyndham loyalty program members will be happy with the Ramada Plaza by Wyndham at 15,000 points per night.
For those road-tripping up the coast from Antalya to Bodrum, Hyatt’s D-Resort Gocek (20,000 points/night) is a glorious option thanks to its location occupying an entire private beach.
How to Get There
Turkish Airlines makes the hour-and-a-half flight from Istanbul to both Bodrum and Antalya many times a day, making it easy to schedule a direct connection from your international flight. And with Turkish Airlines offering nonstop service to Istanbul from a growing number of American cities, including New York-JFK, Los Angles-LAX, Miami, Washington-Dulles, Boston and our home of San Francisco, it’s a surprisingly seamless journey to make, despite the distance. We combined our trip with a visit to Istanbul, promptly falling in love with the city known as the "crossroads of the world."
The best way to book an award flight on Turkish Airlines may be using miles from a Star Alliance partner. For example, you can use your United MileagePlus miles on Turkish Airlines at 30,000 MileagePlus miles one-way in economy. And you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points at a 1:1 ratio to your United account.
When it comes to keeping kids happy during flights, Turkish Airlines goes above and beyond, with fun packs for all ages. All around us, kids were wow-ing over gift bags of toys, while babies cooed over their "cool baby packs." Particularly popular were the Lego people -- especially a Lego pilot wearing a real Turkish Airlines uniform -- and a floppy stuffed dog wearing a flight helmet that my kids couldn't stop putting in ridiculous poses. Here's everything you need to know about how to use Turkish Airlines Miles & Smiles, including how to use them to book loyalty hotels.
If you've always had your heart set on a trip to Greece but couldn't make it work out, consider Turkey instead. You can see plenty of ancient ruins, play on pristine beaches and enjoy some excellent Mediterranean-style cuisine. With a healthy bank account of miles and points, you'll be able to plan a terrific family vacation in Turkey.
Have you traveled through Turkey? Which city was your favorite?