It’s just after 6pm on a Tuesday in Istanbul. The line of traffic snakes down Kemeralti Caddesi, workers all heading toward the Bosphorus Bridge to take them out of the city’s downtown European core and home to the primarily residential Asian side. It’s rush hour, but it could really be any time of day—such is the downfall of being Europe’s most populated city (15 million as of 2013), along the banks of one of the city’s iconic slivers of water. Istanbul is, after all, the only city in the world to balance on the edge of two continents. The beautiful Bosphorus Strait divides the city in half, meaning it’s literally possible to stand in Europe and gaze at Asia or, like many of Istanbul’s residents, make the daily commute between continents.
To divert some of the congestion clogging the bridges and ferry routes, there is a railway tunnel running 56 metres (the deepest rail tunnel on earth) beneath the waters of the Bosphorus strait. The rail line opened in the fall after a series of fits and starts and opening was four years later than anticipated, due to a series of archaeological discoveries during construction. Thanks to Istanbul’s precarious position on a fault line, the dig was also delayed by the need to build a transportation system that could withstand severe earthquakes.
But just as the Bosphorus can be a thorn in Istanbul’s infrastructure, it’s also the star of the city. By day, the water alternately sparkles in shades of turquoise and deep blue, then as night falls, it fades to inky black and the lights of the city glisten on the surface like moonlight on glass. It is the gem of Istanbul and offers up a view that can make even long-term residents lose themselves as they watch the boats move through one of the globe’s busiest shipping routes.
Given Istanbul’s massive size—both in population and area—and subsequent traffic qualms, it’s often overlooked as a destination for sunseekers and vacationers seeking R&R. Rather, the regions of Antalya and Muğla, on the Turquoise Coast, pull in the bulk of beach-loving tourists, thanks to 5-star resorts, white sand and crystal-clear waters. But there is a secret oasis from Istanbul’s bustle that is not only easy to access but little known to tourists beyond the Middle East.
The Princes’ Islands sit in the Sea of Marmara, a two-hour ferry ride (or 45-minute speed boat ride) from the Kabataş ferry docks of downtown Istanbul. There are nine islands, the biggest of which is the aptly named Büyükada or “Big Island”. The islands have long been a popular weekend getaway destination for Turks and other Middle Eastern residents. In fact, while the population of the islands is only 15,000, that number grows to 100,000 on summer weekends though the destination has remained largely unknown to North American travellers.
As our ferry docked at Kınalıada, the first of the islands, I had a brief moment of feeling like I had landed in the French Riviera. White beaches dotted with umbrellas punctuated the shoreline, while mansions stretched up into the hills beyond.
The islands are closed to motorized vehicles, with the exception of maintenance crew, and it’s enough to make forget the chaos of downtown. Instead, horse-drawn carriages are the transportation of choice, carting visitors in a loop around the islands. Alternately, you can rent bicycles and find your own route, ducking into some of the more isolated beaches away from the crowded port areas. Along the main streets, pedestrians leisurely weave in and out of the shops and cafés serving up cups of that famous Turkish coffee.
Once on Büyükada, I settled on one of the island’s private beaches a short carriage ride away from the main village. There are free, public beaches throughout the islands, but for a small fee, the private beaches give you access to washrooms, change rooms, lounge chaises and a beach bar. I settled into a lounger and took in the quiet; the noisy traffic jam of that morning now a vague memory.
Check out Part Two of our Istanbul adventure: A photo essay exploring the tastes, sights and sounds beyond the beach.