A constellation of tiny bubbles fills a marble room deep within one of Antalya's most stylish hotels. As my fellow bathers look on, a strapping Turkish man scoops up two big handfuls and coats me from head to toe. This social hammam (Turkish bath) is a touch more social than I’d expected, but as I’m massaged and scrubbed to within an inch of my life, I’m not sure I care. I’ve only been in the self-styled ‘Turkish Riviera’ for less than 24 hours, but already the stresses and pressures of my desk have faded away. Maybe I could get used to this beach resort thing after all.
It seems I’m not alone in my shifting travel tastes. After a series of shoddy summers, British holidaymakers are finally losing faith in the budget-friendly staycation, with holiday company Thomson revealing that June this year saw bookings to overseas destinations up 20% on 2011. Long-perceived as the preserve of the unadventurous, uncultured or simply unimaginative, package holidays have undergone an image overhaul, meaning swim-up bars and decadent evening buffets are back in vogue. It means sacrificing a bit of traveller kudos, of course, but even that’s a small price to pay for a climate that actually behaves itself.
Enter Antalya. Though it’s been a popular getaway for Turkish natives for decades, only since the posh beach resorts and shopping malls popped up has it really found favour as an international destination. These days, it’s the third most visited city in the world, beaten only by Paris and London. Antalya’s influx of tourists makes for a competitive marketplace, which plays into visitors’ hands, so there are deals to be had for those willing to put in the hours comparing packages.
Antalya: things to do
Unlike in many other beach towns, there’s plenty to do in Antalya once you’re tired of toasting your buns. Head towards the majestic Taurus mountains that line the coast (known locally as the Olympos mountains), where wild boar roam among the cedar and Mediterranean pine trees. While you’re there, there’s also the option to ride a cable car up to the peak of Mount Tahtali, jeep safaris up to waterfalls and lakes, quad biking and, in the winter months, even skiing.
A peaceful swimming spot can be found in the bay just the other side of Hadrian’s gate at the ancient city of Phaselis – just make sure you get there before lunchtime or you’ll likely be swamped by an influx of bass-blasting party boats. The natural harbour was originally a focal point of trade when people from Rhodes settled there in 700BC and you can stroll among the ruins of the Roman baths and agora (market) that remain. The Roman theatre that forms part of the original complex is still complete enough that classical music concerts occasionally make use of the natural acoustics.
On your way back to Antalya’s old town, Kaleiçi, stop to gawp at the lower part of the Düden waterfalls, which crash dramatically into the Med from a clifftop. There you can have your fill of Turkish delight, trinkets, spices and shisha – just don’t forget to haggle for all you’re worth. No cars are permitted in the old town, leaving you to roam around admiring the well-preserved Ottoman architecture on foot.
Antalya: eat and drink
While over 90% of Turkey’s population are Muslim, attitudes to alcohol are far more relaxed than in the Middle East. Booze is not only freely available, but Turkish vineyards are popping up all over the country, with Turkish wine starting to gain recognition in international markets. There’s even a national alcoholic drink – raki, an absinthe-like spirit that’s most commonly served ice cold and mixed with nothing more than a little cold water. Do as the locals do and try it either with white cheese and watermelon or seafood dishes.
Going half-board rather than all-inclusive gives you a chance to try some Turkish specialties beyond the usual meze and kebabs we’re familiar with in the UK. Lamb kofte with crushed pistachios and lahmacun (a Turkish take on a meat pizza, with flatbread as the base) are worth seeking out, but whatever you do don’t pass up on the chance to try Turkish ravioli (manti). Most commonly eaten in the winter months, the tiny meat-filled dumplings are dressed in a yoghurt, garlic and tomato sauce before being liberally sprinkled with paprika, sumac and mint.
Antalya: day trips
Turkey’s Mediterranean coast is very much a ‘one-size-fits-all’ destination, but some sites have their specialties. History nerd? Check out the sites of two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus and the Mausoleum of Maussollos) in Bodrum. Kaş, meanwhile, has a much more mellow ambience than its neighbours, perhaps due to a paucity of beaches, so head here for fine restaurants, bars and perhaps a spot of SCUBA diving. Even less touched by tourism, Fethiye is home to “butterfly valley”, a steep-sided canyon opening out onto the bay and home to over 60 species of butterfly. Check out the Turkish Culture & Tourism Office website for further information.
Stay and go
Hillside SU (Konyaalti, +90 242 249 0700) is like a shiny university campus for grown-ups, in boutique, five-star hotel form. It’s immaculately white, highlighted by red lighting and features a floor-to-ceiling orangery at one end of the lobby (which also sports giant glitterballs, white banquettes and – at the right/wrong time of day – pounding house music). Add to these an Olympic-sized swimming pool, spa, hairdresser, a handful of restaurants spanning several cuisines, a private beach with an array of watersports on offer, gym, ping pong tables and a nightclub and you’ve got one of the most tooled-up facilities in the region.
Thomas Cook offers three nights bed and breakfast at Hillside SU, complete with return flights to Antalya from London Gatwick starting at around £400 per person.