Awash with beaches, atmospheric ruins, steeped in history and packed with fabulous food, Turkish delights abound. With the fascinating feeling of immersing yourself in another extraordinary culture and with a flight time of just under five hours, it is a short-haul destination with a long-haul feeling. We were en route to Antalya, a seaside resort and golfer’s paradise, an easy hour’s flight south of Istanbul. That gives us a fascinating 24 hours in this amazing capital (see end of story), but with a new direct service from Dublin with Turkish Airlines, which will be operational this spring, you can head straight to the pristine putting greens.
Well, I have to admit that golf isn’t my main draw, but if it’s one of your main pursuits, the world-class courses that line Belek’s coastline more than match. We stayed at the Cornelia Diamond, an extravagant multi-pool resort, where we did our best to improve on the all-inclusive offering, but the sheer number of delicious snacks and bars defeated us. Nick Faldo designed the resident 27 hole golf course which has the longest par 5 in Turkey and there is an on site David Leadbetter Golf Academy to improve your swing.
A pleasant morning to discover that I am blessed with enthusiasm rather than talent and the teacher proved to have holy patience and that was it for my Turkish golf experience. Luckily, this stunning place has so much more to offer. We took a trip to Side and stopped to explore Aspendos. Once the most important city in Pamphylia, Aspendos grew rich on salt, oil and wool and did its best to remain independent, which was very difficult at the time. When Alexander the Great invaded, the Aspendians had to settle for a toll of 4,000 horses a year to leave them alone.
Today’s main attraction for visitors is the incredibly well-preserved amphitheater, which is still used for operas, concerts and events. You can climb the tiered seating steps and feel a satisfying air of antiquity waft over you. Built by Zeno, a Greek architect, for the Romans in the second century AD, it has survived plague and earthquakes and is considered the best preserved ancient theater in the world.
This part of Turkey offers an alluring combination of modern luxury pleasures intimately and personally linked to older histories. We stop in the shadow of the remains of a huge aqueduct, where chickens are scurrying about and a man is squeezing pomegranates under a red umbrella with a press that looks a lot like a Philippe Starck. A glass full to the brim of the rich ruby red juice costs just €1. A woman nearby sells talismans and bracelets. “Whatever you want to pay,” she says. I’ve got a euro in hand, ready for the juice, but that doesn’t seem like much for “eternal safety and love” that’s supposedly on offer, so I find some more.
Pomegranates were the ancient symbol of Side, a fishing village surrounded by ancient temples, artifacts and ruins. The town (pronounced “See Day”) is pedestrianized, so there’s a sleepy atmosphere of peace as we stroll through charming little shopping streets on our way to our waterfront restaurant, where we have a range of mezzes followed by the most delicious ones Sea bass accompanied by chilled Turkish white wine (Turkish wine is really excellent btw) and rounded off with small cups of strong coffee.
I’d forgotten my clothes, but the sea is so beguiling that I slide upstairs to find the least Versace-esque swimwear on sale, probably insulting the shopkeeper by preferring more sea time to the more usual and surprisingly pleasant neighborhood . Hour of haggling and realizing when I finally get in that the rubber band isn’t really good. Never mind, I tie a few knots and sunbathe in the clear blue water.
Swimming and seafood aside, Side is amazing. Apollo is a patron god of the place and there are temples for him and his brother and opponent Dionysus. Both sons of Zeus, Apollo tends to the sun and rational thought while Dionysus tends to wine, dance and the chaos of good cheer. The day seems to offer a lot of space for both.
This evening we go to Kaleiçi for dinner. Antalya’s old town, Kaleiçi, is layered on steep and fortified slopes by a sheltered harbor where moored boats range from traditional types to floating emporiums that make me feel like an extra from an episode of Below Deck Mediterranean. There are charming bars where the cocktails range from tantalizing to irresistible, but all are exceptionally friendly and helpful and it’s a pleasure to wander around alone by nightfall without sensing the slightest hint of danger or annoyance.
Antalya itself deserves a longer look. Founded before the Romans, Ottoman mosques and towers coexist with Roman temples and Byzantine churches. As you walk around you can feel how important this region has been over the centuries. The Venetians, who have always had an eye for a strategic maritime location, built the harbor which we stroll down after watching a glorious sunset from the city walls above. We end the evening with more wonderful mezze, gently spiced kebabs and another round of Turkish wine, this time red and just as sweet.
Antalya has established itself as a serious alternative to Europe’s popular golf hotspots, offering a range of options designed by a directory of leading golfers. And if you’re not passionate about golf, but perhaps are passionate about someone who is and doesn’t want to get bored while they diligently yell ‘in front’, there is plenty more to see and do in this fascinating and beautiful part the world.
Gemma was traveling as a guest of Turkish Airlines. Direct flights from Dublin to Antalya with Turkish Airlines will start on April 1st and operate three days a week until the end of October. Prices from €359 round trip, including taxes and 23 kg baggage allowance; Business class fares from €1,153. The first golf set is transported free of charge. Economy return to Istanbul starts from €389, with business class fares from €1,188 including access to a pretty fabulous lounge at the new and huge Istanbul Airport; www.turkishairlines.com.
We stayed at Cornelia Diamond, an all inclusive golf resort and spa in Belek, about 40 minutes from Antalya. corneliaresort.com.
Discover more below goturkiye.com.
Can’t wait for the direct flights? Getting to Antalya via Istanbul is easy, with short daily connections from the Turkish capital. The plus is that you can spend time in one of the most extraordinary cities in the world. With one foot in Asia and the other in Europe, Istanbul is multicultural, diverse and surprises at every turn. From the Bosphorus itself, which is deep enough for submarines to sneak by (and occasionally show up by surprise), to the wonderful mosques, you could spend months here and still only scratch the surface.
Quick highlights include Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace, all within walking distance. We’ll also stop at the Hippodrome, the site where the famous horses that now sit atop St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice were once looted. Don’t miss the Grand Bazaar: with more than 4,000 shops, it’s one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. I own an Afghan coat that my mother had made for her when she visited here in the 1970s. This time I content myself with smaller delicacies, including condiment bags and brightly painted ceramics from the region. Haggling is done with a cheerful good mood and the same friendly cordiality that we find everywhere.
Get more golf
You are also spoiled for choice when it comes to golfing on sunny courses across Europe. Try a three night stay for two people, B&B, with two rounds of golf at Pinhal on site at the Four Seasons Vilamoura in the Algarve from €286 rising to €310 in March, golf-vilamoura.com. Aer Lingus will fly direct to Faro from March 1st, with prices starting at €41.06 each way, aerlingus.com.
Go golfing on Spain’s Costa Dorada in February, where there are only three rainy days a month. Stay at the four-star Sol Port Cambrils Hotel with three nights and two rounds of golf from €329 per person, rising to €359 from March to May; booking with golfbreaks.ie.
Cassidy Golf takes you to Fuerteventura for seven nights, at La Oliva on Coral Cotillo Beach, from April 2nd from Dublin, from €597 per person. Golf fees are extra, but the Cassidy team can arrange your tee times, course bookings, transfers and more at a number of courses around the island; cassidygolf.ie.
Or opt for the ultimate in glamor with Elegant Golf Resorts offering five nights at Hotel Ermitage, Evian Resort, on Lake Geneva from £845pp (approx breakfast, two rounds of the Champions Course and one round of the Lake Course; elegantgolfresorts.com. Available on select dates in April 2022. Fly Aer Lingus to Geneva from €91 one way.