The spindly, 50-mile-long Datça peninsula in Turkey’s Muğla province is a dagger of pure green at the meeting point of the Aegean and the Mediterranean, and is as unsullied as south-west Turkey gets. The ancient Greeks believed Datça to have been created personally by Zeus, so gorgeous are its rocky outcrops and aquamarine waters. The geographer Strabo apparently said: “God sent his beloved creatures to Datça for them to live longer.”
So what’s all the fuss about? It’s about craggy, pine-crested hills, endless olive groves, empty ravines, cornflower-blue coves, vast sweeping bays and deserted beaches, air scented with thyme, rosemary and sage, and sleepy villages. It’s about goats on the road and old men tinkering with their worry beads in vine-covered cafes.
Although this backwater peninsula is wedged between moneyed Bodrum to the north, and overdeveloped Marmaris to the south, bad road access and its distance from airports have left it unspoilt. Tourists do come and stay in a new clutch of upmarket hotels, and city-dwelling Turks are buying second homes here, but most visitors still only make short stop-offs on gulet cruises.
Remnants of the Karians – who settled here in 5400BC – and the cultures of Lydia, Persia, and the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, stud the landscape: there are church ruins, ancient cisterns, tombstones and ruined olive oil facilities.
On the southern shore, workaday, harbour-front Datça is the main settlement. It’s not built for tourists but this is where you’ll find most of the restaurants. In the hills above town is Old Datça which, by the 1980s, was more or less abandoned, but is now having a mini renaissance. Then there is a 235-mile coastline to take in, Datça’s sleepy villages and landscapes, and its most precious jewel: the ancient Greek ruins of Knidos, a city at the confluence of the Mediterranean and the Aegean.
What to do
Ruins of the ancient ampitheatre of Knidos
This ancient ruined harbour was a shipping stronghold from the 4th century BC. Astronomers (including Eudoxus the Mathematician), medics and architects (including the architect who designed the Beacon of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World) congregated here. Its most famous poster girl, though, was its nude Aphrodite statue, which had a cult following – Pliny wrote that many came just to admire it. Knidos fell into ruins through earthquakes, conquests and looting – the last treasures were spirited away to the British Museum – and Aphrodite disappeared entirely more than 1,000 years ago. Notable remains are a few basilica arches, floor mosaics and the exceptional sea-facing theatre. The drive there is heavenly, following the backbone of the peninsula, passing forested hills and winding through gorges. Once there, the site has a spiritual quality; it is largely empty but for a handful who climb the silent steps of the antique theatre and pick the daisies on the hillside. In its heyday, it must have been a fantastic: a marble city with terraces descending to the sea, full of temples, and home to 70,000 people. At the site there is an old-fashioned restaurant serving meze, fish and koftas.
Hit the beach The peninsula has coves, bays, and beaches in abundance. Sandy or shingly, they all share the same, alluring, crystalline turquoise waters. Often the water remains shallow for some distance offshore, making it safe for young children. In the quiet village of Orhaniye, there’s an elongated sandbank you can walk on, out into the bay. East of Knidos, the charming fishing village of Palamut Bükü is known for its fish restaurants and its 2km-long beach. Kargi is a simple rustic idyll with a few vine-shaded cafes and a clutch of pensionson a shingle beach, and the tiny villages of Hayıtbük, Kızılbük and Ovabükü, triple bays in a row, are becoming places to spend a day on the beach.
Hidden gem Domuzbükü, which translates as ‘Pig Inlet’, is a lovely turquoise bay which can only be reached by boat. A favourite stop on the famous Blue Cruise, so find a gulet (yacht) to take you there.
Once the peninsula’s main village, Eski Datça (Old Datça), lapsed into obscurity in the late 20th century. Now it has been partially restored by second homers from Istanbul, Ankara and further afield. It’s a beautiful patchwork of stone-paved lanes, kitchen gardens, pot plants, bougainvillea-drenched walls, and little cafes and shops. Drop into the old stone house of the late poet Can Yücel. In his poem, Testament, he wrote: “Bury me, my dear, in Datça. Near that view by the sea.”
Day-trip to Symi Just 50 minutes to the south by boat from Datça town, Symi is the closest Greek island and makes for a winning day trip, partly because of the contrast between its neo-classical beauty and Datça’s rustic vibe. In the 19th century, the island flourished on sponge diving and boat building and many elegant homes were built. It’s a wonderful place for walking and discovering secret corners and houses with faded beauty. Boats leave from Datça town’s main harbour, or you can book a trip through any hotel.
The Carpet Weavers Association in Turgutkoy, on the nearby Bozburun peninsula, also makes for a good day out. Admire the skill of the weavers then haggle for their carpets and kilims.
Where to eat/drink
Fevzi’s Place, Datça town A simple fish taverna in the harbour run by the friendly, jolly Fevzi who presides over its alfresco blue-and-white tables. The main fish dishes are prefaced by meze.
Culinarium, Datça town A modern, alfresco restaurant overlooking the harbour run by Turkish-German pair Faruk and Ulrike, who use local ingredients to create mainly European dishes – perfect steaks, saffron ravioli, stuffed courgette flowers and homemade ice-cream.
Coliseum Beach Bar, D-Hotel, Datça town
There’s a dearth of fancy restaurants in Datça but, for a blow out, visit the D-Hotel. High up on the cliffs, it offers a prime slug of exclusivity. In addition to the amazing views, it encompasses several small islands, pine woods and five private beaches. There are six bars, each of which offers live music or DJ nights: Coliseum Beach hosts singers and jazz bands and specialises in cocktails; Zuma has established itself permanently after a successful summer pop-up – its izakaya-style of shared eating and drinking includes a robata grill and sushi counter; and Ruia exposes Turkish culinary roots in a sophisticated way.
Where to stay
The Olive Farm, Datça town
Down a rough track banked with tall trees, this bucolic haven offers farm-to-table lunches, ponies to pet, hammocks to lie in, bougainvillea-banked paths to wander down, and avocado and pomegranate trees to loll beneath. An American established the working farm in 1995 with the purpose of exporting Turkish olive oil to the States; 10 years later, it passed into Turkish hands. The farm has since expanded, gone organic (the olives are cold-pressed on the premises), and added a guesthouse with 10 rooms and a pool. The Mill Store sells the organic oil as well as vinegar, toys made from olive wood, fruit, herbs and jam, molasses and even beauty products made from the oil. If you check into one of the five suites, the breakfasts are divine.
Mehmet Ali Aga Mansion Hotel, Reşadiye In the sleepy village of Reşadiye, a couple of miles from Datça town centre (there is a free shuttle to the hotel-owned private beach), this early 19th-century home has been turned into an 18-room hotel. Stunning original features, including the hammam, carved ceilings, frescoes and fireplaces, have been restored, and the garden has regained its former beauty and features almond and olive groves, plump citrus trees and roses. The hotel’s Elaki restaurant is famed for its wine cellar and breakfasts – feasts of local honey, fruit, cheese and eggs, fresh vegetables and olives. Dinners feature local dishes of fresh fish, chicken and stews.
Marphe Villas, Datça Twelve two-bedroom, whitewashed, modern villas, a little inland from the main town of Datça, are connected to an eponymous hotel, with its pretty pool and lush, hammock-dotted garden with alfresco bar.
Eski Datça Houses, Old Datça Translating as “old stone houses”, these pretty buildings scattered around the village tell the story of Old Datça to a tee. City émigrés renovated the buildings and carved out a selection of simple but appealing en suite rooms to rent. One of the houses opens onto a flower-filled garden and the courtyard cafe, with its daily-changing menu, is popular. Families with babies and toddlers are well catered for.