In a couple of months Dubai’s about to get hot, scorching hot, but no matter how much you love a city, once the mercury starts rising you could be forgiven for devising a master plan to escape it as speedily as possible. This is where Istanbul really comes into its own. Here you need only hop onto a ferry to be whisked away to places so calm and pretty that just thinking about them is likely to help you cool down. We’re talking, of course, about the Princes’ Islands, that jewel-like cluster of islands that lurks in the Marmara Sea, just begging you to come and drink in the silence.
There are nine islands in total but you can forget five of them immediately since they are uninhabited. Instead, the action homes in on Büyükada, the Big Island, which is not only where most of the history was written (quite literally in the case of Trotsky who hung out here committing his thoughts to paper from 1929 to 1933), but also where you will most feel the pressures of city life falling away from you. Visit on a summer Sunday and you may find the crush of visitors off-putting, in which case it’s good to know that you’ll probably have the other islands – Heybeli, Burgaz and Kınalı – all to yourself.
Big is best
Why do people come to Büyükada? Well, the first answer is obvious as soon as you step off the ferry and spot the solid wedge of fish restaurants tripping their way along the shoreline. Resist their siren call if you can since, let’s face it, fish restaurants are 10 a penny on the mainland and Büyükada has much more interesting (and cheaper) dining up its sleeve. The second answer comes if you stride straight ahead towards the clock tower, and then take a sharp left to find an equally solid wedge of horse-drawn phaetons vying to grab your attention. Hop in and sign up for the Big Tour and soon you’ll be clip-clopping out of what counts as ‘built- up’ on Büyükada and heading, instead, for the pine forest that fills most of the island. Still feeling the heat? Then stay in your carriage and let the horses run you round the island and back to the fish restaurants. But if the fresh air has already brought your temperature right back down to normal, you might want to hop out at the mid-point where a path trundles up the hillside to the Monastery of St. George where, supposedly, a shepherd boy discovered an important icon after detecting the sound of bells coming from underground. The monastery alone is enough to justify the uphill climb, but that’s before you discover Yücetepe Kır Gazinosu, the little restaurant tucked away behind it. There’s not much on offer here bar köfte (meatball) and chips, but the view has to be one of the finest in all Istanbul, a great, sweeping panorama taking in both sides of the city that will stay with you long after the last details of the island have faded away. On a short visit, it’s worth taking a turn along Çankaya Caddesi which is lined with the magnificent wooden houses of the rich and famous, each with its own luxurious garden. You would be hard-pressed to find a lovelier street in all of Turkey.
Fewer people disembark on Heybeliada, whose jetty is dominated not so much by fish restaurants as by a huge naval academy, its grounds concealing the last church to have been built in Constantinople before Fatih Sultan Mehmet descended on it in 1453. Here, too, the thing to do is take to the back roads in a phaeton heading for the Monastery of the Trinity (otherwise known as the Halki Seminary), the much contested centre of Greek Orthodoxy where priests used to be trained – and may yet be trained again if the EU has its way. Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to be able to get inside without some special permission.
Beauties Of Burgaz
Many writers have fallen in love with the islands, but perhaps one of the most adoring of fans was the short-story king Sait Faik Abasıyanık, whose lovely wooden house on Burgazada is theoretically open to visitors as a museum. Chances are, though, that you’ll arrive to find the doors shut, in which case, the answer is to jump into yet another phaeton and have it run you round to the cute little Monastery of St. George Garipi.
Countdown To Kinali
Finally, there’s itsy-bitsy Kınalı, the ‘Hennaed Island,’ the least visited of the Princes’ Islands and the only one which foregoes the phaetons in favour of Shank’s pony. Really, there’s not much to do here except relax and watch the world go by, though if you get itchy feet you might like to look round Cami which was designed to look like a yacht, and grab an ice cream from the Mimoza Restoran.
The Museum of the Islands
Its arrival is long overdue, the newly opened Museum of the Islands is now on Büyükada and one of the first exhibitions is on – wait for it – the ways in which the locals kept cool in the past. Pencil it in as a must-see place to find out about island ice-cream, lemonade and ﬂerbet, as well as about the Frigidaire convoys which used to bring people’s refrigerators from winter homes on the mainland to summer ones on the islands.
Need to know
Fly Dubai to Istanbul return on Emirates for Dhs1671 (www.emirates.com) then from there visit iDO (www.ido.com.tr) who run high-speed ferries from Kabataﬂ. Word to the wise: visit midweek to escape the crowds and land lower prices.
Where to stay
Most people pop across to the islands for the day, but there are a growing number of places to stay, especially on Büyükada. Those with the most historical significance are the Hotel Splendid Palace on Büyükada (0216 382 6950), and the Merit Halki Palace on Heybeliada (0216 351 0025). Newly opened and retaining some lovely old murals is Meziki Boutique Hotel (0216 382 34 44), on Büyükada. Prices are high compared to the mainland.
• The Princes’ Island’s name is derived from the days of the Byzantine empire, when large numbers of royalty were exiled there.
• The islands became a popular tourist destination during the 19th century, when wealthy folk from neighbouring Istanbul started venturing out on steamboats. It was also popular with the English, and Victorian architecture can be found all over the islands, including dainty houses and cottages.
• The strong influence of fashionable Turkey has resulted in the somewhat unique ‘fusion culture’, and it’s unique character makes it a desirable, yet relatively unknown tourist spot.
• It’s a good place to get fit: motor vehicles are banned on the island, meaning you can either walk or go all out and rent a donkey.
Dubai to Istanbul
Flight time: Around seven hours
Time difference: Two hours behind
Dhs1 = 0.43 Turkey Lira