Awash with beaches, atmospheric ruins, dripping with history and loaded up with fabulous food, Turkey delights. With the fascinating sense of stepping into another extraordinary culture, and at just under five hours’ flight time, it’s a short-haul destination with a long-haul feel. We were heading for Antalya, a seaside spot and golfer’s paradise, an easy one-hour flight south of Istanbul. This gives us a fascinating 24 hours in this amazing capital city (see end of story), but with a new direct route from Dublin with Turkish Airlines coming on stream this spring, you can head straight to the pristine putting greens.
Now, I must admit that golf is not my major draw but if it’s one of your top distractions, the world-class courses that dot the coast at Belek are more than up to par. We stayed at the Cornelia Diamond, a multi-swimming-pooled extravaganza of a place, where we did our best to dent its all-inclusive offerings, but the sheer number of delicious snacks and bars defeated us. Nick Faldo designed the 27-hole resident golf course, which has the longest par 5 in Turkey, and there’s a David Leadbetter Golf Academy on site to straighten out your swing.
A pleasant morning spent discovering that I’m more blessed with enthusiasm than aptitude, and proving the instructor to have saintly patience, and that was that for my Turkish golfing experience. Fortunately, there is so much more to this stunning spot. We took a trip to Side, stopping off to explore Aspendos. Once Pamphylia’s most important city, Aspendos grew wealthy on salt, oil, and wool, and did its best to stay independent, which was very tricky in those days. When Alexander the Great marched in, the Aspendians had to settle for a tribute of 4,000 horses a year to leave them alone.
Today’s major visitor attraction is the incredibly well-preserved amphitheatre, still used for operas, concerts and events. You can climb the tiered seating steps and feel a satisfying waft of ancientness washing over you. Built by Zenon, a Greek architect, for the Romans in the second century AD, it has survived plagues and earthquakes to be renowned as the best-preserved ancient theatre in the world.
This part of Turkey has a beguiling combination of modern luxurious delights, set up close and personal with older stories. We stop in the shade of the remains of a vast aqueduct, where chickens scratch about and a man is squeezing pomegranates under a red umbrella using a press that looks very much like a Philippe Starck. A brimming glass of the rich ruby-coloured juice costs just €1. A nearby woman is selling talismans and bracelets. “Whatever you want to pay,” she says. I have a euro in my hand, ready for the juice, but that doesn’t seem much for “everlasting safety and love”, which is what, I’m told is on offer, so I find some more.
Pomegranates were the ancient symbol of Side, a fishing village surrounded by ancient temples, artefacts and ruins. The town (pronounced “see day”) is pedestrianised, so a sleepy air of peace settles, as we wander through charming little shopping streets on the way to our waterfront restaurant where we have an array of mezze, followed by the most delicious sea bass, accompanied by cool Turkish white wine (Turkish wine is truly excellent, by the way), and rounded off with small cups of potent coffee.
I had forgotten my togs, but the sea is so beguiling, I scoot back up to find the least Versace-esque of the swimwear on offer, probably insult the shopkeeper by preferring more time in the sea to the more usual and surprisingly pleasant quarter-hour of haggling, and find, when I do finally jump in, that the elastic isn’t really up to snuff. Never mind, I tie a couple of knots and bask in the clear blue waters.
Swimming and seafood aside, Side is amazing. Apollo is a patron god of the place and there are temples to him and to his brother and opposite number, Dionysus. Both sons of Zeus, Apollo looks after the sun and rational thinking, while Dionysus takes care of wine, dance and the chaos of good craic. The day seems to offer plenty of space for both.
That evening, we go to Kaleiçi for dinner. Antalya’s old town, Kaleiçi lies layered up steep and fortified slopes from a sheltered harbour, where the moored boats range from traditional types to floating emporia that make me feel a little like an extra from an episode of Below Deck Mediterranean. There are charming bars, where cocktails range from enticing to wouldn’t-touch-with-a-bargepole, but where everyone is exceptionally friendly and helpful, and it is a pleasure to wander alone as dusk falls without feeling the slightest hint of danger or hassle.
Antalya itself deserves a longer look. Founded even before the Romans came along, there are Ottoman mosques and towers, alongside Roman temples and Byzantine churches. Walking around, you start to feel how significant this region has been over the centuries. The Venetians, who always had an eye for a strategic maritime spot, built the harbour where we stroll down after catching a glorious sunset from the ramparts above. We finish the evening with more marvellous mezze, gently spiced kebabs and another round of Turkish wine, red this time and equally lovely.
Setting itself up as a serious alternative to Europe’s popular golfing hotspots, Antalya has a range of options designed by a directory of leading golfers. And if you’re not passionate about golf, but are perhaps passionate about someone who is and don’t want to be bored while they’re busily roaring “fore”, there’s plenty more to see and do in this fascinating and beautiful part of the world.
Gemma travelled as a guest of Turkish Airlines. Direct flights from Dublin to Antalya with Turkish Airlines start on April 1st and run until the end of October three days a week. Fares from €359 return, including taxes and 23kg baggage allowance; business-class fares from €1,153. First golf set carried free of charge. Economy return to Istanbul starts at €389, with business-class fares from €1,188, including access to a rather fabulous lounge at the new and enormous Istanbul Airport; turkishairlines.com.
We stayed at the Cornelia Diamond, an all-inclusive golf resort and spa in Belek, approximately 40 minutes from Antalya; corneliaresort.com.
Discover more at goturkiye.com.
Can’t wait for the direct flights? Getting to Antalya via Istanbul is easy, with short daily connections from Turkey’s capital city. The plus is you get to spend time in what must be one of the most extraordinary cities in the world. With one foot in Asia and the other in Europe, Istanbul is multi-cultural, multi-layered and amazes at every turn. From the Bosporus itself, deep enough for submarines to slink by (occasionally popping up to surprise), to marvellous mosques, you could spend months here and still only scratch the surface.
Quick highlights include the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, all within walking distance. We stop too at the Hippodrome, the site from which the famous horses that now sit atop St Mark’s cathedral in Venice were once plundered. Don’t miss the Grand Bazaar: with more than 4,000 shops, it’s one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets. I own an Afghan coat, which my mother had made for her on a visit here in the 1970s. This time, I settle for smaller delights, including bags of spices and brightly painted local ceramics. Haggling is done with cheery good humour, and the same friendly warmth that we find everywhere.
Get more golf
You’re also spoiled for golfing choice at sunny spots across Europe. Try a three-night stay for two people sharing, B&B, with two rounds of golf at Pinhal on-site at the Four Seasons Vilamoura in the Algarve from €286, rising to from €310 in March, golf-vilamoura.com. Aer Lingus flies to Faro direct from March 1st, with prices from €41.06 one way, aerlingus.com.
Go golfing in February to Spain’s Costa Dorada, where they claim only three days of rainfall during the month. Stay at the four-star Sol Port Cambrils, with three nights and two rounds of golf from €329pp, rising to €359 from March through May; booking with golfbreaks.ie.
Cassidy Golf will bring you to Fuerteventura for seven nights, staying at La Oliva on Coral Cotillo Beach, departing April 2nd from Dublin, from €597 per person. Golfing fees are extra but the team at Cassidy will arrange your tee times, course bookings, transfers and more at a range of courses on the island; cassidygolf.ie.
Or go for the ultimate in glamour with Elegant Golf Resorts, offering five nights at the Hotel Ermitage, Evian Resort, on Lake Geneva, from £845pp (about €1,070), based on two people sharing a south-facing double room with price including breakfast, two rounds on its Champions Course and one round on the Lake Course; elegantgolfresorts.com. Available on selected dates in April 2022. Fly to Geneva with Aer Lingus from €91 one way.