IZMIR/ANTALYA, Turkey: A one-hour drive from Izmir’s airport will take you through marvelous green mountains before arriving at the small coastal town of Ozdere, which appears to be dipping into the sea.
Ozdere is famous for its crystal-clear waters and luxurious five-star resorts situated along the coast in the Izmir Province - known as the Pearl of the Aegean. Driving into the town, you’ll begin to see shops selling swimwear, beach floats and other beach accessories - so no need to worry about packing those.
Ozdere is a 30-minute drive from the ancient Greek city of Ephesus. And it’s 40 minutes away from the House of the Virgin Mary, or Meryem Ana Evi - the last place the Virgin Mary is said to have lived before her death - and Kusadasi, a resort town famous for its beaches, parks, bazaar and bay that overlooks the Aegean Sea.
The ancient city of Ephesus, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is where the famous Temple of Artemis once stood.
The temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, though little of it remains today.
While excavations in Ephesus are still ongoing to reveal new discoveries every day, so far monuments from the Roman imperial period have been unearthed, including the Library of Celsus and the Great Theater.
The city, which bears a striking resemblance to Lebanon’s Baalbeck, was once one of the most popular trade sites in the ancient world.
Although the sea is currently a few kilometers away from the city, Ephesus was once the world’s largest seaport, and you can still see where lantern poles in the port once stood.
The city’s nearby lands are some of the most fertile in the country, except for the area once covered by the sea, which remains salty and barren. Farmers in the area still find Ephesian coins from time to time while working on their lands.
Ephesians worshipped the Greek goddess Diana, whom the Romans knew as Artemis, at the time that Christianity was spreading in the region. But the area’s residents rejected the new religion. Those who converted to Christianity would use secret symbols to communicate with each other, which was critical for their survival as they faced persecution from the locals and authorities.
One such symbol was engraved on a stone at Ephesus, likely to have once been hung on a store belonging to a Christian in the city’s market.
Around 42-48 A.D., the Virgin Mary is said to have left for Ephesus following the death of Christ, settling in a house on top of a mountain near the city. Earthquakes twice destroyed the house, which became a pilgrimage site.
Although it was rebuilt, it retained its original foundation, which is clearly distinguishable.
Near the house, you can hear the sound of a spring believed to contain holy water. Visitors can fill their own bottles with the water, or purchase some from a shop nearby. There are also three taps stationed next to a wishing wall. After drinking from one of the taps, visitors can tie a personal possession - perhaps a napkin, handkerchief or paper - onto the wall while making a wish, which is said to then come true.
Half an hour away from the Virgin Mary’s house is the port city of Kusadasi, where you can spot the Greek island of Samos in the distance. With its bazaar of Turkish shops, Kusadasi is an excellent holiday shopping destination. There you’ll find local shops for souvenirs, clothes and leather goods, alongside international brands.
With thousands of tourists visiting annually, Kusadasi is one of Turkey’s most popular resort cities.
It features multiple beaches along its coast, where holidaymakers can go for a dip in the sea and enjoy one of the local seafood joints after a day of shopping.
The city of Izmir is also a great shopping destination, as travelers can find prices that are lower than other more popular spots.
Though the city is residential, it’s rapidly becoming a tourist attraction thanks to its wonderful shops and easy access to nearby towns and sites. Izmir features more Turkish and international brands than Ozdere and Kusadasi, in addition to popular chain restaurants if Turkish food isn’t your thing.
A stay in Izmir can also be luxurious. Five-star Swissotel Grand Efes - the Turkish name for Ephesus - showcases an extraordinary collection of over 800 art pieces displayed all over the hotel. Each of its 400 rooms boasts an average of two original paintings. The lobby and corridors also feature paintings and sculptures, including kinetic art.
In Ozdere, two of the most popular resorts are Club Marvy and Paloma Pasha, both all-inclusive hotels with stunning beaches surrounded by green mountains. If you want to book either resort as part of a package, they’re available exclusively through Nakhal travel agency.
The sprawling Club Marvy is almost the size of a small city. You can get around on foot, by bicycle or even by golf cart, which with just one call will be waiting outside your room to take you wherever you want.
It also includes a spa, gym, tennis court and four a la carte restaurants in addition to the main restaurant.
The latter offers an open buffet for breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snacks, which are very welcome after frequenting the resort’s 10 bars and nightclubs.
Club Marvy’s main restaurant presents a large variety of local Turkish and international dishes, with cooking stations for your choice of salads, meats, fish and pastas.
It also serves over a dozen different kinds of breads and cereals, in addition to vegan options for all meals served there.
All of the resort’s restaurants feature either a view of the sea or one of the pools, or both.
The resort also makes for a great honeymoon destination, with a designated adults-only area that includes a beach, restaurants and bars. You can start your day with one of the yoga classes that take place next to the beach, or with a traditional Turkish bath along with one of the healing massages offered at the spa.
Club Marvy can also make for an exceptional family holiday, as it contains two aqua parks, a family beach, kids’ club and a children’s pool with a giant bucket that splashes water, which I personally found the most fun.
During our three-night stay at Club Marvy, we got to dance to music by a Latin band, which played in the night breeze as people sat in the grass and enjoyed drinks from the nearby bar. During another evening, a jazz band played following dinner at the main restaurant.
What sets Club Marvy apart from other five-star hotels is the fact that all its products - food, wine, shampoo, bedsheets and even towels - are all organic.
The Paloma hotel chain, with branches in Ozdere, Antalya Province’s Side and other towns, also serves organic wine and a wide variety of organic food.
While the food of Paloma Pasha in Ozdere was a disappointment compared to Club Marvy, dining at Paloma’s Sentido Perissia in Side was extraordinary.
The ancient port city of Side boasts a marvelous blue beach on the southern Mediterranean coast, with giant waves and white sands.
Unlike the calmer Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean is a bit more turbulent and more fun to swim in.
Side is around an hour’s drive away from the city of Antalya.
Side’s town center, which hosts a large bazaar and an open-air museum, is the busiest spot in the city both day and night. Shopping in Side was more expensive compared to Izmir and Kusadasi, since shop owners priced their items in euros.
Throughout the trip, all the hotel staff members were very friendly and spoke fluent English, which was a great plus. Most of the shop and restaurant employees in all four cities spoke fluent English as well.
However, in the city of Izmir, English was not very prominent among the residents and local shop owners, but this didn’t pose much of a problem with the help of Google Translate. And given the linguistic similarities between Turkish and Arabic, a mix of the latter with English and signs will work in getting your meaning across.
With summer rapidly approaching, planning for an escape can be time consuming, between visa preparation and searching for the right country.
Traveling to Turkey, especially for Lebanese citizens, is more convenient than other countries, since visas are granted upon entry.
With tourism in Istanbul at its peak, new destinations are now in the spotlight. What makes Turkey suitable for every taste is its combination of heritage, stunning beaches, shopping spots and Middle Eastern food - with a twist.
Starting in July, the airline Wings of Lebanon is operating direct flights from Beirut to Izmir’s airport Mondays and Thursdays. It currently operates direct flights to Antalya, Adana and Dalaman.
Travelers can also take other airlines, but may have to make stops in other cities, typically Istanbul.
Bearing a striking resemblance to the white sands and clear blue waters of islands in the Indian Ocean, Turkey’s Ozdere, Kusadasi and Antalya are both closer and cheaper for Lebanese travelers, rendering them this summer’s top destination.