I was enjoying an experience one could only imagine in a culturally-rich, historical metropolis such as Istanbul, Turkey – one of the world’s oldest cities that served as capital of Roman, Byzantium and Ottoman empires.
After a day in Sultanahmet and Taksim squares, and seeing the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar, strolling lively Istikal Street to climbing the scenic and photogenic Galata Tower Museum, I was ready to relax.
My sublime setting at twilight was Le Fumoir: the outdoor but covered bar in the courtyard gardens of the world class Kempinski Ciragan Palace Hotel. The landmark property is a 17th century, ornate Ottoman treasure on the European edge of the commercially busy Bosphorus Strait, the watery trade route just across which is Asia.
With a traditional Shisha pipe delivering custom-blended, flavored tobacco between my lips and the Call to Prayer sending dramatic Muslim melodies and moaning to my ears, I still managed to listen quietly and closely to every word of my host, Mr. Ralph Radke.
“President Erdogan comes to the hotel regularly,” said Radke, the Ciragan Palace’s German general manager, after a draw on his mild, Cuban cigar. He was speaking of Turkey’s leader, but Radke’s met them all. His role in the former Constantinople at the “crossroads of the world,” managing what has been dubbed the “World’s Best Hotel,” makes him a global diplomat.
Radke sat on the patio couch across the glass coffee table wearing an open-collar shirt under a grey suit accented by a fanciful pocket silk, frameless wire glasses, and a designer watch. Radke, a 71-year-old potentate, had presence, and needed only a fez to complete the sparkle Sydney Greenstreet gave off portraying the influential Blue Parrot Café-owner “Signor Ferrari” in the famed film “Casablanca.”
Radke, though humble and of good humor, is a hospitality star. He honed his hospitality chops working in places like Paris, Thailand, Moscow, Abidjan, Kyiv and Vienna. He has been bestowed the titles of Officer in the Order of Merit of the Ivory Coast and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, and founded a children’s home for victims of genocide in Rwanda.
My experience with him, in that setting, felt like the intriguing Turkey I had anticipated! But my next stop was a surprise that came after a short, domestic flight south to Antalya on luxurious Turkish Airlines from Istanbul’s impossibly stylish, modern, spacious airport.
The Antalya region and its big, beach and golf resorts felt more like Maui-on-the-Mediterranean.
Elif Balci Fisunoglu, with the Turkish Tourism Development Agency, explained why the setting is advantageous. “Turkey is a Mediterranean country with beaches on the Aegean Sea and a border on the Black Sea. We have 300 days of sunshine.”
Golfers needn’t miss out on the swimming and surf because there are a number of fully-lit night golf courses, including the Montgomerie at Maxx Royal Belek or Regnum Carya Golf Club. There are 20 courses in the Antalya region, many include beer and lunch.
“Tiger Woods once competed here in the Turkish Airlines Open. I think it was the last time he had fun before his injuries and troubles,” said manager Cahit Sahin, who mysteriously emerged from the dark trees to chat on the fourth hole of a night round on the Montgomerie Course. (By the way, Turkey is the only place I’d ever, with a wayward shot, hit a waterslide with a golf ball! My sightseeing ball flew off the Cullinan Links Olympos Course with a thud.
Thankfully nothing in Turkey is plain or predictable. Even in this resort setting, I still found bizarre Turkish delights dribbling between the tourist-attracting amusement parks, panoramic cove-side streets, and shops to stroll in the old town and harbor of Kaleici. I found just enough international intrigue to save a sense of place. For instance, one property was called the Kremlin Palace Hotel; and I spotted a resort ferry boat named “Titanic Princess.” Cilgo Dondurmaci is an ice cream stand like a stage from which a legendary, sexy star in sunglasses scoops gelato with slight-of-hand while dancing to Turkish disco music.
After the diplomat in Istanbul, in Antalya I was met by a major – retired Turkish Army officer turned tour guide Cengiz Aykota – who had trained in America and served in Tehran. Since I insisted on respectfully referring to the badass bald guy as “Major” during our time in Turkey, I decided he could playfully call me “Holy Father.” Turkey’s government is supposed to be secular, but Aykota resisted revealing a requisite religion other than to admit, “When I hear the Call to Prayer sung in the morning, suddenly God is in the shower with me.”
Heck, even I felt that way when I would hear the melodious Muslim mantra multiple times a day emanating from turrets throughout Turkey.
Ayoka was full of facts, including explaining the Turkish flag symbolizes that “the sky is the limit.” That philosophy is evident in terms of Turkey’s tourism commitment. Consider the no-limit, poolside gelato bar with a view of a sandy, sprawling lazy river pool and beachfront overwater cabanas at the massive Maxx Royal Golf Resort in Belek – where you can watch three live bands on property – including elaborately choreographed stage shows with orchestras while tasting authentic Turkish meze and dishes such as pide, kofte and kebab every night at Marsea, one of the resort’s many dining delights. (Salt Bae, Turkish celeb chef, eat your heart out.)
Dine with heart at 7 Mehmet Restaurant, where local chef Mehmet Akdag presents Mediterranean meat and rice dishes and Turkish wines in a chic terrace setting with sea views. Or have a tranquil culinary experience on the “ocean floor” at the underwater Nemo Aquarium Restaurant in the Land of Legends entertainment complex where chef Anuj Sarkar serves seafood with Pan-Asian flavors surrounded by live sharks.