From the sprawling port city of Izmir, in western Turkey, a three-lane freeway drapes a ribbon across the barren hills of the Çesme Peninsula. For miles all I see are shrubs, wind farms and the occasional sheep. After about an hour, a sign appears: alaçati. Turning off into the town’s rural suburbs, the air is heavy with the scent of jasmine. A cat suns itself on a cemetery wall. I could be anywhere in Turkey. Is it really the new Bodrum, where people come for the scene as much as they come for the sun?
Gradually the town asserts itself in a maze of lanes edged by handsome, weathered stone houses. There’s a white mosque, jazzed up by a splash of climbing bougainvillea, and a bar where two old guys in flat caps are playing backgammon—not for the first time, I’m guessing. So far, so Ottoman. But next door is a small hotel, then an art gallery. Soon there are funky cafés, design emporiums, miniskirted Beyoncé look-alikes and a music store specializing in vinyl. Approaching Kemalpasa, the main square, the beautiful people multiply, and the sign above the Yastik textile boutique (1001 Sk. No. 2; yastikbyrifatozbek.com), owned by Turkish fashion designer Rifat Özbek, suggests I’ve reached the epicenter of cool. “London–Istanbul–Alaçati,” it reads. For many of the Turkish smart set who hang out in the Aegean’s new summer hot spot, the trio—plus New York and Berlin—are the only places in the world that matter.
It’s startling to think that just 15 years ago, this buzzing town 350 miles southwest of Istanbul was very nearly a ghost village and, until recently, lacked the kind of proper luxury resort that tends to put destinations like it on the map. That changed last summer when Alavya (rooms, from $260; Yeni Mecidiye Mah., 3005 Sk. No. 6; 90-232/716-6632; alavya.com.tr) opened in the center of the old town. Alavya’s arrival was a seismic event. It charts how far Alaçati has come since those far-off years around the early 1990s (which in Alaçati time is the equivalent of the Cambrian era), when nearby Liman and Çark beaches were discovered by the international windsurfing fraternity. Most surfers camped near the beach, but a few began to explore the charming semi-abandoned village.
Built midway through the 1800s by Greek workers brought in to drain nearby marshes, Alaçati fell into decline in the early 1920s. But shortly after the surfers discovered it, word got around about its handsome but crumbling stone houses and, before long, the first style mavens from Istanbul and Izmir arrived to buy up the properties (back then they could be picked up for a song).
The Mayflower moment for Alaçati was the 2001 opening of marketing executive Zeynep Özis’s Tas Otel (rooms, from $120; Yeni Mecidiye Mah., Kemalpasa Cad. No. 132; 90-232/716-7772; tasotel.com), a seven-room, light-filled property that helped to define the destination’s breezy but cultured style with heirloom antiques playing off whitewashed walls and a bougainvillea-fringed pool. The hotel boom since then has been exponential: Özis estimates there are close to 250. Thankfully, all the action has not ruined the place. Few of the butik otels, as they are called in Turkish, have more than eight rooms, and since Özis’s 2001 founding of the Alaçati Preservation Society and the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture’s declaration of the town as a Cultural Heritage Site, renovations and new builds remain true to the vernacular tradition.
The owners of the Alavya, contemporary art collectors Erol and Rama Tabanca, sidestepped the space limitations by purchasing and restoring what is basically a whole town block of six Greek-era houses, out of which they were able to create 25 rooms and suites, a restaurant and bar, a boutique and a spa. The land between the houses is taken up by terraces and gardens surrounding a small mosaic-lined pool. They brought in designer and Alaçati-devotee Hakan Ezer to give a stylish East-meets-West feel, and this summer at the all-year-round Mitu café, bar and bistro, they are engaging the services of Turkish executive chef Murat Çakiro-glu, who specializes in Asian-Turkish fusion.
Alaçati’s creative dining scene is fast turning the resort town into one of the most interesting places to eat in Turkey outside Istanbul. At the crest of the wave is Alancha (Tokoglu Mah., 1036 Sk. No. 1.; 90-232/716-8307; alancha.com), the hilltop fiefdom of soft-spoken former windsurfing champion Kemal Demirasal. Opened in spring 2013 inside a converted windmill, Alancha aims to offer a “journey around Anatolia on a plate.” Not always on a plate, to be honest: Demirasal serves a starter of pistachio cream on a pebble, without cutlery—the idea being that you pick up the stone and lick it. But dinner here is more than a succession of party tricks. The chef puts flavor before the flash in dishes such as tahini with Black Sea anchovies and a simple milk-boiled corn on the cob served with browned butter, dehydrated olives and a pinch of dill.
But fancy cuisine is not quite the Alaçati thing. The Istanbuli intelligentsia that hangs out here is more likely to be found in the shabby-chic courtyard of Asma Yapragi (Tokoglu Mah., 1005 Sk. No. 50; 90-232/716-0178), which for many seasonal regulars is the Alaçati restaurant. It’s a slow-food, village-kitchen kind of place, committed to locally sourced ingredients that end up in mezes like delicately fried zucchini blossoms filled with crumbly, tangy sheep’s cheese, chopped mint and flecks of red bell pepper, or buckwheat noodles in walnut sauce, a dish that tastes like the Anatolian plateau meeting the steppes of Central Asia.
So fast is the pace of change in Alaçati that habitués who had never heard of the town until recently will confidently tell you the downtown area centering on Kemalpas ¸a street and the main square is now “over”; the hipsters are migrating a few blocks south to Haci-Memis, a lovely, slightly down-at-heel residential district that is already being colonized by butik otels, including the überchic five-room Su’dan Palas (rooms, from $100; Hacimemis Mah., 2012 Sk. No. 1-3; 90-232/716-7797; sudan.com.tr) and stylish shops like Bazen (Hacimemis Mah., 2012 Sk. No. 12; 90-532/292-4183), a concept store offering curated homewares, fashion and jewelry, much of it by young Turkish designers, plus selected pieces of Ottoman and Western antique furniture.
But to pick out Hacimemis¸ as the happening ’burb of what is basically a large village is insider sophistry. Alaçati’s laid-back delights are not confined to a single area. Even in the center—just around the corner from Yastik—you’ll find a fish vendor hawking glistening trays of sunrise-pink red mullet, while the Saturday produce market is a magnet for the whole region. Like many corners of the new Turkey, Alaçati is cool because it’s still real. Long may it stay that way.
Where to Beach
Sun worshippers visiting Alaçati may be put off by the fact that the closest swimmable beach is near Çesme, a half hour away. A favorite beach club near there is Okan’s Place, where the drill is: Swim, lounge, nosh on meals with ingredients from owner Okan Kizildag’s farm and repeat. At Altinkum Mevkii, Çesme; 90-532/394-0131; okansplace.com.
Once in Turkey, those wishing to hit Istanbul and Bodrum before arriving in Alaçati should do so on Seabird Airlines, whose fleet of Twin Otter floatplanes—which carry a maximum of ten adults and two children—makes speedy, regular connections between all three cities. In May the carrier debuts a partnership with Bodrum’s seaside Maçakizi resort that, in two hours, flies passengers from Istanbul’s city center straight to the hotel’s beach—an ideal spot to recharge whether or not you’re continuing on to Alaçati by one of Seabird’s 45-minute flights. 90-850/811-0732; flyseabird.com. Rooms start at $535; Kesire Mevkii Narçiçegi Sk.; macakizi.com.