The air is heavy with the sweet scent of pine resin, mingling harmoniously with the fragrant odours of Mediterranean shrubs and herbs. The desultory drone of a few early-rising honey bees, the clip-clop of a horse’s hooves in the distance and the soft slop of waves breaking gently against the shingle shore are the only sounds breaking the silence. Elegant, white-painted fin-de-siecle villas, lost in overgrown gardens of oleander, fig and magnolia, rise above a quayside deserted bar for a couple of urchins clutching dusky yellow blooms recently torn from the branches of the mimosa trees lining the streets of this small waterfront settlement.
As you sit, on a fine spring morning, sipping strong black Turkish coffee in one of the cafes strung out along the sea front, watching small pleasure craft bob on the coruscating, silver-sheened blue waters, it’s hard to believe that the teeming metropolis of Istanbul, with its 15 million plus inhabitants, lies a mere 35 minutes away by one of the fast ferries Turks call deniz otobüses, literally ‘sea buses’. This is Heybeliada, one of the nine Princes’ Islands, a small archipelago dotting the surface of the Sea of Marmara just 15kms or so south of über-urban Istanbul. And fabulous though the ‘city of the world’s desire’ is, tranquil it is not, and Istanbulites (and an ever increasing number of visitors) seek sanctuary on this island haven whenever they get the chance.
Heybeliada, like the other major Princes’ Islands, Kınalıada, Burgazada and, by far the largest, Büyükada, is traffic free – hence the tranquility for which the islands are renowned. Both year-round residents, (numbering a paltry 20,000) and visitors (a staggering 10 million came in 2013) rely on horse-drawn-carriages, bicycles (easily hired from each island’s ferry port) or walking to get around. To give you an idea of size, you can easily cycle around Büyükada in an hour or so.
The majority of vistors come for the day – apart from anything else it’s an incredibly cheap outing, with slower ferries from Kabataş (see www.sehirhatlari.com.tr for times) costing just 1.6 euros one way, less if you use the Istanbulkart travel card. The sea buses, run by www.ido.com.tr, cost a little less than 3 euros one way. It’s far better to stay at least a night if you can, however, in order to really appreciate the peace and quiet and enjoy a relaxing fish dinner at a waterfront restaurant. Avoid Friday and Saturday nights if possible, as hotel costs increase by 50 percent and, despite the premium, are often full. And, of course, the number of day-trippers dwarfs the mid-week numbers.
There’s everything from basic pensions to smart hotels – the Merit Halkı Palace (www.halkipalacehotel.com) on Heybeliada and the Splendid Palas (www.splendidhotel.net) on Büyükada both invoke the islands’ glory years as the 19th century segued into the 20th, when wealthy bankers and businessmen, largely drawn from Istanbul’s minority Armenian, Greek and Jewish communities, holidayed here. Many, of course, had island residences, and one of the joys of exploring is admiring the Art Nouveau villas dotting the hillsides. If you really take to the islands you might consider investing in one of them, such as this splendid nine-bed mansion on Heybeliada (www.spotblue.com/turkey-property-for-sale/villa-in-istanbul-ist103) - especially as prices are far more reasonable here than in the heart of the city. More than a few famous figures have spent their time in some of these dwellings , notably Nobel prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, whose family had a house on Heybeliada, and Leon Trotsky, who lived in a brick-built villa on Büyükada from 1929 to 1933.
There are a number of pay beaches on the islands, most horrendously busy on summer weekends and during the Turkish summer school/university holidays, but a few gems avoid major crowds, notably Halik Köyü Plajı on Büyükada. Better than the beaches is simply meandering around the islands on foot or by bike, for example climbing up to the hill-top monastery of St George on Büyükada, or the remote, promontory-set Church of Agios Spiridon on Heybeliada. To get a full picture of the islands’ history and culture its well-worth visiting the Museum of the Princes’ Islands (www.adalarmuzesi.org) on Büyükada.
Escape is what the islands are all about, though. Even if you visit at a busy time it’s amazing how soon the crowds disgorging from the arriving ferries melt into the backstreets. If they don’t a short bike ride or longer stroll in virtually any direction will bring you to a pine-fringed bay or myrtle-scented hillside. In the Byzantine period these islands were a place of exile for out of favour nobility (hence their name); today they provide a much-needed refuge for those temporarily burned-out by life in the big city.
Visit in spring and you may be tempted, on departure, to hand over a few coppers to those urchins on the quayside and sit on the deck of your ferry back to the mainland cradling a bright yellow floral reminder of your awayday(s) on the Princes’ Islands.