Luckily we just barely made the 7:40 pm ferry to Büyükada – the largest of the Princes’ Islands – one Friday evening after work. Our friends had given us a night at Büyükada’s Butik Ada Hotel as a gift for Gurkan’s birthday. We were both looking forward to the weekend – not only was it a chance to get out of the center of Istanbul but it was also an opportunity spend time on the islands in the off-season. Last time we visited in July only to find the weather scorching hot and the island crawling with tourists.
After a two hour ferry ride and almost getting off at the wrong island (Gurkan’s fault, not mine), we arrived at Büyükada around 9:30 p.m. The ferry hardly any people on it, and when we landed, we were suprised to find the island similarly quiet. Most of the restaurants and cafes had already closed their doors for the day. We checked into our hotel (a lengthy process as it seemed the guy manning the desk was not familiar with checking in a foreigner; here, they ask for every little detail from your father and mother’s names to your place of birth).
We did a quick once over off the room (meh, definitely needed some redecorating but the location couldn’t have been better) and then headed out to find somewhere to eat. We followed the sound of music and found ourselves in front of Hile Balık. The prices seemed reasonable and a variety of fish were on the display menu; however, after sitting down the waiter informed us they had nothing left except for hamsi (anchovies) and another small type of fish. Even though I don’t care for the small fish, we stayed put and ordered since it was unlikely we could find another place open at that hour. Unfortunately, the portions were small and the fish not that great. We agreed that it was an unsatisfying meal and if it hadn’t been for the basket of bread I had eaten, surely I would have left hungry. At least the table next to us had already had a few rounds of raki and were starting to dance about the restaurant so the entertainmnet was far from lacking. We had a nice after-dinner walk in the March stillness and I was happy to find that the island’s street dogs were very friendly and loving.
In the morning, we had a quick breakfast at the hotel and rented bikes to go out to Yörük Ali beach, a good couple of miles from the main part of the island. As anyone who knows me knows, I am not one for bike riding. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I am not good at it especially when it comes to hills and we were on a hilly island. After I got over my initial fear of biking through all the people and horse-drawn carts, we were out of the bustling center and on our way to Yörük Ali.
The beach was the highlight of the day. We didnt have to pay an entrance fee because it was in the off-season and we had the whole place to ourselves. We walked out to the pier, sat down and enjoyed the view (and checked out the jelly fish underneath us). We also got to spend time with the cafe owner’s dog and some wandering horses who weren’t on phaeton duty for the day. After an hour or so, we pushed our bikes up the large hill and headed back to the center where we only ended up paying 10 TL for the two bikes. Best deal of Büyükada hands down! The deal was even sweeter when I noticed that I could get a kağıt helva ice cream sandwich, one of my favorite summer desserts, nearby.
Our island eating adventures took a downhill turn when we choose a restaurant overlooking the harbor for afternoon refreshments. We ordered mussels which strangely enough never came, and although, we were content with our selections of mezzes, we were appalled to find that the waiter had tacked on an exorbitant service charge and fee for bread on the bill. Charging for bread at a mezze restaurant is unheard of in Turkey, and considering the service was quite poor, we found it pretentious of them to tack on the service charge (I mean, c’mon, they never brought part of the order).
After taking once last walk to admire the beautiful old houses on the island, we hopped on the ferry and headed back home to Besiktas.
Lessons learned: Next time, we’re just renting bikes and packing a picnic to eat at one of the picnic areas overlooking the sea (there is one on the road right before you reach Yörük Ali beach). Unless you’re getting a kağıt helva ice cream sandwich, the restaurants are extremely touristy and overpriced. In fact, next time we’re going to skip Büyükada altogether and head to Burgazada, the former residence of Sait Faik, one of my favorite Turkish writers.
Other things to do: On a trip to Büyükada last summer, we walked up to the Eski Rum Yetimhanesi (Prinkipo Greek Orthodox orphanage) located at the top of the island in a forest. If you ask any of the locals, they can point you in the right direction. In my opinion, it’s definitely worth the hike. Although it’s gated off with no trespassing signs, it’s really a sight to see and I can’t help but imagine the stories the walls hold. If you’re crafty, maybe you can even sneak in – check out these pics.