Dotted with a dozen islands interspersed with secluded bays and inlets, and set against a backdrop of forested hills that slope dramatically up from the shore, the Gulf of Fethiye offers one of Turkey’s prettiest stretches of coastline and is deservedly popular as a boating destination. One of the most enjoyable ways to see the area is on a daylong “12-island cruise” that takes passengers around the gulf. Most cruises make stops at about five or six of the islands (all of one of which are uninhabited), allowing time for swimming, snorkeling and other activities. Highlights might include exploring the remains of a Byzantine church and Roman shipyard on Tersane; swimming off the long, sandy beaches of the Yassıca Adalar (“Flat Islands”); or taking a dip amidst the half-submerged Roman ruins known as “Cleopatra’s Baths.”
The beautiful spot known as Kelebekler Vadisi, or “Butterfly Valley,” holds an almost mythical attraction for many travelers to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, perhaps because of its relative isolation: the narrow, steeply walled cove can only be accessed by boat or on foot. To add to the mystique, the valley takes its name from the many species of butterflies and moths that breed here during the winter, including the brightly colored and rarely seen Jersey tiger.
From the secluded beach at the entrance to the verdant gorge that leads to a 60-foot waterfall at the back, the setting is simply delightful. Although there is a well-trodden path to the waterfall it’s a good idea to bring waterproof shoes, as some wading through the streambed is necessary.
Butterfly Valley makes an easy day trip by boat from Ölüdeniz, but in order to fully soak up the atmosphere you might want to stay a few days.
Known in English as St Nicholas Island, Gemiler lies along the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, south from Fethiye and west of the sandy beach at Ölüdeniz. Separated from the mainland by a narrow sea channel, it is a tiny speck of an islet, just 400 meters (1,312 feet) wide and 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) long but is renowned for its wealth of Byzantine ruins, which date back more than 1,500 years. Gemiler Island was once one of Christendom’s most popular pilgrimage points with devotees heading for Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. They came to honor the tomb of St Nicholas – the original Father Christmas, who was Bishop of Myra on the Turkish coast opposite – even though his remains were moved to the mainland in 650 AD. Also around this time, the little Byzantine settlement on Gemiler came under threat from pirates and was abandoned as the residents moved to the mainland for protection.
Just inland from the main port area and east of the ancient amphitheater is Fethiye’s old town, known as Paspatur. The narrow streets here are filled with shops and street stalls selling everything from Turkish carpets, jewelry and antiques to edible goodies like spices and Turkish delight; there are also touristic knick-knacks aplenty. Even if you’re not planning on buying anything, Paspatur is a great place for wandering around and people-watching, or for getting a bite to eat at one of the many cafés and eateries. Thanks to a canopy of vines above, its shaded streets are pleasant even during the height of summer. Nearby is Fethiye’s main fish market, where you’ll see local residents shopping and where you can even purchase your own fish and have it cooked up for you to eat at one of the nearby restaurants. While you’re in the area, you may also want to stop by the Eski Cami, Fethiye’s oldest mosque, or the Eski Hamam, a Turkish bath dating back to the Ottoman period.
Named the “dead sea” in Turkish due to its calmness, Ölüdeniz is one of Turkey’s most popular – and overwhelmingly most frequently photographed – beaches, thanks to its spectacular setting along a gorgeous blue lagoon.
Beachgoers flock to two separate areas here: a long, wide strip of open beach facing the Mediterranean, known as Belcekız; and the more sheltered shoreline of the Blue Lagoon, which is inside the boundaries of a protected natural park (entrance fee) and has a dramatic backdrop of mountain scenery behind it – Babadağ, one of Turkey’s top destinations for paragliding.
Since Ölüdeniz is extremely popular, be prepared for large crowds on the beaches, particularly on weekends in the height of summer – this isn’t a place for those seeking peace and quiet – and for the inevitable slew of generic restaurants and tacky souvenir shops along the waterfront.
Carved into the cliffside above town is a group of ancient Lycian tombs that have become some of Fethiye’s most famous landmarks. Set higher than the rest, the most important of the tombs was built in 350 B.C. for “Amyntas, son of Hermagios” (according to a Greek inscription on the wall of the tomb), who is thought to have been a local Lycian ruler or nobleman.
The entrance to the Amyntas Tomb was carved out of the rock so as to look like a temple portico, with two Ionic-style columns topped by a triangular pediment. Grave robbers appear to have broken into the tomb a long time ago, as is clear from the missing panel in the bottom-right-hand side of the doorway.
About 500 meters down and to the right (east) is a cluster of several smaller tombs carved into the cliff face; very little is known about the identities of those buried here.
The ghost town of Kayaköy – a cluster of about a thousand centuries-old stone houses scattered across a hillside – has a poignant history. Formerly inhabited by Greek citizens of the Ottoman Empire and known by the Greek name of Levissi, it was abandoned in 1923 after the Greek-Turkish population exchange that took place after the founding of the Turkish Republic. The story of the village (renamed “Eskibahçe”) and its inhabitants has been fictionalized by Louis de Bernières in Birds Without Wings, a sweeping novel that takes place during the late Ottoman Empire and WWI. Walking among the crumbling, empty houses and through the narrow lanes can be rather eerie, but the deserted village has a surreal beauty to it. There are a couple of churches and chapels, of which the most significant is the Panayia Pyrgiotissa (built in 1888), where a few fragments of frescoes and mosaics can still be seen.
Sweeping southwards from Göcek to Fethiye on the south coast of Turkey, the calm waters of the Gulf of Göcek are backed with spectacular forested hills. Its crenellated coastline is indented with sandy beaches and dotted with fishing villages and exclusive marinas as well as the remnants of earlier Roman and Lycian civilizations.
The charming town of Göcek itself was once a fishing village and it has retained its old-world ambience, with pretty streets and exclusive restaurants as well as a smart marina stuffed full of sleek yachts. Further south along the gulf, the modern tourist destination of Fethiye offers up colorful fish markets and stylish stores as well as history fixes in its Roman ruins and tumbledown Crusader towers.