Think of holidays to the south-west coast of Turkey and you’d be right to imagine beaches lapped by turquoise waters. But it is on the banks of the river, not the shores of the sea, where I find true tranquillity.
Resting on the edge of the Dalyan Çayı River, the small town of Dalyan is no stranger to tourists; in summer, they arrive from the nearby seaside resorts of Olu Deniz and Marmaris. Indeed, Dalyan has plenty to offer day-trippers: mud baths, turtles and the ruins of the ancient city of Kaunos. But it has even more to offer to those who stick around a little longer.
I stay at the Holiday Hotel, one of several properties located directly on the river. It has doubles from around £50 a night next month. The rooms are basic, but there is a lush garden with loungers, a hammock and a pool. Breakfast is an event: as well as the traditional bread, salad, cheese and fruit, it comes with eggs your way (try Turkish menemen – scrambled with peppers and tomatoes and herbs) and pişi, chunks of fluffy fried bread, with homemade preserves.
This feast is served on a deck facing the impressive Lycian rock tombs of Kaunos. Dating back to the 4th century BC, the tombs are carved, Petra-style, into the vertical rockfaces across the river.
As if archaeological wonders weren’t enough of a breakfast extra, you’re also highly likely to spot a Nile softshell turtle. These strange-looking, endangered animals often appear and pop an inquisitive snout of out of the water. After breakfast, hop on a water taxi straight from the deck and head to the beach.
In the 80s, environmentalists, including the late David Bellamy and June Haimoff (affectionately known as Kaptan June), successfully prevented an 1,800-bedroom holiday complex from being built on Iztuzu Beach. The 4.5km (2.8-mile) arc of blonde sand, where the Dalyan Cayi meets the Mediterranean, is a vital breeding site for another endangered turtle: the loggerhead. Dalyan and surrounds were eventually made a Special Environmental Protection Area. As a result, you won’t find any high-rise buildings in the town, and Iztuzu is off-limits at night.
After 40 minutes’ winding through a labyrinth of lofty reedbeds, the water taxi drops you off at the northern end of Iztuzu, where you might just be lucky enough to spot a loggerhead in the clear sea. Over on the south side of the beach, reached in summer by a regular dolmuş (minibus) service from Dalyan, you’ll find the volunteer-run Sea Turtle Research, Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre. Here, you can learn about sea turtles and their plight, the work to preserve them, and visit inpatients of the turtle hospital.
Iztuzu lies to the south of Dalyan, but boat trips in the opposite direction take you out on to birdwatching haven, Lake Köyceğiz. On the shores of this vast lake lies the Sultaniye Spa, home to healing mud baths and hot spring pools – for an entry fee of less than £1. I visited at night, when day-trippers had gone home and all was quiet. Afterwards, the captain of our boat, Princess of Ekincik, switched off the engine so we could lie back on-deck, gaze at the spectacular night sky, and glimpse shooting stars.
Wandering into town for food and shopping is one of the joys of holidaying in Dalyan. A handful of Turkey’s ubiquitous fake sportswear shops and karaoke bars have taken root on the pretty high street, but on nowhere near the scale of nearby seaside resorts. Shop for unique, reasonably-priced ceramics, jewellery and traditional peshtemals (hammam towels). Stroll along the pier near the mosque for boat trips and restaurants galore.
One of my favourite places to eat in Dalyan is Saki. With a view of the rock tombs, it has no menu, but an extensive selection of daily meze. I love the courgette flower and oyster mushroom tempura, and minty tabbouleh. Another excellent spot is The Rabbit Hole, which serves imaginative vegetarian dishes, homemade soft drinks and craft ales.
It’s not just town where you can find great value, delicious food. On the rural road to Iztuzu is Yalıçapkını (Kingfisher) Restaurant, serving modern Mediterranean food and Turkish wines on its waterside terrace. At nearby Nar Denisi, on a pomegranate farm, sip ice-cold nar (pomegranate) juice, watch your gözleme (filled flatbreads) being made from scratch, and enjoy home-made ice cream in myriad flavours.
If adventure is your thing, there’s plenty to be had in Dalyan. I went on horseback safari to a hidden hot spring pool with Caunos Horses. Passing pomegranate groves, water buffalo, egrets and leaping fish, it was a backstage pass to the area’s rich natural beauty. I also headed out to sea with Captain Boris, whose boat trips come with delicious food, plus snorkelling and paddleboarding stops.
Although there’s plenty to do in Dalyan, some of the best days there are spent doing absolutely nothing. There’s something deeply relaxing about life by the river. There, with the steady chug of passing boats and the breeze rustling the reeds, time seems to slow right down.
Several airlines offer direct flights between the UK and Dalaman. The flight time is around four hours. Dalyan is a 40-minute drive from Dalaman Airport.
Staying there Dalyan Holiday Hotel has doubles from £48 in October, dalyanholidayhotel.com