Rocking gently on the wake of the busy Bosphorus with the sun on my neck and salt air in my lungs, I was sure our adventure to the Princes’ Islands was going to be a refreshing change from the whirling metropolis of Istanbul. I’ve always found that boats evoke that holiday feeling – memories of summertime joy and seaside relaxation. Day tripping to the Princes’ Islands, just an hour off the Marmara coast of Istanbul, had the same affect, explaining why it’s a popular weekend escape for the Istanbullus.
As always, the journey was half the fun. Departing Kabatas at 9.30am, we joined the largely local crowd for a top-deck show: çai boys called ‘only one lira’, a vendor selling lemon-juicers had middle-aged women in a buying frenzy, island businessmen busied themselves securing loads of sponges and ladies compared jewelled fingernails the way jewellers would compare diamonds.
By the time we arrived at Heybeliada, the second largest island in the nine island cluster, the fuss and buzz faded into a soothing island lull. There are no cars on the islands, only bikes, horse-drawn carts and boats bobbing by the shore. The locals wear sunny smiles and walk like time doesn’t exist. Grand wooden houses watch over the seaside streets; reminders of an imperial past. Oh and the flowers, they frame every view – daisies and dandelions line the roadside, jasmine vines climb house fronts, potted petunias brighten the streets and purple wisteria drips lavishly from stone walls, street lights and iron-lace fences.
After a cheap brunch in one of the cafes lining the pier-side boulevard, we wandered up the hill to find all sorts of charming oddities: there were boats lashed in line and horse carts in formation; we walked past an overgrown public gym; and in the main street we watched a movie shoot (a Turkish style country and western from what we could gather).
We also found wooden houses with peeling paint, a second hand store filled to the ceiling and a cute cafe with a wonderful street view. The residential streets showed us socks on home-made washing lines, women in floral headscarfs, vibrant patchwork curtains and proud little gardens hiding in courtyards. Once we reached the hill-top, we were rewarded with a view across the hazy horizon: Lego-like houses of Istanbul and the blue allure of the Marmara sea.
By the end of our island day trip, both Dave and I were in sun-kissed, wind-whipped, sea-soothed bliss and felt like we’d uncovered another secret of Istanbul.
Useful info for a Princes’ Island day trip:
Depart from Kabatas, on the European side of the city. There are two companies with piers at Kabatas servicing the Princes’ Islands. We took the Mavi Marmara boat at 9.30, which cost 5TRY for a one-way ticket. The ferries aren’t particularly frequent, so make sure you have a look at the timetable in the morning and plan the return leg. See the photo I took for the current timetable.
There are nine islands in ‘The Princes’ Islands’; the largest is Büyükada and second largest is Heybeliada, where we visited. When travelling from Istanbul, you will reach Heybeliada in about an hour, and then Büyükada about fifteen minutes later.
The popularity of the Princes’ Islands as a weekend escape means that the boats are fuller on Saturdays and Sundays. Aim to go on a weekday if you can, and arrive about 20-30 minutes before departure so you can get a seat with a view. Also, at the risk of sounding too mother-hen like, I urge you to take a jumper. The sea winds are chilly and even on a sunny,warm day, you can end up with brain-freeze and icy bones in transit.
There are plenty of food options on Heybeliada. When you arrive you will see the pier-side restaurants serving the usual – fish, kebabs, salads. You’ll also find produce markets, ice-cream vendors and patisseries one street back from the water. The islands gorgeous views also lend themselves to picnics, so consider packing your own for a seaside lunch amongst the wildflowers. As you leave the ferry, turn right, walk past the boat yards, up the hill, past the public outdoor gym and you’ll find a nature reserve that wraps around the island; a good spot for a lazy picnic looking over the sea.
As there are no cars on the islands, bike and fayton (horse-drawn carts) are the main modes of transport. You will need to hand over your ID to hire a bike at about 5TRY per hour, so don’t forget it (like we did).
To find cafes, second hand stores and street with good views, walk up Isguzar Sokak (the main centre street) and veer right onto Refah Sehitleri Caddesi. This is a thriving little street with plenty to look at. Turn left as you walk up the hill and you’ll find even better views of the sea.