About an hour from Izmir, running west to the short stretch of sea that separates Chios from the Turkish mainland, lies the pretty old farming village of Alacati, pronounced Allah Chatter. Alacati was for many years where the well-heeled youth of Cesme would drive out of town, to get away from their parents and share a bowl of soup after a night out. A couple of cafés, pleasantly drowsy, and a traffic of small tractors: that was Alacati.
All that changed in the last decade, when a strong offshore breeze, the Meltem, started bringing some serious windsurfers to the bay nearby. At the same time Alacati’s 19th-century Greek houses, built in the local stone, attracted the attention of Istanbulites with an eye for renovation. In a country not short on hospitality or good food, Alacati now has some of the best restaurants and dreamy little hotels, where moneyed Turks, tired of the crowds at Bodrum, come to hang out.
“Oh, Alacati!” People say it with a certain emphasis, to acknowledge the momentum the place has acquired, the speed with which the Turks have got this together, the lap pools and the shady awnings, and the cobbled car-free streets overspilling with hand-painted signage and mulberry trees. And not, let it be said, without a touch of pride.
The picturesque old windmills at the top of the town may no longer grind the village corn, but thousands of people descend on the village every April for the Herb Festival, set up to help preserve traditional knowledge of wild greens and grasses, which may be baked, stuffed, sautéed or even turned into jams and medicinal teas. Out of it has come the Vanishing Tastes Festival, held twice a year to celebrate regional home-cooking techniques and traditions, descended from Ottoman times. In Alacati organic food is in, and some major cooking talent has gravitated to the town.
Most people fly into Izmir’s international airport, an hour away. Having driven down from Istanbul (a six-hour journey), we arrive eager for a moment’s relaxation in a café beneath an awning of vines. Karaferya is run by brothers from Izmir; one of them, Mert Yoncacilar, also owns a cookery school, devises university courses on gastronomy, and has worked in kitchens in Cape Town and New York. Our lunch concludes with a home-made liqueur made of Russian vodka and merjan, a startling red flower that grows in abundance on the shady patio. The house specialities include seabass in milk, and halloumi with kadayif.
Alacati’s best restaurant, nonetheless, may be Asma Yapragi, founded by Aisha Nur, a local woman. In her courtyard, she serves delicious vegetarian dishes passed down from her grandmother, many of them using local greens and wild herbs, much of them grown in her own potager. Diners at Asma Yapragi are invited into Nur’s kitchen to pick out the meze they fancy from platters beautifully displayed along a farmhouse table, beside wheels of glistening brown baklava. When I mention Ottolenghi, the fashionable London restaurant for Middle Eastern cuisine, she smiles graciously, and gives me the patient look of someone who has heard it before: later she wanders among the tables in the courtyard, pausing to chat with her guests and check that everyone is happy. Her signature dish is a sliced roast pumpkin, which she learned from her aunt.
Expect fresh fish, everywhere. At Ferdi Baba, the day’s catch is kept on ice on the back of a three-wheeled scooter, where you can make your selection and nibble meze over a glass of raki, waiting for it to be brought to your table grilled, or fried, in perfect condition. Better still, choose from the list of local wines: a fifth of Turkey’s wineries are situated on the Cesme peninsula, and it may be worth a day trip to Urla Sarapcilik, where vines have been cultivated since ancient times. The abundance of fabulous ingredients is itself a reminder that this is a farming village: the lemons of Alacati can be eaten like peaches, rind and all.
The Turks have a word, keyif, which means a state of relaxation and pleasure. Traditionally it involves doing little, murmuring conversation, a little raki and a bowl of olives or short cucumbers, under a tree in a corner of the street. Alacati is designed for keyif, it is steeped in it (with those retreats for yoga and pilates); and keyif central, among the smattering of boutique hotels and cafés, must be Alavya.
Built out of a former open-air cinema, of all things, Alavya is a hotel popular with up-market wedding parties at weekends. The street entrance is discreet, through a dress shop, and once inside you can wander the gardens in total seclusion. Every room is different, sumptuous and private. The Jade Loft suite I stayed in had the most comfortable four-poster bed under a pitched roof, a balcony overlooking the garden, and a library of books on art. The buildings are set in a well-kept garden and there is a pool. Breakfast comes with a small bakery of different breads and includes honeycomb, olives, cheeses and fruit: spectacular stuff, in a country that always knows how to breakfast well.
But just as the heat is cut by the wind, so the sweetness of Alacati should be tempered by a pinch of Attic salt. Keyif is perpetual, but Ephesus, eternal: an ancient city to rival Petra or Pompeii, with majestic classical façades and a breathtaking amphitheatre that have stood for 3,000 years. It takes a little over an hour to get there, and on the way – astonishing in itself – is the wall of paper scraps which surround the remote House of the Virgin Mary, each containing a pilgrim’s wish. Between the two sites, matters of time and faith seem to oscillate like oleander in a hot sun.
Closer to home, Ilica beach is a gentle swoop of pale sand by a shallow azure bay, perfect for families. For a more bracing encounter with the wind, you might head down to the new port between the hills, where the yachts moor stern-on to pastel-painted houses, and a marina full of boats clanks and clatters against a backdrop of distant wind farms. I admittedly don’t windsurf, because crashing onto the board always gives me a rash: but people do, appreciating the sandy-bottomed, waveless water and the steady winds. Instead, I read my book in the garden of Alavya, have a sedate dip, and listen to the distant muezzin’s call.
Distant but electronically amplified: it ends, surprisingly, with the familiar beep of a mobile phone going off in the imam’s pocket. The marriage of tradition and modernity? Very Alacati.
The author travelled as a guest of Daunt Travel (daunt-travel.com). Alavya (alavya.com.tr; +90 232 716 66 32) costs from €275 ($312) a night for two people. Recommended restaurants include Asma Yapragi (asmayapragi.com.tr; +90 232 716 01 78), where you can also stock up on pickles and tomato sauce, Ferdi Baba fish restaurant (+90 232 717 2145), and Karafarya (karaferya.com; +90 530 415 0729). Wine tastings – and even a bed, if required – are available at Urla Sarapcilik (urlasarapcilik.com.tr; +90 232 759 0111; rooms from €165).