Will Goldberg, chief travel officer of IWillGoTravel, an affiliate of The Accomplished Traveler, decided to book himself a trip to Turkey, where he had never been. He's back and shared his report here.
“When passion and careers collide, it makes for a very fruitful life,” so I’ve heard. But when a global pandemic hits, fruit comes less plentiful and the passion feels stumped. Since last March, I’ve felt sad and depressed. I needed an uplift.
Since hardly anyone else was booking, I decided to book myself. Not to Europe nor the Middle East, but where the invitation’s open to “Be Our Guest”—Turkey. I’d never been and was curious to add it to my traveling repertoire. So, why not?
Flying during a pandemic is daunting, especially on an 18-hour journey. With all the hoopla, I knew I’d be safe. Snagging a very inexpensive business class fare, I flew the QSuite on Qatar Airways via Doha. Yes, it was longer, but the quality of service and the onboard product was just what I needed. Transferring in Doha was a breeze with a short layover at its luxurious airport.
Istanbul’s secondary airport, Sabiha Gokcen International Airport, immediately impresses with its hygiene protocol in place: Face coverings, temperature checks and hand sanitizer abundant. Given the enhanced security protocols and safety measures, transfers must be met outside the airport. I arrived very late into Istanbul and checked into Raffles, one of the newest five-star luxury properties.
If Bosphorus views are a must, Four Seasons and Shangri-La offer the best. Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus offers a gorgeous outdoor swimming pool, while the stylish St. Regis Istanbul sits among the highest end shopping and dining in Istanbul with a sunny rooftop Spago.
Hotel Raffles Istanbul: Situated high above the Bosphorus, Raffles provides unobstructed panoramic views from the Zorlu Center—where high fashion, performance and art converge. Explore on foot the connected shopping megaplex (with an Eataly if you get tired of Turkish food).
Four Seasons and Shangri-La: The palace-style hotels allow direct access to the Bosphorus, idyllic to see daily life with easy access to the Anatolian side. Four Seasons bustled with high-energy mask-wearing patrons and sophisticated dining pods, while Shangri-La Bosphorus, Istanbul was more tranquil with Asian Hospitality flair. As for The St. Regis, it is a contemporary property located in the Macka, which reveals sweeping vantage point views of the Macka Demokrasi Park.
Istanbul is unlike any city I’ve experienced. Its museums, churches, grand mosques, bazaars and sites of natural beauty are countless. Actually being present and seeing this city inhabited more than 3,000 years ago must have been an experience to behold.
My goal was to relax and enjoy the immersion, rather than checking off boxes of attractions. I focused on outdoor venues, which are plentiful in Istanbul. My tips:
- If budget allows, book a private boat cruise along the Bosphorus to observe the city by sea. Otherwise, take the ferry from the European side to the Anatolian side from the Shangri-La and feel like a kid again while throwing simit into the air and watching seagulls dive for your bounty.
- Visit the Balat area, once known as the Jewish Quarter. This district is famous for its colorful houses along the sloping cobblestone streets. Note that synagogue visits require advance reservations.
- Book a Haman Experience at Kilic Ali Pasa Haman, which was commissioned to the great architect Sinan and constructed in the late 16th century
Istanbul did not disappoint when it came to dining. Some of my favorites were:
- Uskumru Restaurant at the base of Bosphorus Bridge on the Anatolan side with amazingly fresh seafood caught daily.
- Karakoy Lokantasi is iconic and a popular lunch spot known for its heavenly hünkar beğendi, a remnant of Ottoman palace cuisine made with slow-cooked beef with a Bechamel of mashed eggplant.
- Iskender Kurulus 1867 serves succulent lamb, spit-roasted atop fresh pita with a thick yogurt and entirely topped with melting butter—Istanbul authenticity at its best.
I ventured by air to Kayasari to see the incredible landscape and rich history of Cappadocia. About an hour from the airport, it was a sanctuary for Christians fleeing persecution from Rome and contains beautiful art from the Byzantine and early Christian eras from the fourth century onward.
Visit underground cities and find the existence of past cultures who lived inside the volcanic deposits of soft rock. Between 300 and 1200 AD, people carved out houses, churches and monasteries, all still there to see.
Museum Hotel, a Relais & Châteaux Property: Like past dwellers, stay overnight in more than 30 rock formation rooms and suites, all unique. The “living museum” is decorated with priceless antiques and has the most remarkable views of Cappadocia. Stay two nights to hot air balloon one morning and see the sunrise the next with views of the valley and balloons.
The true highlight was to ascend more than 1,500 feet by hot air balloon to see the majestic sunrise over the “Fairy Chimneys.” It was surreal take in these volcanic formations by air that have existed for hundreds of thousands of years.
What struck me most about Turkey was the kindness and warmth of its people. There is an authenticity and happiness (despite the pandemic) from all the people I encountered. And the issue of mask wearing wasn’t actually an issue because everybody took precaution and wore a mask. Despite geopolitical concerns and past incidents, I found Turkey to be 100 percent safe. Just as safe, in fact, as living in Houston, Texas.
From the scents of its wafting aromas and ancient flavors to the sounds of multiple Adhans, Turkey’s incredibly rich history came to life for me. Traveling alone, for the most part, my senses were overwhelmed and my fears about travel subsided. I returned to Texas with a giant smile and a positive outlook for the future and travel—and my place in this business.