Few foreigners make time for little ole forgotten √áesme, located only 81km (50 miles) west of Izmir but far enough off the beaten trail to keep it out of the tourist loop. Ferries arriving into √áesme from the Greek island of Chios have turned the seaside town into a depot rather than a destination, and passersby get only a fleeting glimpse from the bus window of the cultivated fields, windmills, and celebrated mastic gum trees of the peninsula.
But as much as √áesme is a suburb of Izmir, it is also a beach resort in its own right, blessed with picturesque beaches that number well into the double digits. When tourists discovered the jet-set haunts of the Bodrum Peninsula, the smart set migrated north to the crystalline beaches of √áesme. √áesme still manages to remain relatively untarnished, offering a perfect balance between sybaritic and simple pleasures, such as the appreciation of unspoiled stretches of fertile fields of aniseed.
Most importantly, √áesme, named after the many springs found in the area during the 18th and 19th centuries, has finally begun to harness the full appeal of its natural resources, with the opening of several luxury thermal centers.
Mastic: The Truth about Gum — The resin-producing mastic tree that grows all over the √áesme Peninsula (and the Eastern Mediterranean) has been used for centuries in many ways: to heal stomach ulcers, to clean and polish teeth, as a sunscreen and a sunburn soother, and more.
In √áesme, mastic is used in jams, to make pudding, or as a flavoring for raki (an alcoholic drink), while in the United States, the same ingredient is used chiefly as a varnish or adhesive substance. Mastic pudding, along with other cleverly bottled marmalades, is available at Rumeli Pastanesi, Inkilap Cad. 46, √áesme (tel. 0232/712-6759).
Built in the 14th century by the Genovese to protect wine shipments, the Genovese Castle, across from the ferry landing (tel. 0232/712-6609), was expanded and reconstructed by the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II in the beginning of the 16th century. It was destroyed during the wars with Venice in the 17th century, restored again in the 18th, and continued to serve as a defense system until 1833. The fortress is now the √áesme Archaeological Museum (admission 2.75YTL/$2; daily 8:30am-12:30pm and 1:30-5:30pm), housing artifacts recovered during excavations of Erythrai. The mosque that was built within the castle walls is now used as the museum’s administration building.
Eight kilometers (5 miles) down the road from √áesme town through the peninsula’s famous mastic tree orchards is Ala√ßati (the village, not the bay; minibuses leave from the yacht harbor). This little inland village, which bears the mark of the Byzantines, the Sel√ßuks, and the Ottomans, still retains much of its diverse character. The Greek-style whitewashed or stone shuttered houses are characteristic of Aegean seaside architecture. By day, these painted blue shuttered windows and doors open onto charming antiques shops, cafes, and patisseries. (Try the apple pie at Agrilia Caf√© Boutique, Kemal Pasa Cad. 75; tel. 0232/716-8594.) On summer evenings, modern-day cafes and restaurants spill out into the streets to give the town a wholly festive feel. A number of these houses have been converted into lovely bed-and-breakfasts targeting weekenders from Istanbul; a room at the Ala√ßati Tas Hotel (Kemalpasa Caddesi 132; tel. 0232/716-7722; www.tasotel.com) will run from 83 Euros to 115 Euros ($100-$140) a night. Above the city on a little hill are the remnants of the typical round houses of the Sel√ßuk period and picturesque windmills from a bygone era. The mosque in the center of town was converted from a church.
Located about a half-hour’s drive (17km/11 miles) on the coastal road north from Ilica is Ildiri, which enjoys the shelter of a small bay protected by a series of offshore islands. Not surprisingly, the locals, who number only about 350, make their livings on fishing boats as well as in artichoke and olive fields (and until 15 years ago, in tobacco fields, too). A number of fish restaurants line the small dock as well as the road leading to the village. On the road at the edge of town are a couple of covered shacks called restaurants — the characteristic covered, stone terraces overlook the artichoke and olive fields toward the sea. Stop here for some g√∂zleme (a crepe filled with cheese, spinach, or both) and an ayran, or for some fish only recently pulled out of the water.
On the edge of Ildiri is the ancient Greek city of Erythrai (free admission, but the caretaker may ask for something; daily 8am-5pm or see the caretaker), whose remains are still mostly hidden beneath the fields of artichokes cultivated by the local villagers. Sporadic excavations conducted since 1964 have revealed a theater, dating to the 3rd century B.C. and destroyed in an earthquake in A.D. 100. There are some visible signs of a city plan including the 6th-century-B.C. Temple of Heracles (unexcavated), a 5th-century-B.C. sacrificial altar, and 2nd-century-B.C. luxury villas and mosaic stone pavement. A climb to the top of the theater and up to the summit of the hill will reveal an old basilica-style church, as well as some of the loveliest views in the region.Day boats lining √áesme’s harbor tout excursions in the Aegean for swimming, snorkeling, or simply relaxing. A day usually includes stops at Donkey Island (there really are donkeys there), the Blue Lagoon, and Black Island. At 25 YTL ($20) with lunch included, these tours are a good value. Stroll along the harbor the night before to inspect the boats.
If exploring the shipwrecks offshore is more your speed, or you just want to brush up on some rusty diving skills, contact Dolphin Land (tel. 0232/337-0161; fax 0232/486-2309; www.divecesme.com) for information on their day trips around Cesme. They also offer PADI certification with English instruction.
People drive from as far as Izmir and beyond for a night out at one of the beachfront restaurant/dance clubs of √áesme. The one with the most longevity is the SeasideBeach Club, Ala√ßati Bay (next to the S√ºzer Hotel; tel. 0232/716-9899), which has been close to the heart of Turkey’s jet set (those not in Bodrum) and in-crowd. The newer open-air club at the Hotel Grand Ontur, side of Havacilar Sitesi, Dalyan Mevkii (tel. 0232/724-0011), takes advantage of the spectacular cliff-top setting and open seas. The cover for both clubs is 30YTL ($23).