Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s my little sister, soaring on the updrafts above the pine-forested ridges that shelve towards the ocean on Turkey’s Turquoise Coast. I was next to take to the runway, pacing down the slope until the bright parachute lifted into the air and the ground tumbled away beneath my feet.
Below, I could see islands strung out across Fethiye Bay and the long white crescent of Olu Deniz’s beach curving around the coast towards the Blue Lagoon. From here, the beach looked like a white teardrop issuing forth from the eye of the lagoon with its iris-like shades of blue.
It’s this breathtaking scenery that makes the paraglide from 2,000 metre-high Mount Babadag in Turkey’s Taurus Mountains one of the most popular in the world. Apparently, it’s also one of the longest drops in the paragliding world, giving you plenty of time to drink in the panoramic views.
We had travelled to the rugged coastline of south-west Turkey to enjoy a mix of adventure and relaxation, and after landing on Olu Deniz beach in searing heat, going for a swim in the region’s famously crystal-blue waters seemed the natural thing to do. The outer beach that stretches along the lagoon was sparsely scattered with sunbeds and tourists and the low-rise resort that has grown up in the valley is dwarfed by the awe-inspiring peaks beyond, leaving the scenic beauty of this spot relatively intact.
The fine sandy beaches of the lagoon, however, were packed with bronzing holidaymakers, so we decided to rent a boat to lose the crowds and enjoy some serenity out on the water. I also hired some snorkelling gear, intent on catching sight of the elusive sea turtles that have made the sheltered lagoon their home. Paddling out into the languid emerald water, the melee of the shore soon seemed a distant memory. A virtually untouched landscape of limestone crags encircled us, fragrant pine wafted on the breeze and there was no sound but for the chirruping of insects and birds from the bristle of bushes and trees on the banks.
It wasn’t long before I was alerted to the presence of a turtle, as a nearby snorkeler suddenly pulled his head from the water with a delighted shout. I turned and swam over just in time to see the ghostly shape of a sea turtle gently disappearing into the green gloom. Navigating the boat around the shoreline, we spotted a man-made feature amid the natural shore and floated over to take a closer look. A small enclave was set with carved stones, creating what looked like a docking point. Weathered and overgrown, I wondered if this had been left behind by the ancient Lycians who ruled this region from 1400BC until the Romans arrived.
Like the ancient Nabateans, who carved the amazing city of Petra into the high stone cliffs of central Jordan, the Lycians cut their structures into sheer rock faces all along this coastline. Above the region’s main hub of Fethiye, several Lycian tombs are set into the limestone cliffs. The columns and plinths give them the appearance of miniature ancient Greek temples suspended in rock. Fethiye also has a fascinating archaeological museum and is a convenient place to stay if you are looking for something a little more authentic than the typical holiday resorts along this coastline.
Though it is a modern town that caters for tourists, it has still managed to retain its Turkish charm and is less commercial than resorts like Marmaris. From here, the ancient sites and the abandoned ghost town of Kayakoy, with its eerie empty buildings and streets, were easily accessible – we even trekked to Kayakoy on foot.
But by far the most impressive of the ruins we visited was the so-called. Part of the ancient Lycian port of Myra, the tombs are cut into a vertical cliff like stone houses piled one on top of the other, the dark recesses in their facades hiding ancient mysteries. Though you can’t climb inside the tombs, you can get close enough to study their decorated facades and friezes.
The allure of the region was not lost on the ancient Greeks and Romans either, who left their mark on the landscape in the form of stone amphitheatres, temples and relics too numerous to mention. To explore this side of the region’s history, we spent one morning rambling around the UNESCO-listed ancient city of Xanthos, which features the crumbling tiers of a Roman theatre and Byzantine basilica with its mosaic floor still intact.
Exploring Turkey’s beautiful cultural sites can be hard work in the heat of high summer, but luckily for us, spas are part of the local culture too. There are traditional Turkish hammams everywhere, and visiting one is highly recommended after trekking up and down the region’s high bluffs. Inside the hammam’s marble and mosaic rooms, we were lathered and buffed on stone plinths before being slathered in oil and kneaded from head-to-toe. The experience was so relaxing that we decided to treat ourselves to another session later in the trip.
To leave behind signs of civilisation almost completely, not counting the 2000-year-old ruins, we decided to visit the protected area around Patara. The golden beach, backed by shrub-covered dunes, stretches for miles and is a favoured nesting ground for endangered loggerhead turtles. The wilderness behind the beach half-conceals the remains of an ancient Lycian port city. Though excavations are still underway, we took a quiet stroll along an ancient street and sat amid the ruins of a stone amphitheatre. In the nearby small town of Gelemis, we stopped to sip hot apple tea and sample the local Kurdish cuisine.
Aside from Patara, there are a clutch of protected beaches and hidden coves on the Turquoise Coast that are perfect if you are looking for a secluded spot to soak up the sun and take a dip in the crystal-blue waters. Butterfly Valley is a hidden gem sheltered by limestone cliffs and only accessible by boat or a steep perilous descent. The pretty sandy beach is backed by a lush valley which fills with colourful butterflies during the summer season. Its isolated location means it never gets too busy, making it a blissful place to escape. Nestling on a hillside near Butterfly Valley, the small town of Faralya is a low-key retreat from the madding crowds. Here the small traditional shops sell Turkish soup and flatbreads instead of trinkets and souvenirs.
Having explored this beautiful stretch of Turkey’s coastline, we felt we’d had a really well-rounded trip with new vistas and some unique experiences. As well as feeling totally relaxed, I had discovered an ancient civilization I had never heard of – the Lycians – spotted one of my favourite animals – the sea turtle – and fulfilled a life-long ambition of jumping off a mountain and living to tell the tale.