How Shangri-La Istanbul turned a tobacco warehouse into a luxury hotel

Shangri-La Istanbul is located on the banks of the Bosphorus and is only a five-minute walk to the Dolmabahçe Palace, home to Ottoman sultans, and in a lively neighborhood filled with bars and museums. Photos from Shangri-La Istanbul
The Lobby Lounge is a great place for afternoon tea and pastries.

When you talk about Shangri-La Hotels, luxury immediately comes to mind. Plush furnishings, silk tapestries, a great spa, big rooms and fantastic views are just some of the things that one comes to expect of a Shang Hotel.

Having three modern Shangri-Las in Manila and two gorgeous island resorts in Boracay and Cebu, it is a brand that we Filipinos love and are familiar with — down to the scent of its lobby, rooms and spa, and our fave dim sum at its flagship restaurant Shang Palace.

Last year, on a weekend in Istanbul coming from another European city, I experienced how the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Group brought its Asian character across the seas and onto the shores of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait. Shangri-La Istanbul is only the group’s third hotel in Europe, following London’s modern hotel at The Shard and Paris’ former royal palace.

Deluxe room with a view.
The lobby of Shangri-La Istanbul Bosphorus with its plush furnishings and Chinoiserie accessories.

Located in Beşiktaş, near the ferry terminals that bring passengers to Uskudar on the Asian side, Shangri-La lives up to its mythical name — it is a quiet oasis in a very lively neighborhood that’s home to one of Istanbul’s Big Three football teams.

Shangri-La Istanbul is a great example of how an old, decrepit building is repurposed and turned into a modern structure. Looking at it today, you’d hardly believe that this luxury space used to be a tobacco factory and warehouse in the 1930s.

With the architectural firm Piramit Ltd., Shangri-La recreated the façade of the old warehouse since it is protected by the city’s Cultural and Natural Assets Committee. The hotel preserved the historic façade and built only seven stories above ground and seven under (for the function rooms and ballrooms). There must be a height restriction on buildings located on the banks of the Bosphorus because, second to the Dolmabahçe Palace which was home to a handful of Ottoman sultans, it’s the second tallest by the water.

A great breakfast spread at Ist Too restaurant with the freshest produce and cheeses from all over Turkey.
Ist Too restaurant. I was lucky that when I was there the hotel was celebrating the Gaziantep Kitchen.

For its interiors, they referenced the brand’s signature look of quiet opulence and luxury, working around a palette of earth tones with touches of blue and Chinoiserie accents such as the lamps and vases in the lobby.

A stunning four-story artwork called “Garden of Peach Blossom” hangs in the hotel’s atrium, as does a massive crystal chandelier, while the lobby’s furnishings are gold-leafed.

Shangri-La has set the standard for having some of the biggest rooms wherever the location, whether in a dense city like Hong Kong or an island resort like Boracay. Istanbul is no different. There’s generous space for its bathroom, walk-in closet and sitting area apart from a wonderfully comfortable king-sized bed.

The best part of its bedrooms? Most of them have Bosphorus views — and there is no better way to spend time inside than looking out to the Bosphorus Bridge at sunset.

The Turkish identity of Shangri-La Istanbul Hotel’s Chi Spa.
Corridor at Shang’s famous spa brand, The Chi Spa.

The hotel’s Shang Palace serves authentic Cantonese food with dim sum served in the afternoon. A wide selection of tea is served from an elongated pot by a “kung fu tea master.”

I was lucky that on that weekend Shang’s Ist Too restaurant — serving Turkish and Mediterranean cuisines — was having its Gaziantep Kitchen festival, possibly the most renowned Turkish cuisine and where the best baklava comes from. The views from here are of the Bosphorus and you can step out to enjoy a stroll on the quiet street outside.

A kung fu tea master serves tea with a flourish and another checks the wedding banquet arrangements.
Indoor pool and gym
The bedroom of the presidential suite comes with a spacious terrace facing the Bosphorus.

So, where is the Turkish touch of Shangri-La Istanbul? My friend Sena Kahraman, who used to work there and is now brand director at Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort in Oman, showed me the hotel’s Chi Spa.

“This,” she said, “is the Turkish identity of the hotel.” I’ve seen a lot of Turkish baths in Istanbul, Antalya and Bodrum — and combined with the modern Asian feel of Chi Spa, this is definitely the most beautiful.

I’ve always said Turkey feels like a second home to me, and being at Shang just made my home a little closer.

View of the Bosphorus Bridge right outside Shang’s Ist Too restaurant. Photo by Tanya Lara

Marcel Wanders’ luminous space for Fairmont Quasar Istanbul

Dutch designer Marcel Wanders puts fantasy elements in and around the swimming pool of Fairmont Quasar, the newest luxury hotel in Istanbul. Photo by Tanya Lara
Wanders creates a lounge area surrounded by gazebos, greenery and stylized statues wearing red flowers for their clothing and hair. Photo by Tanya Lara

Don’t look for a reason behind Dutch designer Marcel Wanders’ spaces, it may not always be there. But you can count on magic always being present.

While most architects and designers tout form following function as a design philosophy, Wanders has a different perspective. “Luxury starts where functionality ends and where the true value is personal and so has no price or reason,” Wanders once said. He also said that the things he creates are the kind that people would want to save if their house was burning down.

If I had his Knotted Chair, the design that catapulted Wanders to global fame, I’d certainly save that first, too. Or the Horse Floor Lamp that the design label he co-founded, Moooi, produces. But I don’t have either.

Instead, I experience his spaces and gain insights into his design. To be standing in the pool deck of Fairmont Quasar Istanbul and seeing the product of his fanciful imagination is a treat that every design enthusiast would love.

The hotel’s reception area mixes wood, leather, metal and stone. Photos courtesy of Fairmont Quasar Istanbul
The lobby with its décor looks more like a luxurious sitting room in a friend’s home — warm and welcoming.

In the glass-walled pool overlooking Marmara Sea and the red rooftops of Mecidiyekoy (okay, let’s call it by its other name, Şişli), Wanders put what seem like trees with globular fruits at the tips of the branches. It’s a fascinating element that pulls your gaze and then suddenly releases it for you to appreciate the panoramic skyline.

What’s on the other side of the pool will also make you smile. In the lounge area with white sunbeds, blue sofas and golden gazebos, Wanders created a garden space “guarded” by statues of ladies with red flowers for clothing and hair.

It’s weird but beautiful…and fascinating. It’s also a nod to whimsy and the designer’s proclivity for the extraordinary.

View from the balcony of a Fairmont Quasar suite.
One of the most comfortable beds I’ve lain on—with a nice leather headboard as well. The Fairmont Signature Rooms and Suites come with balconies.

US-based design firm Wilson Associates, which masterminded Quasar’s overall design, imagined two sisters coming together in the city. “The older sister brought her polished Parisian sensibility, while the younger sister brought her eclectic, contemporary New York flare. Together, they created a design jargon all their own: contemporary classicism.”

Located on a windy hill in the city’s Mecidiyekoy area (after three years, I still can’t pronounce it), the property where Quasar is now used to be a 1930s liqueur factory designed by world-renowned cubist architect Robert Mallet Stevens.

Today, it is the newest star here, a luminous modern ode to a city that prides itself on its thousand years of history.

My wonderful friend Esin Sungur, Fairmont Quasar marketing and communications director, takes us around the hotel. I haven’t seen her in two years but know well enough that on this Eid al-Fatir weekend in June, she’d make the time. And it is a quiet weekend in Istanbul—more so than Manila during Holy Week and Easter, which is saying a lot about the two mega cities.

Photos of present-day Istanbul line one wall of Stations restaurant.
Demlique Tea Lounge and Patisserie
A drink or two at the Marble Bar is always a great idea to cap a day in Istanbul.

Istanbuller who are staying for the holiday are at nearby beaches or swimming pools. Here at Quasar, they are enjoying a windy summer day and food trays from Ukiyo restaurant (Japanese for “floating world”) at their chaise lounges while working on their tans.

With the hotel located in busy Mecidiyekoy—a short downhill walk to Cevahir Shopping Mall and a subway skip to Nisantasi or Taksim—it’s a great fit for business and leisure travelers who like some style with their drinks (The Marble Bar just off the lobby) or their tea (Demlique Tea Lounge and Patisserie), and spacious suites overlooking the city.

It’s also for people who love contemporary design. “There’s nothing nostalgic about the hotel, it’s modern all the way. Except for the industrial inspiration from the iconic liquor factory in front of the hotel,” says Esin of the 209-guestroom and 25-suite hotel.

The Spice Library at Alia restaurant with its wooden drawers and shelves full of everything any cook would ever need.
Breakfast at Stations restaurant, which is designed to capture the legacy of the old liquor factory.

Even in a place where the city’s skyscrapers are located—there are office and residential towers in nearby Levent, the Trump Tower is a walk down the hill, and many more under construction—Quasar’s architecture stands out. The building is silhouetted against the distant yachts and ships crossing Marmara Sea, the view never letting you forget that you’re in one of the world’s greatest, storied cities.

For a property that doesn’t have wide gardens, the architectural firm Wilson Associates managed to create breathing spaces that extend into courtyards like in Alia, a restaurant that combines distinct spaces—the Spice Library, the Raki Bar and two dining rooms, one for mezzes and the other for traditional live grill.

It’s where we celebrate Ramadan Feast. While the holiday is also observed in the Philippines, it’s my first time to experience it with people who practice Islam and are fasting till the sun goes down, today for the last time this year. It’s a very hot summer, which means daylight is long, and so is the fasting.

But even when there are those who do not observe fasting, even when the restaurant’s servers have filled our table with mezzes, not a single fork is lifted, no fast is broken prematurely, until the clock strikes 8:40 p.m.

Apart from its outdoor pool, there’s the indoor pool (open all year round) with jacuzzis.
It was only my my friend Esin asked, “What does this remind you of?” that I realized this corridor at the Willow Stream Spa looks like a whirling dervish’s dress.

It’s not just Wanders’ whimsical design elements or the hotel’s attention to detail (the boiled eggs at breakfast in Stations restaurant are wearing knitted caps to keep them warm, which made me laugh like silly) that makes the place special, it’s also the service that makes you feel like you’re an old friend.

At the Gold Lounge, we have a long chat with Recep Kileoglu, the funny and lively manager who shows us how to make coffee from the tap (seriously, it’s like a craft beer tap).

There is an easy familiarity and warmth—like the skyline and the rooftops on the horizon that we watch from the terrace, as if I’ve known them forever.

The living room of the presidential suite.
The bedroom of the presidential suite with the bed directly facing the views.
The presidential suite’s dining room.


Cappadocia & other Turkish delights

Gliding over the otherworldly Göreme Valley in Cappadocia on a hot-air balloon. During summer as many as 100 hot-air balloons do the hour-long tour in the morning and afternoon. It’s an awesome experience! Photos by Tanya Lara.
A closer look at the ancient cave dwellings in Göreme Valley.

So, this is how it feels like to be living out Instagram hashtags — flying 600 meters above a strange landscape that’s as old as time. It is 6 a.m. and the sun is slowly coming up on the horizon in freezing temperatures.

Author Tanya Lara in Hierapolis with its mineral forests, petrified waterfalls and a series of terraced basins that look like freeform swimming pools.

Around us are 25 or maybe even 35 hot-air balloons, some of them wildly colorful and others very commercial and boring. They are slowly rising with their baskets or gondolas carrying about 20 passengers who have seen, just minutes before in pitch-black darkness, how hot-air balloons work (they operate on the basic principles of gravity and heat transfer as they lay flat on the ground and an inflator fan fills them with air that is then heated).

The experience of being up there is, in one word, “Instagrammable.” In three words, “It’s f*cking Instagrammable,” which is how we seem to be living our traveling lives these days — filtered, color-manipulated and viewed with awed but skeptical eyes.

But the hour-long experience of being in a hot-air balloon gliding over Cappadocia is everything that is and yet more than the pictures you’ve seen before on someone else’s vacation. For starters, the landscape is surreal and seeing it at sunrise makes the experience even more so.

I’ve seen these colors many times before since I first went to Turkey last year and fell in love with the country hard and fast. But in Cappadocia, the sunrise is something else. It is a slow gathering of pigments that start out in the distance — some light, some orange, and then it gathers strength and hits you in the face as the day progresses ever so slightly.

You don’t need a filter for this, but you do need to put down your phone and selfie stick…and just enjoy the moment.

Two different seasons (autumn and winter), one beautiful sunrise and landscape. Left photo by Tanya Lara; right photo from Huffington Post IG
How do hot-air balloons work? They operate on the basic principles of gravity and heat transfer as they lay flat on the ground and an inflator fan fills them with air that is then heated.

Cappadocia is not actually a city, but a region that’s routinely described as looking like another planet whose geography has been evolving for the past 60 million years, a result of volcanic tuff, basalt and andestine rock.

And that’s exactly how the Göreme Valley of Cappadocia looks from the ground or from the air — otherworldly.

Our pilot Buket, the Turkish word for “bouquet of flowers,” is one of only seven female pilots across the valley. She says that in the summer, you can have about a hundred balloons in the air in the morning or afternoon. The balloons operated by different companies take turns at the highest and lowest positions. The weird thing is, even if you fear heights — you’ll still want to take this ride. I can never walk across the glass floors of observation decks or towers, but riding the balloon, I didn’t feel my knees shaking as I looked down at the valley seemingly plucked out of science fiction.

To celebrate the touchdown back on ground, Buket and her crew pop open bottles of champagne and give us token medals for surviving. Because as our tour guide Altan and the crew at the holding area told us before we went up, “Hope to see you again.”

Damn right we deserve champagne before breakfast!

The best spot to take a group picture is at the Monumental Gate ruins in Aphrodisias.
The House of the Virgin Mary where, Christians believe, she died before her assumption into heaven.

* * *

The Göreme Open Air Museum in the valley has Christian churches that date back to the 11th century and most frescoes inside have been defaced. While some paintings still have bodies, the faces of Jesus Christ, his apostles and the saints have been erased because Islam forbids the use of images in its practice.

Except in one called Dark Church (it has only one window) and hence protected from the elements across the centuries and marauders. Here, many of the frescoes have been spared especially the ones on the ceiling; they look as if they were painted just a few decades ago and not a thousand years ago.

Called Karanlik Kilise (literally Dark Church in Turkish), it has a cross-ribbed vaulting central dome and a central dome and one or two small apses — and it is entirely carved into the rock as the other churches in the Göreme Valley.

The paintings look so beautiful even though they predate the Renaissance Period when European painters were doing their best works with vegetable dyes. The other remarkable thing is — how did they create such frescoes when it was so dark inside? How did they illustrate the Transfiguration of Christ, the Nativity, the Crucifixion or Judas’ Betrayal of Christ on the walls, niches and domes? With polished metal sheets or mirrors to reflect light outside and in through the narrow corridor to light up the space inside.

In the background is the 11th-century Dark Church at Goreme Open Air Museum.

You wouldn’t think you’d find something like this in a cave, but there it is.You wouldn’t think either that Turkey, whose population is 99-percent Muslim and only one-percent Christian today, was so pivotal in the Christian faith because after Christ died, some of his apostles went to this land to spread the gospel. And so did his mother.

The House of the Virgin Mary, located on Mt. Koressos, is near the ancient city of Ephesus and Selçuk in the province of Izmir. It’s said that this is where John the Beloved spirited her away and where she spent her last days before, as Christians believe, her assumption into heaven.

It is a small stone house, now a shrine, overlooking the Aegean Sea that John was supposed to have built for her. The location was determined from a book based on the visions of an Augustinian nun,  Anne Catherine  Emmerich. Her visions were published after her death at the beginning of the 19th century in a book and she was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004. Catholic popes and pilgrims have been coming to this house for three centuries, though the Vatican has not officially declared it to be the house of the Virgin Mary.

The Melvana Museum in Konya where the mystic Rumi is enshrined.

What I like best about this small compound is the wishing wall, where people write their wishes on paper and stick them into the net or fabric. There seems to be no space anymore to put your own wishes as it already holds thousands upon thousands of rolled and folded paper.

Melvana Museum in Konya has world’s smallest (above) and largest (partly shown) Qurans.

But you realize soon enough that amid millions of wishes that have gone through this wall, you always find a space for your own personal intentions.

* * *

Another ancient site in the region is Aphrodisias, the city of Aphrodite, goddess of love, but in Anatolia (which forms the greater part of Turkey), the goddess is the Mother Goddess of fertility known as Cybele.

The Temple of Aphrodite was a focal point of the town, but the character of the building was altered when it became a Christian basilica. The Aphrodisian sculptors became renowned and benefited from a plentiful supply of marble and much of their work can be seen around the site today. Some of the highlights in Aphrodisias include the Stadium, the Baths of Hadrian and the Theater.

The best spot to take a group picture is at the Monumental Gate ruins. Called Tetrapylon, meaning “four gates,” it served as a ceremonial gateway. During the height of Aphrodisias, these grounds saw epic parades and shows mounted for visitors and residents.

Tanya with Michelle and Malou in Aphrodisias

We look at the incredible background, at the soaring columns and the gorgeous carvings at the top  — and promptly hand Altan 26 cameras.

Before we even get to the strange scenery at Cappadocia, Hierapolis leaves us awed. Located in Pamukkale or Cotton Palace in Turkish, it is made of mineral forests, petrified waterfalls and a series of terraced basins that look like freeform swimming pools.

It is getting cold in the late afternoon but some visitors are wearing beach shorts (and one girl is wearing a bikini) because the natural basins are filled with hot-springs water. Hierapolis is another Unesco World Heritage Site and its ruins include Roman baths, temples and other monuments.

It seems that every place we make a stop leaves us either in awe of their uniqueness, or at home for their familiarity — a spiritual one, if you will —that connects with us on a deeper level.



Blissful in Bodrum

Golturbuku Bay from Hilton Bodrum, with its private beach and island, sits on the calm Aegean Sea.   Photos by Tanya Lara.
Sun worshippers at Ersan Resort & Spa.

Two seasons after being in Bodrum, I still find myself dreaming of the place. Of the blue Aegean Sea dotted with yachts, their sails looking so white against the sparkling waters, the breeze that cools down hot summer days, beach loungers spread out across the sand in every private resort or public beach, and the fantastic food.

Widely regarded as the French Riviera of Turkey, it’s an hour’s flight from Istanbul and located in Mugla Province. Often referred to as a party island, the port city of Bodrum sits on the southern coast of Bodrum Peninsula and faces the Greek island of Kos.

Sami Bas and Tanya Lara wait for sunset on Rabbit Island in 2015.

Before this trip with Sami, who’s based in Istanbul, Bodrum was in the news nonstop. A little Syrian boy wearing a red T-shirt had washed up ashore trying to cross to Greece with his family and other refugees. The picture of the little boy so shocked the world and somehow made it more compassionate toward the plight of refugees.

This is the Bodrum we find ourselves in at the end of summer 2015, at the crossroads of its hedonism and conscience — and these two roads would quickly merge because Turkish people are kind and compassionate (the country has two million Syrian refugees within its borders). The rest of Europe, it seems, is just beginning to realize this.

You see a few refugees begging in the city center or selling pens at stoplights, but you don’t see the ones trying to cross to Greece because they do it under the cover of darkness and because of military and police presence on the streets, which was unheard of until the war in neighboring Syria exploded and crossed borders.

The public beach in Gumbet, just a few minutes from the private islands near Bodrum City.
The public beach in Gumbet, just a few minutes from the private islands near Bodrum City.
Formerly belonging to Greece, Gumusluk island still bears the colors of the Greek isles.
Formerly belonging to Greece, Gumusluk island still bears the colors of the Greek isles.

Bodrum is quieter at the end of summer, a little cooler at 30 degrees compared to the crowded peak summer months of June to August when the temperature averages around 34 degrees, the beaches are full and the parties are crazy.

When Sami and I were planning the trip, we decided to split our four days into two beachfront hotels: Hilton Bodrum Türbükü Resort & Spa, which is located in Türbükü Bay, and Ersan Resort & Spa, which is nearer the city center. Most resorts offer full board as did these hotels, because, seriously, once you’re in there you won’t ever want to leave except perhaps to have dinner or go clubbing in town.

It’s an unforgettable drive from the airport on the way here — on our left are mountains and hills, and on our right are the deep blue sea and posh white houses hugging the distant cliffs like in Santorini.

Our drive feels like we’re in a postcard except the scenery is moving along with us.

The bays of Gölköy and Türbükü are only two kilometers apart and form a cove, which makes the Aegean Sea at Hilton calm and perfect for swimming out to sea without having to worry about waves, and to do water sports like jet pack and fly boarding.

At Ersan Resort & Spa, the water is choppier because it is out on the open sea. On the second day, I muster enough courage to swim with him onto a floating sundeck about 50 meters from the shore (I don’t know how to swim properly, so I tried to simply not drown).

A pool ladder leads straight onto the Aegean Sea at Hilton Bodrum. With the island shaped like a cove, the water here if very calm.
A pool ladder leads straight into the Aegean Sea at Hilton Bodrum. With the island shaped like a cove, the water here is very calm.
Rows and rows of sun loungers at Ersan. In the height of summer, you wouldn't find an empty one, which is why it's probably better to go to Bodrum right before or after summer's hottest days.
Rows and rows of sun loungers at Ersan. In the height of summer, you wouldn’t find an empty one, which is why it’s probably better to go to Bodrum right before or after summer’s hottest days.

A lot less lush than Hilton, Ersan nevertheless spreads out across greens and cascading hotel rooms on hills with the ones facing the sea being more premium. This is a more family-friendly resort with crazy huge waterslides in two pools, while several pools are for adults only

Because I live in a country where it’s warm all year round, where we could go to the beach in December or pack an overnight bag on a whim, I never fully understood how people can spend days on the beach tanning, until I realized why. It’s simply because for countries with four seasons, warm sunny days really do have an expiration date. Before you know it, the last days of summer are here and then it’s suddenly too cold for flip-flops and Bodrum has shut down for the season.

But lying on the beach with Sami and reading the book he bought me in Istanbul (appropriately enough, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul), I am falling deeper in love with Turkey. Oh, how diverse its landscape is, how beautiful its seas and people!

* * *

Like any European seaside city, Bodrum has a lively tourism industry that attracts both the international jet set as well as domestic visitors.

On our second night, we take a walk along the marina, which is the city center. It is actually comprised of only several streets, some of them pedestrianized, which means that traffic and parking can be challenging.

The streets are flanked by bars and restaurants at all price points. Souvenir shops offer handicrafts made of seashells, and of course specialty foods such as Turkish delight, baklava, sweets, olives, nuts, and other foods.

The best thing we discover on this night is an ice cream place called Bitez Dondurma Waffle, a small restaurant toward the end of the marina which offers 18 flavors of dondurma or ice cream from Bitez.

St. Peter’s Castle was built by Christians during the height of the Roman Empire and to protect them from persecution during the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Today, it houses shipwrecks excavated in the Aegean Sea. Photo from
St. Peter’s Castle was built by Christians during the height of the Roman Empire and to protect them from persecution during the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Today, it houses shipwrecks excavated in the Aegean Sea. Photo from

It may very well be the best ice cream on the Aegean Coast! Flavors range from sour cherry to mulberry, walnut, pistachio, honey and almond, caramel and mandarin. Sami so loved the mandarin flavor that on our last night, after driving all over the peninsula, we went back to the city twice to get ice cream.

Apart from Bodrum’s beaches and clubs (Halikarnas being the most famous one), what was once this ancient Greek city also offers culture and history. Bodrum Castle, built in the 15th century, was built by the Knights of St. John as the Castle of St. Peter. The funny thing is that the construction workers were granted a “reservation” in heaven by a papal decree in 1409.

Enjoying an evening at Bodrum Marina with Sami.

The castle was once a refuge for all Christians in Asia Minor, but not long after, it was attacked during the rise of the Ottoman Empire, leading to its fortification. Today, Bodrum Castle is home to the Museum of Underwater Archeology, which displays shipwrecks excavated under the Aegean Sea.

Preceding Bodrum Castle was the Halicarnassus or Tomb of Mausolus, which was built between 353 and 350 BC during the Persian Empire. Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the mausoleum was built by Greek architects. Only ruins remain now, having been destroyed by earthquakes from the 12th to the 15th centuries.

The complicated histories of Turkey, Greece and the Roman Empire are woven into the geographical and cultural fabric all over Bodrum and Turkey. You must visit the vestiges of this past to get a better understanding of Bodrum, like the small fishing villages and towns on the peninsula.

Topping the list are Gumbet, Gümüslük, Yalikavac, Gundogan and Bitez.

Gümüslük is a village which, if you didn’t know you were in in Turkey, you’d think you were on a Greek isle. The colors of the Cyclades islands are here — the bright blues and white and pastels.

We are going to Gümüslük for Rabbit Island, famous for its sunset. It’s said that the island was often visited by the King of Halicarnassos, King Mousolos, and his beloved Artemisya to feed the rabbits living on the island and to watch the setting sun.

You can actually walk to Rabbit Island across the bay because the water is very shallow and, luckily, we went to other places first and we arrive at Gümüslük just in time for the sunset and some lokma or pastries made of deep fried dough and soaked in sugar syrup or honey, and sprinkled with cinnamon powder or sesame seeds.

Breakfast fare at Hilon Bodrum, Bitez ice cream at Bodrum marina, grilled fish at Yalikavak, and Turkish coffee and tea at Hilton.

And of Gümüslük’s famous sunset that prodded a king to travel to watch it? It’s a sweet yellow sun that slowly hides behind the hills and mountains, bathing the bay in a soft golden hue as the waves rock the wooden boats on the water — as if to lull them to an early sleep. Crossing back to the main island on foot, with 80 meters of water in between, the tide has risen still only amazingly up to thigh level.

* * *

Our village-hopping route that starts from Bodrum is an almost perfect oblong. From the city, we dive to Gümbet first, then to Gümüslük, then for dinner we end up in Yalikavak, and pass by Gündoğan on the way back to Bodrum.

In between these towns we get lost only once. Gumbet is a short drive from Bodrum City and an alternative to the crowded night scene and traffic of Bodrum. The houses here sit on the hills facing the sea and it has along pubic beach where people can just park their cars across the street and walk over to the water for a day under the sun.

The sand is the color of latté and small pebbles wash up on the shore, and again the water is just so clean considering it’s a public beach. Often called a “miniature of Bodrum,” Gumbet is peppered with restaurants, bars and clubs. Like the other towns on the peninsula, tourist trade is active with boat rentals.

Sunset at Gumusluk Bay, belly dancers at Hilton; below, a new season is coming judging by the almost-leafless tree, reading Pamuk on the beach, and buying lokma.

After Gümüslük for sunset, we go to Yalikavak for dinner and pass by Gündoğan on the way back to Bodrum. We don’t get off at Gündoğan but it’s worth a visit because it’s an active fishing town known for its snorkeling and diving, and its bay is circled by sunbathing jetties.

With a population of only 4,000, Gündoğan is not often on tourists’ itinerary but they say many Turks have vacation houses here, preferring its rural quietness and old-world charm. It also has olive and citrus groves, and pine forests covering the hillsides for hiking.

On our last night, we have dinner in a seafood restaurant in Yalikavak Marina. Five feet from our table, the yachts are anchored, and the waiters are throwing leftover pieces of bread to the fish. As a stray dog mills around our table, we are talking about what we would remember most from this vacation — as if we had already left Bodrum.

Sun, sea and serenity.

Oh, so many things! There were the unlimited tequila shots at Hilton, the pool we had to ourselves, the fishermen gamely posing for pictures on Rabbit Island, the swimming pools and jacuzzi at Ersan, sitting on the balcony and looking out at the sea, the ice cream from Bitez, the seafood, my being the only Asian it seemed in Bodrum at the time, singing in the car, lying under the sun with a book, and swimming in the sea.

My heart is breaking between the main course and dessert because we have to leave this place the next day.

Some days, when I am driving to work along Manila Bay and I’m stuck in traffic, I look out to the brackish waters and the reflected sun. I close my eyes for exactly two seconds and try to imagine it’s as blue and as clear as the Aegean Sea, that I am standing in the water and I could see even the tiniest pebbles around my feet.

And then in my head, I am transported back to Bodrum’s lovely summer.

On the Aegean Sea, looking at an island we have to leave behind.
On the Aegean Sea, looking at the island we soon have to leave behind.


Istanbul: A story told in two continents
The majestic Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque sits on a hill in the historic part of Istanbul overlooking the Bosphorus Strait. It has one main dome, eight secondary domes and six minarets. It was built one millennium or 1,079 years after Hagia Sophia and derives architectural influences from it. (Photo from
The blue tiles on the ceiling and walls inside the Blue Mosque (Photo by Ben Morlok/


I didn’t fall in love with Istanbul until I was about to leave it. And by then, I was so completely enamored of the place that I would come back two months later when I was in Paris for the New Year.

Friends told me, “But you’re in France, why are you going to Turkey?”

It was as if leaving Paris was a mortal sin, as if I had just told them I was going into the nunnery.

But I saw a lot of similarities between two of the world’s greatest cities, most significant is that they are both defined by their waters — the Seine for Paris and the Bosphorus for Istanbul.

That’s how I fell in love with Istanbul the first time I went in October last year. I took a cruise on the Bosphorus Strait on my last day and didn’t want the day to end even as it rained as I walked two kilometers from Eminönü back to the old part of Sultan Ahmed. (I didn’t have an umbrella!)

The idea of one city straddling two continents is so romantic, so exotic and exciting to me, and as it turns out even for the Turkish people for whom this is an ordinary, everyday fact. They love this uniqueness and are proud of it.

Though only three percent of Turkey is geographically in Europe and the rest in Asia Minor,  historically and politically Europe is where it seems to belong.
Hagia Sophia, first built as an East Roman cathedral in Constantinopole (modern-day Istanbul), which was later converted into an Imperial Mosque during the Ottoman Empire, and is now a museum. (Photo from
The massive interior of Hagia Sophia with its hanging chandeliers and medallions (Photo by Ben Morlok/

The day before, I was on SMS with Sami Bas, who asked me what my plans were before the evening. I said I was going on a “river cruise.”

“And which river is that?”

“The Bosphorus,” I said.

“It’s not river, it’s a strait,” he said. “How can you be a journalist and not know this, Tanya?”

“Okay, fine,” I said. “I’m going to take a cruise on that narrow body of water.”

The truth is, even though friends who know me to be an adventurous traveler had been telling me for years to go to Istanbul, it was never high up on my bucket list…it was just there somewhere on the list.

The author Tanya Lara at the Rahmi M. Koç Müzesi in December 2015, and with Sami Bas in Levent in February 2016.
A drive to the Asian of Istanbul in January 2016 with Sami.


I had taken a tour to the incredible Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with colleagues before they left for Manila, but it was the Bosphorus that I fell in love with — what it represented and what actually sat on the coastline: the Dolmabahçe Palace, the villas from the Ottoman Empire, some of which have now been converted into hotels or private properties owned by affluent Turks, sheiks from the Middle East, and Europeans.

From my hotel in Sultan Ahmed, I went to Eminönü following the tram tracks. The dock is dotted with fish and bread restaurants — and you can smell them even before seeing them. They catch the fish, cook it on the boats and bring it to your table or just peddle them around.

On the boat before the cruise started, I asked two elderly gentlemen to take a picture of me on my phone. They hardly spoke English, but they bought me tea from a waiter who was deftly balancing a dozen glasses on a small tray.

Author Tanya Lara on the Bosphorus Strait in October 2014. Is there a cooler cruise than seeing two continents all at once? Probably not.

People always say don’t accept anything from strangers, but in a way that I have grown accustomed to in all my years of traveling solo, I understood their kindness and hospitality.

Their wives arrived from the lower deck and one of them spoke English. The four of them were from the capital city Ankara and were doing the cruise for the first time, they said.

The Turks have an old proverb that says, “Every visitor is a gift from God.” Maybe that was what they were thinking. I was a visitor, all alone in their country, and so the wives bought me another cup of tea despite my protests that it was my turn to pay.

From the Bosphorus, you can see the Blue Mosque with its nine domes and six minarets, and across it Hagia Sophia with its four.  Catholic churches have bell towers, mosques have minarets. In the old times, the imam would climb a minaret to announce that it was time for prayer; there’s no need for the imam to climb now as loud speakers amplify this call.

Dome upon dome, big or small and with seagulls flying about, the mosques all over Istanbul look incredibly beautiful, their gold-tipped minarets puncturing the skies, the silhouette softened and balanced by the sandstone domes.

The Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque got its nickname from the blue tiles used on its interior walls and ceiling. It is Istanbul’s most popular tourist attraction and remains an active mosque.

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The Bosphorus Bridge connects the European and Asian parts of Istanbul. Geographically, only three percent of Turkey is in Europe, but historically and politically this is where it seems to belong. (Photo by Jorge1767/
The waterfront House Hotel, a 19th-century Ottoman mansion in the Ortaköy district. (Photo from

It is closed to tourists for half an hour or so on each of the five times that Muslims pray, the first at sunrise and the last at nightfall. Obviously, worshippers don’t have to stand in line but tourists have to wait up to an hour or more to get inside, which is the typical waiting time for most of Istanbul’s attractions like the Topkapi Palace and Dolmabahce Palace.

Across the Blue Mosque and a park between them is Hagia Sophia, older by a thousand years and originally constructed between 532 and 537 as a Greek Orthodox Church, a monument to the Byzantine Empire’s capital city Constantinopole (modern-day Istanbul), then it became a Roman Catholic Church, then an Imperial Mosque when the Ottoman Turks took over, and now it’s a museum.

Hagia Sophia’s fate reminds me of the temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia, particularly Angkor Wat. It was originally built as a Hindu temple and was converted to a Buddhist temple when a new king took over and effectively erased all spiritual symbols of the previous religion.

Eminönü, where three bodies of water meet: the Golden Horn, Bosphorus Strait and the Sea of Marmara. In the background is the 450-year-old Yen Cami, which means New Mosque. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

Hagia Sophia is no different. Outside, you would never think it was once a Christian church even though during the Renaissance  churches also used domes as their main feature (Florence’s duomo and Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica).

Its bells, altar and paintings and tiles depicting Christ and the saints were removed and replaced with Islamic elements like medallions with Arabic writing and the four minarets outside. All but a few Christian features were plastered over, one of them a painting of Madonna and Child above the southwest entrance.

* * *

Despite the fact that 98 percent of its population follow Islam, Turkey is a secular country — it is mandated in its constitution. That was what the protests in Taksim Square years ago were all about: to remain secular and fight the move to be more religious as a state.

Turkey is Middle Eastern in faith, but also European in its secularism. And there is no better city that exemplifies its being at these crossroads than Istanbul.

Galata Tower overlooking the Bosphorus (Photo from
Sami buys roasted castañas in Sisli. This and simit vendors (like pretzels but dipped in molasses) are all over the streets of Istanbul in December 2014. (Photo by @iamtanyalara)

Istanbul’s most famous writer, the Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, once said, “Istanbul is so unmanageably varied, so anarchic, so very much stranger than western cities: its disorder resists classification.”

Around Taksim Square and in the malls — in fact, in all of Istanbul — most of the local women don’t wear chador or burka but a lot of them wear headscarves.

My friend Sami took me for a walk to the medieval Galata Tower, a nine-story tower with a café on top overlooking the city and the Bosphorus.

The streets around the tower look like any modern city in the world — vibrant, filled with local and branded boutiques, pavement cafes, restaurants and bars.

In the evening, you see young locals enjoying wine and cocktails, and Sami taught me how to drink raki, an anise-flavored spirit that you chase with water.

During the day, people who are not rushing to or from work are leisurely enjoying cups of tea or the yogurt drink aryan. I had seen this in Greece and Italy — that laid-back attitude to life not dictated by the hours, men and women lounging around and enjoying the buzz of the city happening before their eyes.

Manuel Deli & Coffee, a typical café in Cihangir (Photo by Ezgi Ünlü/

Pamuk, whose novels I love, wrote his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City shrouded in melancholy, a kind of sadness that pervades even  the waters of the Bosphorus.

The Bosphorus, he writes, is a reminder “of  the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.”

I didn’t see or feel this melancholy in Sultan Ahmed or Eminönü, or the streets around Galata Tower, Taksim Square or Besiktas.

I did see it in the endlessly confusing Grand Bazaar when I took the wrong exit and got lost yet again. I found myself walking towards the water, the neighborhood blocks beginning to look more and more impoverished.

But that’s another story.
The Byzantine-period Maiden’s Tower on the Bosphorus Strait. Turkish legend says it was erected by an emperor whose daughter was prophesied to die from a snake bite by her 18th birthday. So her father kept her there, away from land. On her 18th birthday, he brought her a basket of fruits to celebrate. And guess what? There was a poisonous snake in the basket, which bit and killed her. (Photo from