I confess: I used to misunderstand the Princes’ Islands. I felt nothing but exclusion every time I went: in winter the islands abandoned by holidayers are the place of the world’s solitude and the only signs of life can be discovered at the small taverns where phaeton drivers are drinking their days away. When days got warmer I felt as much solitude in the crowds invading the islands to stay for the whole summer, a weekend or just a few hours. But then my friend Marina moved to Büyükada, the largest of the islands and after visiting her a couple of times I started grasping the island life and ways to enjoy it.
1. Pick the right island
Little bit of context here. Princes’ Islands are 9 islands in the Marmara Sea, technically still part of Istanbul. Islands have always been a noble getaway for the Istanbul dwellers: while centuries ago the getaway was more of a forced nature (royalty used to be exiled here) in19th century affluent Istanbul families started building their summer houses here. The tradition continues, and the islands turn from their winter hibernation into a lively spot with the first warm days. 4 of the islands are open to the public and can be reached by the public ferries.
Mostly one day visitors go to Büyükada that is large, has quite a few fish restaurants by the water front and a few highlights: 6th century monastery Ayios Nikolaos, hilltop Agia Yorgi church, decaying Greek orphanage (“The largest wooden building in Europe”, Marina announced), house where Trotsky was exiled (not sure many of you would be as interested as post-Soviet folks are) and scenes from the world-renown novel Çalıkuşu (The Wren) staged on the island coming alive as you walk through Büyükada. While the island is worth a visit I prefer Heybeliada that is also full of lovely wooden mansions and covered with forests but attracts smaller crowds and offers some decent food (more on that below).
2. Go on a weekday and learn the boats’ schedule
When going to the Princes’ Islands you want to time your visit and choose the route very carefully. Everyone goes there on weekends. My last trip was on a Saturday and I boarded the boat in Kadıkoy along with the bicycles, outdoors enthusiasts, cases of fish and other provision sent to the shops on the islands, suitcases of the Istanbul dwellers opening the season of the summer houses, sellers that would entertain the ferry public with demonstrating a device that sucks the juice out of lemons with the speed of light, tourists from any country in the world, Turkish youth with plastic bags filled with BBQ material and a middle-aged couple that – until they got off at particularly orderly Kinaliada – was discussing the end of Istanbul as they knew it just a few decades ago.
Marina, my friend residing at the Islands, scolded me for not taking Mavi Marmara boat from Bostancı (or Kabataş if you start from the European side), a preferred mode of transportation for those who have less vain interest on the islands. Her preference is IDO sea bus (denizotobüs) that departs from Kabatas and takes only 40 minutes to get to Büyükada (and 1 hour to Heybeliada). The schedule changes seasonally with more frequent departures in summer and you should check the schedule beforehand to plan your trip to the islands and – very importantly – back (it would be a pity to miss the last boat)!
3. Start with breakfast
I realized one of the reasons I was not enthusiastic about the Princes’ Islands is that I did not see any great food around (you don’t need to leave Istanbul for the standard fish restaurants with the waiters cheerful only when trying to drag you inside). Marina has been telling me about her discovery of a worthwhile place for about 2 years and to my shame it took me as long to accept her invitation.
If you can stand out by the fact you are hidden then Heyamola manages to do that. You could tell this place from the rest of the restaurant crowd on the Heybeliada shore immediately: it has a personal (and unmistakably female) touch to the place, its food and service. A lot of white in the interior brings the Aegean lightness and warmth and makes you forget that boat journey you have just experienced.
After serving my mother-in-law’s legendary breakfast spread for a year it’s hard for me to get excited a breakfast elsewhere but Heyamola does this morning meal very special. As you watch the small plates arriving from the kitchen one by one to your table the quality of the ingredients and the dedication of the chefs becomes obvious. The known suspects of the Turkish breakfast are dressed for the occasion: slices of tomato and cucumber are seasoned with thyme and olive oil, jams of translucent lemon slices – transformed almost beyond recognition but then betrayed by its still very citrus flavor – and jam of grated carrots with walnut chunks, cured olives – black and pink Aegean variety – with a splash of olive oil, rich kaymak anchored in the bowl of running honey, spicy sucuk sausage fried to pop up its flavor and solid serving of menemen. After all my boat trip seemed like a small price to pay for such a breakfast!
4. Don’t be afraid of the forest: there are no bears
Horse and carriage, local taxi on the Islands where motor-driven vehicles are mostly prohibited, is a romantic way to discover the island but you should not be shy to go around by food too: it takes only 2-3 hours to walk around the island. If you are a confident cyclist you may want to rent a bike from one of many shops at the pier (iskele): just like Büyükada Heybeliada is hilly so unless you are in a good shape you will not go past the pier on your newly-rented bike.
What is there to experience? The freshest air you’ve probably have breathed in years (the island is covered with pine trees and no wonder that sanatorium for consumptives is located on this island), herbs and flowers covering the island, lovely wooden mansions, a few eccentric cafes and shops and the vistas of the nearby islands opening here and there. Is there a better way to take a break from the fuss and buzz of Istanbul for a day and come back refreshed and ready to experience the city again?
5. Stay for lunch
But before going back to Istanbul sit down for lunch. And I will not be original here: as much as I am keen on trying new places as much I appreciate going back to those where I am guaranteed to have a great meal. That’s why after touring the island it’s only right yo go back to Heyamola for an Aegean-inspired lunch.
There is a menu but like with many places in Istanbul (and the Islands) you are welcome to inspect the display or starters and inquire about the mains available today. Just like with breakfast the Heyamola’s lunch tasted as a special meal preferred by the friend who have been waiting for you to visit for a long time. Sea bass with onion shreds marinaded in olive oil, green round olives seasoned with walnuts and red pepper flakes, chunks of charcoal grilled eggplant in the creamiest and fattest yoghurt I had in ages and grated cooked zucchini with thyme and yoghurt – were some of those that we tasted and loved.
For the main I was offered to try their seafood kokoreç, a dish otherwise made with sheep intestines. No, they didn’t make me eat fish bowels! Fish kokoreç at Heyamola is a saute of finely chopped seafood very liberally seasoned with fresh hot chilli, red pepper flakes and thyme. Wine selection (and price) encourages the sampling of at least a few glasses coming from Melen vineyards on the West Coast of the Marmara Sea.
We seemed to be the only brave who came to Heybeliada at this cold so we took out time with food and enjoyed a lot of attention. But what I appreciate about Heyamola even more than their impeccable food is the fact that it was impeccable even at that odd hour and strange weather we choose for the trip to the Heybeliada. And to me this shows real class in a restaurant – its ability to feed an odd walk-in guest in the same way they’d feed their high-season clients. And that is a good news because off-season is the best time to enjoy the Princes’ Islands.
Heyamola Ada Lokantası. Address: Mavi Marmara Yali Caddesi (opposite the Mavi Marmara boat pier), Heybeliada. Address: Phone: (0) 216 351 11 11. Check IDO or Mavi Marmara boat schedules to plan your trip.