The eastern Mediterranean -- an overview
The eastern Mediterranean coastline stretches all the way from popular Antalya in the west to Antakya in Hatay, the scrap of land where Turkey turns the corner and starts wending its way down towards Syria. Compared with the western Mediterranean, this part of the coast is a very mixed bag touristically. Immediately east of Antalya it's still big package-holiday country with a string of all-inclusive hotels at Belek and two more mega-resorts at Side and Alanya. After that, though, the Taurus Mountains press in on the coast road which winds alarmingly on to the smaller resort at Anamur, before continuing to Silifke and Taşucu, the main point of embarkation for ferries to northern Cyprus. The area around Silifke is thick with ancient ruins, and there's a small resort at Kızkalesi. After that, however, you reach the heavily built-up Mersin-Tarsus-Adana conurbation and then the industrial development around Ceyhan and the port at İskenderun. With its magnificent mosaics museum, Antakya (Hatay) is the biggest drawcard at the far end of the eastern Mediterranean. It's also the one place where you'll find a choice of boutique hotels.
An international airport at Antalya serves Side and Alanya, while the busy Adana airport is the gateway to the eastern end of the Med. The coast road from Alanya to Silifke is notoriously hard on those who suffer from motion sickness -- some bus conductors even carry pills to dole out to passengers.
Perge and Aspendos: Due east of Antalya a famous pair of Greco-Roman ruins offering complimentary attractions can easily be visited in the same day. At Perge you can inspect the extensive remains of a town center complete with agora (marketplace), while at Aspendos, a vast restored theater dating back to the second century now serves as the principal venue for the Aspendos Festival every June/July. To reach the ruins under your own steam may entail some walking from the main road, but tour operators in Antalya, Side and Alanya sell all-in packages.
Köprülü Kanyon: Turkey's premier whitewater-rafting destination, the glorious Köprülü Kanyon (Bridge Canyon) is too popular for its own good in high summer. Earlier in the year, though, rafters will be in their element.
Side: Side is something of a curiosity. The main resort area may be an overdeveloped monstrosity retaining almost nothing of its village past, but the fact remains that the ancient ruins here -- a temple, theater and bathhouse (now housing a museum) -- are some of the country's most impressive, while the soft sandy beach can be very alluring outside peak season. Provided you don't come here in search of “the real Turkey” you should have a great time.
Anamur: Stranded midway between Alanya and Silifke, Anamur is an indifferent small town that nonetheless boasts in İskele a pleasant harbor ringed with hotels. The splendid remains of the Romano-Byzantine walled city of Anemurium lie just to the west, those of Mamure Kalesi (castle) to the east. It's perfect for those with their own wheels, a little isolated for those reliant on public transport.
Kızkalesi: Kızkalesi is a gem, what with the sandy beach, the actual Kızkalesi (Maiden's Castle) seemingly floating on an off-shore island and the matching Korykos Castle guarding the approaches. A plethora of virtually unexplored Greco-Roman ruins lie just inland, so for those with cars who want to be able to swim after sightseeing this could make the perfect base. But -- and it will be a big but for some -- all the hotels are housed in featureless modern blocks, and the restaurants aren't much more exciting.
Tarsus: Forever associated with St. Paul, whose well is a much-visited attraction, Tarsus was until recently an under-appreciated asset virtually lost in the Mersin-Adana sprawl. Now many of the old Ottoman houses in the town center have been renovated to supplement an impressive stretch of exposed Roman road and several interesting old mosques. Decent accommodation is still thin on the ground; you may prefer to stay in Mersin or Adana and visit on a day trip.
Antakya: Its sheer distance from most of the tourist centers deprives Antakya of much of the attention it deserves even though the old quarter beyond the colorful market on the eastern side of town is delightful, its Parisian feel recalling a period of French occupation in the early 20th century. Until the opening of the Gaziantep Museum with the finds from Zeugma as its centerpiece, the Antakya Museum housed what were certainly the finest Roman mosaics in the country; they still give Zeugma a run for its money and would be well worth the lengthy diversion even without the famous cave-church of St. Peter as an added incentive. The Liwan, Antik Beyazıt and Savon hotels compete to offer stylish beds for the night, while several restaurants dish up the spicy local cuisine as well as delicious künefe desserts stuffed with melted cheese.
Belek: Actually, it depends what you're looking for. If you want to play golf or just to holiday without having to worry about extra costs then the monumental all-inclusive hotels at Belek near Antalya may fit the bill perfectly. Each comes with its own theme -- the Adam and Eve, for example, is a super-stylish set-up with a spa to die for. Don't expect much that's authentically Turkish though.
Alanya: It's big, it's brash, it's separated from the beach by the busy coast road, but Alanya has plenty of fans, many of them German or Dutch. The remains of a Selçuk castle offer spectacular sea views, but many people will want to visit and then move hastily on again.
Mersin-Adana: Mersin has a newly landscaped sea-facing promenade, Adana some fine old Ottoman houses, a Mameluk-style mosque and the spectacular new six-minareted Sabancı Merkez Camii, but for most visitors it's all too built-up for lingering.
...and the hidden treasures
Uzuncaburc and Olba: A pleasant riverside town, Silifke boasts a large castle but a surprising paucity of decent accommodation. This is a shame since it makes the most obvious base for a trip into the foothills of the Taurus Mountains to visit the extensive Hellenistic remains of Uzuncaburç (Diocaesarea) and, even further north, of Olba where an impressive aqueduct straddles a valley. The Cyprus ferries guarantee more places to stay in nearby Taşucu, although most are pretty mundane.
Kanlıdivane: Tucked inland between Silifke and Erdemli, Kanlıdivane (Bloodstained Place of Madness) is basically a vast gash in the earth romantically ringed with the ruins of stone-built Byzantine churches. It's one of the most dramatic sights in all Turkey.
Yumurtalık: With a small sandy bay overlooked by a picturesque ruined castle and a colorful fishing harbor, Yumurtalık is an unexpectedly inviting small resort due south of Ceyhan. It's time-consuming to reach by public transport though.
Kozan: Accessible by bus from Adana, Kozan boasts one of the most dramatic castles in an area richly endowed with ruined fortifications. Kozan Castle rises so steeply from the valley floor that you would think it inaccessible. However, thanks to a newly paved road the path up is steep but perfectly manageable. There's even an unexpected boutique hotel here, the Yaver'in Konağı.
Anavarza: Deep in the Çukurova, the area so vividly described by Yaşar Kemal in “Mehmed My Hawk,” picturesque Anavarza is the site of a sprawling ruined castle as well as other slight Roman ruins. Without your own car, getting here can be a time-consuming business likely to involve some walking or hitchhiking.
Karatepe-Aslantaş National Park: The Hittite ruins at Hattuşa, near Çorum, scoop all the publicity, but the spectacular carvings in the Karatepe-Aslantaş National Park have a much more beautiful wooded setting overlooking a man-made lake. Chances are you'll have them to yourself. Ditto the Roman ruins at which you can visit on the same taxi ride from the indifferent small town of Osmaniye.