We are sitting just two tables from the sea under a full moon at Cabali Meyhane, one of the only restaurants to stay open year-round on the magical Turkish island of Bozcaada. Before us is a smiling server dangling a giant tray of meze alongside the guy who speaks the most English of the bunch, sent out to help us make our selections.
What’s this one?” “Cheese.”
“How bout this one?” “That’s…cheese.”
“And this one?” “Umm….cheese.”
Well-intentioned as most of the island’s residents seem to be, but not at all helpful aside from cheerfully identifying one ingredient. Still we can’t help but smile and point. Without a clue what we have just agreed to we quickly add a grilled whole sea bass big enough for three to our order, as back up.
Bozcaada, also referred to as Tenedos (its Greek name), is a tiny island situated three miles off the northwest coast of Turkey. Touted by some as “Turkey’s best kept secret,” it’s true — Bozcaada is still very much under the radar, untouched by mass tourism. It’s remote location and limited arrival options are no doubt more than part of the reason it has managed to stay that way.
A short-lived seaplane service to the island has ceased leaving the “quickest” route — and the one we chose — still quite a journey at 2 1/2 hours on a car ferry plus three more driving west to the port of Geyikli where visitors finally catch the 35 minute ferry to Bozcaada. It’s also possible to drive the whole way from Istanbul to Geyikli or take a bus, which both clock in at about 7 hours. But the hassle of getting there quickly fades away once the Ottoman Castle comes into view welcoming you to this idyllic isle, making it easy to slip into a slower way of life that the island’s residents have embraced.
A drive around Bozcaada reveals fields of grapes almost ready for harvesting and beautiful beaches dotting the coast. Just try getting lost — the island is all of 15 square miles. One road takes you to Ayazama Plajı, the island’s most popular and least windy beach, with straw umbrellas for rent and a few restaurants where it’s possible to grab a decent lunch. The other passes by Beylik Koyu, the scene of a shipwrecked boat washed ashore and on to Akvaryum, our favorite of the island, quiet and pristine. All are wonderfully icy on a hot summer’s day. This is the Aegean sea after all.
Blessed with a Mediterranean climate ideal for wine making, the island is also known for its long history of viticulture. Kuntra and Karalahna are the local grapes grown here for making reds, Çavus and Vasilaki for whites. Recently the focus has shifted from using these local grapes to growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Visitors can sample the homegrown varietals at a number of wine houses on the island offering proper tastings, or just ask for a glass with dinner at any of the restaurants in town.
Breezy though it may be, speaking both of its laid back demeanor and steadfast winds, Bozcaada is a vibrant island. It’s full of life, especially in the evenings when the whole town is abuzz. High quality meze and fresh fish specialties are enjoyed just a few feet from the sea at many of the town’s well-positioned, bustling restaurants. Kids are out past their bedtimes licking ice cream cones in the doorway. Dangling lights illuminate the cobblestone alleys and central square as people stroll, shop for local hand made souvenirs and breathe in the salty air.
The lone interpreter returns with two woolen blankets — one for our baby girl sleeping sounding in her stroller, another for our son who is now horizontal across two chairs in full snore, head resting on my lap –and the big whole fish. Indeed it’s big enough for three, though just two of us are now tasked with finishing it. Somehow I think we can manage.
Where to stay: We enjoyed a lovely stay at Otel Kaikias, the island’s most charming boutique hotel. A true gem, their “Yali” Suite has a spacious layout, outdoor tub and private terrace with views of the castle and sea.
Where to eat: A number of restaurants served memorable meals, but a few stood out: Marti, for innovative meze in a gorgeous setting behind a glass wall looking out to sea; Insulares, for fantastic seafood pasta and wonderful hospitality provided by its English-speaking proprietor (a rarity on the island), and Mor Meyhane, for fresh seafood specials including the owner’s signature dish, Yagmur Damlasi — a decadent ball of minced fish and shrimp with cheese and walnuts in a thick cream sauce.