Feature

This week’s travel dream: A Turkish island where time stands still

Büyükada, an hour by ferry from Istanbul, is a former getaway of the privileged that is just being rediscovered.

A friend introduced me recently to an island near Istanbul where the residents “haven’t seemed to have gotten the text message that the 21st century has arrived,” said Liesl Schillinger in The New York Times. Büyükada, an hour by ferry “and a hundred years in time” from the Turkish cultural capital, is a former getaway of the privileged that is just being rediscovered, though the new generation hasn’t yet bothered to import Wi-Fi—or even the island’s first automobiles. For now, decay is a part of Büyükada’s charm, along with queues of colorful horse-drawn buggies, “filigreed mansions set amid flowery lanes,” and “emerald hillsides that drop down to rugged beaches.” During my last visit, I was “intoxicated” by the romance of the place.

My friend and I set out to explore on bicycles. Though Büyükada is the largest of the Princes’ Islands—a tiny archipelago in the Sea of Marmara—it comprises only two square miles, so there was little need to rush. After a leisurely morning at my hotel, the “grandly down-at-the-heel” Splendid Palas, plus a lunch of delicious Turkish street food, we finally left the pretty main town behind. At a beach club on the island’s pebbly north shore, you could spend the day lounging under a striped umbrella while bellboys fetched you drinks and sandwiches, but we were chasing the island’s past. It was in the year 569 that a Byzantine emperor first built a palace on Büyükada. Across the centuries since, the island has been sometimes a cherished retreat and sometimes a last refuge of banished elites. At every turn, a story awaits.

Atop one of the island’s peaks stood an enormous abandoned orphanage—an ideal setting for a zombie movie. Another hill was crowned by a 6th-century monastery that’s visited each April by thousands of pilgrims. Our greatest find, though, came at the shell of a villa where Leon Trotsky spent a peaceful few years in exile writing his autobiography. The roof was gone, as was the staircase that once led to his study. But an 8-year-old in our group found the kitchen, where he dug into a pile of leaves before holding aloft a real prize. “Look,” he yelled. “I found Trotsky’s frying pan!” At the Splendid Palas (splendidhotel​.net), doubles start at $115. The ferry to Büyükada from Istanbul costs less than $5.

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