Calm seas & skilled sailors

Sat, Aug 11, 2012, 01:00

G0 TURKEY: Having read about a waterside getaway near Istanbul, DEIRDRE McQUILLANembarked on an unforgettable week

UZLA? WHY TUZLA? It’s a big industrial area – why are you going there?” quizzed the baffled Turkish woman sitting beside me on the flight from Dublin to Istanbul, as we swapped information about our destinations. “We’re heading to a sailing place – taking a bit of a chance,” I replied. She shrugged, shook her head in disbelief and smiled.

It all began a year ago when I read about a boat-lover’s waterside property at Tuzla, outside Istanbul, with a fleet of wooden dinghies that he had not only sailed but had built and restored, and which offered accommodation and other activities for similar enthusiasts. His dinghies, to my amazement, were exactly the same as our own little clinker-built wooden boat called an International 12. But of that, more later.

The taxi drive to Tuzla – some 90km from Ataturk airport and €50 – in the dark of night passed endless processions of new skyscrapers and apartment blocks, evidence of Turkey’s burgeoning economy and the might and confidence of a city now home to 15 million people. Turning off the motorway and down a dark country lane, we finally arrived at a rickety metal gate to be greeted by the unmistakable sound of the sea and the barking of what turned out to be the resident hound, Sophie.

Inside, a verdant garden of tall trees and shrubs was choc-a-block with boats (some even suspended on roofs), rudders, oars, salvage and other sailing paraphernalia, interspersed with an eccentric arrangement of diverse buildings, including a towering tree-house built of scrap timber.

Somewhat overwhelmed, we were led by a wiry Italian/Romanian called Giorgio through an archway made of bamboo and old masts to a comfortable sittingroom furnished with a piano, a cello, books, music and family memorabilia. Left there beside a roaring wood fire with a bottle of wine, sweetmeats and nuts, we had time to take it all in. Later, shown to our room, we were told the owner would meet us for breakfast. That was the introduction to Harun’s Paradise and the beginning of an unforgettable week.

Located in the southern suburbs of the Asian side of Istanbul, on the Sea of Marmara, Harun’s Paradise is named after a legendary Turkish boat-builder and Olympic sailor considered Turkey’s greatest yacht designer. Formerly a monastery and site of an ancient Roman settlement, the Edin family bought the place as a summer haven from the city in the 1960s.

Rifat Edin, the current owner, who sailed here as a child and opened it to the public two years ago, restores and recycles everything from plastic bailers to Bosphorus mansions, as we were to discover, but his passion is dinghy sailing, particularly the International 12.

This little clinker-built boat, with an ingenious gaff rig, became the first Olympic sailing boat and was designed by George Cockshott in Southport in 1913. Edin considers it a work of art. Ours, adapted as a Dublin Bay 12, was one of the last built in Ireland and has manoeuvred the sea on the east and west coasts of Ireland with ease and agility.

Edin’s boats were like new, gleaming with eight coats of varnish and studded with the requisite copper rivets, but he also had skiffs, Turkish gondolas, caiques, dragons, canoes and an old clipper propped up on wood cradles. A magnificent 14m ketch, built for his father in 1964, was anchored offshore.

Each day we set off in the dinghies in a warm, steady wind, with views of Tuzla’s vast shipyards (some of the biggest in the world) and the sprawling Asian side of the city of Istanbul in the distance, a far cry from the wilder, colder and more unpredictable Irish seas and port traffic to which we’re more accustomed in Ringsend.

Each evening, sitting at one of the many inviting tables set among the trees, we watched the sunset at the water’s edge. Our accommodation (one of six lodges) was a converted boathouse with its own veranda patrolled by two screeching gulls guarding their fluffy grey chicks on the roof, a common sight around Tuzla.

Tuzla itself turned out to be an interesting and unpretentious working town with a magnificent seaside promenade. Even though there is an excellent and popular fish restaurant called Angel next door to Harun’s Paradise, most evenings we took a short bus ride into town for dinner, where we got used to a wide variety of fresh fish, appetising salads, fruit and lovely crusty bread.

On one occasion, braving the city’s notorious traffic jams, we headed into Istanbul to meet friends for dinner in a restaurant on the Bosphorus, but although enjoyable, we hesitated facing the congestion again, opting instead for the peace and tranquillity of Tuzla and the occasional game of tennis at the club next door.

A highlight of the week was a cruise to the Princes Islands on the ketch captained by Edin and a young student mariner, a leisurely, rolling two hour sail with sightings of dolphins and the smaller islands in the summer haze. Buyukada, the largest island in the archipelago, has always had an allure for travellers, with its rugged cliffs, secret coves and pine-clad hillsides.

Car-free, transport is either in colourful horse-drawn phaetons or by bicycle, and the white, fretworked mansions and elegant villas have always attracted writers, poets and artists and, more recently, wealthy developers. Trotsky lived here from 1929 to 1933 in a lovely, rambling, rose-brick villa overlooking the sea, but what could be an island attraction is now derelict, overgrown and forlorn.

We stayed in the grandly named Splendid Palas hotel at the harbour, built in 1908 in the style of the Negresco and still owned by the same family. Guests in its heyday included Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson and even Ataturk himself. White as a wedding cake with red shutters, tiered balconies and twin domes, its Edwardian elegance has been retained without too many concessions to the 21st century. It has a tiled atrium, a recently built swimming pool and breakfast was the full Turkish: cheese, bread, jam, dried fruits, eggs, olives, etc.

Back in Tuzla, plans for the season and summer workshops were in progress. Sailing instructors and yoga teachers had been engaged; a young sculptor and her friends were preparing art classes; and there were even plans to stage some plays. Edin, permanently welded to a Blackberry, stomped around directing plans while also sparing time to sail. Boats were being varnished; carpenters were repairing hulls; rigging and oars were being lined up; everything becoming shipshape as we prepared to leave.

A cross between boatyard, scrapyard, garden, artist’s atelier and a nomad camp, this maritime arcadia, Harun’s Paradise – Edin’s Eden – had us completely under its spell by the end of the week, and we left longing to stay for the whole summer. Tuzla? Why Tuzla, indeed.

Istanbul

We flew with Turkish Airlines direct to Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, which is 90km from Harun’s Paradise. The city’s newest airport, Sabiha Gokcen, is only 10km away, but has direct connections only with London (Easyjet or Pegasus).

Harun’s Paradise ( harunsparadise.com) welcomes children and families and provides sailing instruction, charter hire and other activities. It is open from the end of May to October. Prices start at €120 for bed and breakfast. For more information, contact them at info@harunsparadise.com.

Rates for the Splendid Palas ( splendidhotel.net) in Buyukada, Princes Islands, start at €100 for a double with island view and €120 for a double with sea view and including breakfast. Credit cards accepted.

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