When I think of lazy summer days spent lounging by the seaside, I immediately conjure up images of Çıralı. This small town, located on the southern coast of Turkey, is home to a sand-and-pebble beach that stretches for almost 4km, hemmed in by a wooded headland to the north. On its southern flank, cliffs spill into the Mediterranean, and the ruins of Olympos, located on the silted Göksu riverbed, abut the sand. The beach gradually morphs into a sandy plain overflowing with citrus trees and emerald green-pines that practically glow. All this is set against a backdrop of towering mountains, the ones that guarded the ancient Lycians.
Electric pines and towering mountains are the backdrop to the beach
The long stretch of sand is not Çıralı’s alone. The southern end can be accessed via Olympos, formerly one of the six leading cities of Lycia (though a ridge separates the towns, making travel between the two more difficult than their proximity suggests). Calm and unpretentious, Çıralı is the wise abla (older sister) to delikanlı (juvenile) Olympos: the latter, a once-quiet backpackers spot, has grown rapidly over the past two decades, and shot bars now compete with tree-house hostels. While Çıralı itself may no longer be the rural village it once was, it’s still a sleepy retreat that never feels crowded, even at its busiest.
This is certainly true when I visit with my husband at the end of August. After a late-night transfer from Antalya airport, an easy hour-and-a-half by car, I awake on Saturday morning eager for the salty embrace of the Mediterranean. The beach, mere steps from our bare-bones tent at Secret Garden Hotel and Bungalows, is already humming – children squeal in delight as they fling pebbles into the shallow water, a leather-skinned man lightly snores as he bakes in the sun and a family playfully argue about who gets buried next in the sand. It’s a far cry from the deserted beach that I first encountered when hiking the Lycian Way in October 2013. But the long, thin line of lounge chairs and wicker umbrellas on the sandy slope is still only a quarter full, and each swimmer, even when pushed by the currents, is able to maintain her own watery orbit undisturbed.
The beach at Çıralı is so large that it feels empty even at its busiest
Çıralı’s pristine beach and clean waters are a rarity in Turkey. Away from manicured (and expensive) beach clubs, it’s more common than not to see rubbish-strewn coastlines and inlets made murky by seaweed and debris. Yet Çıralı seems to have been spared this fate. Stepping as unsteadily as a baby deer, I stumble over the pebbles leading into the sea and dive in as soon as it’s deep enough. Directly overhead, the sun pierces the crystal clear and illuminates my submerged pale legs – not a piece of trash in sight.
Phones and watches are superfluous when lounging on the beach, where the passage of time is marked by the interplay of sun and sea. As the sun sinks behind a western cloud front in the mid-afternoon, the water becomes a shield, reflecting the bright light and causing it to dance on the small swells. When it finally dips behind the ridge that separates Çıralı from Olympos, the sea turns wine-dark, matching the purple-blue of the neighbouring mountains. The only sign of the sunset is a pink band that hugs the eastern horizon, coaxing out the pink of the rock embedded in the cliff face. The fading of this last ring of light signals that it’s almost time for dinner, and my husband and I jump in for one last dip. After racing to a buoy, which on closer inspection is an old bleach bottle tethered to the sea floor, we emerge to a cool breeze rattling the wicker beach umbrellas.
Fruit harvested from the town orchards is made into jams and other preserves
An amble along the windy beach brings us closer to the centre of Çıralı. The majority of shops and restaurants are clustered at the southwestern corner of the village, where the one road in and out of town meets the river. Yet the most atmospheric dining is along the beach, where a half-dozen or so lively eateries offer seating under the stars. We opt for an old favourite, the Orange Restaurant. Run by the diligent Ali, who has an elephant’s memory for faces, recognising us after three years, the restaurant is packed. After we have our fill of fish and meze, including some of the freshest kavun (melon) and creamiest white cheese I’ve ever had, we start out on the dark road back to our bungalow. A stop at a newly opened organic market, Eko Çıralı, leaves my wallet a bit lighter and my tote bag weighed down with jars of locally produced honey, red pepper flakes and marmalade. The sounds of an acoustic guitar and muffled singing waft through the orchards, keeping us company on the solitary walk.
Spot the baby loggerhead turtle
I expect the rest of the long weekend to be more of the same. Sea, sun and seafood. Rinse and repeat. Except that on the second-to-last day I wake at an ungodly hour, stumble to the beach and begin scrutinising the sand for hatching loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta). One of the reasons why Çıralı, located within the borders of the Beydağları–Olympos National Park, has yet to fall prey to large-scale development is the fact that it’s a nesting ground for the endangered Caretta caretta; female adult loggerheads lay their eggs between May and July, while hatchings take place from roughly July to September. Just as the sun is rising, I spot a group huddled near one of the marked-off mounds. The crowd is watching five baby sea turtles, no bigger than some of the stones on the beach, crawl clumsily through the sand, a task requiring Herculean effort. Cheering like proud parents, we follow the slow progress until each turtle has reached the water and begins the arduous journey out to sea.
Sunrise in Çıralı
They say that adult female loggerhead turtles lay eggs on or near the beach where they hatched. While my connection to Çıralı isn’t quite that ingrained, I can attest to the pull of this place. The sun, sea and sand scrub away all cares and worries, leaving only a feeling of ease that I can’t quite find anywhere else.
Çıralı is just over 90 km from the Antalya airport. Akdeniz Transfer offers a transfer from the airport to Çıralı for 130 TL (1–4 people). If you get antsy after too much rest and relaxation, Çıralı is located on the Lycian Way (Kate Clow’s definitive guidebook is available for purchase from the Cornucopia bookshop) and is perfectly situated for day hikes. The ruins of Olympos and the Chimaera eternal flames are also a short distance away.
For more upscale accommodation, we recommend two boutique properties: the beach-front Arcadia Hotel, which serves excellent food, and Akdeniz Bahçesi, an eco-resort with five self-catering holiday cottages situated in an organic fruit orchard. Don’t forget to stop by the İpek Pastanesi for homemade börek and sweet treats served under a cool arbour.