Less than an hour from the centre of Istanbul, these small islands in the Sea of Marmara seem a million miles away. The pace of life is measured by horse-drawn phaeton, and the handsome clapboard houses, pine woods and pure air give the islands a truly rural feel. Both Heybeliada and Büyükada make good bases for exploring the city.
Seen from Istanbul on a summer’s day, the nine Princes Islands seem to float in the heat haze of the Sea of Marmara like a stone Armada anchored off the Anatolian shore. Scores of ferries and private motorboats packed with day-trippers stream out from the city, filling the islands’ stony beaches with swimmers and their pavement fish restaurants with diners. On summer nights the main square of Büyükada (also known as Prinkipo), the largest of the islands, is thronged with chattering teenagers and the terrace of the venerable Splendid Hotel fills with venerable old ladies playing silent games of whist. But the Princes Islands have not always been the city’s holiday playground. To the early Byzantines, they were the Demonnesoi, the Demons Islands, perhaps in an unconscious echo of the ancient fear of mysterious, bewitched islands that haunts much ancient literature, beginning with The Odyssey. Perhaps, more practically, the demons the Byzantines feared were those who wrecked ships during the Marmara’s short but vicious autumn storms on the treacherous shoals between the islands and the coast – including three phantom islands, now safely marked by lighthouses, which break the surface of the water only at low tide. Or perhaps they were disturbed by the almost supernatural way that the islands, so deadly real to sailors, melt like an insubstantial pageant when the winter sea-fog rolls in and hides them from the eyes of city-dwellers as though they had never existed.
Ferries to the islands leave from Kabataş, Kadıköy and Eminönü. See the IDO website for times and fares.
…is a joy. Either hire a bicycle or jump in a phaeton and sit back listening to the click-clack of hooves. Prices are fixed and all drivers are required to carry a tariff card with them.
The two finest restaurants are both a schlep. On Büyükada, the restaurant at the top of the hill at Aya Yorge serves simple, excellent and very cheap Turkish food. But it is self-service, and can get crowded at weekends. On Burgaz, a fine woodland restaurant on the far side of the island called the TKTK serves simple, home-cooked food in a rustic setting. Büyükada’s seafront restaurants are all much of a muchness – decent but overpriced fish. Best value is at the Adnan, furthest along the seafront strip (Gülistan Cad 26). The Milano, at no 20, has the nicest traditional premises, and the Yaman, no 16, is the newest and most stylish (but most expensive). Venge, at 23 Nisan Cad no 23, in front of the Splendid Hotel, looks classy and has a lovely view but unremarkable food. A cheap alternative is the cafeteria-style Yeni Façyo restaurant, at Recep Koç Cad 57.