Soaring downhill too fast on a shaky rental bicycle, I imagine the contents of my front basket catapulting all over the road. After what felt like ages of pedalling uphill – which in reality was simply 15 minutes – I hit the jackpot as a glorious cliffside stretch of Heybeliada’s western shore greets me. Gravity extends an invitation for a little rollercoaster ride, and I accept. With nothing but lofty trees and the twinkling Sea of Marmara as my audience, I think, “There are certainly worse places to pick up all of one’s belongings off the road.”
Princes’ Islands: home of aristocrats and exiled royalty
There’s a lot to love about Heybeliada, the second-largest of the nine Princes’ Islands, or Prens Adalari as locals call it. The archipelago’s name dates back to the Byzantine period, when royal princes and empresses were exiled there. Later on, during the Ottoman period, the islands became a vacation hotspot for Istanbul’s wealthy. The cerulean water and skyline create monochromatic magic at its finest, while the Byzantine-era architecture dot the island’s hillside, with orange-hued rooftops that stand out against ocean and pine. Victorian-style homes, with their charming wooden detailing, beckon. Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities brought different influences to the islands, which explains the mix of architecture.
These islands – just five of which are inhabited – lie one hour from the buzz and bustle of Istanbul, reachable by boat from the Bosphorus port. In the height of summer, expect Istanbul’s crowds to board the ferry with you. June through August are the high season here, and it shows. It’s now October first, and this ferry still mimics a can of sardines.
“Everyone goes to Büyükada, the biggest island,” my Turkish friend Eylül tells me. “But Heybeliada is my favourite.” I take her word for it, and it’s looking promising thus far.
A car-free refuge for walkers and cyclists
Before I can find some wheels, the trinket-filled interior of Ezop Cafe catches my eye. In a narrow maroon corner building overlooking İşgüzar, the town’s central street, the cafe’s sun-drenched tables are prime for people-watching. After a kasar peynirli tost – that’s Turkish for grilled cheese – I’m ready. A few steps and about 30 Turkish Lira later, I’ve become the proud (temporary) owner of a nondescript-brand bike with a big old basket on its handlebars.
Cycling the roughly 6km route around Heybeliada isn’t a massive journey; one can circumnavigate the island on foot in less than two hours. Stopping off to enjoy the sights, however, easily doubles this amount of time. As I cycle uphill, the town’s low hum dissipates behind me. I soon have the entire route to myself, reaching what appears to be a brief plateau.
Minutes later, I welcome a downhill slope. My belongings somehow stay in my basket throughout what feels like a perpetual yet effortless cruise. The shady road Alp Görüngen Yolu takes me to the westernmost point of Heybeliada, where nothing but rugged, untouched coastline lies below. Eyeing a spot just off the road at the tip of the cliff, I’m suddenly sold on parking to string up my hammock.
Flanked by pine trees, I can see Burgazada, the third-largest of the Princes’ Islands, in the distance. Half the island is decorated with human activity, whereas the other half looks like something out of the movie Castaway if Tom Hanks had washed up in Turkey instead of Fiji. Even farther off, the sprawling coast of eastern Istanbul looms. Peering south, there’s nothing but a mirror-like line between sea and sky.
My reverie ends when a few men in what appear to be firefighter uniforms make it clear – in Turkish – that we are not supposed to be out here. It was never my intention to kick back in a non-permitted area, but I revel in the minutes I had. A word of advice: Look for signs before walking off the road, even if they’re in Turkish. They’re worth a translation.
I continue around the island on my bike, and at some point the road snakes to the left, revealing a dazzling view of Pine Harbour Bay. In this horseshoe-shaped bend, dozens of boats bob gently in the sapphire-toned waters.
From here, I have a sweeping view of Büyükada in the distance. I now find myself standing in the middle of this road thinking about how people often think bigger equals better. While I’m sure it’s equally lovely, I now get why Heybeliada is Eylül’s favorite. There’s not another soul in sight on this bend of the road. Mother Nature has spoiled me with a postcard setting for one, something quite rare in today’s world of often crowded and tourist-filled destinations.
How to get from Istanbul to Princes’ Islands
Regardless of where you stay in Istanbul, you’ll most likely be quite close to a ferry terminal with direct routes to the Princes’ Islands. If staying on the European side, you can get on a boat from Eminönü, Karaköy or Kabataş terminals. From the Asian side, hop on at Kadiköy. You’ll be there in around an hour from each starting point.
Where to stay in Istanbul
In a city as populous as Istanbul, you’re spoiled for choice with accommodation, whether you’re after ornately designed hotels steps from bazaars or sumptuous stays overlooking the Bosphorus River. Here are but two options that are well-connected for those looking to explore Princes’ Islands:
Replete with history yet timelessly elegant, Pera Palace Hotel dates back to 1892 with an original purpose of hosting travellers of the historical passenger service Orient Express. Located in the heart of the Europe side of Istanbul, it’s right near all of the action – as well as the ferry terminals.
Just steps from the Bosphorus River on the Asia side of Istanbul, Sumahan on the Water is a former distillery converted into a boutique hotel. It’s easy to catch ferries to the Princes’ Islands from here.
Singapore Airlines flies directly to Istanbul, Turkey. To book a flight or learn more, visit the official website.