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I admit it -- I absolutely love Turkey -- it's one of those totally unique destinations that offers what I consider to be the five quintessential elements of a perfect vacation:

  • Incredible history, archaeology and culture
  • Sensational food
  • Natural attractions -- coastal and inland
  • Great shopping
  • Affordability

An archaeologist and history buff's paradise, Turkey is home to sites and relics from a multitude of different civilizations, including the Hittites, the Greeks, the Lycians and the Romans, each with their own culture and original form of architecture, plus it was the epicenter of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.

Although Turkey has some spectacular coastline and truly beautiful beaches on both the Aegean and Mediterranean, the highlight of the county, at least for me -- is inland. Few people reach Eastern Turkey, but it is in this region that the visitor gets to see the real face of Turkey and its people away from the tourist crowds. Cappadocia almost defies description -- part moonscape, part fairytale, with thousands of hobbit-style homes rising out of the naturally occurring unique rock formations and entire cities built underground.

Turkish people are friendly, generally speak English and are incredibly hospitable. Even a simple shopping excursion in one of the bountiful markets will probably mean sharing a glass of traditional apple tea with the shop keeper or watching your spoon almost stand up on its own in a cup of super potent Turkish coffee, after all you can't rush the purchase of a prized Kilim or an intricately carved silver tea service. It's not all souvenirs and replica antiquities -- one of the best markets for clothes and other goods is actually in the posh Istanbul suburb of Ulus -- where the locals (and a few "in the know" tourists) shop each Thursday.

To really see Turkey, and I don't mean a few days in Istanbul with a weekend on the beach, you probably need at least a month -- but realistically, you can still cover a lot of the country in a two-week period, especially if you fly between larger cities.

My top 5 must sees of Turkey are:

  • Istanbul -- from the mosques to the palaces to the Grand Bazaar to the Hammams
  • Cappadocia (Goreme, Ilhara, Peribacalar Vadisi and the underground cities of the early Christians) -- plus stay in a cave hotel to complete the experience
  • Archaeological sites -- there are over 300, one more magnificent than the next. Sure you have to see Ephesus, but consider visiting other sites including Pergamum, Aphrodisias, Miletus, Perge, Aspendos, Hattusas, Alacahoyuk, Simena, Xanthos, Cyaneae and Myra, just to name a few
  • The mudbaths of Dalyan and surrounding Lycian rock cut tombs
  • The fascinating Mount Nemrut -- it's well worth the pre-dawn wake up and massive hike

Fez Travel (tel. +90/0212-516-9024; www.feztravel.com) is a locally-based travel and tour company started by a New Zealander in conjunction with local Turkish tourism professionals. Its most recognized service is the "Hop-On Hop-Off" bus service which is perfect for the budget independent traveler who wants to see Turkey at their own pace. One Turkish Delight Pass is valid for unlimited travel on its buses which travel throughout Western Turkey at regular intervals for $220 for students and $239 for travelers over 26 years of age. The pass is valid for the entire season, from April 25 to November 3 and routes include Cappadocia to Istanbul, Fethiye to Olympos, Ephesus to Koycegiz, Gallipoli to Kusadasi etc. The only restriction is that you must book your departure date and departure point at least 48 hours before each departure but you can change bookings free of charge up until 48 hours before a departure. Fez bus includes an English speaking onboard tour leader, transportation in a fully air-conditioned, non-smoking bus and guided tours of Troy and Pergamum (for people going from Gallipoli to Selcuk - entrance fee not included). A full timetable and schedule of departures and destinations is available at www.feztravel.com/Planner.htm.

Its "Flying Carpet" land-only tour is priced at $886 per person with weekly (Saturday) departures from Istanbul in September and October 2006. The most popular organized tour allows you to visit the major sites in Western Turkey, with loads of free time to get off the beaten track and discover the undiscovered. Highlights include a tour of the old city of Istanbul, the Gallipoli battlefields, Troy, the Acropolis of Pergamum, Ephesus, a Fethiye boat cruise to the 12 Islands, Myra, Phaselis, Antalya, Aspendos, Tinaztepe Cave, Konya, Caravanserai, Ihlara Valley Derinkuyu Underground City, Cappadocia, Goreme, Uchisar and Ankara. The tour includes inbound airport transfer in Istanbul, transportation in a deluxe coach, professional English-speaking tour guide, 14 nights' accommodations (one night in a three-star hotel and 13 nights in four-star hotels), 14 breakfasts, two lunches and seven dinners. Entrance fees to various sites are additional.

For a real getaway and a chance to unwind and take in some stunning scenery cruising around the Gulf of Fethiye, "The Blue Escape" is a tour that sails from Fethiye on a traditional Turkish Gulet. The tour includes three breakfasts, three lunches and three dinners and three nights' double-shared accommodations in cabins onboard the yacht (although most people choose to sleep under the stars on mattresses on the deck, and only use their cabins as a wardrobe). Spend days exploring, swimming, sunbathing or participating in water sports. The trip departs every Monday, Wednesday and Friday between now and September 15, 2006 for $183 or from September 16 to the end of October 2006 for $165 per person. They also have a seven-night Gulet cruise that departs from Bodrum and visits Kara Ada (Black Island), Orak Island, Yedi Adalar (Seven Islands), Kufre, Longoz, Ingiliz Liman (English Bay), Sedri Adasi (Cleopatra Island), Karacasogut, Balisu, Tuzla, Cokertme and Kizilliman. The price for this trip including all meals and double share cabin accommodations starts from $368 per person during the month of October and $442 in September 2006.

Pacha Tours (tel. 800/722-4288; www.pachatours.com) specializes in tours to Turkey including Art and Archaeology tours, special interest and Greece Connection trips. Its "Super Value Western Turkey" tour is a 17-day, all inclusive Art and Archaeology trip. Highlights include Istanbul (St Sophia, a Bosporus River cruise, Blue Mosque, Kariye, Suleymaniye Mosque, Hippodrome, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar), Ankara, Hattusas, Cappadocia (Goreme Valley, Pasabagi, Dervent Valley, Uchisar, Soganli Valley, Underground city of Ozkonak, Avcilar and the Sultanhani Caravanserai), the Whirling Dervishes in Konya, Antalya, Perge, Aspendos, Pamukkale/Denizli; Aphrodisias, Pamukkale, Izmir; Sardis, Ephesus, Canakkale, Pergamum, Troy, and Gallipoli. The package price includes round-trip airfare (from New York or Los Angeles), airport transfers, 15 nights' accommodations in four-star hotels, all meals (except lunch and dinner on the last day in Istanbul), ground transportation in a deluxe motorcoach, services of a professional tour guide and admission fees to all sites and museums. The tour is priced from $1,545 from New York or $1,815 from Los Angeles for departures on November 17 and 24, 2006, $1,645 (New York) and $1,915 (Los Angeles) on November 3 and 10, 2006 and $1,695 and $1,965 on October 20 and 27, 2007. Weekly September departures and October 6, 2006 are priced at $2,115 and $2,325. A single supplement of $375 applies should you choose to stay in a room on your own, or Pacha Tours will find you a roommate (or you stay in a single room at no extra charge). They also offer this tour as a land-only, starting at $995 per person.

The Pacha "Turkey Express" tour is a 12-day adventure designed for the travelers with limited time yet who still wants to cover as much as possible. The tour departs daily (except Fridays) year round. Highlights include Istanbul, a Bosporus Cruise, Ankara, Cappadocia, Agzikarahan Caravanserai, Cave Churches of the Goreme Valley, Underground city of Ozkonak, Uchisar, Pasabagi, Devrent Valley, Ortahisar, Antalya, Greco-Roman cities of Perge and Aspendos, Pamukkale, ancient Aphrodisias, Hierapolis, the hot springs of Pamukkale, Kusadasi and Ephesus. The package features international round-trip airfare, 10 nights' accommodations in three and four-star hotels (three in Istanbul at the Istanbul Orsep, one in Ankara at the Ankara Surmeli, two in Cappadocia at Kapadokya Inn, two in Antalya at the Ring Hotel, one in Pamukkale/Denizli at Pamuksu Hotel and one in Kusadasi at the Festival Hotel), professional, English speaking tour guides, all meals daily, ground transportation in a deluxe air-conditioned bus, airport transfers, admission and service fees. Rates start at $1,205 from New York and $1,475 from Los Angeles (departures from November 16 to December 1, 2006) and go up to $1,655 and $1,865 for departures from now until October 10, 2006. Land-only starts from $665 and single supplement is $210 (or nothing if Pacha can't find you a roommate). Add $25 for weekend departures of transatlantic flights with Turkish Airlines.

Airfares to Turkey vary but during the fall, you can bag a bargain through travel companies like 1800 Fly Europe (www.1800flyeurope.com) that has round-trip fares via Europe from New York from as low as $471 from November 1 to December 15, 2006 or $491 for fares from September 1 to October 25, 2006. Similar dates from Los Angeles yield prices from $602 to $659, or from Chicago, $548 to $576.

Turkish Airlines (www.thy.com) has non-stop flights to Istanbul from New York and Chicago. TIts current airfare sale has round-trip prices from $658 for midweek departures or $704 for departures from Fridays to Sundays from New York. The Chicago route is priced from $715 and $761 respectively. These fares are valid for travel from October 13 to December 7, 2006 and December 25, 2006 to March 31, 2007.

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