Club Med Belek
There are many things to love about Turkey. The romance of its history and culture; its architectural wonders; the food – and what glorious food it is. For spa fans it’ll probably be the traditional hammam ritual, which is said to have kept the harems of the Ottoman Empire happily occupied when off duty and which is still a favourite pastime for modern Turkish women and men. Before even arriving in the country I had my heart set on visiting at least one authentic Turkish bath in Istanbul, away from noisy tourists, and I find it down a quiet alley, just off Istiklâl Cadessi, where groups of riot police lean casually against walls, smoking or on their mobile phones. Things appear to have calmed to a simmer at nearby Taksim Square, for now at least. (It’s the day of the solitary ‘standing man’ protest.) Away from the busy avenue, almost every doorway reveals a well-fed cat basking in the sun. Cat people will instantly adore the city. In this hammam it’s a case of everything off. Lying face up on a slab of warm marble, looking up at the domed ceiling with its jewel-coloured windows, I shrug off any attempt at modesty and give in to pure sensory overload. It’s all there is to do when in the hands of a leathery old attendant wearing nothing but lacy black knickers and wielding a loofah. Applying it with a zeal that draws more than a tear to my eye, she scours off what appears to be years worth of black grime. Next is a complete submersion under a blanket of soapy suds and a massage so firm it just about knocks the breath out of me. Then, with an almost maternal gentleness, she washes my hair, rinsing off the soap with water from a copper bowl. ‘You like?’ she rasps with a faintly amused wink. Having been steamed into a kind of helpless submission and left smooth and pink-faced as a newborn, what’s not to like? You can easily get hooked on it, just as you can become utterly intoxicated by the country, and it’s got nothing to do with the ubiquitous hookah pipe, or nargile, as it’s known here. Istanbul itself has a way of drawing you in with its charm – its domed skyline, wide snaking waterways, and the heady tastes and smells provided by its many street vendors selling freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, chargrilled corn on the cob, roasted chestnuts and innumerable variations of sis kebap. Of course, there’s so much more to Turkey than this beautiful, mercurial city. Just days before we’d been sweating it out on the Turkish Riviera, where the temperatures hovered on the steamier side of balmy – exactly what you’d hope for on an escape to the Mediterranean coast. In Istanbul, by contrast, dark clouds threaten rain, with thunder snarling in the distance amid seagull cries and muezzin calls, seeming like an ominous, if obvious, metaphor for the turn in mood the protests in Gezi Park and Taksim Square take while we are there – but that’s another story. Down on the Turkish Riviera, things are a whole lot more chilled. What the rest of the world is watching on the news could be in another country altogether. Here, mostly, and at least for the tourists who pour in from every corner, it’s all about working on your tan, lounging poolside, drinking champagne and dancing on the beach until dawn. Caught in the moment, you easily and willingly lose interest in anything else. That’s what holidays in the sun are all about. About an hour’s flight from Istanbul is Antalya, which is world-famous for the many resorts in its vicinity thanks to the endless golden-sanded beaches that line the coastline and the glorious climate. The newest to have opened is Club Med Belek, a literal shrine to sheer, unadulterated hedonism. Set between rustic farmland dotted with watermelons and the cornflower-blue sea, edged with the immaculate sweeps of green of its golf course, Club Méditerranée’s latest holiday village (there are another two in Turkey) is surprisingly big, an attractive sprawl of buildings and well-tended gardens. Leading off the voluminous reception and lounge area with its Byzantinesque filigreed screens and patterned rugs are multiple wings demarcated to suit the specific needs of its Gentile Membres (‘GMs’, or gracious members/guests). Club Med Belek is geared for party-loving couples and singles as much as it is for families or, conversely, those seeking a peaceful, relaxing stay with minimal fraternising with fellow guests. There are ‘quiet pools’ and sections of garden and the beach for adults only; there are strictly kids’ spaces, too. Depending on your daily itinerary and movements, you might not even see a child (although you know for absolute sure that they will be preoccupied joyfully and tended to, at all times, whether whooping it down water slides or learning how to fly the trapeze on the more hyperactive side of the scale – either way, a boon for harried parents seeking some time out). That Club Med manages to please so many different types of guest is part of its appeal. When I arrive I take a swim in the perfectly tepid ocean, where a sultry wind whips up foam on the rolling waves. A windsurfer darts by and a young couple paddling nearby smiles back at me. The water’s so good you feel the need to acknowledge it with everyone you encounter. It’s heading into evening but the sun is still high in the sky and, as the breeze intensifies, tanned beach boys tame the billowing curtains on the rows of cabanas that fringe the sand. One of these is just the place to settle in with a gin and tonic, fetched from the convivial Adalya Beach bar just metres away. The bar with its plentiful shaded seating and all-day casual dining becomes a favourite go-to spot for refreshment: the jugs of home-made lemonade; glasses of rosé wine shamelessly piled with ice; snacks of crispy flatbread with minted yoghurt, olives, marinated sardines, and a feisty chilli-tomato dip. The food and beverage offering at Club Med Belek is exceptional and you don’t even have to be as obsessed with Turkish and Mediterranean tastes in general as it’s easy to get while here. The main restaurant, Rapsody, does wondrous spreads for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with various stations offering traditional fare as well as dishes for those with more Continental or even Asian tastes. A typical Turkish style breakfast is a rapturous affair: juicy sun-kissed tomatoes, creamy feta made from sheep’s milk, plump olives, and honey scraped off the comb, all washed down with thick, sweet Turkish coffee. Come evening, if you should tire of the buffet-style dining, you can book a table for a more intimate, plated dinner. At the Orientalist restaurant the fare is authentically Turkish, starting with the heavily laden trays of meze to mains of grilled fish or spiced lamb dishes. Post dinner there’s always a party happening somewhere, though you won’t know it if you’ve picked one of the more family-friendly rooms or perhaps an ultra secluded, exclusive villa complete with your own private pool and butler. Club Med’s parties are legendary for good reason; the drinks don’t stop flowing, and you’ll never have to dance alone, as the Club Med staff – the ‘GOs’, or Gentils Organisateurs – are there to provide great company and a ‘vibe’ as much as they are to keep things running smoothly with the more practical side of your stay. The days can be as quiet or as busy as you want them to be. For many guests, the 18-hole championship Lykia Links golf course is as good as it gets but you can also go windsurfing or sailing, or take a half-day tour to Aspendos, a magnificent ancient Greco-Roman theatre located 10 minutes away. You can also while away the hours following the sun and trying out all of the resort’s eight swimming pools, each one with its own particular appeal. I spend some time bobbing about in the all-timber Japanese resting pool in the spa complex and take advantage of its superb Turkish bath facilities, a slick, modern take but with all the necessary traditional features. Going for the Sultan Ritual (just the thing for those listless harem girls), I’m met at reception not by the sort of wizened attendant you might find at the old-school baths but by a petite young Balinese masseuse, wrapped demurely in a peshtemal, the sarong-like cloth that’s customary to wear. Left to steam on my marble slab (this time wearing disposable underwear) before moving to another chamber for the ritual scrubbing, soapy massage and sluicing down with warm water, it strikes me there’s a place for this somewhat glossed-up version. When your holiday is all about carefree indulgence, it’s important to be able to say at the end, with absolute certainty, ‘I like very much, indeed’. To find out more about Club Med Belek’s all-inclusive packages, visit clubmed.co.za. This article was originally featured in the September 2013 issue of House and Leisure.