During my final day at the Polat, I took my third tour with ITS, which picks you up and drops you off at the Polat despite the distance. They are also among the most professional tour guides I have met. Today my destination was the Princes' Islands, where the sultans stayed in times past but became fashionable with traveling Europeans in the 19th C. After a brief stop at another island, we landed at Bukuyada. May, the guide, was fantastic. She told us during the holidays that she sometimes guided 50-60 people, but there were only 4 of us!
She also mentioned that people have preconceived (and incorrect, my words) of Turkey. I won't go into details, but I will say I felt as comfortable if not more so than many other places in Europe or the US, whether I was in European Turkey or Asian Turkey. In fact, if you're a woman of any age, bring jeans -- even the women who wear headscarves were wearing jeans most of the time. But even visiting a mosque, you will be provided any covering if you don't have your own. You do not need a head scarf anywhere else, and most Turkish women, especially outside of Istanbul, do not wear them.
The first photo attached is of the four members of the tour group, which May led in English. She took the photo and if you didn't know who was who in advance, I bet you couldn't guess. This is one of the joys of travelling -- as all of you know. Sometimes it feels like a smaller and better world. Since there were only four of us, we all shared a horse cart that drove us around the island for about 45 minutes. In the first photo the two people from left to right in the photo were a Saudi couple on honeymoon in Istanbul, a businessman from Germany, and me. We all had a wonderful lunch together.
The meal was spectacular -- Turkish appetizers (pay no attention to some guidebooks that suggest Turkish food is greasy -- NOT! -- as long as you eat in the same type of places you would anywhere). First was a plate of beyond delicious appetizers, second a whole fish (sea bream), then salad, then a dessert the name of which I didn't get.
Stop here!!! non cat lovers (after all, I didn't include any of 12 photos I took). Since the only motor vehicles on the islands are a few mopeds and trash and police, cats and dogs lounge everywhere. I was lucky enough to have a kitty who looked exactly like mine visit me under the table. I gave her a nice lunch of fish and then she jumped on my lap and curled up till we had to leave. I won't tell my cat at home!
You must go to Turkey! As an ancient and medieval history prof, I always wanted to go but was wary -- and I learned out how silly that was. Of course there can be problems anywhere, but Turkey is a secular country and it shows. Despite some recent issues, the separation of church and religion was mandated by the founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk.
I think NewHllton, who's also been to Turkey, will second what I say. I have seldom ever experienced the hospitality, small kindnesses and genuine interest in me and my experiences. They were not only among the tour guides from ITS but the tour members (and on 2 of the 3 tours there were 6 and 4 people respectively, not including the tour guide). On both of those two I was the only American but everyone knew they were going on an English-speaking tour so they all understood the tour guide. Being together with people from countries all over the world (besides the Saudi couple and German I mentioned, a Pakistani woman, a Hong Kong couple, and two Canadians -- and I think I forgot someone) in such a small and comfortable setting was amazing. The first tour, all day Istanbul, was especially good, at least from my viewpoint, because it was during their holidays. That meant the Bazaar was closed. (And I didn't mind that part as a woman traveling alone.) But the mosques are just beautiful, and in the two (three if you partially count Hagia Sophia) I visited, they are quite old and very beautiful. I wish I had had more time in the mosques, but will save that for future trips as well as ancient churches and synagogues I wanted to visit. And being the only city that is in two continents is beyond cool.
Oddly the only place I felt mildly uncomfortable was Topkapi palace (maybe because except for the relics room, which was very cool); it wasn't my kind of place. But lots of people who were also on holidays were there so it was exceptionally crowded (unlike the famous mosques) -- and I couldn't have cared less about seeing the third largest diamond in the world.
I really want and intend to go again. The Polat was fantastic. It seemed like there were hidden charges but they disappeared (free internet, even though it's not supposed to kick in worldwide till January); a displaced lounge because of the holidays to full breakfasts in the restaurants and a special section of the Bar Noblesse for nightly hot/cold appetizers and drinks. I thought wine (which is freely available along with other alcoholic beverages in Turkey, but very expensive) in the 'lounge' would cost me because I had to sign, but none of it ever showed up on my bill.
I wrote to the manager of the Polat today to say what a wonderful experience I had and he immediately wrote back with a great note saying he hoped he would have the opportunity to serve again in the future.
So unless you're 20 and want to stay out partying amidst lots of noise in downtown Istanbul, stay at the Polat, enjoy the amazing views from your Club floor room (they have four Club floors), enjoy the walks, etc. and take advantage of the tours. But go! I have become a huge fan of Turkey. And the food is amazing. I found out from my final tour guide that the sunny 65 degree temps I experienced my whole trip were unusual for November (normally rainy) but I'd chance fall or spring over summer any day.