Turkiye’s Best Kept Secret

By Shanaz Ramzi

A delegation of nine event management companies and wedding planners from across Pakistan were recently invited by the Tourism Boards of Turkey – or Turkiye as they prefer it to be officially spelt now — and the Republic of Northern Cyprus to visit these two countries and see for ourselves their potential as destinations for weddings and corporate events and conferences.  The delegation, headed by Ali Malik, founder, and CEO of Vision Events based in the UK and Pakistan — who had collaborated with TAY Istanbul Events to organize this dream tour –comprised Starlinks PR and Events, JB and Jaws, Raka Events, Fine Art Weddings, Mosh Diaries, Miradore Weddings and Productions, Tsafira, and IDC Ltd.

While most, if not all of us had been to some part of Turkiye before, this was the first time that all of us were introduced to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, where, to our delight, we discovered among other things that we don’t require a separate visa to enter – Turkish visa is accepted – and Turkish lira or euros is the currency in use.

The delegates traveling from Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad all collected and met, most for the first time, at Istanbul airport, where we were also greeted by our hosts Duygu Kuskulu and Pelin Tanca of Tay Istanbul Events. From Istanbul, we took a short connecting flight to North Cyprus where a van was waiting to take us to our hotel, Elexus Hotel, Resort, and Spa in Girne Kyrenia. Strategically located with access to a private beach, it is not just the fantastic beaches that resorts in North Cyprus are famous for, we soon learned. All the five-star resorts boast casinos, as gambling is permitted in North Cyprus, unlike in Turkiye, which is why all the hotels are booked to capacity over the weekends.

We checked into our rooms and then went down to their Leaf restaurant to avail of their high tea. After unpacking and freshening up we left for an early dinner at a nearby restaurant, Eminen, the first of many scrumptious meals served with style, efficiency, and aplomb that we were to be exposed to during our stay. With a non-stop service of appetizers, bread, accompaniments, and grilled meats of all kinds, it was not surprising that there was no empty space left on our long table. The decor of the restaurant was just as interesting as the food, known as Cpriot cuisine. Another thing we learned on the trip was that in both North Cyprus and Turkiye, there is no such thing as a quick meal – particularly not in a fine dining restaurant. The Turks and Cypriots love to savour their food, and a good meal can last anywhere from two to three hours or even more. After the wholesome spread, we returned to our hotel to retire for the night.

The next morning after an elaborate breakfast at another of the hotel’s restaurants, Reflection, which also boasted tremendous variety, those of us who were ready for the day walked out to the outer deck of the hotel, past the swimming pools and overlooking the beach to enjoy our surroundings and take in the crisp, clean air. At the designated time we all gathered in the lobby to leave for the divided capital city of North Cyprus, Nicosia, also known as Lefkosa – which happens to be the capital of both north Cyprus, and the southern part of the island under the Greeks — where we were scheduled to meet the minister of tourism. The drive was a scenic one, with mountains on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other, reminding me of similar drives in Italy. We came across no traffic lights until we reached the city center, the clean dual carriage road leaving us wishing that the drive would go on forever!

After a detailed discussion with our delegation – interpreted by Duygu as Mr. Fikri-Ataoglu, the minister only spoke Turkish – in which the minister thanked us for becoming ambassadors of his country and promoting it in Pakistan we took our leave. We stopped to have coffee in the vicinity where there was a small, quaint outlet called 1820 café, and then made our way to the Lord’s Palace Hotel for inspection. We were shown standard rooms with land views, as well as those with sea views. Perfect for hosting corporate events, it has a huge ballroom and casino for those looking for entertainment as well. We ate lunch at their Spice Restaurant, boasting a wide variety of buffet items, and then left for Kaya Palazzo hotel, one of the higher-end five-star hotels in the country, perfect for an exclusive wedding. We inspected their standard rooms, deluxe standard room, and their two-storied suite, as well as their casino and outer areas. In the process, we spotted two rainbows together – a definite first for me!

   We then returned to our hotel to inspect the conference area, casino, and outside area, and then, just for the fun of it, tried our hand at the slot machines in the casino. Later, we left for dinner at Bellamarin restaurant at Kaya Palazzo hotel, which turned out to be another elaborate and multi-course, leisurely-paced meal.

The next morning, after breakfast we left for Acapulco, one of the oldest and biggest luxury hotels in North Cyprus. With more than 1000 rooms, it also has compact villas for families of four and has the best beach in the region. More budget-friendly than other hotels, it has the biggest spa, massive conference space, and a magnificent banquet hall. While most of Acapulco was built in the ‘80s, it also has a newer building with 248 rooms, so that the entire block can be booked by a wedding party, if interested. We sat on the deck, drinking coffee and admiring the beach view before leaving for our next inspection – Limak Hotel, an hour’s drive away in the city of Bafra, known only for its hotels.

 Limak has two different styles of rooms, and we flipped for the ones overlooking the garden, with canopies over their beds. Its conference hall and foyer are also the biggest in the area, and can comfortably seat 2000 people in auditorium-style seating. We gave a break to our inspection for a sumptuous buffet lunch at one of the hotel restaurants, Limra, and with our energies recharged, embarked on an inspection of the hotel’s swimming pools, spa, and beach area. We learned, to our delight that Limak is an all-inclusive hotel, which means that every facility, from meals to the spa to even their Turkish hamam, is on the house, so guests are entitled to use any or all of these privileges at no extra cost.

   Inspections are done, our next stop was the very fascinating Ghost Town Varosha in Famagusta, a half hour’s drive away. Once the most happening place in all of the Mediterranean with the likes of Prince Charles and Sophia Loren owning homes here and rated till 1974 as one of the most popular tourist destinations of the world, it was bombed by the Turks themselves in retaliation to a war that broke out between them and the Greeks, in order to keep them at bay. The residents and tourists were pre-apprised of the intended attack and told to immediately vacate their homes, with the result that everyone left in a panic, abandoning their homes and hotels as is, leaving behind everything. The town that once stood out for its modern high rises, which were not even to be found in Turkey at the time, and up-market outlets like Toyota’s showroom, suddenly bore a desolate, ghostly look with bullet-riddled walls and bombed-out roofs of buildings. The area has remained in the same state of decay for the last 45 years since it is still in a cease-fire position – only the roads have been fixed – but tourists are allowed to walk or cycle there, overseen by the police. We saw many cyclists around as bicycles were being given out on rent to anyone who wished to explore the town on them.

   Our next stop was Famagusta’s city center where a beautiful old cathedral-turned-mosque stands, and a madressah right across from it. We finally got the chance to pick up a few souvenirs from the small souvenir shops in the area, before stopping to have dessert at Petek – a café-cum-patisserie with a wide variety of desserts on display.

   Our last stop was Kerenia Harbour, and we walked up and down its quaint, narrow cobbled streets, resisting the temptation to browse in the many inviting shops we passed along the way. Finally, exhausted from a long day, we made our way back to the hotel to have dinner and retire for the night, as we had a flight to Istanbul to catch in the morning. We had been in Northern Cyprus just two days, but had packed so much activity in that span that it felt like a week had passed by! But most of us felt sad to be leaving – and some even said they had left their heart there, in the serene, clean, and beautiful destination.

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