‘Feet to bum!’ shouted Hakan, the wakeboarding instructor, from the speedboat as my 13-year-old daughter Livi bobbed in the water clutching the tow rope, concentrating hard. ‘Straight arms! Count to three! Head up! You can do it!’ The boat pulled away and her face broke into a huge grin as, on her fourth attempt, she rose up out of the water and skimmed along the surface.
‘Yes! Go Livi!’ shouted Hakan, who seemed almost as excited about her success as my daughter.
Livi laughed as she finally dropped the rope and splashed into the water. She’d never tried wakeboarding before, but here at Mark Warner’s new Phokaia Beach Resort on Turkey’s Aegean coast, the first wakeboarding session is free of charge, and even the paid-for sessions don’t cost much more than around Dh20.
Around us, sailing boats and windsurfers floated by. On the beach, other guests were dozing or reading on loungers. Toddlers playing in the kids’ club pool were squealing. On our visit in May, the resort was far from full but it was still clear that holidaymakers’ love of Turkey has returned, despite its continuing economic woes.
Turkish holiday bookings began to fall after a series of bombings in 2015 were followed by an attempted coup in July 2016, with large tour operators pulling their Turkish properties entirely as demand dropped. However, this year Thomas Cook reports that its Turkish holiday bookings are up 84 per cent year on year – and 61 per cent of these bookings are by families.
While the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) still advises against travel to within six miles of the border with Syria and to the city of Diyarbakir, in the far east of the country, it also notes that of the 1.7 million visits by British holidaymakers in 2016, most were trouble free. Certainly the people around me seemed relaxed.
Set in Mediterranean gardens, the 160-room Phokaia resort has its own private beach, with shaded Balinese beds and a towel service. Buildings are low-rise and unobtrusive, and the main hotel has an airy atrium and looks out on to the large pool. Smaller buildings of rooms and villas are spread thoughout the gardens.
The resort is largely run along the same lines as other Mark Warner resorts, with the emphasis on water sports, cycling and tennis, along with excellent clubs for babies right through to 17-year-olds. While Mark Warner supplies the nannies and most (but not all) of the water sports and activity instructors, the hotel itself is staffed by local people. We met Turkish guests at the hotel, too, and the food is (mainly) authentically Turkish, meaning Phokaia Beach doesn’t have the Little England feeling of many British-run resorts.
Childcare is centred around three main areas – including a castle-shaped building for the littlest ones with its own paddling pool and shaded playground, and the laid-back “shack” for older children with table tennis and bean bags. Visiting outside the school holidays, there were plenty of under-fives around but just one other child in Livi’s group – 10-year-old Ollie.
For Livi, every morning started with an hour’s windsurfing or sailing, there were beach games, table tennis, various activities in the (still slightly chilly) pools, with indoor time spent playing a seemingly endless variety of games thought up by their ever-cheery activity leader, Amity.
While Livi was off having fun with Amity and Ollie, I used the time to see if I could remember how to windsurf. On the waterfront there’s a dizzying array of windsurfers, sailing boats, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, and after filling in a form and attending a safety briefing, you can turn up whenever you want and sign out any type of vessel you like.
Not only is the bay beautiful, but it’s also ideal for water sports because a large spit means it’s almost fully enclosed, so there are next to no waves and it’s quite hard to sail accidentally out of the “safe” zone. The water is patrolled by at least one safety boat per 15 people on the water. While they’re mainly there to help out if you’re really in trouble, they’re also quite happy to give you a lift back to the beach if you’ve simply had enough, or give you a tow upwind if things are getting a little slow.
Windsurfing is not like riding a bike. After wobbling around on my non-moving board and falling in a couple of times, I gave up, swam back in and signed up for a three-hour beginners’ windsurfing session, free of charge. My endlessly patient instructor, Berfhan, reminded me what I was doing wrong and, after that, I could sail up and down quite happily without even getting my hair wet. For the rest of the week, I made do with asking passing instructors for a few pointers on the simulator now and then, but further lessons were available for a small fee.
For those with more experience, there are (free) daily improvers’ clinics, and even a race on the water at the end of every afternoon. Maybe next year.
Cycling is also available - there are both road and mountain bikes which you can simply sign out to explore on your own (the pretty fishing village of Foca is 10 minutes away by bike) or join an escorted group. The tennis coaches run various drop-in clinics (such as improving your serve) as well as daily social tennis sessions, which Livi loved (I can’t play tennis at all so it gave her people to play with), and a fun beach tennis evening. Each guest is also offered one free go at wakeboarding or water skiing.
All meals are buffet-style and the food, prepared by Turkish chefs, is excellent. Breakfast includes yogurt, fruit, cereal, cheeses and cold meats as well as hot options such as poached eggs and porridge, plus eggs cooked to order. The tea is interestingly herbal rather than Tetley. Lunch comprises both Turkish and familiar salads, with grilled fish and meat and various vegetable mixes as main courses. Dinner is along similar lines with the addition of a special such as freshly prepared kebabs or, my favourite, tantuni - a Mersin dish of spiced minced beef in a wrap.
On two nights a week dinner isn’t included - on one of these we took a sunset boat trip to explore Foca (pronounced Fotcha) where seafood and meze restaurants line the port and you can eat a good meal with wine for around 100 lira (pounds 16) per head.
Younger children are well-catered for in the evening and can sleep or watch a film in the kids’ club with nannies on hand until 10.30pm. In school holidays there are also supervised dinners and evening activities for older children. However, apart from one pub quiz night, there’s no evening entertainment for adults.
Rooms are tastefully decorated in muted colours and most rooms have compact bathrooms with showers and small terraces or balconies. Our standard room had plenty of storage, frequent sheet and towel changes and excellent air conditioning, but was fairly small. Larger family rooms with safe bunk beds are ideal for those with small children, while those with older offspring might prefer the superior suites with a separate living room with a sofa bed, or the very spacious two-bedroom villas. Standard rooms that interconnect are also available.
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The resort has almost everything an active family might want from a summer holiday - good food, an excellent climate, plenty to do for both adults and children as well as the chance to lie around and do nothing if you like. It offers a touch of exoticism after fewer than four hours on a plane, and your money will go further than it would in the eurozone. It’s a great time to reacquaint yourself with Turkey.
8 reasons to visit Turkey this summer
1. Climate: The average temperature is around 33C on the Aegean coast in summer, with almost no rain.
2. Value: With the Turkish lira down dramatically, your holiday money will go far.
3. Cuisine: Plenty of fresh fish, kofta, halloumi, baklava, kebabs.
4. Accessibility: Several airlines - including the low-cost variety - fly to Turkey.
5. Shopping: Browse for rugs, tea glasses and mosaic lamps.
6. The sea: Turkey’s 5,200 miles of coastline and average sea temperature of 25C in August make it a popular beach destination.
7. History: Even if you are staying in a resort, you won’t have to travel too far to tune into Turkey’s Greek, Roman and Ottoman legacies and archaeological treasures.
8. Hammam: Get scrubbed down in a traditional Turkish hammam and enjoy a massage afterwards.