MELISSA HEMSLEY’S BODRUM DIARY

After four very full months of intense cooking and writing – that means lots of recipe testing in my tiny kitchen to get things just perfect and a constant mountain of washing up (though very occasionally I managed to blackmail my boyfriend Henry into it) – I really wanted to let my hair down. So, I decided to book myself a dream trip to Turkey. Turkey has always been at the top of my wish list of places to visit – not least because everyone comes back rubbing their bellies with tales of Turkish food being the absolute best in the world, vibrant and diverse, whatever your taste or budget.

My heart was set on a visit to the magical city of Istanbul. However, I had also heard whispers of a very impressive new Mandarin Oriental Hotel that has just opened in Bodrum at a place called Paradise Bay. On Turkey’s south coast, the property promised secluded beaches on the Aegean sea and an award-winning spa. I’m really not a typical romantic beach and spa holiday kinda girl, but after an incredibly busy year, I was ready for four days blissing out and feeling fresh again.

DAY 1
Henry and I touched down in Bodrum late the night before (boring but essential tip: don’t forget to print out your visa because an electronic one just won’t work. It must be printed or you’ll get told off, in Turkish, with big hand gestures, like us in front of everyone!) With that little hiccup over, the welcoming party at Mandarin Oriental Bodrum was warm and friendly. We were offered a refreshing zingy homemade herbal lemonade to brighten up our airplane taste buds. After checking in, we were shown to what could only be described as a room fit for both a king and queen. Rooms of this kind of stature should not be wasted, so we ordered room service, Adana kebabs (the local speciality of minced lamb with smokey spicy pul biber) and ate them in our 5-star luxury bed. Classy. And I couldn’t sleep without trying the glorious stone tub and the beautiful relaxation salts I had been left for a dreamy bath. I woke already feeling rested and excited by this incredible view from our own garden complete with a private pool and viewing deck across the bay. I happily celebrated our good fortune with a yoga ‘tree pose’ in my robe.

Jumping in the sea must be done at the first available opportunity as a holiday rite of passage. We ran down to the waterfront through beautiful and fragrant winding gardens. The end of October is a wonderful time to visit Bodrum (often called the Turkish Riviera). The water is still warm and for hot-blooded people like me, the heat is just perfect. It’s peaceful after the summer holiday crowds. There were acres of sand along with several private beaches and pools to dip into.

A proper leisurely breakfast is my favourite meal of the day. The hotel certainly know how to put on a hearty spread (make sure you ask for the fresh green juices from the secret menu – celery, cucumber, fennel lemon, parsley and mint freshly pressed). Most mornings I had a Turkish scramble of eggs, vegetables, chilli, topped with a sharp and salty local cheese. Henry loved the sujuk (spiced beef sausage) with poached eggs and garlic spinach (don’t be shy to ask for lots of vegetables when you order, they’re always happy to sort for you but you won’t always see them displayed). Another breakfast highlight was the ‘yoghurt station’ complete with mountains of different fruits and nuts (the best of the bunch were the fresh figs, pomegranates and pistachios) plus simply the greatest tasting honey we’ve ever sampled, locally harvested dripping fresh off the wax for you to help yourself.

After a day spent reading and ‘digitally detoxing’ (harder for Henry, easy for me), dinner was an early al fresco candlelit seafood supper at the hotel’s fish speciality restaurant (no need to feel lazy for not leaving the hotel for supper, it’s worth staying for). Bodrum Bolikcisi is very relaxed and has a gorgeous sunset view of the beach.

We were presented with a selection of freshly-caught fish and chose two whole sea bream at the Chef’s recommendation. It was whisked off and brought back on a platter grilled to perfection along with courgettes, tomatoes, onions and peppers. For me, this is the perfect kind of supper. I spotted a family passing around a mysterious glass bottle and, with a fear of missing out, I asked for whatever they were having. It was homemade smoked chilli oil (their olive oil is incredible) which is brilliant on fish – make sure you ask for it early on as the tables were fighting over the bottle. Another important discovery is that Turkish wine is excellent! And after polishing off a recommend a local bottle, we declined the golf buggy lift home. Instead, we gently wandered back up the hill through the jasmine and bougainvillaea to our room.

DAY 2

On holiday, who wants to set their alarm? But in reality, the offer of early morning yoga was so worth it – especially when I convinced marathon running, boot-camp addict ‘hardcore Henry’ to downward dog with me. He ended up bouncing out of bed every morning, hurrying me along to yoga and loved how it balanced his more gruelling exercise regime.

Our wonderful instructor thoughtfully asked lots about our lifestyles and designed a bespoke practice so she could help make our holiday that bit better. I had developed a classic case of ‘laptop neck’ and the dreaded right ‘typing wrists’. I was craving something very restorative and gentle whereas normally I like fast-paced, dynamic and sweaty! I promised myself I’d really listen to my body and be extra kind to myself on this trip. Lots of pranayamas (breathing techniques), deep stretches and held poses left me calm, relaxed but energised all at the same time – the wonder of yoga.

With the whole day ahead of us, we were lucky enough to be invited to a nearby market with the executive chef Metin, a lovely man and a fantastic guide. He showed us the local fruits and vegetables and some of the finest teas and herbs I have ever seen – they were piled high in the sunshine in every colour, shape and size you could imagine. The stalls were manned by family members. As gifts for a friend, I picked up some of my favourite herb, sweet wild oregano (used in so much Turkish cooking) and chamomile to make the perfect cup of bedtime tea.

Back at the hotel, I stepped into the bustling kitchen and donned my apron before Cheft Metin and I got to work cooking up some of his classic Turkish favourites. His team watched on (no pressure I kept telling myself). We talked lots about everyone’s perfect meal and the best things their Mum cooked them growing up (I love asking that question). In turn, I told them about the best of British food and how my sister and I cook dishes like cauliflower tabbouleh (our very non-traditional version where we swap the usual bulgar wheat with grated cauliflower – they looked at me in that are-you-crazy kind of way but seemed to love it upon sampling). We then whipped up a huge platter of their version of Imam Bayaldi (aubergines of all sizes stuffed with onions, chillis, tomatoes and herbs and baked until just soft) and Cilbirm poached eggs in garlic yoghurt with smokey paprika oil. To confess, despite cooking for a living, I have a phobia of making poached eggs, don’t we all? So seeing as the kitchen chefs do it in their sleep (they often make about 200 every morning) they showed me their secrets. Just be patient and gentle when spinning the egg in the water so, finally, in my early 30s, I can poach a lovely egg.

For a late supper, Chef Metin recommended his friend’s restaurant called Miam which was 15 minutes car ride away. Of course, you’ve got to trust another chef when it comes to food recommendations. We booked without hesitation. It was small and charming, full of locals watching football and kid running around. We knew we were in the right spot.

We ordered plates of mezze and mixed grill (something else that wasn’t on the menu but Chef Metin told us to ask for it). I adore mezze (it means ‘snack’ or ‘taste’) of which there are hundreds and hundreds of variations. A sample tray is usually proudly presented to you heaving with lots of beautiful little plates and you pick what you like.

In Turkey, look out for: octopus salad, fried mussels, bitter local mountain greens which are slightly steamed and served cold with just salt, lemon and gushing of olive oil, sweet red peppers, pinto beans in garlic tomatoes and pickled anchovies.

DAY 3
This was my ‘ME’ day!

After our early morning yoga session, glorious fresh pomegranate juice and my daily ritual of jumping into the sea, I pulled on my robe ready for four, yes four whole hours of the ultimate guilt-free pampering experience in their raved about the super spa.

My first treatment was the Oriental hammam Ritual – just me and the therapist in this huge spectacular marble room. I lay down on a heated smooth platform and let myself be smothered in a mask of green clay. As it dried and worked its magic, I was given a blissful all-over massage paying special attention to my eastern meridian lines to balance energy. Next came a relaxing wash down (using beautiful bowls of warm water) then a glorious cloud of rose essence as my therapist created big foam bubbles and massaged me with oils then washed and comb my hair topped off with a gorgeous soothing scalp massage just how I like it – absolute bliss. I felt fresh as a daisy.

I floated out of one room and into another. My next treatment, an epic experience named ‘The Land of a Thousand Rice Fields’. To begin with, I was softly scrubbed with a  beautiful scented mix of oils and fresh sage followed by a food bath infused with mandarin and uplifting herbs. Next came my favourite part, this totally unique technique of gently rhythmically tapping my body with a stick made from tamarind tree bark. This relaxes the muscles and gets them ready for a very long luxurious full body massage with, at my request, lots of deep neck and shoulder attention to get those last lingering laptop knots out. This was truly a complete treat of a day. I left restored and uplifted feeling like my old self again, but better!

DAY 4
For our last morning, we had a surprise ‘couples yoga’ session outdoors in the spectacular spa garden. Our instructor encouraged staring deeply into each other’s eyes throughout the hour and using each other’s bodies to support one another. This took us a while to get into. With a bit of pushing and pulling to find our balance and almost falling over a few times, we managed a few synchronized poses with a bit of yogi flair. Henry found it rather romantic.

Whilst taking in a last sunset on the beach (with sad smiles), a lovely waiter wandered over out of nowhere with two glasses of time to take it all in with (he said he couldn’t let us watch the sunset without a good drink) – a very special touch and something we will never forget.

It truly was everything I had longed for and needed: restoration, vibrant food prepared with local ingredients and gorgeous vegetables bursting with herbs and spices. The hotel had every activity under the sun covered for people with itchy feet but I chose stillness over adventure this time around. It was such a treat to have the time to lie down and read outdoors which is one of my favourite things to do. The hanging baskets in the spa garden were perfect for this. I recommend these novels by Turkish authors Last Train to Istanbul by Ause Kulin and Orhan Mamuk’s Museum of Innocence.

The magnificent hotel was peaceful with space to get lost and wander in the spectacular grounds. Most of the guests were barefoot all the time, like me which I think is the perfect sign of a luxurious home away from home.


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