Like many of the towns scattered along the jaw-dropping, forested shoreline of Turkey's Turquoise Coast, Kusadasi wasn't always the hyper-touristed resort city it has now styled itself to be. It was once a sleepy, one-horse fishing town; now, the single dirt road that meandered through a smattering of wooden huts is a surging strip of nightclubs, restaurants, souvenir shops and tour operators. Cheap package-tour prices and a steady stream of docking cruise ships keep the town neck-deep in pale visitors looking to score a tan and neon-lit photos for their social pages, but the natural side of Kusadasi is where the beauty lies. The partying can wait until later.
Join the Throngs at the Beach
The crowded shoreline surrounding the town of Kusadasi, centered on its biggest attraction -- the often-topless "Ladies' Beach" -- magnetizes the vacationers disgorged by the cruise ships. This parade of paleness flocks to a well-appointed strip of carted-in sand that acts as a soft facade over the beach's original shingle stone. Created by the city in 2001, the Kusadasi waterfront promenade also hosts innumerable foreign newlyweds on their first sunset strolls as a married couple, making for some charming people-watching. All the area beaches feature an abundance of restaurants, snack bars, tea rooms, changing rooms, ablution stations, umbrellas and lounge chairs.
Bliss Out at Dilek National Park
The Grecian island of Samos is less than a mile out to sea from the thickly forested, mountainous shoreline of the Dilek Peninsula. Dilek National Park, also home to a Turkish military base, is a carefully protected natural preserve with a selection of pine-shaded, isolated beaches just 19 miles south of central Kusadasi. Whether you want to hike or splash around in the glassy waters, take a picnic and marvel at lovely views of the island-dappled sea.
Watching Birds -- and the Sun Go Down
Connected to the city by a narrow causeway, the nubbin of Pigeon Island is capped by a small, ancient fortress that was used to guard against pirates when they threatened the city from points offshore. Pigeons, ducks and bunnies now live on the island in well-kept quarters, providing a point of endless interest for the small Turkish children brought to the island as a weekend treat. An excellent vantage for birdwatchers to keep an eye on seasonal avian migrations, the island is also a panoramic perch from which to take in the sunset. The island's small cafe is the best spot from which to do the latter.
Stay On After Dark
The partying in Kusadasi is so emphasized that it can seem a bit forced -- for example, every hotel has its own throbbing discotheque -- but, for at least one night in town, it's almost obligatory to leave your earplugs on the nightstand and partake. The scene is predictably loudest and wildest at the center of town, along the narrow roads bordered by Barbaros Hayrettin Bulvari and Saglik Sokak. Some might find the prevalence of Irish pubs disconcerting, but the energetic hawkers and the madcap antics of some visitors make for lots of free entertainment.
If you're feeling like more of a culture vulture than a party animal, sign up for the dinner folklore show at Club Caravanserail. Touristy as it is, it entertains with elaborately costumed traditional dancing and a delightfully awkward audience participation segment that could make some want to hide their eyes. The buffet-style dinner features a typically Turkish selection of small plates called "mezes" and plenty of strong black tea in teensy glass cups.