Noted for its fine beaches and stunning mountainous scenery, Turkey’s southwesternmost shore has long been dubbed “the Turquoise Coast”, thanks to the hues of its horizons and the sea. It’s dominated by the Baba, Akdağ and Bey mountains, which drop precipitously to the main coastal highway that often skims just above the water. In ancient times, known as Lycia, the region was home to an independent people whose most obvious legacy is the distinctive rock tombs that litter the landscape. Despite much recent development, many attractive coves and islets remain inaccessible to vehicles, so yachting and gulet trips are popular. As the impact of ever-increasing visitor numbers has, moreover, been minimized by restrictions on construction height, and special protection for archeological sites and wildlife habitats, much of the region has remained relatively unspoiled.
The usually excellent Highway 400 between Marmaris and Antalya offers intermittent views, and connects several major sites along the way. The coast is best approached via Dalaman airport, busy with direct international flights most of the year, as well as domestic flights from İstanbul.
At the far west of the region, Dalyan is an attractive small resort that’s also noted for its languid river, sandy beach – a sea-turtle nesting ground – and the ruins of Kaunos. East of here, Fethiye, despite its paucity of beaches, is the Turquoise Coast’s oldest resort and largest town; along with Ölüdeniz lagoon, it’s handy for spectacularly sited Lycian ruins such as Oenoanda, Kadyanda and Tlos, in dramatic mountainous locations. Further southeast, Patara abuts one of Turkey’s best beaches, making it easy to combine sea and sun with cultural forays to the Letoön sanctuary, Pınara, Sidyma and Xanthos. Other convenient bases include the nearby resorts of Kalkan and Kaş, smaller than Fethiye and pitched at rather different clienteles.
The spectacular mountainous hinterland is also well worth exploring, especially with your own wheels, with dramatic ancient Arykanda the most obvious target. Also worth considering is the stunning drive from Kaş or Kalkan to Gömbe, in the shadow of a 3000m-plus peak.
Beyond the yacht-harbour-dominated town of Finike, east of Demre, the scenery becomes increasingly impressive as you enter conifer forests on the slopes of Tahtalı Dağ, officially designated a national park, before passing ancient Olympos – plus more good beaches at Adrasan and Çıralı – and ancient Phaselis. Thereafter a string of characterless purpose-built resorts dominated by German and Russian holiday-makers lines the approach to Antalya.
Mountainous, rugged Lycia (Likya in Turkish) lies south of a line drawn roughly between Antalya and Köyceğiz Gölü. At the core of the territory, the Bey Dağları and Akdağ, each exceeding 3000m elevation, isolate it from the rest of Anatolia. Relatively secure in their mountain fastness, the fiercely independent ancient Lycians – probably an indigenous, pre-Hittite people – organized their main cities and conurbations of smaller towns as the democratic Lycian Federation, with 23 voting units. This elected municipal and federal officials and, until imperial Rome assumed control, made decisions of state. Homer’s Iliad mentions the Lycians as allies of the Trojans; later, in the sixth century BC, the region was subdued by the Persian general Harpagos, but then largely left to govern itself.
From 454 BC, after the Athenian general Kimon had expelled the Persians from the Mediterranean coast, the Lycians became members of the Athens-dominated Delian League. The League ceased to exist after the Peloponnesian War and Lycia again fell under Persian domination. Alexander the Great arrived in 333 BC and, after conquering Halikarnassos, easily secured the region’s surrender; following his death, Lycia was ruled by his general, Ptolemy, also king of Egypt. During the third century BC, under Ptolemaic rule, Greek displaced the native Lycian language and Lycian cities adopted Greek constitutions. The Ptolemies were defeated by Antiokhos III in 197 BC, himself bested in 189 BC by the Romans, who handed the kingdom over to the Rhodians. The Lycians bitterly resented Rhodian control and succeeded in 167 BC in having this administrative relegation revoked.
Thereafter, the Lycians enjoyed over two centuries of semi-independence under a revived federation. After they resisted the Pontic king Mithridates in 88 BC, they were rewarded by Rome for their loyalty. During the Roman civil wars, Lycian reluctance to assist Brutus caused the destruction of Xanthos, and in 43 AD it was joined to Pamphylia in a larger Roman province. Roman imperial rule saw Lycia reach its maximum ancient population of 200,000, a figure not again equalled until the twentieth century, and the cities were graced by the Roman civic architecture that constitutes most of the ruins on view today.
During the fourth century the province was divided by Diocletian. A period of Byzantine-supervised decline followed, abetted by Arab raids in the seventh and eighth centuries. From then on, the area’s history resembled that of the rest of western Anatolia, where, after Selçuk Turk sovereignty during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and an interlude of minor emirates, the Ottomans installed a more durable Anatolian Muslim state. They continued a pattern of moving nomadic Turkic tribes into the Lycian uplands, leaving the coast to pirates and local chieftains, until in the eighteenth century the sultan ordered its settlement by more tractable, productive Greek Orthodox colonists from the offshore islands.