A welcome exile: exploring the Princes Islands. An archipelago off the Istanbul coastline is one of the more intriguing destinations available to anyone visiting Turkey’s largest city. The Princes Islands are a group of four larger islands and five tiny ones. During the summer the bigger islands are popular day tripper destinations for those who wish to take a step back in time.
Once a place of exile for Byzantine and later Ottoman royalty, the islands gradually became a popular resort for Istanbul’s wealthier inhabitants, whose Ottoman-Victorian cottages and houses can still be seen on the largest of the islands. These days, the islands have a distinctly Turkish character, thanks to an influx of wealthy Turkish visitors who flocked there following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Intriguingly, there is no motorised traffic whatsoever on the islands. Locals and visitors alike get around on bicycles or by using old fashioned horse and carts. This makes the islands not only incredibly peaceful, but reminiscent of another world and another time, assisted by the sight of the silent pine forests and stately century-old wooden homes.
Outside of summer months the islands are quiet and pleasant - although the ferries often encounter choppy seas, with some services cancelled altogether during inclement weather.
The largest of the islands, Buyukada is the most popular as it offers visitors a wealth of activities, and many Istanbul residents own property in Buyukada. Restaurants and cafes are generally crowded with day trippers at the weekend, so if you can try and visit during the week. The town centre is pretty, with a main square and a landmark clock tower. From here you can catch a horse-drawn carriage (fayton) for a short tour of 25 minutes or a long tour of an hour, which shows off the town, the shore and the hills. Look out for the beautiful old villas seen on the outskirts of town. You can also hire a bicycle to explore the area. There are a few tiny beaches you can swim from, and you can also climb the island’s two small hills to look out over the water. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes lining the promenade where you can sit back and people-watch.
Heybeli means ‘saddlebag’, an apt name for this island where the valley between two hills creates a low-lying ‘saddle’. Although the second largest Princes island is less crowded than its larger neighbour Buyukada, it has many of the same attractions, including beaches, pine forests, beautiful 19th century villas and no motorised vehicles, necessitating a horse-drawn carriage or a bicycle to explore. You can also find the Turkish Naval Academy on the island, and the Aya Triyada Monastery. The monastery has been around for centuries and has also been used as a convent, orphanage, school and a theological college.
Burgaz island has a strong Greek heritage. You can still see the impressive Greek Orthodox Church of St John dominating the town as you approach the island. There are also mosques and a synagogue here, demonstrating the rich mix of heritage found here on the third largest of the Princes islands. Few visitors make the journey to Burgazada, preferring its larger neighbours. Here you’ll meet the local population instead of jostling crowds, and you’ll have the lovely sunny cafes and restaurants to yourself. You can visit the Sait Faik Museum, the former residence of the famous Turkish short story writer Sait Faik Abasiyanik, who lived here with his mother from 1939 to 1954 when he died. The museum’s worth a look for its novelty of a snapshot of Turkish life and history. The short stories themselves are well worth a read for their character studies and depictions of island life if you can find an English translation.
Named ‘henna’d’ (kinali) due to its red soil, Kinaliada is the smallest of the four largest Princes Islands. The Ottoman Greeks built a number of Ottoman-Victorian villas on the island, a number of which you can still see today, along with a few churches. The island is very quiet and receives few visitors, meaning the beaches are clear of crowds.
The smaller islands
Yassiada (meaning ‘Flat Island’) was once a destination for exiled Byzantines, and later, political prisoners. You can still see four underground cells from this period on the island. In the 19th century it was bought by the British Ambassador but went to the Turkish State when the Republic of Turkey was founded. It eventually became a naval school base, which it remained until 1978. Now it’s a favourite location for scuba diving schools.
Sivriada is currently deserted. Once used by Byzantine clerics as a retreat for worship, it later became a place to exile prominent citizens. You can see some of their graves today, as well as the ruins of an ancient Roman settlement and ninth-century Byzantine monastery. In 1911 the mayor of Istanbul ordered that the city’s stray dogs be exiled to the island, but after a severe earthquake the dogs were transported back to the city, with the earthquake being viewed as a punishment from God for abandoning the canines.
Kasik Adasi means ‘spoon island’ and is located between Burgazada and Heybeliada. It’s tiny - just 0.006 square kilometres and is currently deserted. Tavsan Adasi (‘rabbit island) is even smaller, at 0.004 square kilometres and is also uninhabited.
Exile yourself: a chance to live on the islands
Real estate on the Princes Islands is as rare hen’s teeth. Long-established families own the tasteful Victorian villas you see nestled on the edges of the pine forests and the cobbled streets. However, quite incredibly, there is now a rather spectacular property for sale on Princes Islands, allowing buyers to experience life in this remarkable archipelago.
The Karamanyan is a beautifully restored Ottoman mansion, built with local timbers and located on the island of Heybeliada. Divided into four apartments, the 60m high mansion, painted a delicate white, is located on the island’s main street, beautifully placed for all necessary amenities.
The original structure on the property was a dormitory for monks living on the island and attending the monastery. Rebuilt in 1875 as the Grand Bretagne Hotel, the timber building was eventually converted into a boutique apartment holiday rental. Each of its four apartments is spacious and light, full of original fittings and fixtures and includes large, ornate living rooms and bedrooms, open terraces and sea and mountain views. Apartments have either two or three bedrooms and is equipped with modern conveniences like central heating. Care has been taken to retain the villa’s incredible original character: from the wooden floors to the beautiful sash windows to the colourful mosaic tiles.
Outside, lush, green gardens and shaded decking invites you to sit under a tree with a book and while away an afternoon. In fact, everything about this Princes Island property for sale is redolent of relaxation and remove from the outside world.
The villa’s current owners are British, and restored the property to its current condition, importing furnishings from around Europe and fitting bathrooms and kitchens with luxury units. The owners - who are moving to Los Angeles - currently let the apartments by the week as holiday rentals. Running at full high season capacity (April to October) the turnover would be over £95,000 (119,000 Euros). The apartments have also enjoyed popularity over the Christmas and New Year’s season, as well as other off-peak times.
The purchase price includes all furniture and fittings, as well as the website and rental sites.
This property for sale on Heybeliada offers more than just a real estate opportunity. Here is a chance to live in a slice of history in a beautiful and extremely peaceful location just a few hours away from Turkey’s largest city. It’s also an opportunity to pick up the threads of a successful existing business and make it your own.
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