With Turkish tourism heating up again, Karl Cushing heads to Izmir province to road-test Mark Warner’s latest resort
As a blast of Florence and The Machine’s Dog Days Are Over echoes from the Fitness Plaza, heralding the 7am exercise class, the brief stillness hanging over the resort shatters and the breakfast area fills with active types loading up on healthy options and planning their programme for the day.
This is Mark Warner’s new Phokaia Beach Resort, the operator having chosen May 2018 to return to Turkey after an absence of two years, a further sign that the country’s coastal tourism offering is getting back on track after the ‘annus horribilis’ of 2016.
So why now, and why here — 60 miles north of Izmir airport, in contrast to the operator’s previous base in Bodrum? Well, having first identified an increasing openness to returning to the country among UK families, Mark Warner’s head of marketing Emilia Berni says Phokaia ticked a lot of boxes, offering the chance to take over a property that had been tried and tested in the UK market, first by Sunsail and then by Neilson, which jumped ship in 2016.
“For us, it’s mainly about finding the perfect hotel that has the right qualities for our USPs, such as childcare, local amenities and wind conditions,” says Berni, adding, the near constant offshore breeze is great for watersports, from windsurfing and sailing to wakeboarding and waterskiing.
“This area is also wonderfully unspoilt, and the nearby town is great for guests.”
First impressions prove promising. The Phokaia occupies a compact, easy-to-navigate footprint fronted by a decent stretch of beach arcing around a quiet bay, part sheltered by an offshore island.
A main building houses the Standard guestrooms, restaurant and wellness area, including sauna, small gym, Turkish hammam, indoor heated pool and spa with five treatment rooms (massages and treatments are not included in packages). This looks onto the Fitness Plaza, toddler pool and main pool, flanked by sun loungers and daybeds, with more in the treeline by the beach, along with a few large hammocks. The grounds also house the Villas and Family Rooms, gathered in separate clusters.
While a light, white spruce-up and injection of soft furnishings underpins the clean and airy feel, design-wise the resort appears little changed since its Neilson days, but is none the worse for that. One noticeable change is the raft of brand-new sports equipment, from the fleet of high-quality mountain and road bikes to the sailing boats ranging from Lasers to Dart 16s.
As you’d expect, the onsite activity programme is central, backed by a team of qualified instructors and programmes of active courses – best booked in advance – with early booking discounts available. Adult options include sailing and windsurfing courses (£70pp for four days), while
a course of four one-hour tennis lessons costs £80pp, with teenager and children’s courses also on offer.
Tennis coaching is offered on four floodlit courts, and during a fun lesson with my instructor, Rafa, I convince myself that my formerly non-existent backhand displays glimmers of class.
Other highlights include kayaking and stand-up paddle-boarding around the bay plus road-testing the cycling programme, backed by a comprehensive programme of guided mountain and road bike tours.
Backing it all is a full, well-attended programme of classes, from morning yoga to the lightheartedly leftfield Zumba Bollywood, and fun events such as social tennis, with beach volleyball played holding beers proving a personal favourite.
This northern part of Turkey’s Aegean is more Turkish in feel than areas down the coast such as Mark Warner’s former base, Bodrum, and the laidback local town of Foca, minutes from the resort, is a case in point. Foca’s harbour and narrow streets boast some lovely old restored stone buildings and inviting restaurants and my visits find the locals dining, promenading and swimming by the harbour from where myriad boat tours tout sites of interest such as the islands of Orak and Incir.
Inland, I come across some weatherworn sandstone outcrops and a trio of old windmills, from where I gaze over the town and the calm sea.
Izmir, Turkey’s second city, is around 40 miles by car and beyond it, curving along the coast, lie coastal villages such as Dalyan or Urla, known for their fish restaurants, and resorts such as Cesme and Alacati, renowned for watersports, gastronomy and boutique hotels in refurbished stone buildings.
Two of the region’s major historic sites, Pergamon and Ephesus, around 60 miles south and 90 miles north from Foca respectively, feature on Mark Warner’s excursion programme. Plus, local dive sites can be experienced though Mark Warner’s tie-up with local Padi-certified operator Foca Dalis (focadalis.com.tr).
Childcare is another pillar of the Mark Warner brand, backed by qualified British nannies, and its latest offering doesn’t disappoint. Young ones from four months to 17 years are catered for, with childcare complimentary for those aged 2 to 17 but chargeable for toddlers aged four months to two years (half-day sessions cost £180 per week).
Activity-focused day clubs range from Baby Club and Toddler Club to Indy Club for the oldest, with free evening care and entertainment for older kids and a supervised evening listening service for younger ones. Aim to pre-book childcare, after having discussed any special client requirements with the reservations team.
The Phokaia’s 160 rooms lead in with Standard twins and doubles, most with small private balconies. Mine, one of the main building’s interconnecting Standards, serves up two twins, which upon my request, are quickly transformed, squeezed together and topped with a double mattress. The room gets the job done, although it’s fairly utilitarian and a bit noisy.
Much nicer are the ground-level Family Rooms in the grounds, which feature a double bed and cosy-looking bunkbeds, with top billing going to the huge and homely two-storey Villas, for which a supplement is payable (given a standard occupancy of five people this would be £175pp, with lots of space for cots and beds for little ones, if required).
Another strength is the decent food offering, centred on two restaurants and adjacent bars. Seven-day packages comprise five days’ full-board and two days’ half-board. On the latter guests can pay for a tasty in-resort BBQ dinner or head into nearby Foca.
Aided by its compact size, the resort is very social, with solos and single parents given the option of joining informal ‘social tables’ at mealtimes. Factor in the excellent childcare, activities and courses, backed by qualified staff, and it packs a solid holiday punch.
According to Berni, the Phokaia, whose last UK departure of 2018 is set for October 20, has “only had positive reviews” thus far, not least from the company’s healthy pool of repeat bookers.
“Many say it’s their favourite Mark Warner resort,” she says, adding: “We think it will go from strength to strength as more people return to Turkey in the coming year.”
Book it: A one-week stay for a family of four in a Family Room costs from £829pp for adults and £749pp for children, based on a September 29, 2018 departure. Price includes flights to Izmir from Gatwick, Manchester or Birmingham and transfers.