Last month I was lucky enough to visit Turkey for some meetings, and for the first time I visited Izmir, a coastal city in Western Anatolia, and the third largest city in Turkey. This is also an ancient city, it's old name was Smyrna, and it has been the urban center of the region for about 3500 years! Today's Izmir is an important business location for the Mediterranean, and a welcoming city of good weather, beautiful coastal views and an active, urban city center.
I was perfectly located to experience this at the Swissotel Grand Efes. This hotel has lovely gardens fronting the sea, and like most of the downtown area, it is modern and well maintained, but as in most places in Turkey, you realize there are thousands of years of history just below your feet!
In Izmir itself, little remains of the ancient world other than a tower built by Alexander the Great, but it is a lovely base for exploring other parts of this region which boast some of the worlds oldest and best preserved ruins, as well as a thriving agricultural region, with woodlands, rivers and beaches to explore.
Gettng to Izmir from Los Angeles is easy. Turkish Air offers excellent flights non-stop LA to Istanbul in just under 13 hours. From there, Izmir is a one hour and 5 minute flight, but Turkish Air will still feed you a good meal, even on that short journey! We arrived after dark in late November to a modern, clean airport. The drive into town was pleasant and the lights and lively streets were welcoming as we got to the center of town, but the highlight was the hotel itself, decorated for Christmas with blue and while lights strung over the entire building, and more lights in the gardens depicting Christmas scenes.
Arriving at any Swissotel is charming with their elegant alpine suited doorman, shiny buckles on his shoes, shiny buttons on his woolen jacket, and probably also in his alpine hat. But they don't overdo the 'Swissness.' The flagship Swissotels I visited on this trip were elegant and polished and used Swiss principles in a way which really highlighted the destination, and that is the focus of this article.
Some of the things you'll find at a Swissotel today is authenticity. If you see wood, it's real wood, if you see stone, it's real stone. They have a huge focus on health, and source local fruits and vegetables to use in their catering. Yes, you can be sure to have excellent Bircher Muesli and other Swiss dishes here, but you'll also have a Swiss trained chef who is excited and passionate about what he has to work with in Turkey, you'll get local dishes and European favorites with a new twist. The artwork in the hotel is local artists of high quality. The more time you spend here, the more you feel like a very well traveled Swiss expatriate has taken his Swiss values and traditions, then spent a decade studying local art and food, and married the two just for your pleasure. I didn't get the 'cutesy' Swiss feel anywhere, but I did feel the elegance and fabulous design I expect from Swiss craftsman.
The Grand Efes has charming seating areas, the specialty fish restaurant, Aquarium has 'windows' viewing underwater into the swimming pool, the Equinox penthouse restaurant has amazing views and lovely outside patios. The conference center has it's own entrance and wing, so hotel guests never feel 'overwhelmed' by the herds of meeting attendees. But whether in the hotel wing or the conference wing, great design and art were placed to please and delight you.
I enjoyed my Business Suite with living room, guest bath, wet bar, and large bedroom and master bath. Great lighting everywhere, including excellent reading lamps by the chairs, on the desk, and bedside. The jacuzzi tub was a nice way to ease the stress of traveling, but a large shower and Moulton Brown products are something I use more often!
Every night, fresh local fruit was presented, along with small canapes and chocolates. Tangerines were in season, and I enjoyed my basket of those along with amazing strawberries, thoughtfully served with a dish of powered sugar, but my favorite was the pomegranate seeds served in a spun glass globe, to be eaten with a chocolate spoon!
Turkey has a good labor force, but cost of employment is rather low, so having attendants in meetings available to bring an espresso, to run out for specialty water or to keep the snack trays immaculate is a treat. On our buses, in addition to a guide and driver we generally had an extra attendant to pass out water and assist us on and off the vehicle. Having this kind of labor force who are properly trained brings the service levels up to what you'd expect to see only in SE Asia perhaps. And yet you are in a country which feels more like Europe than you expect.
During meeting breaks the Swissotel emphasis on health meant fresh squeezed fruit juices - and by fresh, I mean the chef was there squeezing it for us. Amazing honey and yogurt for breakfast which was a delightful spread of the best of European and Middle Eastern options, a waiter who ran to get me the perfect jam to match with the bread I'd choosen, I had no idea how good Turkish food would be. I do like Middle Eastern food in general and knew I'd enjoy it, but I found the cuisine more refined than I'd expected.
I was shocked to learn than the Grand Efes hotel was built in the 1960s. It was obviously built with good lines as you don't at all feel the heaviness of a hotel from that era. I think the Swiss use of lots of beautifully crafted wood paneled walls, great attention to lighting and fabric certainly help, and delightful touches at every turn, from artwork to a piano in the lobby, to charming seating groupings everywhere - I cannot say enough good things about this hotel and I certainly did not feel like I was in some Soviet bunker from the 60's, which is all to common a feel in hotels from that era!
Izmir is considered a very forward thinking and friendly part of Turkey. Being a seaport probably means that new thoughts and new people have always influenced the area, but whatever the causes, it makes for a nice feeling. The current leaders of the city are also forward thinking, as they've offered to pay port fees if cruise ships call there instead of at nearby Kusadasi. From Izmir to the amazing ruins at Ephesus is an hours drive thru orchards and farmlands with hills and riverbeds, from Kusadasi it is closer, however, Kusadasi can be very crowded in the summer and I think some of the cruise lines who have accepted the offer to berth in Izmir instead, will make their customers very happy. Silversea Cruise Lines, Crystal Cruises and a number of other good lines call here in 2013 on Mediterranean cruises.
Izmir hosts a number of festivals and conventions year round, it offers a number of good business hotels, a Hilton, Movenpick, and a number of other 4 star choices, but the Swissotel Grand Efes is by far the nicest, and is elegant and full service enough to please leisure or business travelers.
Turkey is a fascinating place, and at the moment it is working hard to join the EU, it feels prosperous and forward thinking. I hope you consider a vacation in Turkey soon, and if your trip includes a stay in this region, I can very warmly recommend the Swissotel Grand Efes as the best choice to use in exploring Western Anatolia. Reach out to me through my profile page at Heidi Hoehn.