I'd heard tell of a place, on the southern coast of Turkey, where travelers live in trees. Where, deep in the forest, lie the fragmented remains of a 2,000-year-old city. Where the mountainside flickers with mythical eternal flames that spring spontaneously from the rocky ground, and where an azure sea, dotted with antique wooden barks, just begs to be dipped into.
It sounded like something from "The Lord of the Rings," and when we rolled up in time to watch the sun set behind the craggy peaks that frame the bay of ancient Olympos, it was easy to imagine Gollum springing about.
But that was before a boombox began belching dance music. For, contrary to my expectations, this isn't the stuff of Tolkien. Rather, it's a place where the ancient rubs rustic shoulders with the distinctly digital, where packs of backpackers packed into rickety tree houses high in the woodland canopy.
I was disappointed, but also intrigued.
Olympos, dotted with dozens of quirky wooden tree houses, is scruffy, sprawling, and raffish. It first appeared on the trans-Asia travel scene in the heady '60s, and though the clientele now sports BlackBerries and Bluetooth rather than bandannas and "Ban the Bomb" patches,the vibe is very much the same.
Alongside these ragtag remnants of the hippy trail are the ruins of ancient Olympos, once one of the six major cities of the Lycian Federation, founded around the 2nd century BC.
Today, its majestic remnants – an ancient amphitheater, crumbling fortresses, noble Lycian graves, and a carved sarcophagus depicting a sleek boat worthy of a row across the Styx – all tumble romantically down to the pristine beach. But things have regressed since its Roman heyday. Now, travelers relax in hammocks with Dan Brown rather than on the library steps with Seneca, and the only thing ancient about Olympos's ramshackle cafes are the crusty ketchup bottles, the most refined thing is the sugar in your Turkish coffee.
Nevertheless, I was determined to experience a night in a treehouse – and experience it, I would.
But how do you pick your treehouse from the long list of options? Well, if dusk is rapidly falling and you're accompanied by hungry children and an irritable husband who'd much rather be checking into a Sheraton than a shack in a tree, you go for the option closest to the car park.
In this case, that was Kadir's, a vast treehouse operation. What it lacks in wall-to-wall carpet (unless you like it brown, stained, and slightly damp), it compensates for in atmosphere, resembling something akin to an aerial Wild West ghost town. Perched high above a crumbling courtyard, the precarious looking treehouses seem as if they'd fall crashing to the forest floor with the slightest earth tremor – to which Turkey is prone. But with its over 300-person capacity and colorful nightlife, Kadir's is popular, cheap, and alluring.
Moments after check-in, the full extent of my folly became clear – particularly to my traveling companions. In the blazing Turkish summer, these treehouses are hot, hot, hot. In the middle of the night, however, they quickly become freezing cold. If you're no fan of exotic insect life, you're not likely to enjoy the cockroaches or spiders that might wander in to welcome you; the creaks and groans of the trees aren't for those of uneasy disposition; and you need nerves of steel to navigate a 30-foot ladder en route to the bathroom in the depths of the pitch-black forest night. Mattresses are thin, pillows are hard, and one hook on the wall is the extent of the wardrobe facilities.
Unless you're on a budget as tight as the elbow-room, it's hard for some to imagine why you'd do as one sign says in the courtyard: "I came, I saw, I stayed and stayed and stayed and stayed...."
"But it's the atmosphere," explained 26-year-old Juliet Condon the next morning as we emerged from a largely sleepless night. The freelance TV producer, originally from New Zealand, came to Olympos for a 10-day vacation and decided to stay on. She took a job at the reception desk of Bayram's, a smaller 150-capacity tree house outfit just up the road, in exchange for free lodging.
"The people are friendly, and it's such a beautiful setting. It's so quiet and serene, and you're really getting back to nature," she said.
The treehouses here evolved out of strict building regulations preserving this gorgeous stretch of coastline on which the Caretta Caretta sea turtle lays its eggs (if you're fortunate, you might see eggs hatching at daybreak). That means it'll never end up the realm of the bland, monstrous resorts farther east and west. There's hardly any light pollution, so the stars are luminous, the air fresh, the woodland unspoiled. This, however, failed to impress my husband, who muttered "Double Espresso" under his breath, and stumbled off to track down a cellphone signal.
And so, after just one night spent in the trees, I surrendered to my family's need for terrestrial accommodation, and headed half a mile up the breathtaking coast to the infinitely more sensible beachside settlement of Cirali. Here, guests who want to enjoy their break – without breaking a limb or ending up out on one – stay in environmentally sensitive cabins, surrounded by creatures (kittens, hedgehogs, flitting bats) and creature comforts (kitchens, herbal tea, and flirting waiters). There were no TVs nor wireless Internet – and for my gang, that's rustic enough.
But I had a second mission: to find out more about those strange forest flames – known since antiquity as the Chimaera. Mentioned by Pliny as a mountainside that "breathes out fire on summer nights," this collection of natural mountainside vents, through which burning methane escapes, was used by ancient sailors for navigation. It was also said to have inspired the ancient Greek legend of the vicious monster of the same name – part serpent, goat, and lion – which breathed fire from its several heads.
"Those flames are, like, amazing," said Todd, an 18-year-old American backpacker taking photos of driftwood on the beach. "Breathtaking, so cool. So ... ancient."
But the older, more seasoned visitors to Cirali had a different take. "We went there one year," confided 60-something Londoner Pamela Bullmore. "Two old folks stumbling up a mountain in the middle of the night with rented torches. And when we finally got to the top, expecting grand, leaping bursts of fire, we saw these little blue lights coming from the ground, like the flames on your gas stove.
"And really," she continued, "I don't mind a few hippies here and there, but when the place is writhing with hippies, all gawping at these tiny gas cookers, it's a bit too much."
The couple tripped back down the mountainside, gratefully avoiding injury on the treacherous path, and never returned.
Intrigued by the idea of flame-hugging hippies, I had to take a look – though no amount of persuasion would, this time, get my family to join me. So, at midnight, I grasped my flashlight and wandered off up a mountain.
The Chimaera flames, admittedly, aren't huge, and the mountainside gets a bit busy on a moonlit night. But there's a whiff of ancient mystery on the pine-scented breeze, a suggestion that the mythical world of Tolkien isn't all that far away after all – if you can ignore the flash of the digital cameras.
Stumbling back down the slopes, with shooting stars above and the faint murmur of iPods in the distance, I realized that – just like an uncomfortable night up a tree – it's an experience you simply must try for yourself. If only once.