Jan 3, 2022
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Istanbul during the COVID-19 pandemic
and a blizzard!
So I’m off again: my 14TH intercontinental trip since March 2020. This time, I’m flying United to Frankfurt and connecting to Turkish to Istanbul. Once again, the rules have changed - I need a PCR test 72 hours before arriving in Turkey, but nothing is needed (as it was a few months ago) to transit through Frankfurt.
I love United’s Dreamliners. I always choose a window seat in Business - one that is parallel with the plane wall, instead of the ones that are angled out into the aisle. It creates a really cozy private cubicle very little different from the 787’s that have First Class. Newark’s massive and super Polaris Business lounge is back in business, and for some odd reason its roasted carrots and parsnips are beyond delicious. I have three helpings, and I’m not in the least vegetarian.
As usual, the flight attendant is crushed when I tell her that I don’t want dinner, and will sleep my way across the pond. She interrupts me to apologize that the TV monitor in 3L isn’t working. I tell her I don’t care as I’m going to sleep. Undaunted, she whips out a handheld device and grants me 5,000 frequent flyer miles to assuage my disappointment. I’m not in the least disappointed, but I readily accept. We push back from the gate and trundle to the runway. The captain comes on the intercom to tell us we have to make a quick return to the gate to fetch a crew member who’s needed tomorrow in Frankfurt. Well, that’s a first.
Snug as a bug in a Saks Fifth Avenue duvet, I’m asleep by the time we’re above Hoboken, and other than a couple of quick jaunts to the loo, I awaken as the descent to Frankfurt begins. We arrive at a Z gate, and I have to take a shuttle bus to the B pier for my Turkish flight. Even though it seems a bit antiquated to descend and ascend seventeen staircases, it’s lovely to breathe Frankfurt’s fresh morning air.
Aboard the Turkish A330, more crew members are disappointed as I push the flat bed button and continue my nap. This is my second visit to Istanbul’s whopping new airport, whose vastness and height are extraordinary. The Six Senses Hotel has sent a greeter, the charming Vulkan, to meet me at the plane, and he whisks me through Fast Track immigration, and while I whiz to the ATM, he and a colleague retrieve my bags from the carousel. (Yeah, I am a champion over-packer. Carry-on, Shmarry-on). Twenty minutes after touchdown, I’m in a Mercedes Minivan whooshing along expressways.
Each time I visit Istanbul it seems to have grown another 25%. It’s massive. The first time I came here more than thirty years ago, it seemed the busiest city on earth. It still is. Great crowds surge, always in a rush, crossing the Golden Horn’s Galata Bridge, flooding the enormous Grand Bazaar, descending onto the hottest new restaurants, or the chic-est outdoor cafe on the waterfront at Örtakoy. I always thought Tokyo’ Shibuya Crossing, Kowloon’s Nathan Road, and Rockefeller Center at Christmas were busy. But they’re sleepy compared to Istanbul.
Once called Byzantium and later Constantinople, Istanbul is the only city on earth spanning two continents. Europe meets Asia here, and perhaps that explains its mass of moods, its cosmopolitanism that somehow melds the glamour of Paris with the mysteries of the East. Through its center passes the waterway known as the Bosporus, the wide strait through which hundreds of ships, ferries, tankers, cruise ships, and freighters glide daily between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea - the world’s only international waterway that passes through a pulsing metropolis.
The Mercedes draws up on the European shore of the Bosporus at my hotel: Six Senses Kocatas Mansions. Unlike many Istanbul hotels, this is neither skyscraper nor expansive resort. This is a collection of elegant turn-of-the-twentieth-century mansions bound together into a hotel both luxurious and charming. I am whisked through a courtyard and into “my” mansion. On its second floor, my giant room’s three immense French windows face the Bosporus…and Asia. The room is wood-paneled in pale gray, the furniture chic. The couch and chairs surround a marble coffee table piled with a platter of fruit, bowls of pistachios, baklava on a slate server, and, naturally, cubes of fragrant Turkish Delight. At the foot of the iron-bedstead, a vast tapestry-covered trunk opens, at the press of a remote, to reveal a vast television. The entryway has a bathroom and shower room to the left, sinks, toilet and bidet to the right. On the desk is a note from the front desk manager explaining she’s looked at my website with its gallery of antique travel posters, and I open a gift package containing a facsimile of a 130-year-old metallic sign for the Orient-Express. I am moved that someone would go to so much trouble and care. All in all, it’s one of those hotel rooms that you never want to leave.
Back in the courtyard, I notice it is full of kiosks. One serves crepes, another ice cream, another kebabs, another Turkish pastries - and even though the temperature is close to freezing, stylish people in coats and fur hats are sitting at tables warmed by tall, glass-enclosed braziers. I climb ancient stairs to the Toro restaurant, and am offered cocktails and one of the most eclectic menus I’ve spied in a long-time, ranging from ceviches, to sushi rolls, to steaks, to Turkish specialties. A small trio is playing jazz. A chic crowd sits next to more roaring braziers - and I can only describe the atmosphere as Eurasian - in the literal sense of the world.
Turkey has determined to change its identity to Türkiye, underscoring how the name is pronounced in Turkish, the language that, a century ago, was made “global” by modern Türkiye’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who ordered its conversion from Arabic script to Roman. Which means that even if you can’t understand a single word of this very complex language, at least you can read it. After two gob-smacking ginger margaritas, lip-smacking ceviche and a tranche of baklava, I realize its bedtime and I retire happily to my exquisite room.
In the morning, I draw the blinds and see that it’s snowing. Snowing. In Türkiye. Surely this is not normal. Within 24-hours, Istanbul is transformed and paralyzed by its heaviest snowstorm in 22 years. The snow is so heavy that private cars are prohibited from driving. The giant Istanbul Airport is closed, with stranded passengers sleeping in its enormous spaces. (It’s not just Istanbul: to the southwest, Athens is paralyzed by the same snowstorm, as are, two days later, Lebanon and Israel.) The meetings that I have flown to attend have to be switched to Zoom. My walking tour of the Old City is cancelled. As is my day tour to the medieval city of Bursa, over on the Asian side. I do venture out into the hotel’s Saryer neighborhood but I am literally pretty much hotel bound for three days. And, to be perfectly honest, if one has to be marooned anywhere, the Six Senses Kocatas Mansions Istanbul is a pretty fabulous place to be hotel-bound.
After three days, I am able to emerge and head for the Apple Store to buy a keyboard for my iPad – having stupidly left my laptop at home. The Apple Store looks identical to an Apple Store in Manhattan or London, and sits deep within a giant and opulent mall containing a branch of every luxury brand on earth, as well as Istanbul’s Raffles Hotel. But I’m not in Istanbul to buy a Hermès belt, so I continue to the Old City’s Grand Bazaar, notably one of the most fascinating shopping “malls” on earth. If you were to combine the souks of Marrakech, Cairo and Jerusalem, and multiply by three, you’d come close to beginning to approximate Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. The bazaar is roofed over by medieval stone arches and vaulted domes, and it sits within a centuries old space that is so clean and neat you could eat kebabs on the floor - were you so inclined. Lanes stretch into infinity with stores selling every possible item - from the mundane to exotic.
One of the most fascinating groupings of stores are those selling knock-offs of Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Goyard, Gucci, Fendi, and Prada bags. I long ago learned there are two kinds of luxury knock-offs. There are those you buy on New York’s Canal Street or in Venice’s San Marco, where the LV’s are crooked and the hardware is tinny and rubbish. But the knock-offs you can buy in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar are impossible to tell from the authentic. And I am told that, apparently, they are produced in a different part of the very same factories in China where the real ones are made - all with a discreet wink from Vuitton, Gucci and the rest. It seems hard to believe, but the products appear flawless and are, of course 20% of the price of the “real” ones to be bought on Madison Avenue.
Back at the Six Senses, it’s time to move on, but not before two solemn gentlemen come to my room to administer my back-to-America antigen test. It’s the kind of test that we’ve all taken simply at home - but they manage to turn it into a dramatic medical procedure of profound import. Before they leave, I’ve already noted the negative result on the little white tester, but they insist that the test results are not ready and I will be emailed. They depart, still solemn.
I am driven along the Bosporus to the much more centrally located Ciragan Palace Kempinski, this year celebrating its 30th anniversary. I’ve stayed here many times, and it has the quality of a truly Grand Hotel, with its sprawling modern wing adjacent to the Ottomans’ majestic Ciragan Palace that dates from 1863. Here too, my room faces the Bosporous. Yet, unlike at the Six Senses, where you need a Master’s in computer science to work the lights or open the shutters, if you want to turn on the desk lamp at the Ciragan Palace, you just flick the switch on the lamp’s cord. It’s quite a relief. I know the world has a lot of problems that need solving right now, but somewhere on the to-do list there ought to be a campaign to have hotels install lights that you can switch on, off and dim simply, instead of having to navigate an iPad or a cluster of wall buttons whose emojis defy comprehension.
I descend to the Bosporus-facing restaurant and meet my friend, PR Manager Nesilhan Sen who, I learn, recently married the F&B Manager of the Four Seasons just up the street. We eat freshly-caught sea-bass and mashed potatoes (Türkiye seems to do mashed potatoes better than any country on earth). We are joined by the Ciragan Palace’s garrulous GM, Ralph Radtke. Born in Berlin and raised in Munich, Radtke is seventy years old, has done everything and been everywhere. He began his hotel career in Paris, first at the Bristol, then at the Ritz. He tells me about the renovations being planned for the Ciragan Palace, and I beg him to keep the lighting arrangements in the twentieth century. He roils with laughter.
After five days of ceviche, sushi, pasta, and exquisite Turkish food, I order the Ciragan Palace’s monumental cheeseburger for dinner, as I watch locals consume coffee and cakes in the lobby restaurant. I need an early night: I have a 5:30AM wakeup call and I leave the drapes open so I can see the lights of the Asian shore.
Back at the now reopened immense airport, I learn that my Turkish Airlines flight to Frankfurt is delayed due to the aftermath of the storm, which means I’ll miss my connection to the United flight to Newark. I ask the ticket-clerk to switch me to a later Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to JFK – sad that it means I’ll miss my daughter’s school recital tonight. She taps at her keyboard - and a thought strikes her. “Why don’t we just put you on our nonstop to JFK leaving in two hours?” Why not, indeed? Thus, I am whisked through security and immigration. I down cappuccino and orange juice in what is arguably the world’s best (and largest) Business Class lounge, and, after copious security checks, I board the 777 for New York.
Unlike on overnight flights, I eat. And the food on Turkish Airlines (there are two chefs aboard, in white uniforms and toques) is as exquisite as any in the air, lavish and beautifully served with pre-Covid, course-by-course, trolleyed elegance. I polish off my downloads of Netflix’s Sex Education, and ten hours and eighteen minutes later we gently touch down at JFK. Global Entry is a breeze. The immigration officer asks if I’m carrying food (I’m not, other than boxes of Turkish Delight). As is customary when returning to the United States, nobody shows the slightest interest in my Covid test result. My bags tumble first off the carousel, and I am home by 2:30PM.
And so I get to attend my daughter’s recital after all, which is, without the slightest hint of bias, wonderful.