sedef adasi
Photo by Davis Doherty

Escape from Istanbul: Cottaging on a tiny Turkish island

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On a tiny island in the Sea of Marmara, Ayse Turak sits on the balcony that stretches the length of her family cottage and soaks up the vista of hand-planted coniferous trees. Beyond, she watches the boat bringing residents across the small stretch of sea from the markets in Kartal, back to the privately owned Sedef Island. She’ll know the family crossing over—there are no strangers on this island.

Sedef Ada, meaning “Mother of Pearl Island,” is the smallest of nine islands that make up the Princes’ archipelago where a select handful of Istanbul families have been vacationing since the 1950s. Not even one square kilometre in size, Sedef Ada was acquired by original owner Şehsuvar Menemencioğlu in 1956. At that time, the island boasted just one tree at the top of its hill, earning the lonely, stark island the nickname “Professor Nimbus” from the tales of Tin-Tin.

Şehsuvar invited friends from Istanbul’s wealthy elite to buy parcels of land, each new resident becoming a member of a co-operative. These great-grandfathers of the island began foresting the entire island, one tree at a time, while agreeing on a strict building code to ensure protection of its carefully fostered environment.

Today, at least half of the 120 or so families with cottages on Sedef Island are descendants of the original co-op members, instilling a unique sense of pride among them. Ayse Turak, who now lives in Hamilton, Ontario, visits as often as possible, but not as often as she’d like. Her family’s idyllic cottage was one of the first to be built. Sitting on a steep grade, the two-story cottage Ayse’s mother and uncle inherited is relatively modest compared to the more recently built structures. With shuttered windows and a separate basement apartment that walks out to a patio and garden, the cottage’s focal point is its full-length balcony—a feature shared by all cottages on the island.

Aerial view of Sedef Ada - Photo by Aydin Örstan

Ayse’s mother spent every childhood summer on the island, safely wandering the four vehicle-free roads and staircases that interconnect all the cottages, watching saplings grow and swimming among the Princes’ Islands. Ayse herself can recall running to the small corner store with pocket money to buy a chocolate bar as a young girl.

Now, when Ayse makes the journey to Turkey to stay at her family’s cottage, she’ll start her day watching the rising sun reflecting off the water from the east-facing balcony. She might take the co-op owned ferry boat to neighbouring Kartal or Buyukada, picking up groceries at the farmers’ market, and stay for lunch before returning to the island. “Depending on how hot it is, we may wait until mid-afternoon to go down to the beach and stay until early evening,” Ayse recalls. Afternoons can also breeze by with tea and biscuits on the balcony, or a walk through the now mature forest and preparing for dinner with friends whose families have been doing much of the same for four generations.

But over time, Ayse nostalgically notes, there have been changes. Over the years, Sedef Ada has become increasingly exclusive. An hourly public ferry used to bring day visitors looking to escape the muggy heat of Istanbul to the island’s public beach on summer weekends. Both the public ferry service and public beach are gone. There are now only two means of arriving at Sedef Ada—by the co-op owned ferry, accessible to residents only, or with your own boat.

Visitors still come, mooring on the wind-protected lee side of the island, but just for the day. Come night, a co-op member will enforce the island’s protective code, which disallows overnight mooring. Such day visits are usually spent at one of the island’s two public establishments—a restaurant with access to a pebble beach (for a price) and an exclusive summer club that has become popular among Istanbul’s high society as a “place to be seen.”

In the past 10 years, Ayse has seen more parcels of land being sold off so that over half the island is under construction. These newer cottages also tend to change hands more often than those originally built and passed down through the generations. But you won’t find Sedef Island property advertised in the local paper. “You have to be in the know,” says Ayse. “It’s all transactional among the exclusive elite.” With diminished access to the island, the cost of plots has increased, adding to the island’s exclusivity. Among those elite, famous Turkish islanders include Horan Puma, Nobel Prize winner for literature, author Orhan Pamuk and pianists İdil Biret and Ayşegül Sarıca. Unless acquired through marriage, foreign ownership on the island does not exist.

Despite the changes Ayse observes, the co-op remains a steadfast gatekeeper to the island and a protector of its environment. Made up of Şehsuvar Menemencioğlu’s descendants, as well as all the great-grandchildren of the original members, new members must buy into the co-op and go through a rigorous review process. For fifty years, the co-op has ensured that not one sacred tree has been cut, unless absolutely necessary for building. Requests to take any action that has potential impact on the forests are almost always denied.

While escaping Istanbul’s heat to the nearby islands on summer weekends is popular among all urbanites, Ayse considers Sedef Ada unique among the many cottage destinations. “I take great pride in knowing the cottage was built by my great-grandfather,” she says. “We all take great pride in being among the originals.” She realizes that as cottages change hands, the dynamic of the co-op will inevitably change as well. But Ayse hopes that, like her, residents will remain as dedicated as previous generations to preserving the island’s unique history, environment and intimacy.