I was hoping that at some point in my lifetime I would make it back to the magical land of Cappadocia. In fact, I said I’d be back after I first haphazardly passed through in 2013 on an impromptu road trip from the Balkans to the Caucasus. I also knew the chances of having the same travel dream come true for a second time could be slightly far-fetched, as was finding myself chilling in the middle of Turkey again. Life is funny though – and, as it turns out, plane tickets from Istanbul to Cappadocia pretty cheap.
With multiple low-cost carriers servicing Nevşehir Kapadokya Airport and nearby Kayseri Airport from both Ataturk and Sabiha Gokcen, Cappadocia really isn’t so hard to jet off to in a flash. We’re talking last-minute, round-trip flights for less than $100 that take just a little over an hour. So when I was invited to go check out the only official boutique cave hotel located within Göreme National Park while at a travel conference in Istanbul last spring, I decided to carpe that diem even though I only had 36 hours to spare before my flight back to Kosovo.
Back in the land of fairy chimneys and this time armed with an actual plan, I was finally ready to really get to know this otherworldly, Central Anatolian outpost and make up for everything I missed out on the first time around. Here is what I was able to get up to in a day and a half – and why I still think it should be made a priority to include on any trip to Turkey.
The ultimate cave hotel experience at Kayakapi Premium Caves in Ürgüp
The first time I was in Cappadocia, I stayed in a different cave hotel in Uçhisar which was very cool (I mean, what is not cool about sleeping in a cave anywhere), but Uçhisar left me underwhelmed as a place to be based aside from it being a great spot to roll out of bed at 5am to watch all the balloons taking off. As one of the most important settlements in Cappadocia, Ürgüp ended up being much more my jam in that it’s a larger city and people actually live there among the history. It’s not 95% saturated with tourists and tour agencies like, say, Göreme, yet has everything one needs as a tourist and more.
No doubt the biggest draw to Ürgüp for any visitor though is the Kayakapi Premium Caves compound and why I even ended up in this part of Cappadocia in the first place. It has been recognized as one of the top hotels in the world on multiple occasions and even has UNESCO’s stamp of approval given the incredible work they have put into conserving and restoring the historical Kayakapi neighborhood.
Before I get to Kayakapi’s amazing cave suites, sexy pool with a view, fantastic restaurant, and gorgeous spa, I have to address what truly makes it stand out above all the rest and that is its fascinating history and the commitment of the Dinler family to turning this into a cultural project and not “just another cave hotel”.
Kayakapi is a tourist attraction in itself considering it’s one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in Cappadocia where families (some very influential ones at that) lived up until 1981. Spread over 6.5 acres, Kayakapi is also home to a 10th century cave church being renovated by UNESCO and a cave stable-turned-shrine dedicated to St. John the Russian in the neighborhood where he lived until his death in 1730.
Every room, suite and mansion has a story about who lived there before and documentation of its restoration. Though it’s a fact that it’s here where some of the wealthiest landowners in Cappadocia lived historically, I’m not sure that even in their wildest dreams they could have imagined what would happen to some of these lots once it turned into a hotel. I was blessed with Mehmet Tokat’s House which not only features an indoor swimming pool, but a 25 m² courtyard, a mini hammam in the bathroom, and a PRIVATE BAR along with every other luxury hotel room amenity you could think of.
On the topic of hammams and insane hotel experiences, I definitely had one of the best massages of my life at their spa. Considering I’ve never been to a real deal hammam, I opted for the Ottoman Massage which was essentially a massage inside the spa’s gorgeous hammam that included a good scrub down and left my skin feeling hella good. It was seriously incredible, and again, a Turkish cultural experience wrapped in some kind of luxury.
Last but not least, I have to mention the food I had in their restaurant because I have never tasted anything like either of the meals before and I’ve pretty much been crying myself to sleep every night since because I can’t have it on a daily basis (similar to my feelings for Georgian and Kyrgyz food). First off was the manti which I’ve heard called “Turkish ravioli” and actually find kind of offensive. Ravioli has nothing on manti. Popular in Central Anatolia, it is essentially little dumplings stuffed with minced meat, usually lamb, and smothered with a divine garlic yoghurt sauce. Then there was testi kebabi (what a name), also popular in Central Anatolia, which is kind of like a lamb stew cooked in an earthenware pot and cracked open in front of you. OMG, I can’t even talk about it without my mouth-watering, so currently Googling “Central Antatolian restaurants in California”….
Flying like a queen with Royal Balloon
To say I was super sad having left Cappadocia the first time without flying in a balloon is an understatement. It’s literally THE thing you must do while you’re there, but between the wind conditions and some mild illnesses in our caravan, it just wasn’t in the cards. Thankfully, even with only 36 hours at my disposal, it all worked out royally for me the second time around and I finally got the sunrise balloon ride I had dreamed about for years.
At about 4:38am, I was whisked away from Kayakapi by Royal Balloon’s party van and taken to their headquarters in Göreme where I feasted on Turkish breakfast delights while they figured out which take-off site we’d be leaving from. We were then placed into groups of around 10 people and driven to the site where we boarded our baskets.
All pumped up, I jump on, make friends with my basket mates from Korea, and then comes lift off. Apparently I was so excited about the opportunity, I completely forgot about my fear of heights and a few minutes in I was down on the floor nearing a panic attack with the realization that I was straight up hanging in straw picnic basket 1000 feet in the air.
With the support of this amazing Korean couple, some calming words from our awesome pilot Suat, and myself telling myself “YOU CANNOT BE SCARED, THIS IS A ONCE IN A LIFETIME EXPERIENCE”, I was finally able to stand up and watch the sunrise with Mt. Erciyes in the distance. It’s really only about 10-15 minutes that you are incredibly high; then you start to descend and cruise closer to the ground which wasn’t that scary, but I do have to say if you are deathly afraid of heights, then a balloon ride may be out of the question.
On the other hand, if this is something you have also dreamed about doing, it is important to note is that on average there are 260 flyable days a year for balloons in Cappadocia which works out to about a 70% chance you will be able to take off on any given day. It’s not the season that matters as much as the weather gods on your side, so I can’t recommend enough giving yourself a decent amount of time there and booking the trip on one of the first days you arrive in the event it gets cancelled and you need to reschedule. Not everyone is a lucky mofo like I was this time and there were a couple of people I met flying that day who said it was their second attempt because it was too windy the day before.
All in all, it ended up being one of the coolest things I’ve ever done on my travels and I don’t think I could have flown with a better company than Royal Balloon as their service (which included emotional support) was impeccable and I sensed that safety and comfort is of utmost importance to them when comparing our set up to some of the other balloons packed like sardines floating around us.
Hanging tough with all the tuff
Last order of business before I had to bounce was hitting up some of the most important geological sites in Cappadocia, most of which I had missed the first time and all of which I never got a proper explanation on what they were all about. With such a limited amount of time and so much to learn, the easiest way to do this was to hop on a group tour, a “Spirit of Cappadocia” tour, which took me to see the Three Beauties of Ürgürp, Pasabaglan (Monk’s Valley), Devrent Valley (Valley of Imagination), Göreme Open Air Museum and back to Love Valley and around Uçhisar Castle.
In case you were curious, the formation of these geological oddities started millions of years ago when ash and lava from ancient volcanic eruptions solidified into tuff (soft rock) and basalt (harder rock). Over time, wind and water would shape them into the fantastical dreamscapes that exist there today. It was interesting to see just how many shapes and sizes these “fairy chimneys” come in – and that they are not all as perverted as the ones I mostly surrounded myself with on my previous visit.
Even more interesting to learn was how people started using them centuries ago as homes, stables, churches, and straight up underground fortresses, particularly for Byzantine Christians fleeing persecution during the Roman period. Göreme Open Air Museum is probably the best place to learn about this as it has some of the most well-preserved monasteries, churches, frescoes and living quarters dating back to the 10th, 11thand 12thcentury. Unfortunately one thing I did not have time to check out were the underground cities – some of which could support 10,000-20,000 people – so looks like I officially have another reason to return yet again…
I can’t describe how lucky I feel to have had a second chance at seeing Cappadocia under such time restrictions and how everything worked out just perfectly in the end in terms of weather and timing. This dream trip, it was at breakneck speed trip for sure, but that I had a second chance at seeing this wonderland and how everything worked out perfectly in terms of weather and timing, it was better than a dream because it was real.
This post was written before learning of the untimely passing (not balloon related) of my awesome pilot, Suat Ulusoy. I’d like to extend my deepest sympathies to his family as well as his Royal Balloon family. My experience flying wouldn’t have been the same without him, he was so knowledgable and supportive, and for sure that’s going to live in my memories forever.