A sunken city, ancient sarcophagi, a Byzantine fortress and scenic turquoise bays are all part of the Kekova Island boat tour, an easy trip from Kaş or Demre. The excursion shouldn’t be missed by those touring Antalya Province, and it’s surprisingly affordable. The full-day trip, including lunch, only cost 100 TL (roughly $15 USD) at the time of my visit – an incredible value.
Keep reading to learn more about what to expect from the trip. And check the very end of the article for info on arranging a tour and where to stay in the region.
The Kekova Island Boat Tour
Arriving at the Demre pier around 10 am, I quickly boarded the boat which was about to depart. Aside from a visit to the sunken city, I had little idea of what to expect from the excursion.
The boat quickly began to fill up with passengers, most of whom headed for the upper deck to take in the morning sun. I was the only foreigner, though I did meet a number of friendly English speakers throughout the day. Most of the Turkish passengers were visiting from other parts of the country.
Enjoying the views of the turquoise waters from the upper deck, it wasn’t long before we approached Kekova Island. Like most ancient cities in Antalya Province, the original settlement here was part of Lycia, a kingdom with roots as old as the Bronze Age.
But Lycia really began to come into its own around the 5th century BC. And even after being taken over by the Persians, Alexander the Great and the Romans, Lycia thrived as a semi-autonomous entity for centuries.
All Lycian city-states acted as a member of the Lycian League, a federation which granted each city a vote on important regional matters. This system, in fact, would later go on to greatly influence the founders of the United States.
Passing by the partially submerged ruins, I was reminded of my trip to the sunken city of Halfeti on the other side of the country. But Kekova’s current state is not the result of a manmade dam, but an earthquake which occurred nearly 2000 years ago.
As we cruised along, we could make out the remains of a shipyard, houses and other public buildings. There was even a staircase leading right into the water.
Many of these structures actually date back to the Byzantine era, meaning the island wasn’t abandoned right after the earthquake. Like many other cities in this region, it was eventually the Arab invasions in the 8th century that spelled its demise.
As the surviving ruins above the surface take on the same color as the natural rock, they’re a little hard to make out. As the tour guide gave his presentation, a staff member would use a simple mirror to pinpoint the landmarks like a laser pen.
While I was the only foreigner onboard, the captain/tour guide was kind enough to translate what he was saying in English just for me.
In some sections, it’s possible to look down and see the sunken foundations beneath the water. This used to be a popular swimming spot, but the practice is now banned to preserve the ruins.
While most people view the ruins from a Kekova Island boat tour as I did, it’s also possible to rent a sea kayak from either Kaleköy or Üçağız village.
As dramatic as the sunken ruins sound on paper, there really wasn’t a whole lot to see. The real highlight of the day, however, was the village of Kaleköy, just across the bay.
Kaleköy: The Fortress & Lycian Tombs
Known as Simena in ancient times, Kaleköy was also a Lycian-turned-Byzantine town. But unlike neighboring Kekova Island, Kaleköy was never abandoned. As with many Anatolian towns, it was long home to a thriving Greek community.
Since the ‘Population Exchange’ between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, however, the Greeks have disappeared. Be that as it may, Kaleköy maintains its Greek atmosphere, complete with narrow cobblestone streets and open-air cafes.
As one might expect, Kaleköy is a predominantly tourist-oriented town. But rather than kitschy souvenirs, the shops here sell things like locally made ice cream and fresh grapes.
It makes for a pleasant vibe, and with the abundance of pensions in the area, it’s fast becoming a popular place to stay. As part of the Kekova Island boat tour, however, we were only given 90 minutes to explore.
The main attraction of Kaleköy is the fortress built atop the hill. At the time of my visit, it cost 14 TL to enter, a fee not included in the boat tour price.
The fortress was built during the Byzantine era to fight off a pirate invasion. Most Lycian towns, unfortunately, suffered from frequent pirate attacks for centuries. Cities like Phaselis and Olympos, in fact, were completely occupied by pirate overlords at one point!
While the fortress itself is rather small, the views of the Mediterranean and surrounding islands are unmatched. The hilltop is also home to a small Greek theater – so small that I seemed to have missed it.
Also from the fortress, you can get a clear overhead view of Simena’s ancient Lycian necropolis. And that’s where you’ll want to head next.
To get there, there’s no need to walk back down to the area with the shops. Simply return to the base of the castle and walk around to the other side, where you’ll then find a pathway.
Before long, you’ll come face to face with some of Lycia’s trademark stone sarcophagi. The Lycians went all out with their burials and were primarily known for their rock-cut tombs modeled after temples and houses.
But as evidenced at Simena and numerous neighboring cities, they also had a tradition of building impressive stone boxes.
While countless ancient cultures built stone sarcophagi, Lycia’s are especially unique. They’re massive in size overall. And rather than being long and wide, they’re quite tall and narrow.
What’s more, is that they were often placed on pedestals, making them almost appear as pillars.
While Lycia’s famous rock-cut tombs are as old as the 5th century BC, most of these sarcophagi were carved in the Roman era. Some of them feature carvings on the lid and body, while many are undecorated.
You’ll notice countless sarcophagi spread across the hill, taking up an entire side of the peninsula. But if your time is limited, be sure to head to the opposite side of town to see one particularly special stone box.
Head back through town, walking back west toward the pier where you arrived. Then continue walking west down the narrow streets along the coast, and you’ll eventually encounter a peculiar sight.
This half-submerged Lycian sarcophagus is now the unofficial symbol of Kaleköy. It’s unclear though, why this particular sarcophagus was placed so far away from the others, or how it ended up submerged. Presumably, it has to do with the same earthquake that devastated neighboring Kekova.
Today, visitors can swim right alongside it. But in my case, I needed to be back on the boat by 1 pm. As I’d soon learn, there would be plenty of swimming opportunities throughout the afternoon.
Back on the boat, we were served a tasty fish lunch that was included in the total fare. All the while, we were progressing toward our next destination.
The Turquoise Bays
After lunch, we stopped for a swim at the scenic Aquarium Bay (Akvaryum Bay in Turkish). The water here was entirely turquoise, appearing much like a scene from a postcard.
The water was nice and calm, and we were given thirty minutes or so to swim.
Back on the boat, I returned to the top deck to dry off in the sun. But to my surprise, we soon stopped at yet another scenic bay for a swim.
This next bay had a very tiny beach at the end made up of incredibly soft white sand. Apparently, it’s good for the skin, as everyone was rubbing it over their bodies.
Making our way back to the port of Demre, I was convinced that the day was finished. But to my surprise, we stopped for yet another swim! And then, believe it or not, we later stopped elsewhere for a fourth swim!
Two stops, in my opinion, would’ve been perfect. Four was overkill, to say the least.
Moving onward, we passed by the Blue Cave, known for the mesmerizing blue hue of its water. It’s also known as the Pirate Cave – fitting given the region’s history. While smaller boats and kayaks can easily fit inside, our boat was much too large, leaving us to admire it from afar.
And finally, we approached the beaches of Demre, docking in the port around 17:00. All in all, the Kekova Island boat tour was certainly a memorable one, offering some of the most gorgeous views you can find along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
The Kekova Island Boat Tour is a popular activity for those staying in Kaş, Demre and neighboring cities.
I was staying in Demre at the Bayraktar Konağı hotel. I simply asked the staff about doing a tour the next day, and everything was quickly arranged.
The next morning, I was driven to the port by the hotel staff and I paid the captain upon boarding the boat. It was all pretty straightforward and hassle-free.
Well, except for getting back to my hotel. We were quite rushed in the morning, and the hotel staff hadn’t mentioned anything about pickup. Sure enough, nobody was there waiting for me upon my return!
But I did make the most of the situation by walking to the nearby ruins of Andriake, after which I made the long walk back to central Demre. If your hotel is giving you a ride, be sure to ask them about the return journey in advance.
Presumably, boat tours booked in Kaş work in much the same way, just from the opposite direction. Those staying in neighboring towns will likely be brought over to the Kaş or Demre ports in the morning via some kind of shuttle bus.
As mentioned above, my Kekova Island boat tour only cost 100 TL, which may have been a bit cheaper than normal due to the pandemic. Once onboard, you’ll find water and other beverages like coffee and beer on sale for an affordable price.
The most popular city in the area around Kekova is Kaş, a pleasant coastal town with an abundance of hotels and restaurants. While my original plan had been to stay in Kaş, the neighboring Greek island of Kastellorizo was inaccessible at the time due to the pandemic. Therefore, I decided to save Kaş for a future Turkey trip and stay in Demre instead.
Looking back, I’m happy with my choice. The town is home to two archaeological sites (Myra Ancient City and Andriake) and the Church of St. Nicholas. Furthermore, the local port is from where many of the Kekova Island boat tours depart.
I stayed in a charming hotel called Bayraktar Konağı, located right in central Demre. It’s a restored historical house, and the nightly price includes a hearty breakfast. It’s easily walkable from the church, tombs, and Demre’s bus terminal.
As mentioned above, it’s also possible to spend the night in Kaleköy or in the neighboring village of Üçağız. There are plenty of cozy hotels and bed-and-breakfasts throughout the village, while there’s also a beach right in town.
And by staying in Kaleköy, you can easily rent kayaks to head over to Kekova Island independently, eliminating the need for a boat tour.
Note: Demre was known as Kale until just recently, and most Turkish people still call it that. But you’ll still see Demre written on the regional buses.
Situated along Route 400, Demre is easily accessible by bus. Coming from Olympos, I had no problems hopping on a direct bus from the main highway there. There are also frequent direct buses to and from Kaş.
While direct buses between Demre and Fethiye supposedly exist, that wasn’t the case during my trip. I needed to transfer in Kaş to get there (and pay for both buses!).
The Demre otogar (bus terminal) is situated right in the center of town. It should be an easy walk to your hotel. And if you’re just visiting Demre as a day trip, the bus station is within walking distance of both St. Nicholas Church and Myra Ancient City.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.