"But which port are you at?" This is never the ideal way to start a weekend, especially when the boat leaves in ten minutes. My phone had died, but I had managed to borrow one from a gorgeously friendly Turkish girl called Nila who I had accosted. "I've lost my boyfriend", I tried to explain. "Don't worry", she smiled… "Mine is late also!"
A short tram ride later and Tall Dark and Handsome and I were united and soon aboard our private launch. We sped across the inky, nocturnal Bosphorus and the lights of European Istanbul danced on the water and retreated as we sailed under the colourfully lit Bosphorus Bridge.
Viewing Sumahan for the first time at night was quite magical. It sits right on the water’s edge and lies low against the skyline. Our vigorously bobbing boat was secured and we alighted in Asia. Our bags were expertly whisked away and we were escorted into a wonderfully stripped back hotel space. The exposed brickwork and black wrought iron work is tastefully balanced with glass and simple muted paintwork.
We spent some time in the library area before dinner, sipping a G&T and Negroni, beside the double-sided glass fireplace. TDH was writing a report on business in Italy and I studied the tomes on offer. There really was an impressive selection; even for someone who spent hours trawling through Byzantine books in the Warburg Institute. Huge volumes on the Chora Church and, to my utter delight, they had the catalogue from 'Byzantium - Faith and Power (1261 - 1557)’; an exhibition that was held in the New York Metropolitan Museum in 2004 that I attended with my mother.
TDH finished his business analysis just as I finished the bowls of nuts, and we made our way down to the Waterside Cafe, within the hotel. We ordered. After a ludicrously long time, and two promptings, our mains arrived, then our drinks, and finally our starter. Not an entirely orthodox approach. The food however, was delicious. We couldn’t fault the burgers.
Sumahan was an Ottoman distillery in the 19th century and it produced “suma” the unadulterated spirit used to make raki. Where the motorboat launch now deposits hotel guests there would have been barges laden with figs ready to be unloaded and transformed into the syrupy suma. Turkish-American owner-architects Nedret and Mark Butler have transformed this building into a beautiful space. Speaking to them over dinner on our second night we learnt that the building was purchased by Nedret’s grandfather in 1933, when it was still an active distillery. It was subsequently closed down and although it was used to produce aviation fuel during WW1 it fell into ruin. Nedret did her architectural thesis on the building and the passion the couple feel for it is evident. They spent 30 years planning and renovating the space into the hotel. One of their daughters did the interior design and Mark’s brother supplied the books for the library. I knew thought and love had gone into it!
The hotel is perched on the water with a completely unobstructed view. All the bedrooms are along one line all with views over the water and it really is rather special. Each room is supplied with binoculars to allow for boat or bird watching across the expanse of water. The guest rooms have tall picture windows which are perfect to sit in front of and take in the lapping landscape.
The hotel has 24 rooms and suites, all of which are airy and exposed to the light. They are minimalist and decorated in neutral colours. The ceiling in our room was made up of exposed blackened girders and asymmetric white and grey paintwork. The low bed was sat on pale wooden base. It was crisp and cosy at the same time. I can understand why the hotel is popular with honeymooners and those in search of a romantic break. It feels like an idyll within the city. Sitting overlooking the water has a timeless feeling. Boats have been a means of transport and trade for so long and are still inherent part to Istanbul’s way of life and scenery.
We spent hours in the hotel room drinking cappuccinos and cola, watching the container ships and ferries drifting past the window. For us, the get-away feeling of being away from the centre of Istanbul - where we live - made it feel like a beautiful retreat. From the room we watched the cormorants diving and translucent blue jellyfish bobbed along the wall of the terrace. Private yachts collected guests and the pace of life was one of tranquil industry.
The Sumahan staff were delightful - polite and helpful. We only left our room for an hour during which time they cleaned and re-made the bed. I was rather impressed – especially as we left by a side door to go for a walk.
The understated elegance of the Sumahan was exactly what I’d hoped for. Each aspect has been thought through carefully and the place feels considered and stylish. The location is exquisite and I can’t imagine anyone could be disappointed in this elegant hotel.