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The air is different here at the docks than it is in the center of the bustling city; the heat and humidity are tempered by wisps of a sea breeze and by the scents of flowering trees. Along the waterfront, where the lustrous and metallic Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara meet at the Golden Horn, the water shimmers like fish scales, reflecting light between the commuter ferries arriving from Üsküdar, Harem, and Basiktas.

I follow the signs for Adalar Iskelesi - the ferry to the Princes' Islands - and for less than $2, buy a token to Büyükada, which means "large island."

Büyükada sits 14 miles southeast of Istanbul and is the largest of nine islands in an archipelago known as the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara. The islands get their title not from royal residents (although Edward VIII of England and Wallis Simpson once stayed at the famed Splendid Palace Hotel on Büyükada) but from their use as a place of royal exile. Jealous Byzantine emperors and, later, Ottoman sultans fearing competition for their power banished noblemen and unwanted family members to these outposts in the sea. In the previous century, Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky spent five years in exile in Büyükada after his expulsion from the Stalin-led Soviet Union.

Banishment is not on the minds of my fellow passengers, however, on
  • Image about Istanbul
this perfect summer day. The sky is blue and the mood festive as I join the throng of people who scramble to grab open-air seats on the upper deck.

A boisterous group of men fills benches in the center aisle; they sing and clap like they're at a sporting event. Hearing shouts from aft, I twist around and observe seagulls hovering above the deck, waiting for scraps of food to be tossed upward. People whoop and cheer as the birds swoosh down and catch the morsels in midair.

Soon a family of four squeezes into my row, and I'm knee to knee with a woman in a long blue coat and a brightly patterned headscarf. Her husband, in casual attire, wraps his arms protectively around their two small children. A boy who's maybe three years ol
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d and in shorts and a girl no more than five and wearing Barbie sandals fidget and sneak shy glances my way. When the ship sounds its horn, one loud bellow, we turn and collectively watch Istanbul recede as the ferry moves out into the harbor.

Istanbul dazzles from the sea. Thin minarets and graceful curved domes pierce the sky, enlivening the horizon, where a myriad of shapes press against each other, stacked tightly, from the hilltops to the water's edge. As the vessel veers south around Seraglio Point, we pass the lush green outcrop where the Topkapi P
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alace walls glow sandy pink in the morning light.

I had been told that the voyage was half the fun of going to the islands, and I'm not disappointed. Before we reach the first island, a crowd gathers around two young men in T-shirts and torn jeans who are playing guitars and singing. Soon onlookers are clapping, and several young women and children begin to dance. Behind me, eight teenage girls from Lebanon, half of whom are wearing modest headscarves and half of whom are in more revealing attire, begin their own performance, singing pop tunes complete with trilling and much laughter.

It's officially a party.