• Image about Istanbul

Büyükada is a long island with two hills, one north and one south, and a valley in between. As I climb a winding road amid groves of dwarf pines, catching glimpses of the sea below, the only sound I hear - besides my own panting - is the clip-clop of horses as they pass me on their route.

EVENTUALLY, I STOP near a gathering of phaetons in Luna Park and find what I've been searching for: the cobblestoned path to Aya Yorgi hill, the highest spot on the island, home to the Church of Aya Yorgi (Saint George). The islands have more churches than mosques, and some of them, like this one, date back to the tenth century.

The hill is too steep for the horses and too difficult to pedal, so everyone must walk. Without a way to lock my bicycle, I push it up what feels like a 90 percent gradient, huffing and sweating my way for a solid 20 minutes to the pinnacle of the island, one of two sacred Christian pilgrimage sites in Turkey. (The other is the House of the Virgin Mary, in Ephesus.) As I near my goal, I pass small bushes and trees bedecked with bows of twine, colored string, and even plastic bags. I later learn this is a tradition, done to bring luck to the pilgrim.

The rewards of the summit are worth the effort of the climb. The monastery and chapel are modest structures, but the breathtaking views evoke awe in pilgrims and casual tourists alike. From the edge of a bluff, where café tables rest in the shade of a palm frond arbor, you can see the curve of the island as it bends toward the out-of-sight ferry. Below, public beaches and private clubs host sun worshippers and swimmers along the sandy shore. The evergreen hills of nearby islands can be seen, anchored in the brilliant sea, and the outskirts of Istanbul are visible in the distance. I've found a perfect place for a picnic.

Sated in stomach and spirit, I descend the steep incline, reining my bike like it's a bucking stallion, pause to tie a strand of orange yarn on the branch of a spindly pine, and make a wish.
It's an easy ride from the mountains to the road that rims the sea. I bypass the beach and head to town, where a string of restaurants with tented outdoor seating line the waterfront, offering seafood specialties within inches of the ocean's spray.

Enormous rings of fried calamari are light and fresh and accompanied by a tangy tartar sauce and a beer. From where I'm sitting, I can see the ferry moored at the dock. I check the schedule and dash to make the 4:10 p.m. departure. (Two later ferries are scheduled too.)

The return trip is a quiet one, possibly because there's no outdoor upper deck on this ship or because people are plumb worn out. It's a welcome change, this silent voyage on the silvery, white-capped sea. As daylight tips toward evening, I turn to face the sun and breathe in the salt-tinged breeze until Istanbul comes into view in all its energetic, minaret-strewn glory.