Andrew Eames enjoys good company, tranquility and a slice of Turkish culture on a laid-back gulet trip along the Turquoise Coast
My friends warned me against it. Sharing a sailing boat with a dozen others I’d never met before was a recipe for disaster, they said. What if I didn’t like them? What if they snored? There’d be nowhere to escape to, no chance of avoiding them. And then the so-called Blue Cruise would truly give me the blues.
But those doubters hadn’t encountered this kind of blue, or even this kind of cruise — the deep, deep blue of an unsullied sea, with the sun shining down, along a coastline doodled with islands, peninsulas and secret bays. The cruise offered everything: sunbathing on deck, catching reef fish in secret anchorages, eating prawns, swimming and kayaking, and making shoreside excursions. In this setting, you would have to be a special kind of person to get even remotely grumpy.
And then there was the boat itself. ‘Blue Cruise’ is a generic term for recreational small-boat coastal voyages which usually start from ports such as Bodrum, Marmaris and Fethiye in southwest Turkey, voyages that are mostly made on gulets — these fabulous, traditional wood-built sailing boats were once used for essential transport between waterside communities in the days before roads conquered the arduous Turquoise Coast.
We joined our particular cruiser between Marmaris and Fethiye, after a swim on Iztuzu Beach, a long, clean sandbar where loggerhead turtles come to lay their eggs. Tombis turned out to be bigger than I think any of us had expected; twin-masted, beautifully varnished, sails furled, with sufficient cabin space below deck for 16 people. The crew was led by the booming-voiced Captain Mesut, who clearly loved his vessel, and disparaged modern plastic and fibreglass boats as “floating yoghurt pots”.
As we set out eastwards along the steeply plunging shore, in the general direction of Antalya (Mesut declared that the weather would dictate where we’d stop and how far we’d go), we all sat down to a lunch of seafood and salads at the long wooden table on the stern. We were a mix of nationalities: Australian, British and German, with English as the lingua franca, and any doubts that we might have had about encroaching on each other’s space was quickly dispelled.
Besides our own cabins below, Tombis had a big covered saloon, plus the long table on the stern where we had our meals, as well as various sunbathing spots located on the foredeck. It meant that you could pretty much choose your location, depending on the company you wanted to keep — or avoid.
We soon settled into the rhythm of the cruise. Each day consisted of a bit of motoring (despite all the rigging, itinerary pressure means that few gulets ever sail), a couple of new anchorages, lots of swimming, and a land-based excursion — such as the very first one at Aga Limani, a perfect little bay where the rattle of the anchor chain was followed by a volley of splashes as everyone dived overboard to cool off.
The Lycian hinterland is steep, tinder-dry and hostile to anything but the most basic existence. That first evening at Aga Limani, we watched a mule train, with a token camel, step slowly down the hillside path bearing sacks of sage and deposit them on the shore, presumably for collection by a coastal boat still plying a traditional trade.
The following day, we toiled back up that same path ourselves, while Tombis motored around the coast to wait for us in another bay. At the top of the hill stood the remains of a Roman bath-house, with the previous evening’s donkeys standing tethered in the shade. We came across the sage collectors, too, a man and a woman in their early 20s, in a silent and hot valley just on the other side. They were making bread on a flat griddle over a brushwood fire outside their ‘home’, a sleeping platform in the shade of an oak. We looked at them, they looked at us, and I’m not sure who was more interested in whom.
As the days unravelled, we had more excursions like this. In some of the busier anchorages, vendors came to the boat selling pancakes and bracelets, even offering the chance to try waterskiing and kayaking.
We also stopped in more tourist-oriented ports on this stretch of coast. They were Gocek, Kalkan, Kekova and Kas, big enough to satisfy the holidaymaking instinct to browse the shops, eat ice-creams and buy postcards. There would always be other gulets tied up in these ports, doing much the same as us, but Mesut never liked to stay overnight; he preferred the lonely bays where there were no other lights but ours, and no other noises but the murmur of our late-night conversation. On particularly warm, starlit nights, some of us took the mattresses out of our cabins and slept up on deck.
I found the best cultural stop to be Gemiler, a hard-scrabble island covered in ruined Byzantine churches from the fourth and sixth centuries, and with the remains of an extraordinary roofed corridor which ran 500 metres downhill between two churches. Tradition had it that this corridor was built on the orders of a princess who loved swimming in the sea but didn’t want to walk in sunlight to get there. True princessy behaviour.
Gemiler had two other claims to fame. The first was the truly magnificent view from the island’s highest point, which we clambered up to as the sun went down. The second was that St Nicholas, who is known locally as Noel Baba and internationally as Father Christmas, was supposed to have spent some years in the religious community here, during the time when the island was used as a rest place for Christian pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land.
But there were no signs of any pilgrims, princesses or Father Christmases on Gemiler when we were there; just the declining sun and the sight of our Blue Cruiser waiting for us, with dinner, way down below.