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The Sunday Times Travel Magazine

April 2013

Why hole up in a high-rise, when you could sleep beneath the stars on the sea itself? 
 
Linda Cookson explores the secluded coves of the Turkish coast by traditional gulet boat.

Intro b

 

 

Rain slid down the panes as we sat plotting a Mediterranean escape-with-a-difference. ‘It’ll be like Come Dine With Me at sea,’ I said, brightly, as the five of us pored over a pile of brochures. ‘You know, Come Sail With Me. Take five people, stick them aboard a Turkish gulet for a week, and get them to score the holiday in secret…’

 

There was yours truly and Brian, my partner, as well as our friends Simon, Caroline and Debbie. I’d persuaded them to charter Aleyna, a traditional wooden gulet boat, to be our own floating hotel for a week’s voyage around Turkey’s Turquoise Coast. Morning plunges in aquarium-blue waters. Lazy lunches in whitewashed towns festooned with bougainvillea. Nights on deck with wine, under the stars. In my head, we were already there.

I know and love southern Turkey, but even my devotion has been dampened before by some of the hair-raising drives you have to take, through helter-skelter mountain passes. On a boat you glide languidly in and around islands, coves and secret beaches often unreachable by road. And while you could swelter on dry land, it doesn’t quite compare with being soothed by gentle on-deck sea-breezes – or cooling off, when at anchor, in one of Europe’s biggest, bluest swimming pools.

Traditional wooden gulets – with skipper, crew and on-board chef – are an effort-free way for non-sailors to take to the water and experience Turkey’s southwest coast minus the traffic. In the past, though, I might have had reservations that would have sunk a trip before we’d even left home. Early boats were pretty basic, often designed on a ‘pack ’em in’ principle. The prospect of cupboard-sized cabins, coupled with sanitation barely this side of a hosepipe and bucket, would deter lovers of even modest creature comforts. Less appealing still, for shyer souls, is the thought of sharing life at close quarters with strangers. What if your shipmates include hormonal teenagers, or guitar-toting vicars heaven-bent on strumming Kumbaya every evening?

Choosing and chartering our own gulet solved all these problems. At an impressive 27m long, Aleyna had just four super-size cabins, all with double beds and ensuite shower-rooms. We could tell from the plan that there’d be masses of space above and below deck for anyone who fancied a bit of privacy. And although Aleyna could easily accommodate eight, we’d hit on five as our perfect number of shipmates-to-be.

We embarked in Fethiye, a pretty, working harbour an hour or so from Dalaman airport. Aleyna bobbed by the quay, ropes coiled, wooden decks newly scrubbed. Shoes went straight into a wicker basket as soon as we’d left the gangplank and were barely worn again all week, except for occasional forays onshore. Captain Ahmet and his young crew – Sami, Hakan and Yasar, the cook – greeted us like royalty with glasses of Champagne and platefuls of delicious börek (cigar-sized filo-pastry tubes stuffed with spinach and Feta). A tour revealed stately cabins, on-deck hammocks, bean-bags, loungers and every water-toy imaginable – from windsurfers, fins and snorkels to a canary-yellow kayak. Our eyes were out on stalks.

Then Ahmet unfurled a clutch of satisfyingly salt-stiffened nautical charts and we got down to route-planning. We agreed to start with the islands in the Gulf of Fethiye, before sailing southeastwards to the harbour towns of Kalkan and Kas. The route would take us along the rugged seaboard that was anciently the maritime kingdom of Lycia. ‘Lazy’ was obviously going to be the operative word. Our wristwatches followed our shoes into a further basket, and we said goodbye to time.

Aleyna eased out of Fethiye harbour as though sliding through liquid silk. Behind, the town shimmered in a heat haze. Ahead was a marine forest of wooded islands, scattered like lily-pads across the turquoise water. The Gulf of Fethiye is famous for its ‘Twelve Islands’, and mooring up in a sheltered cove or bay for daytime swims or evening suppers was to become the regular pattern for the first few days.

Some islands had specific stories. There was Dockyard Island, with a rectangular harbour where ships were built in Ottoman times; and Red Island, which took its name from its pinkish-brown shoreline. Tomb Bay had three ancient tombs set like abandoned houses in the rock face. The Bay of Cleopatra’s Baths presented the submerged ruins of some Roman baths, allegedly built for Cleopatra, as a gift to be enjoyed on one of her visits to this coast.

On Gemiler Island, where we spent our first night on-board, the beach and hillsides were littered with ruined chapels. An ornate arched walkway ran between two churches 500m downhill to the water. Over our first supper, at a table heavy with delicious meze, Ahmet told its story – it was built for a princess who loved swimming, but couldn’t be exposed to daylight. Depending on which version we preferred, this was either because her skin was too sensitive, or because her father feared she was too temptingly beautiful to be seen out and about by locals.

Nights on board Aleyna were sublimely peaceful. We feasted on freshly caught fish, spiced meats and salads, conjured by Yasar from a galley the size of a handkerchief. Each meal was accompanied by prodigious quantities of ‘Yakut’ wine – we’d persuaded ourselves that chilled rosé was a brilliantly healthy option in such a warm climate. At first, we retired dutifully below deck to our cabins each evening. As the week wore on, the beauty of the night skies became too lovely to leave, and we started to sleep on deck, lying on our backs and counting shooting stars as Aleyna swayed like a wonderful creaking cradle. The sounds were heavenly: the rhythmic swishing of water against bows, the hypnotic reedy music of the night-breeze through the rigging…

On the third morning, after two days of island-hopping, we woke at dawn to a stream of apricot light. Below us, the sea was dancing with spangles of sunlight as though some sleepy giant had spilled a bucket of diamonds across the water. Spellbound, we watched the world come to life. Aleyna was roped to two giant rocks on the foreshore, and a couple of brown goats had ambled idly across the pebbles to investigate. Back at the smallholding they’d strayed from, we could just make out a lady baking flatbread in a pan over a fire, while her husband and son scrambled over the promontory with rods. They cast their lines, and a shoal of flying fish sprang from the water in a perfect silver arc.

For breakfast, Yasar treated us to gözleme (savoury pancakes), as well as the usual feast of yoghurts, honey and fruit. Mornings had developed a routine: early-bird swimming, breakfast spent chatting, brainstorming crossword clues and practising our shaky Turkish on the ever-patient Sami. Today, he explained, we would start our journey eastwards, with a visit to ‘Kelebek Vadisi’. He mimed releasing something tiny from his cupped hand and fluttered his fingers. Butterfly Valley.

A vast primeval rocky gorge swirling in mist, with waterfalls tumbling seawards through fir trees, Butterfly Valley is home to almost every species of Mediterranean butterfly. It’s a weird secret kingdom, like something out of Lord of the Rings. Simon, a former zoologist, was in paradise. 

The blue-lagoon resort of Olüdeniz was nearby, but as it’s one of the busiest tourist spots, we opted to skim smoothly past its frequently photographed pine forest and yellow sands – the milling crowds of sun-worshippers became mere pinpricks of colour dotting the beach. Paragliders drifted skywards – tiny Icarus figures, suspended by fluorescent parachutes that curled like giant feathers in the heat of the sun. Then all activity was behind us. Poster-paint colours melted to nothingness, scented forests of pine, juniper and oak trees gave way to wild and towering mountains. We were entering the stony world of ancient Lycia, land of the long-dead.

It felt as though we were sailing into another time altogether. Largely uninhabited, much of this coastline was eerily silent, its former inhabitants evident only in a stone heritage of cliff-tombs high in rock-faces. Only the occasional clank of goat bells confirmed that, somewhere in the mountains, life continued. The tranquillity was blissful. We swam around ancient funeral caskets scattered at sea level, played cards and roared with laughter, reading from Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, the soar-away favourite on-board read (much to the mystification of our crew). One evening, reckless with rosé, I played Ahmet at backgammon for Aleyna and won – although he was quick to decide that we ought to play the best of three, and hastily adjusted his game to take account of the Yakut-fuelled lunacy of my more maverick moves.

Patara Beach – 20km of deserted dunes and a protected breeding ground for loggerhead turtles – led us back towards the land of the living and the postcard harbours of Kalkan and Kas, knitted with cobbled streets and lined with timbered shops selling carpets, ceramics and jewellery.

Site of the former Lycian port of Antiphellos, Kas wears its history lightly – 3,000-year-old sarcophagi are a common sight. Bits of broken stone coffin serve as geranium pots or litter bins. But after dark, when the cliff-tombs, set vertically on a sheer rock wall above the town, are illuminated, there’s a powerful sense of history, of ghost watchmen standing guard over the harbour.

The fifth evening saw us reunited with our sandals for a trip ashore at Kas. The waterfront, quiet by day, was ablaze with lights and lanterns. Cobs of corn sizzled on charcoal burners. Quayside stalls dispensed cornets of roasted almonds. The central tea gardens were busy with townspeople and visitors. Every other rooftop seemed to have a restaurant or bar – all with thrilling views over the harbour and across to Kas’s floodlit mosque. Awash with light, it glowed like a huge blue moon.

Our last full day was the most magical, with a leisurely cruise to the villages of Kaleköy and Uçagız. From the quayside of Kaleköy, a string of shanty jetties and flower-filled restaurants, we climbed through dusty backstreets to a storybook Crusader castle, perched on a cliff looking across to the island of Kekova. From Uçagız, we transferred to a glass-bottomed boat and sailed to the island itself, over the visible remains of submerged Lycian tombs. Along the coast of Kekova are the ruins of Batık Sehir, a Byzantine city drowned by an earthquake. Drifting through pools of turquoise to the engine’s gentle drone, we gazed through the water into an eerie maze of crumbling walls, doors and arches. Here and there, flights of broken steps would rise through the waterline, as though from nowhere, leading nowhere.

A tiny creek, overhung with berries and flooded with birdsong, was our final port of call before returning to Kalkan. Over our last supper, re-adjusting reluctantly to the prospect of British weather and shoes, we clinked glasses one last time and reckoned that this had been possibly the best holiday ever. There was no need for any secret Come Sail With Me scoring. 

It was 10 out of 10 from us all.

 

 

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