We look like the beautiful people in a TV commercial, bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun, sipping sundowners on the bow of our traditional Turkish gullet as it slowly chugs out of Fethiye harbour in Turkey to our first overnight mooring spot.
The idea of four idyllic days of carefree sailing along the Turkish Riviera from Fethiye to Olympos appeals to us greatly. We imagine spending the days lazing on deck as the Turkish coastline gently slips by, swimming in the inviting turquoise waters of the Aegean each time that we drop anchor and exploring inaccessible islands and ruins.
When I did my research, I found that we had two options, a private blue cruise charter or a blue cabin cruise charter with a bunch of strangers. The choice ended up being a no brainer as the private blue cruise was way out of our budget range.
But I am a little unsure of our golden travel partners as we sail off into the sunset. We are a diverse bunch of people, sixteen total strangers ranging in age from eighteen to late sixties. The only thing that we have in common is that we all come from southern hemisphere countries, and I wonder if we are going to get along, cooped up together on this small eight cabin gullet, for the next four days.
But what is a gullet?
A gulet is a traditional Turkish two or three mast wooden coastal sailing vessel that was originally built for fishermen and sponge divers, as well as for traders to move their goods from place to place along the south western coast of Turkey.
But don’t be fooled by the word sailing… today, most gulets are configured as motor-sailers relying on their big diesel engines to cruise from place to place. We certainly never raised our sails but maybe a raised sail is what you get on the luxury package?
Life on a gulet happens on the flat and expansive deck. There is plenty of space to sunbathe and chat with your fellow travellers or to simply chill in a quiet corner and watch the ever-changing aspects of the Turkish coastline.
An attentive steward keeps a beady eye on us appearing out of nowhere just as we think of ordering another beer and a chef prepares delicious Turkish meals that are served at a massive table in the stern that accommodates all sixteen of us. To be honest, I felt like I was eating my way down the Turkish Riviera.
An oasis of serenity awaits us.
The gentle lapping of the waves against the hull wakes us on our second day. After a moment or two spent savouring the sound and the almost imperceptible rocking motion, we head up on deck armed with our plunger of coffee to see where we are.
An oasis of serenity awaits us on deck. Our overnight mooring spot is in a small cove flanked on either side by the tree covered foothills of the Taurus mountains, and in the corner of the bay, a tiny beach set with colourful umbrellas waits patiently for the day’s sun worshippers. Birdsong echoes across the waters, and a light fragrant breeze wafts down the hills carrying a faint scent of cypress on it. It’s the perfect start to the day.
But, big grey rain filled clouds are roaring in on the winds high up above us and it looks like our day might not be so perfect. We soon learn that gullet sailing is dependent on the vagaries of the ever-changing weather, perfect warm sunshine to rain in what feels like the blink of an eye.
But, there will be weather…
Over a delicious traditional Turkish breakfast our captain informs us that the incoming bad weather means a change in schedule and that we are going to gap it to the safety and shelter of Gemiler Island which translates to “island of boats,” a comforting and fitting name for the place where we will take refuge from the storm.
There is a sense of adventure on the high seas as we encounter the storm on the way. Ok, to be honest, it’s a very mild and gentle rain but we do feel like great intrepid adventurers just the same. Along with our fellow travellers we seek shelter in the stern where we are protected from the elements under a canopy with drop sides.
Nature does have a habit of knowing what is best for us. This little interlude forces us to engage further with our travel partners swopping travel stories and really getting to know each other without the aid of a sundowner beverage. Although someone does crack open an Efes beer! By the time that we moor in the narrow channel of Gemiler Island the sixteen of us are no longer strangers and have bonded as an instant travel family.
Welcome to here!
The rain abates and our Captain says “Welcome to here!” This is always the opening line of his briefings before he allows us to go ashore in the tender.
Here is Gemiler Island, which turns out to be a veritable treasure trove of unexpected majestic views and mysterious byzantine ruins dating back to the 4th century.
Delightful herbal fragrances that we can’t quite identify tease us as we clamber up an unmarked pathway of broken stones. The path winds around the island to the highest point taking us past the ruins of churches, along a mind-blowingly long processional way and through shady glades of olive and pine trees.
At almost every turn of the pathway, new and surprising perspectives unfold as we gain elevation, revealing layers upon layers of pretty bays, rocky coastline and pine clad mountains in the distance. It is simply breath-taking! And, not only because the pathway is quite steep.
Aside from a grumpy gatekeeper, a couple of goats and a big ginger cat we have the island to ourselves. Our only regret is that we couldn’t spend more time exploring Gemiler but we are under strict time constraints from our captain who is concerned about further bad weather. He was right, it rains again.
Blissful Butterfly Valley
An afternoon break in the storm presents our Captain with a brief window to hot foot it down to Butterfly Valley which is only accessible from the sea. And again, he warns us that we will be under time constraints but we are all in agreement, we don’t care as long as we get to go, even it is for only an hour or two.
Butterfly Valley doesn’t live up to its name, it is the wrong time of year and there are no butterflies but this natural green oasis bounded by towering cliffs on all sides is charming in an off-beat hippy kind of way.
Most of our travel partners are determined to hike to the back of the valley to the waterfall but the lazy hippy is strong with the two of us, and we decide to have a drink at the beach bar and simply soak up the magnificence of setting.
It’s blissful! The late afternoon sun peers down at us through gaps in the clouds casting a beautiful warm glow on everything that it touches and all too soon our time is up and it’s time to return to our gullet.
Instead of taking the tender that has been sent to collect us, a couple of us choose to swim the short distance back to the gullet. We do a slow and leisurely, heads above water, old woman style breaststroke enjoying the views of the mighty cliffs from absolute sea level.
Despite the inclement weather and changes in the schedule, the second day of our blue cruise has been more than perfect, and our travel partners are proving to be a delight.
A good day for sailing…
We are rudely awoken on our third day by the incessant thumping and roar of the large diesel engines below decks. Last night, over yet another delicious dinner our captain had warned us that we would be making an early start because the weather had messed with his schedule and we have a long way to sail, but nothing prepared us for this deluge of sound, it’s unbearable, vibrating through to your very core! Armed with our morning plunger of coffee we beat a hasty retreat onto the tranquillity of the deck where the engine’s roar subsides to a dull murmur.
It’s a perfect day. There is hardly a cloud in the sky. The sun streams down on the Aegean waters putting on a display of brilliant blues, from an azure cerulean in the deeper parts to a luminous turquoise in the shallower waters close to shore. I find it most apt that the word turquoise apparently originates from middle French, in reference to the greenish-blue turquoise gemstone that originally arrived in Europe from Turkey. Years later, it turns out that the stones were mined in Persia, but the name has stuck.
And for swimming…
We spend an idyllic morning on deck, sun bathing, snoozing and chatting as the Turkish coastline slowly slips by. At lunchtime we weigh anchor in a pretty little cove, but first, it’s time for a refreshing dip in the Aegean.
After the first cold shock the water is quite pleasant. There is hardly any current and staying close to the gullet is easy. Our attentive steward throws down a couple of lilos, you know those obstinately uncooperative ones that no matter how hard you try you simply can’t stay on top of them?
And then, the lilo wars begin. Like a bunch of little kids, a game of get onto the lilo and try to stay on it ensues with much hilarity and spluttering. I am pleased to report that three of us won the battle but not the war by hijacking a lilo and paddling it some distance away from the fray. We finally give up on our efforts to lie on it and simply hang from it, chatting as we slowly drift back to the boat and another excellent meal.
After a long and leisurely lunch, it’s a short cruise to Kas where we dock in the harbour. After a quick “welcome to here” briefing from our captain we are let loose on the tiny village.
We have to confess to being underwhelmed by Kas, yes, it is pretty and charming but after a short stroll through the streets lined with shops selling touristy items we are done. We bump into some of our travel partners who feel the same way. Someone has a great idea, a cheese and wine sundowner on the harbour wall. It’s a perfect end to a long, chilled day sipping wine and chatting as the sun go down.
That evening is the famous blue cruise “pirate party” in Kas. It turns out that it isn’t very pirate, it’s simply an evening in a club. We bail! Both of us spent way too much time in clubs in our youth and we are over it. Instead, we settle for a night time stroll along the waterfront and another bottle of wine.
The Sunken City of Kekova
The last day of our cruise dawns bright and cheerful for the two of us, and much to our amusement, way too bright and cheery for some of our travel partners. On the short cruise to the sunken city of Kekova we are regaled with clubbing tales of daring do and many shots the night before. Do we feel that we missed out? Hell no!
An aura of mystery lies over the island of Kekova and the waters surrounding it. We drift slowly on the current past the ruins of human habitation on the island. A byzantine arch stands tall at the edge of the waters and in the distance Lycian sarcophagi stand proud above the water, mute survivors of the devastating earthquake that sunk the city.
But it is the many flights of stairs disappearing into the crystal, clear waters that intrigues us.
At times the light on the water is at a perfect angle revealing that the steps continue down into the depths of the sea below us. Peering through the rippling clear waters below us reveals indistinct and tantalizing shapes that are clearly man made in their symmetry but what are they? We will never know as there is no possibility of a quick snorkel to investigate, the Turkish government has understandably declared this a no swim area.
We are all so completely wrapped up in what lies beneath the water that we don’t notice our surroundings until one of our travel partners shouts out, “Look!” and points across the bay at a breathtakingly beautiful village perched precariously on a hillside. And on its crown, a daunting fortress of a castle guards the waterways beneath it.
We dock in a tiny harbour and our Captain “welcomes us to here!” Here is the quaint and almost timeless village of Simena that is only accessible by sea despite being perched on the edge of the Turkish peninsular.
Most of our travel partners march off the boat intent on exploring the castle, but I am much more interested in getting closer to one of the many Lycian sarcophagi that pop out of the water along the shoreline at the end of the village.
Strolling through Simena reminds us of what the ghost village of Kaya Koy might have been like, only in Simena there is no absence of life. Washing flaps on the line, children play a game of hide and seek in the narrow streets, the air is fragrant with the smell of Turkish home cooking, and somewhere nearby the mu’azzin calls the faithful to prayer.
Simena is like stepping into a time warp of vibrant living history covering modern to ancient times and everything in between. There are no cars and the building convention seems to be, find a flat bit and build on it. If there is an Ottoman or Lycian era ruin or structure already there, that’s ok, build on top of it or next to it.
There is no main thoroughfare through the village, instead, we find ourselves lost in a maze of single donkey wide pathways that meander around the buildings. Each corner holds a surprise, the pathways either head uphill when you expect them to go down, or downhill when you expect them to go up.
At one stage we are convinced that we are trespassing in someone’s backyard, but an old man greets us with a gentle “Merhaba” and a wave of his arm, inviting us to continue.
We eventually find the Lycian tombs but they aren’t as close to shore as I had thought and mindful of the no swimming restriction I abandon my quest to get closer to them and head off in pursuit of an ice cream. If you are ever in Simena be sure to have an ice cream, it is the most delicious home-made ice cream in the world!
Time to say goodbye.
It is a bittersweet moment as our gulet glides out of the bay towards nearby Demre where we will be leaving the gulet to continue our Turkish travel adventure on dry land. Casting my eye over my travel partners gathered together for a last, lively and delicious lunch together, I realise that my initial concerns were unfounded. In a matter of days, we have become an instant, albeit temporary travel family. Each of us is curious seeking adventure, new experiences in epic locations and most importantly, we are each in our own way 100% sociable.
We leave our blue cabin cruise with promises of a free bed when our fellow travellers make it to South Africa, awesome memories to cherish and new travel friendships that will go on into the next couple of weeks of our travels around Turkey.
CABIN CRUISING – GOOD TO KNOW:
Below deck, on the cabin cruise package is another story. The cabins are tiny with only the basics including a private closet sized bathroom and no air-conditioning. At times the noise of the diesel engines can be quite deafening down there but if you plan to spend your days below deck, you shouldn’t book a gulet!
If you are not 100% sociable preferring your own company and to be surrounded by luxury then a cabin cruise is not for you.
It’s an ocean adventure:
The weather can be unpredictable so there are no guarantees that you will get to go to certain place on the schedule.
On the plus side, it’s a unique holiday experience. You get to visit inaccessible islands, swim in the vivid blue water of the Aegean whenever you feel like it and meet like-minded people from all over the world.
Each gulet has an experienced captain who is responsible for your safety and to show you as many amazing places as the weather and time will allow.
There is a chef who prepares exquisite, fresh Turkish meals that are a delight on the eye and excess baggage on the hips.
Depending on the size of the gulet you may have one or more sailors who double up as stewards. We had one.
Do take cash with you to cover your bar tab on the gullet, entry to some of the ruins and for a spot of shopping. We only saw one ATM and that was in Kas.
Tipping is generally expected at the end of the trip, so do make sure that you have some spare cash for this. Once you see how hard your crew work to ensure that you have an amazing time you won’t begrudge a single lira of your tip.
How to book:
It appears that there is a central booking system between the gulet charters so it doesn’t seem to matter who you book with although this might have been because we booked very early in the season.
We booked online with Alaturka Blue Cruise for a specific 3-night / 4-day trip from Fethiye to Olympos and found ourselves on a 7-day cruise which we left on the fourth day.
Some of our fellow travellers booked with Busabout, others with V-Go Yachting and others simply walked up to one of the many gulet cruise shops in the Fethiye harbour.
Want to know more about our visit and thoughts on the ghost village of Kaya Koy? Click on this link.
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DISCLOSURE: I have no commercial relationship with any of the blue cruise companies mentioned above, or any of their affiliates. All photographs, except for those where I have given credit to the photographer, experiences and opinions expressed in this blog post are my own.