Barry White reports on the unique charter boats of Turkey.
My partner is not a great sailor. Indeed, she’s been known to feel queasy walking past a half-filled bathtub. She also enjoys a little comfort during her holiday excursions. Sleeping under the stars is fine, but only if there are five of them.
So convincing her to try a yachting holiday has always been a bridge too far, until I discovered Turkish gulets and the Blue Cruise.
Turkey’s Aegean coast has been a maritime commercial hub for millennia, with sponge diving and fishing the staple occupations of the area and a thriving trade linking the coastal towns and the offshore Greek islands of the Dodecanese group.
The origin of the modern day gulet – pronounced goo-let – is a matter of some dispute, as is the name itself, but they evolved one way or another from the traditional sailing boats used by the divers and fishermen, and the broader, larger, more stable vessels that were used to carry cargo.
Some time during the 1970s, these working craft changed course 180 degrees, morphing into a stylish motor-sailer devoted to pleasure cruising. There are now some 1500 operating out of Bodrum, halfway down the Turkish west coast, and hundreds more tied up in harbours further south.
Whatever the history, there are now three distinctive varieties which travel under the generic term gulet.
The oldest, but the least common due to its limitations in carrying passengers, is the tirhandil, which features a pointed bow and stern. The version which is most accurately called the gulet has a rounded stern and is wider in the beam, while the ayna kiç features a squared stern for even more deck and cabin space.
They are gorgeous, elegant craft, ketch- or schooner-rigged, originally built of timber such as pine, mahogany or West African teak, but also appearing in epoxy laminate or steel hull construction in more recent times.
I signed up with a group of friends for a week on the Ayse Emre, a gulet under the command of Captain Erol Erdogan. Named after his twin children, the beautiful solid mahogany two-master is 28m long and nearly seven metres at the beam. Fully laden with fuel, water, provisions, crew and sails – and 12 passengers – it weighs a remarkable 100 tonnes.
Below deck are six air conditioned double cabins with ensuite bathrooms, a galley and crew accommodation. Up top, there’s a bar cum salon, two outdoor dining areas, and numerous lounges and day beds on expansive fore and aft deck areas, tailor-made for rest and relaxation, for lying back and chilling out as you travel from bay to bay.
In addition to the captain, the crew includes a first mate who doubles as the chef and two deck hands to serve the drinks and food, among other things.
So, comfort? Check. Stability and smooth sailing? Absolutely. There’s less rock and roll here than there was pre-Elvis. It’s all a bit tame for a salty dog, perhaps, but perfect for a sea pussy. Of course, it’s not hands-on sailing.
Man of the sea
Captain Erol spent his childhood on the edge of Bodrum Harbour, literally.
“My father was a lighthouse keeper and we used to live in the Bodrum lighthouse,” the captain says. “He was also a sponge diver, so we grew up on boats. We were really born to the sea.
“In 1978 I started working on day cruise boats, then built my first gulet.”
The Ayse Emre is Erol’s fifth boat, and at today’s prices would cost him around a million Euro to build. But as classy and comfortable as it is, it’s not the best boat afloat on the Aegean. High end gulets cost up to 8000 Euro a day – around A$11,000 – but for that you do get music and cinema systems, wireless internet and satellite TV, saunas and/or jacuzzis and full blown staterooms complete with power showers, bidets, king size beds, walk in wardrobes and private lounge facilities.
Most gulets also come with a range of toys. Ours had a dinghy, a high-powered zodiac, kayaks, water skis and a ringo, snorkeling gear and fishing tackle, among other things. Blissfully, there was no jetski.
Of course, it’s not just the unique character of the gulet that delivers such an ideal holiday for land lubbers. A key element of the Blue Cruise – so-called by one of Turkey’s leading poets who was exiled to the area in the 1950s – is eating and drinking well.
Our chef was just into his second year in charge of the galley, but he produced a constant stream of stunning Turkish dishes: a magnificent casserole of baby goat, traditional Turkish dishes like mussaka, börek, fava, mücver (zucchini fritters), salads of purslane or the marshy seaweed green vegetable dish called deniz börülcesi, capers freshly picked and pickled by Captain Erol.
We also enjoyed a very respectable squid caught with a hand line off the side of the boat and a fresh grouper purchased from a passing fisherman.
“Most of our groups start off saying they want all or half of their dinners in restaurants in a town,” says Kim Gould of SJ Travel and Yachting, a company that has 14 gulets on its books.
“It’s hard to explain to them that the food in the restaurants is just not as good as you get on the boat, plus you have to pay extra for it. And in the end they eat on board.”
In the end she was right - we ate ashore just twice.
There is a trade-off in focusing on food, however. It’s just not possible to prepare sumptuous lunches and dinners on a gulet when you are travelling under sail, so cruising under engine tends to be the modus operandi of most of the Bodrum fleet.
But it’s whatever the particular group wants, says Captain Erol.
“It’s their choice. We get some parties who are happy to have sandwiches or snacks for lunch and sail as much as they can. Others just want to see the sails up once.”
When we did hoist the sheets – twice – it was an extraordinary experience. The Ayse Emre carries 450 square metres of sail on its two masts, but with all the weight that needs to be moved, it can only make around 8 to 10 knots, about the same speed it reaches under motor.
Though it lumbers rather than leaps into action, the sense of power and grace was totally exhilarating, even under the relatively light winds we encountered. Sandwiches suddenly seemed like a pretty good option. Biscuits and cheese seemed like a pretty good lunch option.
Choice is what the Blue Cruise is all about, in fact. The gulet circuit stretches from Kusadasi north of Bodrum down to the southern city of Antalya, encompassing hundreds of kilometres of heavily indented coastline.
In the 1980s the Turkish Government introduced stringent restrictions on development along the Aegean, so major sections of the coastline are uninhabited and utterly pristine, a seemingly endless collection of rocky coves and inlets, tree-lined headlands and sandy bays, all with an imposing backdrop of mountain ridges.
Unlike much of the Mediterranean, here you can escape into your own private world. We anchored alone in small bays on four successive nights, the peace and solitude exquisite, and we lost count of the private beaches we enjoyed. The unexploited nature of this part of the Aegean also has a dividend in the lack of pollution. The water is crystal clear, the visibility brilliant.
While there were few other boats most of the time, there were even fewer clouds in a week of 30-plus temperatures. Swimming, snorkeling, paddling, fishing and a lot of reading and relaxation on the day beds filled up significant parts of the day.
Top end luxury
If serenity is not your thing, the high end glitz of Göltürkbükü – the St Tropez of Turkey –sits at the other end of the spectrum. In between are the harbour resort towns of Marmaris, Fethiye or Bodrum itself, with their boutiques, bars, restaurants and markets, or a sprinkling of smaller, quieter fishing towns.
For a different experience, the Dodecanese islands are close at hand. Samos and tiny Kastellorizo are less than three kilometres from the Turkish Coast, Symi four more and Kos, Kalymnos, Rodos and Nisyros all within some 20 kilometres.
They are diverse and fascinating in their own right, and an intriguing counterpoint to the culture and cuisine – not to mention the economy – of their mainland Asian neighbour.
A journey down the Aegean is also an al fresco history lesson. Kusadasi is the gateway to the magnificent Roman ruins of Ephesus, the finest and most extensive in the Eastern Mediterranean. Further south at the tip of the Datça Peninsula are the remains of Knidos – once home to 100,000 people - while the striking cliff-face tombs of Kaunos are nearby at Dalyan.
Bodrum is also host to the renowned Museum of Underwater Archaeology, housed in the 15th Century Castle of St Peter which stands guard at the mouth of the harbor.
This is family-friendly sailing for more than one reason. It’s close to shore in protected and generally calm waters, and you can travel from bay to bay without having to cover a lot of distance. Countless anchorages afford shelter at night, whatever the prevailing winds. Of course, the fact that Captain Erol has spent more than thirty years sailing these waters also helped.
From a safety point of view, this part of the Mediterranean ticks a lot of boxes, none of them jellyfish. The Mediterranean is rated as one of the most dangerous places in the world for sharks. But that’s for sharks, not because of them. The last fatal attack in the Med was in 1989 off Tuscany, and that was the first for 15 years.
We had three young children on board, and I didn’t worry about them at all. OK, none of them were mine, but their parents also seemed totally relaxed as their offspring swam or paddled off into the distance.
The Turkish Blue Cruise is a unique experience. It’s not bareback or Benetau that you can do anywhere in the world, it’s a perfect introduction to the idea of a sailing holiday and no-one gets sea-sick. Well, almost no-one . . .
GULET FAST FACTS
Although Bodrum has the largest fleet of gulets in Turkey, they can also be chartered out of other ports like Marmaris, Gocek or Fethiye. The gulet routes reach as far north as Kusadasi/Ephesus, south-east to Antalya in the Mediterranean and to the various islands of the Dodecanese. The boats range from two to eight double cabins, with the majority fitted out with six.
Costs vary according to the season. A budget four cabin gulet can be hired for around 700 Euro per day in May or around 1300 Euro in August. Mid-range six cabin craft range from 980 Euro (low season) to 1700 (high season). The luxury-end six cabin gulet tops out at around 6000 to 8000 Euro per day for August/high season.
Food and drink is usually extra (though some charters are inclusive of all meals and local beverages). Food is purchased by the crew after input from guests on likes/dislikes and allergies etc. Beer – the local Efes – gin and tonics and campari and orange and soda were very popular. Turkish rose, also ideal for the weather, is remarkably good.
Etihad flies direct from Melbourne and Sydney to Abu Dhabi (14 hours) and then on to Istanbul (four hours). Turkish Airlines, Pegasus Airlines (from Istanbul’s second airport Sabiha Gokcen) and Atlas fly to Bodrum and Ismir.
The Australian agents for Ayse Emre and other Gulets are Mariner Boating in Sydney, telephone (02) 9966 1244.
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