It is said that Turkey is the country where East meets West, bridging the gap between Europe and Asia. To its north is the Black Sea and to the west is the Aegean Sea. The Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus River divide the country. With almost 4,500 miles of coastline, there are unlimited cruising opportunities.
I became interested in cruising the coast of Turkey after getting an email from a friend who told me about an upcoming trek to Turkey she was considering that incorporated my two passions, boating and hiking. I booked it immediately.
Turkey is not yet a popular destination for American tourists and in many ways is still a mysterious land bordering Arab countries that, let’s face it, make us nervous. I am not sure what I expected to find in Turkey but after being in the country only a few days I felt right at home and witnessed places that still echo a way of life that is centuries old.
It is impractical to load your own cruising yacht onto a freighter and cruise this fabulous coastline, so the best option is hitching a ride on a Turkish gulet. A gulet is a wood motor sailing boat, the modern version of the ancient cargo bearing craft used to trade along the coast of Turkey. It has now evolved into a comfortable blue cruising boat and varies in length between 52 and 110 feet.
You can either charter a gulet privately, which includes a captain and crew, or you can explore various group charters, which is what we chose to do and recommend unless you have a very good idea of what you want to see and do on your cruise. There were 10 of us aboard for this adventure—all women.
My hiking buddy, Cindy Sternisha, who lives in Chicago, was joining me on this excursion so we met up in Istanbul for a couple days prior to heading further south to Marmaris where our charter begins. Istanbul is the second most populous city in the world—a melting pot of European and Arab nations. It would be unforgivable not to spend at least a few days in this ancient city. We took this journey in early April and it was chilly. If you want to leave your fleece at home and actually get into summer attire don’t book your excursion until May.
As this is a cruising story, I won’t go into all there is to see in Istanbul—the Blue Mosque, the ancient cisterns, Hagia Sophia Museum, and the Egyptian Spice Market are only a few places we visited between one exotic meal after another. Plan to spend at least two full days here before heading south to the coast. This is an extremely welcoming city for tourists of all nations. Whether it was daytime or nighttime, we felt completely safe walking throughout the old city. Most Turks spoke very good English and were anxious to practice.
After a short flight from Istanbul to Dalaman we drove south to Marmaris to board the 88-foot wood gullet, owned and operated by Anne Edelston and Adil Bektas of Meridian Travels & Yachting. The particular gulet offered nine passenger cabins (four twin cabins and five double cabins), all with ensuite private bathrooms.
Anne, our British hostess, told me the gulet was purchased in 2007 and that there were significant upgrades made since the purchase. To name a few, there were new beds/soft furnishings, new passarella, and new jib furling, as well as air conditioning in all cabins. During our cruise, the gulet was never under sail, always operating on its Caterpillar 360hp single inboard motor. The enclosed wheelhouse is quite large with windows all around providing 360-degree views. Included in this space were the dining table, galley, and bar. On less windy evenings, the aft deck was our preferred dining space. The crew included Anne, the Captain Adil who is Turkish, and two crewmembers, one doubling as our chef. Our interaction with all but Anne was fairly limited. This was a cohesive crew and everyone knew their duties. Anne took the role as den mother.
Our itinerary included cruising south along the coastline from Marmaris to Fethiye Bay and the Gocek islands with daily hikes in between. Anchoring out most evenings in secluded coves, we spent our days walking ancient Roman paths from small village to village with Anne leading the way. Most of the coast, from what I could tell was virtually undeveloped and we were shuttled from the gulet to the shore via an Orca RIB. From that point, most of our hikes pretty much began with a climb up to the top of a mountain ridge, and onward to another cove where the gulet awaited our arrival.
Marmaris, our starting point, is a well-developed resort town popular with Europeans and Turks. As such, you will find the usual array of souvenir shops and cafés along the marina basin. Marmaris is famous for its bars and unending nightlife, which we found surprising in a country with approximately 98 percent Muslims. This area of Turkey, in general, is extremely diverse in religious tolerance. While we did hear the Adhan (call to prayer) resounding across the country daily no matter where we were, few locals seemed to pay much attention. I can speak only of the western portion of the country that we visited. We were told that the eastern areas—west meaning west of Ankara, the capital—are more conservative in their religious views. We met very few American tourists on our visit and we got the impression that the Turks are quite keen on changing that.
The next morning we cruised south for several hours, anchoring in Ekincik Bay. We hiked a path around the bay ending at the ruins of Caunos. Caunos dates back to at least the fourth century, and the ruins mark its long and varied history before becoming part of the Roman Empire. After lunch, we headed up the Dalyan River in a small riverboat to explore the salt flats and cliff side Lycian tombs. For you history buffs, ancient ruins appear around every turn in the country and it’s not just Roman ruins; it’s Byzantine ruins atop Roman ruins, and the Ottoman influence everywhere.
After a hearty dinner and good night’s rest, we cruised toward Fethiye Gulf, anchoring in a small cove to climb above the water on a coastal path before turning inland on an old Roman mule track on our way to the Roman settlement at Lydae. Our path skirted through woodlands along a gorge, ending in yet another stunning view of the sea below. We descended to Manastir Bay and the ruins of Cleopatra’s Bath, where our Gulet was anchored. According to legend, Mark Anthony built the baths as a wedding gift to Cleopatra where they found a hot water spring in that part of the bay.
Day after day, we cruised, seeing no other boats and taking in beautiful vistas of unspoiled real estate. After a week of seeing virtually no one it was a shock to arrive at our southern most destination, Gocek. Gocek sits in the intersection of the Mediterranean and Aegean Turkey. It is a small seaside farming village, which has turned into the top yachting center of Turkey. It lies on a valley surrounded by hills on three sides. Walking just a few blocks from the main section of town, houses still have gardens and orange, tangerine, grapefruit, and lemon trees cover sidewalks. There are approximately 16 charter companies, four marinas, and many supporting businesses within the small downtown area. Boats from dinghies to multi-million dollar superyachts cover the entire bay. There is no beach in Gocek and most people claim this is the main reason why the city preserved most of its original beauty, unlike many other Turkish resorts that were changed by mass tourism. Gocek was home to Lycian civilizations, and rock tombs dating two thousand years back could be seen outside the village.
Very limited dockage exists along the coastline outside of the major resort towns. The Captain could navigate the gulet extremely close to the shoreline in the bays and coves—it was clearly very deep water or just a fearless captain. We did not see a navigational buoy or any type of navigational aid anywhere. I never heard the VHF radio on. Tying up in several of the bays required the lines to be set in a manner I have never seen using large boulders on the shore. The dinghy would shuttle the spring lines to several large boulders and lines were set in this fashion. Mostly, we just dropped anchor. Cruising this area of Turkey is about as fundamental as it gets.
Other than Marmaris and Gocek, there were no resort towns that we saw underway. This beautifully unspoiled coastline offers more ancient ruins than Turkey can catalog. Photographs are truly the only way to communicate the absolute beauty of the countryside. Hiking along the Roman foot trails, with only sheep and goat as our audience, one could only wonder how all this could remain such a secret for so long. Along our paths, goat herders’ wives would welcome us to their small one-room homes, offering us sage tea. These country folks are living very rustic lives yet they appeared far happier and friendlier than many people I know who live a life of luxury.
During out trip, we hiked a minimum of five miles a day but I still gained weight on this charter. The Mediterranean dishes our talented chef prepared in his small galley were exemplary. I dread to think how much more I would have gained were we not trekking daily. The sharing of a meal in the Turkish culture is one of the most important things that families do. Food in Turkey is an important cultural factor, which should never be compromised or forgotten. It would be hard to forget.
I have seen many places around the world, but none of them have captured me as much as Turkey. So, to all those I met along my journey, I thank you for your hospitality, your conversation, and most of all your warm welcome.