Sailing Turkey's Secluded Southwestern Coast

Chartering a wooden yacht offers an affordable taste of luxury

By: Eric Wahlgren

MARMARIS, Turkey When Cleopatra and Mark Anthony wanted to get away from the pressures of ruling empires, the lovers would set sail for Turkey’s southwestern coast, or so the legend goes.

Today, it’s still easy to see why. The region’s quiet coves and secluded beaches are perfect for enjoying the dreamy turquoise water, without the crowds found in Western Europe. Trails through fragrant pine groves lead to sweeping vistas of coastal islands and the shimmering Mediterranean Sea.

The best way to escape to this unspoiled area remains by boat. These days, vacationers can take a cruise on a gulet, a wooden yacht modeled on ancient Turkish vessels yet equipped with all the latest amenities.

What’s unique about a “Blue Voyage,” as these trips are called, is the chance to experience all that exotic Turkey has to offer at a relaxing pace. It’s the ideal vacation for soaking up the sun while absorbing local culture.

On a typical day, a boat might drop anchor in spots where passengers can snorkel along the shore, tour the ruins of an ancient city, shop for carpets in a seaside village or trek to a panoramic view. Depending on the boats, kayaking, windsurfing and scuba diving may also be available. And if spending the day lazing on a sun-bed with a summer bestseller is more your speed, that’s just fine too.

Along with six friends, I took a seven-day cruise from the southern city of Marmaris to Bodrum with Mizana Yachting, a Blue Voyage operator.

For only $500 a person, we chartered a four-cabin yacht with a three-person crew. Mizana and other operators also offer cabin charters for individuals or couples. Boats typically range in size from four cabins (sleeps eight) to eight cabins (sleeps 16). Full board, including drinks, cost us an additional $150 a person for the week.

Some Americans are nervous about traveling to Turkey due to its proximity to Iraq and the terrorist bombings of Jewish and British targets in November. The U.S. State Department recommends Americans defer non-essential travel to Turkey and to exercise caution if they do go.

Turkey has made more than 40 arrests in the wake of the November attacks, said Ozgur Altan, vice consul of the Turkish Consulate General in Los Angeles. Security has also been increased in Istanbul and other areas, Altan said, adding that turkey does not believe the U.S. advisory is necessary.

“Turkey is as safe as the U.S. or anywhere else in the world,” Altan said. “We call on tourists to visit our beautiful country.”

When we went on our Blue Voyage in September, we felt perfectly safe. U.S. citizens who do travel here are finding a warm reception, fewer crowds and fantastic deals.

When we boarded the 60-foot Blue Bird in Marmaris, we were impressed by the yacht’s mahogany interior, which gave it a cozy elegance. There was a master suite, a junior suite and two smaller cabins all with queen or full-size beds, private bath and shower and air conditioning. The boat was full of nice touches too, such as his-and-her’s reading lights over the beds.

Up top, there were plenty of comfy sun-beds on the fore deck for lounging, while the canopied after deck had a table for eating and playing cards. With the boat’s CD-stereo system, we could play the music we wanted.

Our captain, Ismail Tikil, a laid-back, 30-something Turk from the Black Sea region, offered his opinion on why Blue Voyages have gained popularity in recent years: “People want to feel like they are living.”

With Tikil, a first mate and a cook at our disposal for the week, we indeed felt like jetsetters on our million-dollar yacht. But really we were just frugal travelers taking a ritzy vacation on the cheap.

Sailing the Mediterranean east from Marmaris to Fethiye is the most popular Blue Voyage route since it usually includes stops in quaint fishing ports like Gocek and a day in Oludeniz, home to one of Turkey’s most spectacular beaches.

We opted to sail the Aegean Sea west from Marmaris, rounding the crab-claw-shaped Datca Peninsula, to Bodrum. Less traveled, this coastline promised deserted coves for snorkeling and kayaking and beaches that are accessible only by boat.

One of the Blue Voyage’s special treats is getting to sample delicious Turkish cuisine. Our first evening, we dined on cucumber-and-tomato shepherd’s salad, roasted eggplant, rice pilaf and a tender leg of lamb, all washed down with a mellow Cabernet from Turkey’s Dardanelles region. Our chef’s cooking only seemed to get better along the way.

The first night, we slept in Olive Bay, a calm inlet several miles southwest of Marmaris. In fact, anchoring as far away from civilization as possible was our M.O. throughout the cruise. Boat crews are known to prefer docking in ports so they can hang out with their friends. If serenity is key, it’s a good idea to specify to tour operators when booking that sleeping in ports is not OK.

After breakfast the next morning, we motored to a horseshoe-shaped bay with a tiny island at its mouth. When I asked where we were, our captain answered with his usual smile, “Paradise.”

He wasn’t far off. As we snorkeled across Arab Bay, as it was called, to the island, we encountered schools of colorful fish.

Back on the Blue Bird, we bought a bucketful of fresh figs from two locals who had rowed up to the yacht in a small launch. The fruit made a nice snack as we watched our first mate pull silvery “kupes” out of the water, one after the other. Minutes later the flaky white fish were on our plates for lunch.

The next day, we stopped in a glassy cove near a place called Broken Castle. A motorized raft ride and a short hike later, we arrived at the ruins of a Byzantine-era fortress. Walking along the six-foot-thick ramparts, we were rewarded with views of the Aegean Sea and the Greek island of Rhodes, some eight miles away.

Blue Voyagers sailing the Marmaris to Bodrum route shouldn’t miss the little village of Selimiye for an al fresco meal at the excellent fish restaurant Sardunya. Our candlelit dinner spent savoring a generous platter of swordfish, sea bass and sea bream was one of the most memorable evenings of the trip. The $25-per-person tab, including wine, appetizers and dessert, was a steal.

A cruise highlight was a stop at Knidos, site of an ancient Greek city dating back to the sixth century B.C. We tested the 5,000-seat theater’s acoustics still excellent. But bathing in the bay with the ruins as our backdrop was simply unforgettable.

One of the best aspects of a Blue Voyage is that vacationers can design their own itineraries based on their interests.

“Blue Voyages really appeal to all types of travelers,” says Mizana’s Irfan Pinarbasi. “Businesspeople go on them for a working vacation. Families can charter a boat for a family reunion. If a group is interested in something specific like sailing, hiking or cultural tours, we can organize that too.”

Most gulet cruises depart from Marmaris, Bodrum or Fethiye, all no more than an hour-long Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul. The season runs from mid-May to mid-October, and operators recommend booking well in advance to reserve the best boats. During these months, the Mediterranean and Aegean seas are gentle. Nobody in our group got seasick.

We left the Blue Bird behind in Bodrum, one of Turkey’s liveliest resort towns. Besides the elegant Castle of St. Peter, one of Bodrum’s big draws is its noisy outdoor discos.

Instead, we headed for the hills, where our rooms at the four-star Hotel Manastir offered dramatic views of the castle and Bodrum’s postcard-perfect white dwellings. But even from our peaceful perch, all we wanted was to be back on the Blue Bird.