BODRUM, Turkey — Gulet is pronounced the way it is written. This seems to bother visitors who come to cruise the Aegean coast on these traditional Turkish motorsailers. Actually, one of the nice things about Turkey is that most words are pronounced as they are written–like Bodrum, the southeastern harbor town which is a center for “Blue Voyage” gulet cruising.
Gulets trace their ancestry to Turkish fishing and sponge-diving boats. But today’s ships owe more to the 1940s and the introduction of diesel engines or, you might argue, more to the 1980s and the introduction of large numbers of European tourists to the Turkish coast.
Yet gulets remain extremely distinctive. They are hand-built entirely of wood. While other materials could be substituted for wood, wood craftsmanship is still highly prized in Turkey.
Gulets vary in size from 50 feet to over 100 feet in length, with broad, rounded sterns and heavy wooden keels to facilitate sailing. But mostly, they ply the coast under power–their crews hoist the sails only when breezes are stiff, which is seldom in the summer months.
There are two ways to charter a gulet. You either book a gulet for a week, fill it with your friends and select your route through the Turkish and Greek isles, or you book a cabin–a “cabin charter”–and the crew selects the itinerary. The latter has many advantages, not the least of which is that the crew tend to head to coves close to their villages and one member, or more, will set off to visit his family, leaving the passengers to swim in the extraordinarily clear Aegean waters or lounge on the divans in the ship’s stern.
While the tourist destinations on Turkey’s Aegean coast are rapidly being developed, the rest of the shoreline remains as unpopulated it was in the time of Herodotus, the 5th-century Greek historian who was born in Bodrum. Pristine mountains slide deep into the sea, allowing the gulets to anchor very close to shore, and passengers to swim quite easily to the spotty beaches. (A warning: Most Bodrum Peninsula beaches are slivers of sand, strewn with stones and infested with sea urchins. So when you swim from ship to shore, it is a good idea to wear or carry some kind of foot protection.)
Gulets sail from Bodrum, but also from Marmaris in the Eastern Mediterranean, and a few other coastal locations. American tourists are few and Europeans are plentiful on Turkey’s Aegean coast. The close German-Turkish connection has made the coast a prime destination for German tourists, and even for corporate retreats. We learned on our cruise that DaimlerChrysler had hired a fleet of gulets for customers and staff.
We had been hoping to take a gulet cruise for several years and finally hooked up–via the Internet–with a tour operator that offered us a seven-day cabin charter, including food, for $730. It was so inexpensive we feared that we might be sailing on an untidy ship with brigands for crew. In fact, although we were on the low end of the luxury scale, we wanted for nothing and were served by an indefatigable three-man crew
Our cabin was comfortable with three windows, not portholes, and a bathroom with a shower, sink and toilet. Hot water was plentiful when the captain had the generator turning–and he happily fired it up whenever we wished. We were asked not to put paper in the toilets which, not to put too fine a point on it, is because the gulets discharge directly into the sea. It was up to us to keep our small cabins tidy, and we were provided with one set of linens and towels for the duration of the cruise.
We were 10 passengers, one of whom, Deniz Ugur, a Turkish-speaking German who books gulet cruises and has taken 30 of them, said our gulet would only rate a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. But he added that he preferred the gulets at the low end of the market because they were more authentic than the luxurious ones.
If your idea of cruising is perpetual attendance at the buffet line, then the gulet experience is not for you. At three set times a day, we ate traditional Turkish meals, dominated by eggplant, tomato and string bean salads; bulgur, rice and orzo; yogurt; black and green olives; sheep-milk cheese; small servings of meat and fish; fresh fruit; and an occasional cake. All our meals were accompanied by fresh Turkish bread, purchased in the villages and towns that dot the peninsula. These oval-shaped loaves owe something to French bread, and are as common in Turkish villages and towns as baguettes are in Paris. One crew member did almost all of the cooking, in addition to his many other duties. And a French couple aboard our gulet, the Skorpio, who operate a restaurant in Lyon, had nothing but praise for the food.
Turkey is proud of its wine-making, which dates back to 3000 B.C. We found the red wines–especially those of Villa Doluca–to be extremely good, and the white and rose wines to be less memorable. Over the years, the price of Turkish wines has shot up, and on the Skorpio, a bottle was going for about $25–neither a bargain nor too punitive. Raki, an aniseed-flavored grape brandy, similar to Greek ouzo, was very popular with the guests and the crew alike.
Which brings us to the issue of Islam. You are little aware that Turkey is a Muslim country, except for the calls to prayer in the towns. The coastal tourist destinations are cosmopolitan and secular–few Muslim women wear headscarves and European women go topless on the beaches. However, as you travel east in Turkey, you are much more aware of the influence of Islam.
Turkey remains one of the safest tourist destinations in the Middle East. Driving on Turkish roads is more of a threat to one’s personal safety than terrorism.
While cruising the Aegean can be inexpensive and quite joyous, getting there is something else. If you are traveling from the United States, you have to fly to Istanbul and transfer to a local carrier to your coastal destination. We flew on Turkish Airlines from Istanbul to Bodrum. It was short flight and a short ride to the harbor. Our fellow French cruisers, who had not been well advised, flew to Izmir and then drove two-and-a-half hours to Bodrum.
The gulet operator offered us a few shore excursions, which included a visit to a white-sand beach on Cleopatra’s Island, in the Gulf of Golkova. Legend had it that the Mark Antony had the sand brought to the island’s cove from Eqypt for his lover, Cleopatra. We had the tiny beach to ourselves in late May. But during the summer months, it is overrun with excursion-boat passengers.
On a day trip to Dalyan, we took a short boat ride through the reed beds of the Dalyan River to Iztuzu Beach (called “Turtle Beach” by local operators). The beach is one of the last nesting sites in the Mediterranean of the loggerhead turtle. We did not see any loggerheads on the beach, just lager-head tourists.
Also on the riverboat ride, we saw the splendid facades of Lycian rock tombs at Kaunos, an ancient city near Dalyan, which suffered from endemic malaria.
We went to the hot mud baths near Dalyan. Give them a pass, unless you have children in tow. But do not pass up a visit to a Turkish hamam, or bathhouse. A Turkish hamam is a hot marble room, ringed with hot- and cold-water faucets, wooden buckets, sponges and soap. You can either scrub and rinse yourself, or let one of the attendants do it for you. Traditional hamams have sexually segregated baths. At the modern Bodrum Hamam, which we visited on our return to Bodrum, men and women wore swimsuits and bathed together.
Delightful as the shore visits can be, it is the gulet that makes the trip. The sea’s 60-foot depth keeps the water cool and the most popular activity is jumping or diving off the gulet into the extraordinarily clear water and swimming to shore. While the bigger gulets carry all sorts of water toys, the Skorpio was humbly equipped with a motorized dinghy to ferry us to shore, should we need it.
Even if you are a bit jaded by fancy cruises, taking a slow wooden boat to nowhere on the Aegean Sea is very memorable. We probably did not go more than 50 miles from Bodrum, but we traveled thousands of years down history’s ladder to places where, for the most part, nothing has changed.
Travelers usually fly to Bodrum through Istanbul and will need a single-entry visa. Travelers can obtain a visa at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, but to avoid delay at the airport, get a visa before leaving the United States.
We booked our gulet cabin charter through Bodrum-based Aegean Tour Travel (aegeantourtravel.com, 90-252-313-0722, 3 Cafer Pasa Caddessi). Their charters run from May to September, departing every Sunday from Bodrum, and every Saturday from Marmaris.
The Greek poet Homer described Bodrum, known in ancient times as Halicarnassus, as “the land of eternal blue.” The city’s history goes back 5,000 years. During the reign of the Carian king Mausolos (c 376-353 BC) the city flourished. Mausolos’s white marble tomb, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, dominated the city’s skyline for nearly 19 centuries. By the early 15th century, the tomb lay in ruins. The Knights Hospitaller, based on Rhodes, used some of the stones to build the imposing Castle of St. Peter. In 1522, Bodrum came under the rule of the Ottoman Sultan Sulayman the Magnificant.
These days, Bodrum is known as the land of eternal play. There is a vibrant cruise and club culture in city and the nearby towns of Turgutreis and Ortakent.
Bodrum’s cafe scene, especially around the harbor front, is also vibrant. Before boarding our gulet, we lunched very well at the Tranca Bar and Restaurant (Cumhuriyet Caddesi, No. 36), which specializes in fresh fish. We shared a simple swordfish kebab and an Ottoman court dish of shrimp on a bed of smoked, pureed eggplant and melted cheese. And we had a splendid view of the Aegean and the Crusader castle from our terrace table. On our return to Bodrum, we headed to Kortan Restaurant (Cumhuriyet Caddesi, No. 32) for dinner. The restaurant is located in an old stone house. We both ordered the grilled catch of the day (sea bass), a bottle of Kavaklidere red wine, and watched the sun set from our sea-facing table. While Tranca and Kortan were pricey, Bodrum abounds with inexpensive cafes that serve everything from full English breakfast, to fast-food (kebabs, hamburgers and pizzas), to ice cream sundaes and Turkish coffee and pastries. We enjoyed Ali Baba and Panorama, two cheap-and-cheerful cafes facing the harbor.
Bodrum’s old bazaar is a manageable size. Two shops to try: Cercim, which specializes in copies of Carian and Ottoman jewelry, and Ali Guven, a sandal-maker known for his traditional designs with a modern twist.
We stayed a night at the Azka Otel, a big, modern hotel not from the city center. Azka’s rooms were clean but not cozy. The hotel had a nice beach and pool, where the mostly European guests parked all day. Water taxis–really converted fishing boats–left every 20 minutes for Bodrum harbor from a dock that was a short beach walk from the Azka.