Set sail for the Turkish Coast

Dawn swims, deserted islands, sleeping out under the stars... Brian Patten sets sail on a Turkish gulet and finds secret treasures along the pristine shores of the Lycian Coast

Indolence without guilt: that sums up a week on a Turkish gulet. These traditional vessels, up to 35m long, provide sheer relaxation. The captain and crew not only sail the boat for you, they even prepare all your meals while you read in a shady corner, swim to a deserted island, sight-see, party and then sleep beneath the stars. To visit monuments or become a monument to idleness? The choice is yours.

Selimiye 36 42' 05" N 28 05' 06" E

My friends and I had arranged to join our gulet, Aleyna, in the harbour of Selimiye, a couple of hours from Dalaman in southern Turkey. We were to explore the Bozburun and Datca peninsulas (among the Mediterranean's most beautiful shores) and take in a taste of Greece, with an overnight stay on the Dodecanese island of Symi. Afterwards, we'd be sailing homewards to the Turkish harbour of Turunc.

On the map our journey covered a small area, but it didn't feel that way when we were afloat. With 100 or more islands – many unnamed – lush valleys and rivers, the coast here is certainly different. It's where the Mediterranean and the Aegean seas meet, and has deep inlets and fjords flanked by steeply forested hillsides. It sometimes feels – especially when you're passing shorelines covered in bamboo – more South China Sea than southern Med.

We'd arrived in Selimiye the previous night and gone straight to our cabins. Waking early the next morning, long before the crew, I tiptoed onto deck to discover that Selimiye looked a good enough place to stay for an entire holiday. Surrounded by forested hills, the village is a natural harbour that has been used by sailors for thousands of years. A dozen or so cabin cruisers and sailing boats bobbed about in the harbour along with Aleyna and a few smaller gulets, some with people still asleep on the decks and in hammocks. I walked down the creaking gangplank to explore the backstreets of the still-sleeping village, and found dishevelled gardens growing meagre crops of peppers and aubergines, and vines beneath which hens clucked and pecked in the dust. On the steps of what looked like a failed internet café, several cats and a dog were curled up asleep.

The village had the usual assortment of quayside cafés and restaurants, many with faded blue and green awnings and outside eating areas demarcated by tubs of geraniums and herbs. It seemed a pity to leave before the village was fully awake, but the joys of a restaurant belonging, so a notice said, to "Osman, The Man With The Golden Teeth" had to wait for another day. It was after 8am, and the crew and my fellow passengers were finally up and eager to be off.

We were lucky in our captain: Ahmet Ozturk has known the coast around the Bozburun and Datca peninsulas most of his life, first as a young fisherman, and now as the captain of a classy gulet. Coincidentally, his family once ran one of my favourite Turkish cafés: The Duckpond, in Fethiye, a working town that is also a popular coastal resort. Ahmet took pleasure in outwitting other boats by always finding the best anchorages at the end of each day. He was in charge of his ship without attempting to be in charge of his guests.

The first and last ports are usually fixed on a gulet holiday, but the route between can be negotiated between the captain and his guests. The usual form is to discuss the journey before setting off each morning. Providing you have given a few guidelines as to the main places you want to visit – favourite islands, interesting ruins and so on – it's advisable to leave the finer details to the captain's judgement.

Our first day was spent as we intended to go on: after a lazy lunch in a small wooded bay we sailed on to Kameriye Adasi, or Church Island. Here, while two of us swam, others lolled about in hammocks reading. When I reached the shore, the island looked deserted but for a herd of goats. There were olive terraces long gone to ruin, and the remnants of a Greek Orthodox church, probably abandoned during the Greco-Turkish conflicts of the early 1920s.

After tea, we pushed on to Dilberoglu, a place known as Flowers Bay that Ahmet promised was an ideal spot to anchor for the night.

Dilberoglu 36 50' 33" N 28 O4' 11" E

The rock formations in the hillsides around Flowers Bay were unlike anything we'd ever seen: imagine the stumps of gigantic teeth rising from the sides of a steep valley. Another discovery was Bengik Koyu, the narrowest anchorage on the Datca peninsula. The bay extends for a couple of kilometres inland,V C with a series of shallow wooded inlets that are made for good snorkelling. One of the toys on board Aleyna was a canoe in which we paddled along the shore, overhung here with pine and juniper. We swam from the boat as evening fell. In the fading light our solitary visitor, a donkey, wandered down to the water's edge to check us out. The sea was deliciously warm, though every now and then someone would yelp as he or she swam through a patch of ice-cold fresh water – the result of streams rising up from the seabed as if from underwater wells. We slept on deck, and counted the stars.

Dirsek Buku 36 42' 32" N 28 11' 00" E

At Dirsek Buku I'd hoped to spend another night out in the open, but the bay was so thickly wooded and verdant that the condensation left the deck too damp for my liking. And our cabins were so luxurious that it seemed a shame not to make use of them now and again. There are some mornings when you wake and wander out into the world knowing nothing could improve on that moment. So it was here.

The bay was so completely surrounded by hills and jagged promontories of land that I could have been in the water-filled mouth of an extinct volcano. The sea was mirror calm and I could make out three or four different species of fish. Soon the sun was over the rim of the hills, and as I climbed down the steps at the side of the boat for the first swim of the day, the cicadas were tuning up for their daily cacophony. The sun's rays fragmented as they hit the water and, looking below the surface, it was like swimming through beams of golden light.

Arnatlu Bhrno 36 39' 06" N 28 03' 00" E

After three days at sea we decided to take a little shore leave in the town that gives the peninsula its name. We moored up in Arnatlu, a rocky bay around the corner from Datca and reached the town in the gulet's tender. Our captain was meeting up with a friend called Maradona, who owned one of Datcas' best restaurants, wore a red Hawaiian shirt, and once played football (but only for a local team). Along the waterfront there were still a few clinkers, mostly 5m fishing boats with bleached awnings that had seen better days and far larger catches. But there was a buzz in the air, and laughter. Rap music and traditional Sufi folk songs merged with Turkish boy bands, and the harbour-front crowd, smelling of perfume and soap, promenaded past the fender-to-fender pleasure craft. By mid-October the locals will get their town back again, and a thousand or so holiday apartments will stare blankly once more across the sea towards Symi, a mere two hours from the Turkish coast, and our next destination.

Symi, Greece 36 39' 06" N 27 54' 25" E

Late morning and afternoon was spent in the sleepy little fishing settlement of Pedi Bay, then at four we sailed around the island into Gailos, Symi's one port and one of the most photographed harbours in Greece. Symi is picture-postcard perfect, with tiers of brightly painted Venetian mansions ranked like an amphitheatre around a horseshoe bay. As you approach by sea, the harbour's mock-Baroque clocktower dominates the skyline. Built in 1905, this tower is a copy of one across in the former Greek city of Smyrna, now Izmir in Turkey. Sailing nearer, you can see the 500 wide stone steps (known as the Kali Strata, or "Good Road") that rise to the church at the top of the town, and you start to make out the rows of windmills crenellating the high rocks behind the buildings.

For this one evening we decided not to seek refuge in an isolated bay, and instead moored beside the quay. The waterfront bustled with visitors and was busy with brightly lit restaurants and market stalls. While our captain and crew went clubbing, we were left to explore the town's interior – a maze of narrow streets and alleys, with tavernas, bars and small shops catering for locals as well as tourists. Once, Symi was one of the richest islands in the Dodecanese, the centre of the Greek sponge-fishing industry. Although the port has long been designated an architecturally protected area, it is only recently that many of the beautiful old houses in the backstreets have been restored. Among the boutiques selling the usual jewellery and local art, you can catch tantalising glimpses of flower-filled courtyards, a few of which have been turned into restaurants.

That night we retreated to our cabins rather than attempt to sleep on deck. Before sailing back to Turkey the next morning, we took a final look around the town. Symi still belonged to its inhabitants rather than to us tourists: blurry-eyed builders carried planks, Nissan trucks loaded with watermelons came down from the hills, soberly dressed office workers drank coffee in the few open cafés, and the owners of the tour-boats on the quayside sat chalking up the day's schedule.

Serce Koyu 36 34' 08" N 28 03' 00" E

You could write a book about the isolated cafés that dot the Mediterranean coastline – if they didn't come and go so quickly. Here I discovered another favourite. We moored around the headland from Serce Koyu in a narrow and secretive-looking bay guarded by two large rocks.

The bay has no formal name but it was known to Ahmet as "Pirate Bay", because some years ago the wreck of an 11th-century Byzantine ship with a cargo of exquisite glassware was found nearby. We'd spent the afternoon in Bozzukale, an ancient Dorian anchorage overlooked by a hilltop fortress.

It was here we found the Ali Baba café: a green hut with a corrugated tin roof, behind which was a water tank and a pile of wood to fuel a primitive cooking stove. Down below the hut, moored to a wooden pier, was a cabin cruiser, a grubby old catamaran and a dinghy belonging to the café's owners. Along the waterfront a couple of cows were grazing. They looked fat, as if on holiday from Devon. Equally incongruous was a huge obsolete satellite dish tied to a rock with pieces of wire and ropes. Something that had once been at the cutting edge of technology was now rusting away in the shadow of a castle built over two millennia ago during the time of the Peloponnesian Wars.

Ince Ada 36 42' 1" N 28 13' 5" E

On our last evening on board the Aleyna we moored at Ince Ada, close to Turunc. From a gulet you get a totally different view of a country. Most operators, including the company we travelled with, build places of historic interest into their sailing itineraries. But for me it is the minutiae of history that fascinates. Here on Ince, for example, we came across an ancient church in a forest. We mused about its strange situation, but then realised that, of course, the forest had grown up around it. Earlier in the day, at the water's edge, I saw a donkey rubbing its itchy behind up against a couple of large stones. The stones were part of a Byzantine ruin; a birds'-eye view of passing time.

Our week had passed quickly and defined tranquillity: the cool daytime breezes, the multitude of stars at night, the almost imperceptible rocking of the boat, the song of nightingales drifting from woods on the edge of secretive coves, swimming through sunbeams. Pure poetry.

'Collected Love Poems' by Brian Patten is published by Harper Perennial (£8.99)

Tomb Raiders: The Lost Cities of Lycia

The tombs at Patara, some 45 miles east of Fethiye, are among several interesting archaeological features that make up the ruins of this ancient city. There are baths there, too, built in Roman times; nearby is a theatre and a monumental arch; and there is a basilica dating from the later, Christian era. But it is the tombs that are a reminder of the region's origins.

They were built by the Lycians, a peace-loving people with a distinctive culture who ruled the mountainous coastal area between Fethiye and Antalya for several centuries before the arrival of either the Romans or Christianity. The tombs they built are their most striking legacy: the region is peppered with extravagant burial chambers, constructed from the local limestone, often decorated with elaborate carving.

Cultural beliefs at the time meant that tombs were usually set apart from the towns, but the Lycians had a tradition of keeping their loved ones with them, so their tombs were incorporated into their urban centres, which is why, at Patara, they were in a prominent position beside the harbour.

The tombs come in different styles. The oldest are the pillar tombs, like those in Xanthos, the ancient Lycian capital. Sarcophagi were common: one of them has survived on a shopping street in the centre of modern Kas. But the sheer variety of the Lycian style is at its most breath-taking in Pinara, whose overgrown ruins include a collection of burial chambers carved into the rock. Some were entered through elegantly carved archways; others were designed to resemble houses, complete with stone beams; a few were like pigeon holes, with small, rectangular niches cut into the rockface.

Tour operators offering trips to Lycia include Explore (0870 333 4001; www.explore.co.uk), whose eight-day Legends of Lycia trip starts at £565.

Cathy Packe

Traveller's Guide

Getting There

Scheduled flights to Dalaman depart from Gatwick on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) or from Stansted on Kibris Turkish Airlines (020-7930 4851; www. kthy.net). Charter flights depart from a range of UK airports.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico. co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

Sailing There

Brian Patten sailed on Aleyna with Exclusive Escapes (020-8605 3500; www.exclusive escapes.co.uk). Prices vary by date of departure, size of gulet and number of passengers; a week's charter of Aleyna for up to 10 costs between £720 and £980 per person, depending on the date. This includes charter flights, transfers, crew and all meals. Other operators offering gulet trips in Turkey include Anatolian Sky (0800 247 1011; www.anatoliansky. co.uk) and Thomson (0870 165 0079; www.thomson.co.uk).

You can also turn up and strike a deal with a gulet captain – though in peak season this may not generate good results.

More Information

Turkish Tourist Office, 170 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EJ (020-7839 7778; www.gototurkey.co.uk)

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