Turquoise Coast: Brian Patten takes to the water

Get off the road, get in a boat. The best way to see south-west Turkey is to cruise its coast in a gulet. It's a style of holiday that has got the poet Brian Patten hooked...
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The Independent Travel

Over the past decade, the harbourfront of Gocek - formerly a simple Turkish fishing village - has all but trebled in size. Each year, the harbour walls and pontoons beside which sailing ships, expensive motor launches and humble fishing boats are moored seem to accommodate more - and larger - vessels. Holidaying afloat has never been more popular in Turkey. And Gocek's location on one of the country's most beautiful stretches of seaboard, known as the Turquoise Coast, makes it an ideal point of departure for the many tourist gulets that crowd the marina, their masts a floating forest of pine.

Our love affair with boats began when my partner and I rented a 10ft dinghy. Coastal roads can be hair-raising in places like Greece and Turkey. We decided that exploring the local towns and villages, most of which were coastal, made more sense by boat than by car, and so boat-hire became an essential part of our holiday. It didn't take long to progress from a 10ft to a 100ft boat - in other words, a gulet.

Gulets - traditional twin-masted wooden ketches - were originally cargo boats and their design has changed little over the past few centuries. The only difference is that their cargo nowadays consists of holidaymakers rather than pots, pans, silks and spices. Cruising Turkey's coastal waters on these lovely vessels - not just for day trips, but for whole weeks at a stretch - is becoming more inviting, as people realise it need not be more expensive than other upmarket holidays. Where once a group of friends might have clubbed together to rent a large house, now a whole gulet, with skipper, can be hired just as easily. My partner and I discovered this wonderful fact a few years ago - and we are hooked.

Our favourite - Mr Temohte, owned by Mehmet Okcu - was once one of the larger gulets available in Gocek - 30 metres (98ft) with seven double cabins and a huge deck. Even more luxurious boats are now appearing, but Mr Temohte meets the needs of all but the most fastidious of landlubbers. And, with only six of us on board, we were utterly spoilt for space. If anyone wanted to be alone for a while, there were hideaways a-plenty - on deck or below, in the sun or in the shade. The cabins were hardly used on our seven-day trip. Sleeping on deck is part of the fun of a gulet holiday, and hugely comfortable.

Before setting sail, Gocek is worth a visit. Though the town doesn't have much of historic interest, the main square with its little shops and cafés is a pleasant place to wind down after your flight. According to local legend, it was near Gocek that Icarus made his ill-judged flight. I'd always thought it was while he was somewhere off the coast of Crete that, having been given wings to escape from the Minotaur's Labyrinth, Icarus flew too near the sun and came crashing down into the sea. But try telling that to the locals. He might have set off from Crete, they concede, but it was in one of the many bays near Gocek that he crashed.

After the first night, when we joined the ship in Gocek, we never spent another evening in an inhabited place. Instead, we anchored overnight in wooded bays, out of sight of villages and towns. We visited places of historic and ecological importance, such as the protected beaches in the region - breeding grounds for loggerhead turtles, and occasionally we jumped ship to sight-see, but not for long.

Life aboard a gulet can be pretty indulgent, and the temptation after a while is to stay put, but the small town of Fethiye is well worth disembarking for, no matter how lazy you've become. One of the more interesting places to eat after spending time in the bazaar, where you can find the usual spices, rugs and fake designer watches, is the wonderfully named Duck Pond Café. It is a delightful oasis. You can shelter beneath sun-bleached awnings and eat homemade food, or simply drink a glass of wine or a beer while watching ducks chase each other around a large man-made pond built into the side of what might or might not be an ancient ruin.

In this area of Turkey, it is sometimes hard to differentiate between a 50-year-old ruin and something more than 1,000 years old. In Fethiye, numerous Lycian stone sarcophagi can be found, as often as not, in someone's back garden. (Something about antiquities obscured by washing-lines draped with billowing underwear gives one a new perspective on history. A sort of Ozymandias moment.)

Most gulets have set routes, though, within reason, the time spent visiting various places can be negotiated. One of the luxuries of privately hired gullets is that you can decide on your own route, provided the boat ends up at a destination that corresponds with its normal schedule. One of the more interesting excursions on our route, arranged by our captain, was a trip on a small boat deep into the Dalyan delta, one of Turkey's most magical natural phenomena. At the head of the delta is Lake Koycegiz, formerly the region's natural harbour. But silting over the centuries has created vast mazes of reed-hidden streams that meander lazily towards the open sea. Sailing slowly upstream through quiet backwaters in little riverboats with reed canopies, passing waterfront restaurants on stilts, gives one a feeling of being somewhere different - an experience that is growing rare in Europe, which seems more and more homogenised.

The feeling that one is visiting a different, magical place is confirmed when, deep within the delta, one suddenly comes upon the awesome sight of 3,000-year-old, cliff-top tombs. Carved like mansions into the rock face high above the water, they were created to house the dead from the ruling families of the ancient maritime kingdom of Lycia. Lower down are the Carian tombs, which, compared with what the Lycians left behind, are simplicity itself. Both sets of ruins are accessible, though in the heat you need to be fit to clamber up the rocks on the river's right bank to reach them.

The only off-putting sight of the entire trip was a hastily cut-short visit to Lake Koycegiz's mud baths, a place trumpeted as a health centre for people suffering from rheumatic and dermatological problems. Imagine hoards of overweight, semi-naked, sunburnt and blistered western tourists squeezed together in pools of slimy mud. One ancient custom too many.

And we never managed to visit the ruins of the ancient city of Loryma, a popular stopping off point, which could have been the next port of call after the Dalyan delta. They are on a hill overlooking the Gulf of Bozukkale, but by then we had had a surfeit of ruins. There will always be places left unvisited on such voyages, and getting the balance right can be tricky. For us, the astonishing beauty of the coast more than compensated for missing any number of ruins.

There came a point when destinations failed to matter. Time leaked away. Mr Temohte sailed through coves and bays that were interchangeable in their beauty. In one, we marvelled at mosaics. In another we sailed over the submerged ruins of Roman baths. In another we watched a family of goats ambling idly across a pebble beach. And so it went on. Most of the bays were uninhabited, though occasionally we moored somewhere that had a café or a restaurant, places built solely to service independent yachts and gulets. Swimming ashore for an evening drink felt almost as indulgent as drinking bucks fizz for breakfast.

Wherever we sailed, we passed islands that looked translucent in the misty distance. When we anchored for the night, the ship would rock almost imperceptibly beneath the moon-cast shadows of ruined castles, or opposite the ghostly outlines of groves of olives and pine.

Landwards, we saw mountains glowing like vast red embers in the evening light, and when we bedded down, beneath us, the deep calm waters seemed to breathe in the moonlight. Lying there, it was easy to imagine ourselves in the 17th or 18th centuries as a warm offshore breeze blew through the rigging creating sweet, flute-like sounds. It was impossible to become blasé about the billion and one stars above us, or about how the Milky Way streamed silver through the night. We were constantly surprised by incandescent shooting stars - so many that we ran out of wishes. We fell asleep counting them, not to be woken until the cricket-like cicadas scratched away at the pre-dawn silence. These are not the normal experiences shared by friends or families on holiday. And they are all the more wonderful for it.

Captain Mhemet is building another gulet. He should christen her Indolence; there would be no better name. If you want a peaceful holiday, this is it. Choose your company well and you couldn't hope for a more peaceful, blissed-out week or two anywhere in the Mediterranean or Aegean.

My top shopping

Occasionally our ship was visited by little boats, mostly 14 foot long or less.

There was a red boat selling newspapers and a blue boat with a raggedy awning selling ice-cream. Our favourite was the pancake boat. This was occupied by a couple frying pancakes on a tiny primus stove. The pancakes - gozleme - are a traditional dish, served with meat, cheese or sweet fillings.

My favourite food

Mezes - small dishes served as starters - are available throughout Turkey. Typically, they include cacik (yogurt with cucumber and garlic), piyaz (bean salads) and borek (pastries filled with feta cheese or mince). Regional specialities commonly found in south-west Turkey include manti (ravioli) and menemen (eggs scrambled with tomatoes and peppers).

Brian Patten and his friends travelled on 'Mr Temohte' with Exclusive Escapes (020-8605 3500; hiddenturkey .com). A week's charter of 'Mr Temohte' in high season for the maximum group of 14 costs £715 per person, including return flights to Dalaman (about 30 minutes from Gocek), all meals on board and bottled water. Other drinks cost extra. For people happy to take a chance on their travelling companions, book a double cabin when the boat is not on private charter. The price per person for standard double cabins ranges from £400 to £700, according to season