Voyage of discovery

Turkey's coastline is a treasure-trove of deserted beaches, ancient villages and turquoise seas. Linda Cookson explores on a traditional gulet

The dolphins came on the very last day. A mother and babies, they swam right alongside us. Weaving and winding beneath the water in the shadow cast by the boat, they took on a deep and mysterious blue - the blue of petrol or smoke. Yet as they took their leave in a succession of glorious leaps and dives, they were suddenly creatures of light. We watched as they flashed over the waves in silvery arcs before vanishing from view. It was the perfect end to a perfect week.

The dolphins came on the very last day. A mother and babies, they swam right alongside us. Weaving and winding beneath the water in the shadow cast by the boat, they took on a deep and mysterious blue - the blue of petrol or smoke. Yet as they took their leave in a succession of glorious leaps and dives, they were suddenly creatures of light. We watched as they flashed over the waves in silvery arcs before vanishing from view. It was the perfect end to a perfect week.

We were on board the Mr Temohte, a beautiful Turkish gulet. A twin-masted ketch, crafted out of pine from the thick green forests that fringe Turkey's south-west coast, she was built in the traditional style. At 30m long, she had space enough outside for sitting, dining and sunbathing, as well as seven double cabins that fitted snugly below deck. She had been our private ocean-going paradise for seven days, and we had chartered her jointly as a group of friends for little more than the shared cost of renting a large Mediterranean villa. What's more, all of our meals were provided, so there was no arguing about the washing up. And our swimming pool was second to none.

Turkey has 8,300km of shoreline. Our 140km voyage was along the exquisite Turquoise coast - so named because of the blue of the water. With Mehmet Okcu - the gulet's builder and owner - at the helm, we set sail from the small wooded port of Gocek, to the north-west of the Gulf of Fethiye. Over the magical days that followed we meandered lazily south-eastwards, exploring deserted islands and hidden coves within the Gulf itself before sailing the length of the fabulous rugged seaboard that was once the ancient maritime kingdom of Lycia.

Travelling by sea gave us wonderful privileges. We saw and visited areas that can be reached only by water. We had access, as we followed the coast, to an unbroken view of the ever-changing landscape - the complete jigsaw, as it were, rather than individual pieces glimpsed in isolation. And all of this was made possible without effort on our part. We were relieved of the unnecessary dramas of hairpin bends and melting tarmac in an overheating hire car. Instead, ably steered by our crew of four, we could relax dreamily into a moving film set of new locations. The chill-out factor of a gulet holiday even extends, quite literally, to assuring comfortable temperatures. The sea is pleasantly cooler than the land in high season. On the water, the otherwise oppressive heat of July or August is tempered by fresh air and soft winds.

Over our seven lazy days we seemed to sail through a succession of worlds and time zones. Scented forests of pine, juniper and oak gave way to wild and towering mountains that plunge into the sea. The colourful congregation of sun-worshippers, paragliders and windsurfers at the stunning blue lagoon of Olu Deniz - Turkey's most photographed beauty spot - melted away as we entered the stony world of western Lycia, land of the long-dead. Whole stretches of coastline were eerily silent; the departed population now only evident in cliff tombs set high into rock faces and ancient sarcophagi scattered at sea level. Only the occasional clank of goat bells confirmed that, somewhere hidden in the mountains, life continued.

The lovely Patara beach - 20km of deserted dunes allegedly the winter holiday haunt of Apollo but now a protected breeding ground for loggerhead turtles - led us back to the land of the living. Tourists and backpackers gathered at its eastern end, queueing dutifully for beer and burgers at a rickety café. From there it was only an hour or so to the lively little harbour towns of Kalkan and Kas, and - for the serious shoppers on board - a welcome opportunity to hit the local markets.

Our time on the gulet was a restful balance between anchoring in quiet bays for swimming and relaxation, and mooring up in small harbours where we could disembark. Our final visit ashore, before returning to dock at Kalkan, was to Ucagiz, a rustic fishing village in the Bay of Kekova, overlooked from across the water by the ruined Crusader castle of ancient Simena. This was everyone's favourite stop - even though the harbour has become a bit hectic as the village's popularity as a boat destination has increased.

The moment we landed, women in headscarves and nut-brown children in shorts and tiny T-shirts converged from all directions. We were assailed with baskets of embroidery and tray after tray of bracelets threaded with the traditional blue beads that are said to protect wearers from the "evil eye". But the atmosphere was consistently friendly - and the short walk into the crooked back streets behind the waterfront was a step back into a previous century. Chickens pecked at grain in the dusty back yards of tumbledown houses. Cats snoozed on window ledges next to olive-oil cans that had been planted with geraniums and sunflowers. Men in sailors' caps played dice games on doorsteps.

We dined like princes on Mr Temohte. The standard breakfast was fresh fruit with bread, feta cheese, tomatoes and cucumber, but each day also brought some new treat or other - from scrambled eggs or grilled bacon through to traditional burek (stuffed filo pastry rolls, in this case containing hot dog sausages). Lunches and suppers consisted of wonderful meat or fish grills accompanied by salad meze, each dish individually prepared from local vegetables. The variety of food on board was all the more amazing given the simplicity of the ingredients. After passionate entreaties for recipes, Mehmet let us help in the galley one day and showed us how to make a delicious carrot salad consisting of nothing other than grated carrot fried in shallow olive oil with snips of parslane (similar to coriander), freshly crushed garlic and a spoonful of crushed dried red chilli peppers - all bound together with yoghurt.

Evening meals were long affairs, with stories told round the table late into the night under a canopy of gathering stars. Mehmet and the crew joined in one night, with a succession of traditional "Hoja" tales, including the cautionary legend of a philosophical hen. Despite having perfectly good beds to go to in our cabins, it wasn't long before we were unable to tear ourselves away, even for a few hours, from the sea and the sky. By the end of the week everyone was sleeping under the stars. The gentle rocking of Mr Temohte, the water slopping softly against her bows and the rhythmic creak of the master sail, became an essential component of sleep. The most evocative sound of all was the metallic hum of the breeze in the rigging. It felt like the guardian spirit of the boat. Perhaps it was.

Over the course of our week we learned a great deal about Turkey - its history, its people, its seas, skies and tides. But the gorgeous scenery and the opportunity to visit small local communities were only one aspect of our gulet trip. Life on board the boat was an equally important part of the experience. We had the shared pleasure, as a group of friends, of chatting, swimming, eating, drinking and playing water games - all in the most spectacular surroundings. The warmth and clarity of the water were as unforgettable as the apricot dawn that accompanied the first swim of each day.

Captain Mehmet and his crew were an essential link between us and the country we were visiting, personifying the hospitality for which Turkish people are famous. Without ever intruding they joined in the spirit of our holiday - providing laughter, information and some unforgettable meals.

On the last day of our trip, during our sad farewell drink at our final waterside café, we watched a cat gazing agitatedly from the jetty out to the water. He was eyeing up a small duck house that had been strategically built on a raft to ensure that its young occupants remained out of reach of feline jaws. His frustration was palpable. As we sipped our beers it crossed my mind that, before this trip, the whole notion of private boat charters had seemed to me to be the exclusive preserve of the rich and famous - spoilt ducklings keeping themselves expensively apart from the hoi polloi. The holiday of a lifetime had been an eye-opener.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Linda Cookson and her friends travelled on Mr Temohte with Exclusive Escapes (020-8605 3600 (brochure); 020-8605 3500 (bookings); www.exclusiveescapes.co.uk). No private charter slots are left for 2004, but special offer prices for 2005 are now published on the website. At these prices, a seven-day sole charter for a group of 10 friends (the boat can take up to 14) will cost from £740-£820 per person according to season, including flights from London to Dalaman (about 30 minutes from the embarkation point at Gocek) and all meals on board. The only extra is the cost of drinks on board (though bottled water is provided free of charge).

For people happy to take a group holiday with strangers, the cost is even less. When the boat is not in use on private charter, standard double cabins are now available for 2005 at £500-£625 per person and master cabins at £600-£725 (also inclusive of flights and meals). In 2004, the only remaining cabin availability is for the week of 9 October (when the gulet will travel from Kalkan to Gocek, Linda Cookson's route in reverse). The all-inclusive cost per person of standard and master cabin hire for that week is £500 and £600 respectively.

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