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Cruising the Turquoise Coast

Classical Ruins and Uncrowded Beaches Are Just Part of the Allure of Sailing Turkey's Southern Mediterranean

March 30, 2003|Amanda Jones | Amanda Jones last wrote for the magazine about sailing the islands of Tonga.

There are few joys to growing older, but one is affording the things that were infinitely beyond our grasp as youngsters. Here's a happy example:

The year is 1986. A 23-year-old girl and her boyfriend are in Fethiye, a seaside town on Turkey's southern Mediterranean, known variously as the Turquoise, or Blue, Coast. The couple are traveling on the proverbial shoestring. One afternoon they watch as a splendid wooden ship cuts through amber sunset waters and enters the harbor. It's a private charter and the guests laugh raucously as their white-shirted crew lowers the gangplank for their descent to the dock.

"Imagine," our young traveler sighs. The boyfriend notes her envy, leans over and quietly says, "That'll be us one day."

That girl was me and I married the boyfriend shortly thereafter, partly for his optimism. Sixteen years and two children later, we fulfilled his promise. Last summer we assembled a group of friends, chartered one of those splendid wooden boats, known as a gulet, and triumphantly returned to the coast of Turkey. It was a time of relative calm before a war with Iraq loomed, and, in any event, our destination was more than 900 miles across Syria and the Mediterranean Sea from the Iraqi border.

One does not go to southern Turkey solely for its lovely beaches, which happen to be less crowded than those of neighboring Greece, but for its ancient history. Stone Age man abandoned the cave and planted the world's first crops here. It is the setting of Homer's Odyssey. Alexander the Great conquered it, and legend has it that Cleopatra visited, St. Paul toured, Hadrian traded and St. Nicholas (of Santa Claus fame) was born in the region. The world's earliest historian, Herodotus (5th century BC), wrote that if the gods ever vacated heaven in favor of earth, they would settle on the Turquoise Coast.

To locate the perfect boat, we sifted yachting company Web sites for those whose e-mail responses were legible, whose boats were child-friendly and whose costs best fit our budget. Prices varied greatly, with some exorbitant and others so cheap that it frightened us.

Post 9/11, yacht charter bookings had dropped off in the Turkish Mediterranean. Having been to Turkey, we knew it was a modern Islamic nation and the people were educated and tolerant. We had no safety concerns; in fact we had less than when we traveled through Europe. And our timing meant we benefited from the weak euro, the sparse tourism and the fact that charter companies were willing to negotiate on price.

We settled on a company called Tropical Sails out of El Paso, Texas. The price, when divided by the number of individuals the boat could accommodate, was astonishingly affordable. A week's charter, not including food and drink, was $850 per person for 12 people. Food was an additional $175 per person. There was an eight-cabin, 78-foot boat available in late August. It had a crew of three--a captain, a cook and a deckhand--and it appeared to have the best value for what was considered a luxury cruise

I contacted friends we could tolerate in close quarters for eight days: an unmarried couple from Seattle and friends from London with their 4-year-old daughter and 10-month-old son. They joined my husband and me and our two daughters, Indigo, 4, and Sofia, 3. We had invited one other couple who were forced to cancel at the last moment, which brought the number down to 10 people, but the charter company gave us the same price of $850 a person. In the end it worked well, as six adults and four highly active children was plenty. We also added a local nanny booked through Tropical Sails.

We flew into Istanbul, then took a flight to Dalaman, an inland airport between Marmaris and Fethiye, where vans were sent to meet us. We'd arranged to rendezvous with the boat in Gocek, a half-hour drive from Dalaman.

Gocek is a charismatic little harbor. Until recently it was a dormant fishing village, but with a rapid increase in sailing tourism in the last few years it had burgeoned into a town complete with Internet cafes, ice cream parlors, open-air seafood restaurants, discos and, of course, rug shops.

When we finally boarded our gulet, the Orfeus, we felt pure joy. It had a rich, varnished wood saloon, Turkish rugs on the floor, a cavernous galley and deck, and a white-shirted crew with hands outstretched in welcome.

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