It was 7.30am as I meandered around the Turkish fishing village of Ucagiz. The run of crooked back streets behind the harbour was still mouse-quiet. Sacks of carob beans slumped like drunks against shop doorways. Cats snoozed on window ledges, next to olive oil cans stuffed with geraniums. Chickens in ramshackle enclosures pecked idly at the remnants of yesterday’s grain. The carpet door-curtains of the little stone houses beside them were firmly closed, the elderly inhabitants still fast asleep.
On the waterfront, it was a different story. As the main village in the Bay of Kekova, one of the prettiest strips of coastline in southwest Turkey, Ucagiz is a popular stopover for passing boats.
Its younger residents were already up and about, getting ready for the day ahead. Fishermen were gathering by the jetty, downing glasses of thick coffee as they scrolled through their smartphones. Proprietors were sluicing restaurant terraces. The chef from a restaurant advertising itself as the best in the Mediterranean was chatting amiably to his next-door rival – the best cook in the entire world, according to the signage.
The women of the village – in traditional yazmalar headscarves, colourful balloon trousers and Coca-Cola T-shirts – were wheelbarrowing mini-mountains of newly-baked bread on to the rows of glass-bottom excursion boats lined up in the harbour like tinned sardines.
Looking at the forest of placards, I could see that the same boats would soon be busily ferrying day-trippers to visit the fairy-tale Crusader castle overlooking the neighbouring village of Kale, or to glide over the ruins of Batik Sehir, a sunken Byzantine city.
Yes – the unspoilt Turkish coast really is that magical. And I was lucky enough to be exploring it in the most enchanting way possible – by sea. Across apricot-dawn water I could see the tall white masts of our gulet, Seyhan Hanna, as she floated serenely in the distance.
On board, my husband and our party of five friends were probably still flat-out in their luxurious wood-panelled cabins. In the galley, Icabi, the ship’s cook, would be conjuring up our daily breakfast banquet. Meanwhile, I’d hitched a ride on this early-bird trip over to Ucagiz by tender with Captain Ali, who was topping up supplies of village cheeses and local thyme-honey.
Unbelievably, gorgeous 130ft Seyhan Hanna was ours for the whole week, hired as an all-inclusive private charter (with a four-man crew and a chef) for not much more per person than the cost of a medium-posh villa. And if there’s a lovelier way to experience the glories of Turkey’s fabulous Turquoise Coast, then I truly don’t know what it is.
Starting from the bustling harbour town of Fethiye, with its warren of markets and seafront of cafés fringed by fat palms, we’d sailed blissfully through the Gulf of Gocek – enclosed by dreamy, ever-dissolving layers of woodland.
We’d visited near-deserted islands, been wowed by artist Bedri Rahmi’s black-and-white fish painting in a bay that bears his name, and swum in tiny pebbled coves awash with the scents of juniper and pine and with only goats for company. Now, further southeast, we’d entered the hauntingly beautiful rocky seaboard that was formerly the ancient kingdom of Lycia.
From Coskun, the history buff of our crew, we learned a little about Lycia’s proud past. Highly civilised and determinedly independent, the Lycian people had their own coinage and – for a time – their own alphabet.
What remains of them now, etched into the cliffs and ridges of Turkey’s towering Taurus Mountains, is an astonishing archaeological wonderland of ruined cities, cliff tombs and sarcophagi. Sailing the glassy blue waters of Kekova, we passed amazing 2,000-year-old stone tombs that emerged from the shallows of the bay like sturdy miniature cottages.
Our loveliest Lycian adventure came directly after my early-morning shopping trip with Ali. Leaving Ucagiz, Seyhan Hanna nosed through silken seas around the Sicak peninsula and sailed into tranquil Asar Bay, site of the ruined city of Aperlae.
It was a spellbinding trip back in time, all the more so because we had the bay to ourselves. A storm warning the night before had worked in our favour, leaving most other sea traffic still at anchor miles up the coast.
Back in its day (from around 400BC), Aperlae was a wealthy port, specialising in cloth dyed with precious purple Tyrian dye, derived from the secretions of rare, indigenous rock snails. What made the cloth so special (and expensive) was that it became brighter in sunlight, rather than fading, making it the go-to luxury fabric for imperial togas and ceremonial robes.
Nowadays, the port’s elaborately arcaded quayside has long since slipped underwater, drowned by earthquakes and time. But Aperlae’s imposing city wall – fortified with towers – is still clearly visible. It encircles the stony remnants of the city’s former prosperity like a shattered crown.
The four hours we spent moored in Aperlae encapsulated everything that makes a gulet trip so special. The water was crystal-clear. The only sounds in the bay were the lapping of waves against the shoreline and the distant hum of cicadas. We all did our own thing, perfectly happily.
A couple of us set off in Seyhan Hanna’s two kayaks and paddled over the ruins nearest the waterfront, peering at the underwater arches and walls rippling beneath the surface like a Dali painting. A couple lazed on deck, soaking up the atmosphere alongside a gin and tonic or two.
Three of us swam to land and clambered ashore to marvel over former houses and baths and to climb the silent sage-clad hillside, littered with rubble, goat droppings and swathes of terracotta chippings from ancient amphorae. (They’re so commonplace they’ve simply been left to lie undisturbed.)
From Aperlae it was a short sail to the lovely harbour town of Kas, where we were due to spend our final afternoon and evening before our voyage ended the next day. As a final sprinkle of fairydust, Seyhan Hanna was escorted into harbour by a family of dolphins, leaping and flipping in glorious silvery arcs as we sailed under the tall shadow of a wall of cliff-tombs excavated directly out of the rock face high above the town.
That night, as we lingered over our final evening meal on deck, we saw the tombs were now illuminated. It was as though the long-dead of Lycia were watching over us. Kas’s mosque was bathed in moonlight. The wail of the Iman pulsed across the bay, sacred bubbles of sound under a velvet sky.
We clinked glasses with the crew – ours wine, theirs water. There is nothing like a gulet holiday in Turkey.
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