GETAWAY: Turkish Rivieria

I've cruised on just about every type of vessel, from mega-ships to two passenger barges. I've done river cruises, ocean cruises and lake cruises. I've even sailed on a trawler in the Virgin Islands. But this was my first cruise experience on a gulet, and the instructions we received on boarding the Sunworld 1X were as unique as the cruise would prove to be.

“No shoes, please, at any time when on board. Bare feet only.”

The purpose of this rule was to protect the boat's teak decks, but it served to set a distinctly relaxed and casual tone as well. It's difficult to be too reserved in bare feet. And so, barefoot and usually in nothing more formal than shorts and a t-shirt, we explored the southwest coast of Turkey, from Bodrum to Gocek, on a gastronomic-themed tour with Peter Sommer Travels. The combination of gastronomy and archaeology on this cruise itinerary meant we could explore a country that is home to some of the oldest archaeological sites of the ancient world as well as sample its culinary traditions.

The Sunworld IX is a very pretty ship, classic in design. When we came aboard to begin our cruise, she was shining in the late afternoon sun. She's a traditional gulet, (rhymes with “˜you bet'), a form of sailing boat made in Bodrum ““ large, heavy, fat bottomed but graceful, built to weather the sometimes unpredictable conditions of the Mediterranean, with two tall masts, six guest berths and a generous back deck for dining and lounging.  Today's gulets are a hand built modern interpretation of the ancient sailing boats of  the fishermen and sponge divers who plied these waters for centuries. These days most of the gulet journeys are made under motor power, though the Sunworld is an efficient sailing ship too. Most of the interior woods are mahogany and the cabins are snug but comfortable, with generous bathroom space.

Our first night on board started with drinks and nibbles on the back deck as we sailed out of the Bodrum harbour. Once the boat was docked in a quiet bay along the coast, we dined on the back deck as the sun set. Dinner was created by the ship's chef, Numan, from locally sourced ingredients ““ a seaweed salad, a potato salad, platters of tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuces, and grilled fresh sea bream, ending with baklava and Turkish coffee.

Our fellow passengers were a diverse group, with conversation around the table lively and wide ranging, stretching through dessert and coffee to after dinner drinks around the big table. Our guide, Serdar, told us about Turkish history and answered our questions about Turkish politics with patience and an intelligent balance that was admirable.

It was the beginning of a cruise experience that would provide a rich immersion in Turkish food, archaeology and ancient Greek and Roman sites.

Awakening most mornings meant blue skies and views of ancient hillsides, covered with wild olive trees, pines, gum mastic and myrrh. We were usually the only boat in a quiet harbour, and could enjoy a swim after breakfast, kayak around the harbour or take an exploratory walk of the shoreline. The scenery along this ancient coast is dramatic, with steep hills,  pomegranate trees and orange groves and seemingly, around every turn, the ruins of a city whose origins stretched back into the mists of time.

On one afternoon, we sailed into the harbour of Knidos, the site of an important bronze age city. Some of us hiked up to the lighthouse on top of Cape Krio, where the views of the harbour and the town with its ruins in the late afternoon light were fabulous. On top of the mountain, we had a Rene Magritte moment. The Belgian surrealist painter was famous for dreamlike and oddly juxtaposed objects. As we rounded the lighthouse, we found a slim metal cabinet, its purpose unkown, that looked just like a door that would open to the clouds. Strange and puzzling, but perfect for the photographers among us.

Then we descended and Serdar guided us through the ruins, telling us the history and stories of the ancient city.

As darkness fell, we enjoyed dinner at the only restaurant in Knidos, savouring stuffed squash blossoms, wild fava bean soup laced with fresh lemon juice, followed by a chicken stew. For dessert there were figs covered in chopped nuts, and a slice of honey cake.

We visited the important ancient site of Kaunos on a perfect day for exploring, with warm sunshine but a cool breeze. Serdar had worked on this archaeological site for 30 years ““ he began here as a student and did his master's thesis on one of the round temples. He was the perfect guide, knowledgeable and passionate about its many-layered history.

Lunch was often an adventure in Turkish cuisine. One afternoon we sailed into a bay with a small restaurant called Captain Ibrahim's, where the chef, Umin, a specialist in the exotic cooking of the Ottomans, taught us how to make an octopus stew in his immaculate kitchen. Then we devoured the stew under a leafy arbour by the ocean. The next day, we enjoyed the chef's gift of a jar of pine-scented honey from his bees, with our breakfast.

We met a local lady, Seher, in the town of Candir, and she showed us how to make stuffed grape leaves and treated us to a lunch of local specialties in the garden of her hillside home. It wasn't all about food. We also hiked, and climbed hills to view ancient fortresses and visited the hillside burial tombs carved into the stone that were similar to Petra, though older. We kayaked and swam and haggled for bargains from entrepreneurial boats that came alongside us, selling scarves, jewellery and fish.

The cuisine, however, was the portal to understanding the country. We experienced the diversity of local ingredients and explored the layers of complexity that stretched back to the Ottomans and farther. We witnessed how traditional dishes were made and shared, and it gave us an entrée into Turkish life that was both delicious and illuminating.

Our chef Numan taught us how to make a very old and well-loved dish that I promised myself I would try out when I got home, if only for the name.  It was called The Imam Fainted ““ presumably from the deliciousness of the dish ““ eggplant stuffed with beef, with lots of garlic and onions and tomatoes. Serdar demonstrated how to make a dish from his home town, a composed pilaf, with each layer arranged in exact order ““ sauteed beef, onions, chick peas, chopped tomatoes, sliced eggplant and spices, including one local spice I had never heard of ““ mahlep, dried wild cherry powder. While it cooked, we took the tender into the small town of Bozburin for a quick tour.

Bozburin was lovely, with a large white mosque dominating the centre of town and a curving seafront. We visited a boat building centre then walked through the town. I almost bought a pair of hand-embroidered boots ““ pretty, but impractical. I did pick up a package of the dried wild cherry powder, to experiment with in my own kitchen.

We passed by the hauntingly beautiful ruins called Cleopatra's Baths, (the name persists although historians have proved she could not have been here) and walked along the cliffs. A local fisherman volunteered to show us the best path, and invited us to have tea at his house. We didn't have time but he was so friendly and hospitable, as so many of the Turkish people we have met have been.

On our last day, we sailed for our final port, Gocek. The city is a bustling yachting centre, with dozens of shops, restaurants and massive yachts docked at the marina. 

It was a return to busy civilization, a culture shock after the quiet coves and peaceful serenity of the past week. We had to think about putting our shoes back on, literally and metaphorically.

The gulet cruise was an exceptional travel experience, relaxing and stimulating at once. More than gastronomy, more than history, this was a journey that revealed the Turkish national character ““ generous, hospitable, appreciative and creative.

If you go
Peter Sommer Travels conducts gulet cruises and hiking expeditions in Turkey, Greece, and Italy. They are small group tours, led primarily by archaeologists and historians. The company also does private charters. All cabins are ensuite and well equipped. Our boat had eight cabins and could sleep up to 20 passengers.

Turkish Airlines flies direct from Toronto to Istanbul, with connecting flights to Bodrum and Gocek. If you have the opportunity, visit the new Turkish Airlines Business Class Lounge in Ataturk Airport. It's got one of the most beautiful women's washrooms I've seen, with a mirrored ceiling and fresh orchids. There's a music video room with darkened lights, deep leather seats and earphones, and a super children's playroom.

Air Canada flies direct to Istanbul. There are easy and frequent transfers from Milas-Bodrum Airport to Bodrum and to the Dalaman Airport that serves Gocek.