It started out being all about the boat, but in the end, it was the figs that mattered most. The soft travel economy and some last-minute planning led us to an absolutely remarkable vacation in a somewhat unlikely place. I have long had an aversion to any destination in even vague proximity to a war zone and admit to some anxiety about highly religious countries. Turkey qualified on both counts, but reason prevailed and I found myself planning a joint jaunt with another family, continuing our waterborne legacy (we first met while rafting in Idaho) with a week at sea in the Aegean.
I have customarily been a long-range planner, but even starting in mid-April for a late-June trip, I found plenty of space on Delta and Turkish Airlines. I opted for Turkish Airlines’ flatbeds in business class and did not let the officious and unhelpful attitude of its female customer service reps at the airport put me off. We had decided to visit Cappadocia and Istanbul, where we would join our friends and fly to meet our boat. Ah, but which boat? Antony Doucet, the cosmopolitan guest relations manager at the Park Hyatt Istanbul-Maçka Palas (where our friends were ensconced), referred us to a classic gulet—the traditional all-wood sailers that have plied the coastal waters for centuries. I immediately searched the Web for photos and information about the one he recommended, the Carpe Diem, and discovered that successful boats had multiple iterations. The charter prices seemed high but not absurdly so. A week on board for seven people could be had for around $20,000, including almost all activities and food but excluding alcohol. A little e-mail negotiating made the price drop. Intrigued, I began an intensive Internet search to find the best boat at the best price possible.
The late start I had gotten in booking proved a boon. Our travel dates were also somewhat fortuitous, falling a week or so before the start of the highest season, which runs from July through the end of August. The steep decline in travel by Americans meant many boats had openings in schedules that were normally filled a year in advance. Discounts of 40 percent abounded. As a jeweler friend once told me about the Saudi approach to diamonds and yachts, “Bigger is always better,” so we moved up from 24 meters to the mid-30s. I reserved one sleek vessel only for the owner to sell it to another party; her abject apologies about a misunderstanding seemed a bit disingenuous, but then ready money is always persuasive. The agent I had started working with, Erhan Arican of Blue Fun Yachting, would not be denied and proposed a beautiful and rather massive ship, the Queen of Karia I, as an able replacement.
After spending hours perusing blueprints, photos, and postings on charter and travel sites, I reckoned that most larger gulets have two main staterooms: a master and a VIP. They generally feature king-sized beds and larger bathrooms, some even with bathtubs. Despite expert advice that rooms should not be the deciding factor (so little time is spent in them), I wanted to be certain that my wife, a world-class napper, would be comfortable. She also likes a frigid bedroom, so high-functioning air conditioning was a tick. Finally, we are both addicted to light and views (I get claustrophobic). All this pointed toward a gulet with an aft master—placing a bedroom at the back of the boat allows it to span the entire beam, or width, of the vessel—and four large windows above the waterline. Side bedrooms are generally narrower and have much smaller portholes.
Sure enough, the Queen of Karia I had two extremely large master cabins with one at the stern, boasting four wide windows—a true rarity! Erhan assured me the AC was in top working order and could be run all night, as the ship had a powerful generator to supplement its batteries. The growth of the gulet charter industry has led to something of an arms race, so boats built within the last five years are state-of-the-art. As anyone who has ever owned a saltwater vessel knows, maintenance is daunting, which gives newer ships an advantage. The Queen was launched in 2004 and the quality of her construction and crew, I was assured, was unimpeachable. The interior was entirely traditional, with sinuous curves and bulges of highly polished mahogany complemented by elegant fabrics and brass fittings.
As I would later experience at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, spirited negotiating has deep roots in Turkish culture, and Erhan and I sparred a bit. In the end, with his repeated exclamations that I had caused him ineffable pain, we settled on about $24,000 plus food and beverage costs for a six-day itinerary, one day shorter than usual in order to accommodate travel to the ship’s next pickup point. For up to ten people on a boat pushing 115 feet, this seemed quite reasonable indeed—our beautifully serviced but characterless suites at the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet cost as much or more. The rather restrictive and somewhat unpleasant requirements of the boat’s septic system, which can’t flush paper, were the only vague infringement on total luxury and indulgence. Bring along a box or two of baby wipes if your boat has the same rules.
With the vessel selected, sorting out our itinerary details and food preferences was next. Erhan sent me lengthy descriptions of the different stops we could make on our way from Göcek, which sits close to the center of the route most often plied by the ships, to Bodrum, at the northern end. Everything sounded wonderful: crystalline bays, quiet coves, and ancient ruins accompanied by delicious food and copious wine. The research on where to stop and what to do was daunting so I decided to play it by ear, but made a note not to miss the Dalyan River excursion, with the Lycian cliff tombs and a bracing hike to the top of the unforgettable ancient city of Kaunos. Itineraries farther south, from Göcek toward Antalya, can include several sunken ruins—something I’m sorry we missed. Every savvy traveler I consulted agreed that the nearby Greek islands of Kos and Rhodes offered no great attractions, so I left them out.
Both my wife and our foodie friend had expressed a strong desire to eat mostly, if not exclusively, simple fresh fish. This is a notion I have often heard in my house—the incantation of the myth that fish is less fattening than other proteins. I happen to know that my wife actually hates fish, omega-3s be damned, and that asking for it is a sort of Spartan ritual of self-punishment. Nonetheless, I prudently instructed the crew to load up on sea creatures, with a sidenote to stock chicken and lamb just in case. Once aboard, our days could have readily become endless gorges. Pre-breakfasts of bread, butter, and jam were followed by lavish spreads of perfect fruit, cereals, eggs, crêpes, and incredibly rich yogurt and cheeses, with an ocean of fresh orange juice and carafes of coffee—and the largest, most perfect figs any of us had ever eaten. Their blood-red flesh oozed sweet pink juice into the creamy yogurt, and a drizzle of honey or local fruit preserves sent my senses reeling. Lunches of grilled meats and mezes along with crisp salads trailed into evening appetizers and elaborate platters of meats and vegetables or perfectly grilled fish we had swum alongside during the day. Given a little more thought, I might have sent along some particular recipes for slightly more complicated fare. But it was the BlackBerry to the rescue, even a half-mile out in the Aegean, with a Turkish recipe for a Moroccan-style lamb tagine sent by Antony at the Park Hyatt and flawlessly prepared by our intrepid chef, Adem. Our hostess, Nuray, kept a constant flow of iced mojitos and chilled rosé coming our way.
Something about the quality of the sea here—the unequaled cool, clear, and deeply saline water—resonates intensely in the human psyche. Gliding under its surface is calming. Having said that, we all got a huge kick out of roaring around on the Jet Ski.
Perhaps the most important decision we had to make each day, other than the appropriate SPF, was where to set anchor. Captains tend to congregate where it’s easiest, but with some determined persuasion they can invariably find a private and idyllic cove, even if it means running out an extra hundred feet of chain. It’s well worth it to experience the utter tranquility of swimming in a deserted bay. And during one paddle ashore, I found bushes of wild thyme that perfectly scented that evening’s lamb.
Our week aboard was the idyll we had imagined, only better. We capped the experience with a long day at the ruins of Ephesus, exploring the frescoed luxury of the Terrace Houses, where the wealthiest Romans surveyed the vast metropolis with its spectacular architecture and even more astonishing engineering. We marveled at their baths and ingenious sewage system, particularly after enduring our own boat’s septic design. The morning we left, a sunrise view over a wine-dark sea was our final intoxication, with the taste of fresh figs lingering.
Agnes Howard at Camper & Nicholsons (cnyachts.com), a top charter and sales agency, can negotiate everything, though its prices are on the high end. Some good sites are bluefunyachting.com, veladare.com, boatbookings.com, and caneryachting.com. Tip: Google the name of the boat you’re considering to see if it’s offered at different rates.