Gulet, an ugly-looking word that’s often monstrously mispronounced, is actually the phonetic Turkish transcription of the mellifluous goulette, French for schooner. The timber-built gulet, with her romantic lines, galleon stern and long bowsprit, is to southwest Turkey’s concertina coast what the dhow is to Arabia and the felucca to the Nile. Gulets traditionally freighted fruit from the coastal citrus groves to Bodrum or Antalya. With the coming of the roads, however, they were rendered increasingly obsolete and have since been pressed into service as holiday craft. The remake has proved a spectacular success; a gulet voyage now counts as perhaps the defining holiday experience of the Turkish coast.
Even newly built gulets retain echoes of their freighting forebears, though the broad holds where cartons of mandarins and lemons were once stored are now fitted out with wood-panelled ensuite double cabins reached along a roomy corridor reminiscent of a period sleeper carriage; their decks are sufficiently beamy for a saloon, for sunning areas and for a fixed table where meals are taken in a degree of comfort and sophistication a world away from the cockpit rigours of flotilla yachting.
Better to think of the gulet as a floating villa, in most cases a fully-serviced one that’s equipped not only with sea-going holiday gear but also with captain, crew and cook. Expect to eat magnificently.
Nor is seasickness commonly an issue in these inshore waters where the typical day’s progress means pottering across an unruffled bay for perhaps three hours to find a good mooring spot for a long lunch and siesta. In the late afternoon the gulet moves on to find one of many natural anchorages – a sheltered cove all to herself, stern-to with a shore line round a pine tree or even the base of a Roman column and an anchor at the bow – in which this coastline abounds. With deep indents like the Gulf of Gököva, the Bay of Fethiye and the Kekova Roads to explore, there’s something Hebridean about this coast’s topography, if not its weather. From late May until October conditions here – on a latitude well south of Italy and mainland Greece – are delightful (though in recent years, it’s true to say, the weather has proved less consistent than usual). Even so, the water is warm and clean, and there’s generally little wind, at least until the afternoon, when a stiff breeze can get up. Even then, you can forget oilskins.
But bring some good shore footwear. The gulet holiday, or ‘Blue Voyage’ as it has come to be known, thrives on an active communion with the land; there are ruins such as Byzantine chapels, classical temples, walled cities and scattered sarcophagae to explore, and simple waterside cafes to call at. Guests may be tempted to set off on a stiff hike into the hills, following sections of the famous Lycian Way trail.
Nor is it forgotten that guests regard the sea as their holiday playground; most gulets carry a kayak, windsurfer and SUPB (stand-up paddleboard), and captains like to choose anchorages safe for diving from the deck and, where possible, for snorkelling over submerged ruins. Then there’s the food; the freshness and range of meze starters, mains and puddings – aubergine and yoghurt dips, filo pastry böreks, courgette fritters, chicken and fish kebabs, and fruit – is one of the glories of the gulet holiday.
Gulets tend to take between 8 and 16 passengers. They can either be privately chartered by groups of families or friends, or clients can book cabins on fixed departures. Some such departures are themed: there are archaeological tours led by a specialist guide which take in shoreside classical sites and also use minibuses to visit inland ones; walking tours with arranged itineraries, the gulet tracking its guests’ onshore progress to await their return at day’s end; and the likes of cookery, art and writing tours as well.
The most popular option, however, is to combine many such elements – motoring between swim stops and shore visits, or bouts of onboard lazing – in an unscripted progress along this mythic coast. The gulet holiday is small-group boating at its best, though it may not appeal to the sailing purist. The general paucity of good winds and a pronounced Turkish affection for the diesel engine – to the point in some cases that the gulet’s sailing gear is effectively decorative – means that the sails may remain furled however hard guests lobby the captain. Sailing enthusiasts should therefore seek out those gulet operators who are sincere about their fleets’ sailing credentials. The other particular advice is directed at committed drinkers since onboard bar bills can sometimes feel steep; some operators don’t work in this way but either include wine and beer in their rates or simply charge guests at cost, an arrangement this particular drinker has always found preferable.
Among the best gulet operators are ScicSailing which is particularly recommended for private charters, and Peter Sommer Travels. Peter is renowned for his gulet-based archaeological/cultural tours, and for the bright and charismatic lecturer/guides who lead them. And following the sorry demise in 2016 of Westminster Classic Tours, I have begun my own programme of tours which I’m calling Goulette – the word looks better in French – in company with Turkish walking guide Yunus Özdemir.
Expect full-board gulet living, alcohol included, to put you back about £125 per person a day, based on two sharing, and more if land excursions and onboard guide are included.