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Thursday, 06 November 2008

Turkish Blue Cruises

Written by Aaron Highfill
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Adrienne Walker, Turkish Blue Cruises, Mediterranean cruises, Turkish Cruise, Olympos, Turkey, Turkey’s southern coast, Turquoise Coast, Marmaris, Izmir, Fethiye, Olympos, Kas, AntalyaMany have lamented the loss of the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. Catering to a much younger crowd than the big ships, their small wooden vessels would ply the azure waters of the Caribbean with only 60-100 passengers. Famed for their onboard parties and themed nights, they were responsible for many lifelong friendships and more than a few romances. While they have sadly not operated since 2007, those seeking to mellow out aboard a small yacht with the young and the young at heart should know they still could. Not in the Caribbean, but in the Mediterranean with a Turkish Blue Cruise.

 

I first heard of these cruises in 2006 during a week spent in the backpacker hangout/ancient city of Olympos, Turkey. Utilizing 20-25 meter wooden yachts known as Gullets, Blue Cruises travel between various cities and villages along Turkey’s southern “Turquoise Coast”. Available ports include Marmaris, Izmir, Fethiye, Olympos, Kas, and the regional capital of Antalya. The most popular is the three night/four day run between Fethiye and Olympos. This was the journey I chose. In peak season, this cruise goes for $250 US per person and $205 pp in the shoulder seasons before mid May and after mid September. The fare is for a double cabin and includes hotel transfer, all meals and tea or coffee with breakfast. Other drinks, including water and soft drinks are not included, but can be purchased from the crew on a tab basis.

 

My starting point of Fethiye is no stranger to the tourist trade. The city is known as Little Britain for the charter flights that everyday bring hundreds of sun seekers from the likes of Manchester and Leeds to the nearby Dalaman airport. English is widely spoken, and the exchange rates are posted daily outside the restaurants and carpet shops. A double room with breakfast can be had for $36 US a night at the pleasant Duygu Pension, a ten minute walk along the shore from the harbor. Traveling solo, I opted for the dorm at Ferah Pension across the street. Located atop the Pension building, the dorm affords jaw dropping views of the bay and of the many ships, including the catamaran ferry to the Greek Island of Rhodes. A comfy bed and delicious Turkish breakfast set me back all of $11 US. They also offer a small swimming pool and free pick up from the city bus terminal. Dining in town is not cheap, but there are plenty of options. Many restaurants advertise “Authentic Turkish Cuisine and English Spoken”. I chose instead to visit the downtown fish market. Here you can select your favorite from the catch of the day, then take it next door to be prepared to your liking.

 

During my 2006 visit, many fellow travelers had either warned me about, or encouraged me to use certain ships. These were typically because the person had either found the ship to be too raucous, with drunken debauchery until the wee hours, or the opposite, too boring. I carefully considered all this advice, then completely ignored it and asked the manager of my Pension to book my cruise for me. I was a little apprehensive as the minivan pulled up to take me to my ship, seeing that my days of drunken debauchery are some years behind me.

 

I had no reason to fear. My ship was called the Kubra, and my shipmates were a great bunch from all over the globe. Among them was London/Houston couple, both of them IT consultants, two men from Barcelona, two young women from Korea, and a Turkish grandmother, a nurse like myself, celebrating her fiftieth birthday with her best friend of many years. The Captain, known simply as “Captain”, his wife and school-age daughter made a total of 12 people aboard.

 


 

The Kubra, like most Blue Cruise Vessels is designed to hold about twenty people. It has ensuite cabins below deck, with showers in the bathrooms. There is a large common area towards the stern, where the dining table sits. The deck is shaded by an awning and covered with mattresses because apparently, few people ever sleep in the cabins, when it is so nice to sleep out on the deck.

 

Adrienne Walker, Turkish Blue Cruises, Mediterranean cruises, Turkish Cruise, Olympos, Turkey, Turkey’s southern coast, Turquoise Coast, Marmaris, Izmir, Fethiye, Olympos, Kas, AntalyaLunch was served as we motored away from Fethiye to our first stop at Oludeniz. Not just a stunning beach, Oludeniz is also one of the worlds top paragliding spots. Looking skyward, I viewed over a dozen rectangular sails in orange and blue and yellow as they spun and dove and climbed. I felt I had to join them. Only two of us from the boat chose the $140 US tandem paraglide on offer. Riding up the 2000 meter mountain in an old truck, Adrianne, the London half of the London/Houston couple, admitted to a fear of heights. Forty-five minutes later she was cured. The flight was amazing. Looking down on the lagoon, the stratified shades of blue in the ocean, the crescent of sand and realizing it was the most peaceful place I've ever been, made it well worth the price.

 

We took a launch back to the Kubra at dusk to find we had been joined by three late arriving passengers: two sisters from Australia, and a college lecturer from Manchester who teaches in the UK Prison System. We ate a dinner of eggplant, salad, and rice. Simple, hearty Turkish food cooked, like all our meals, by the Captain’s wife. For dessert, a small motor launch pulled alongside, offering Gozleme (turkish crepes) with chocolate and bananas for sale. A moonlight swim in the warm sea followed, then sitting around the table, sipping wine and getting to know each other. We anchored for the night off St. Nicholas island, home to numerous Byzantine ruins. Another Blue Cruise vessel was anchored nearby. That ship had a presumably younger and definitely wilder group of passengers aboard. We could hear their music and revelry echo across the water, but it wasn’t loud enough to prevent our drifting off to sleep on deck.

The Captain started the engines before dawn the next morning, briefly waking at least this passenger. Breakfast was around eight, a spread of green and black olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, eggs and bread. The crew obviously had an evil streak, as there was also a thick chocolate spread we all swore we would have "Just a little bit" of. Right. Strong tea and instant coffee were also available. I'll never understand why a country capable of making amazing coffee tolerates, much less embraces instant. But all over Turkey they do – Nescafe is huge.

Breakfast was followed by a swim, mainly to wash the chocolate off our faces. The ship had a bucket of swim fins, masks and snorkels available to use. The snorkeling was ok, but unexciting, it isn't the Caribbean. The water is warm and clear, but the bottom is gray rock rather than coral and the fish are all silver. Every so often there are clearly man made objects: a piece of an ancient wall, a large urn, or a wine bottle tossed there in the 1990s.

 


 

Motoring towards Kas (pronounced cash), we had more of what I call "whatever" time. Time to read a book, time to lay out on deck and work on the tan. The Aussie girls taught me to play a card game called Phase 10. After losing badly, I retired to my mattress on the deck to stick my nose into Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Cats Cradle. Despite having slathered on enough sunscreen to have protected most people from a neighboring nuclear blast, I soon had what my shipmates referred to as "a bit of color". Translation in American English: I was sunburnt.

We pulled into a slip in the Kas harbor and ate a lunch of fish that the captain had caught the night before. We had an hour of free time in the village, so I searched for some aloe lotion. Stores in town displayed the English language Turkish Daily News with front page headlines about the looming crisis in the American financial sector. I later walked back to the boat worried about nothing more than my worsening sunburn and the rapidly approaching end of my now oh-so-appropriate Vonnegut book.

Conversation grew to be a big part of our "whatever time". Lubricated by an almost drinkable rose' and a fairly good white wine made from Narince grapes, the discussion came quick and easy. The pending US presidential election commanded a disproportionate share of the group’s interest. Everyone aboard expressed their hope that Obama would be elected. I learned about the practice of Nursing in Turkey, crime and punishment in the UK, where to visit in Australia (everywhere, apparently) and a host of other handy tidbits.

Then next two days were much of the same. Eat, swim, nap, read, repeat. The captain’s daughter maintained a catalog of CDs anyone could request to be played. Norah Jones seemed to be the group favorite.

Adrienne Walker, Turkish Blue Cruises, Mediterranean cruises, Turkish Cruise, Olympos, Turkey, Turkey’s southern coast, Turquoise Coast, Marmaris, Izmir, Fethiye, Olympos, Kas, AntalyaWe visited the sunken city of Kekova and the village of Simena (also known as Kalakoy). Accessible only by boat, Simena is lorded over by a ruined castle supposedly built by wayward knights during the crusades. The climb up is steep and hot, with English signs seemingly borrowed from a Monty Python skit pointing the way along the trail. The view from the top was worth it. There was the ocean on one side, the town below, and behind the hill, rows and rows of hothouses growing flowers and vegetables. Hothouse agriculture, along with tourism, is the economic pillar of the region. I stood peering through the battlements, thinking that if I were a wayward crusading knight, I would certainly build a castle here as well.


Our third and final night, we anchored in a tiny inlet where cold springs could be seen bubbling from the rock. This created the odd sensation of swimming in warm water one second, and cold water the next. The captain barbecued some chicken on a grill at the bow of the ship. We had the usual sides of salad, green beans, and bread. While my vegetarianism is flexible enough to extend to the occasional locally caught fish, it doesn't cover chicken, so I satisfied myself with the bell peppers stuffed with rice that were leftover from lunch. After dinner, the Captain brought out a birthday cake and we all sang happy birthday in English.

Breakfast was the usual bittersweet exchanging of email addresses, promises to write, and to get together for drinks if ever in the same part of the world. The Mancunian and the two Aussie sisters were staying aboard to make the trip back to Fethiye. I felt more than a twinge of jealousy as we pulled into the harbor at Andriake. Waiting for the launch that would take us to shore, we were excited to see two giant sea turtles glide gracefully under the boat. Once ashore, our minivan took us first to the village of Demre, home to the Church of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas used to bring gifts such as shoes to the needy children in the area. If the windows of the home were closed, he would drop his gifts down the chimney. So yes, there really is a Santa Claus.

We next went to Olympos, a thriving backpacker hangout famous for its tree house lodgings. Dozens of pensions line the narrow canyon offering tree house accommodation with buffet breakfast and dinner included for $25-35 US per person. Those seeking a party atmosphere should check out Turkmen Treehouses or Kadirs. A more low-key environment can be found at Doga, Orange or Pirates camp pensions. The happy medium is often found at Bayrams pension. All pensions have dining/bar areas with cushioned platforms that seem to suck people in for hours of conversation, drinking, or smoking flavored tobacco through a hookah.

The two main attractions of Olympos are the rocky beach, and the ruins of the ancient city.  Though rumours of impending excavation and restoration abound, the sarcophagi, libraries and theatres of Olympos currently exist in a decrepit jungle covered state with only a few pesky interpretive signs to distract you from the fantasy that you discovered them yourself and that they are known only to you.

The beach is simply sublime – even more so at night. A group of us gathered there at midnight under a 3/4 moon for a goodbye swim for a London woman who had spent the season in Olympos as a Yoga instructor. As we kicked and splashed, the bioluminescent plankton traced glowing green paths in the otherwise glass still water while shooting stars arced overhead.

©Aaron Highfill

Photos ©Adrienne Walker

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012