I stirred awake at the sound of gentle waves lapping the side of our gulet boat. We were on the move.
My skin, warm from the early morning rays, welcomed the breeze that circled around the top deck. Thankfully it wasn’t a bitter cold, like the previous night under the Turkish stars that had us reaching for blankets. No, it was just enough to get the air flowing; just enough so that I could stay in my makeshift bed and watch the sunrise light up the bay.
The Turquoise Coast of Turkey is one stunning cliché. Everywhere you look there are crystalline waters, pastel skies and charming villages. It’s impossible to describe without using overworked adjectives; they’re truly the only phrases that convey its beauty. After sailing through Kekova bay for several days, I was left feeling confused.
How did a place like this, a place so unmanicured and naturally beautiful, still exist in this world?
While we all want to experience the best parts of each country when we travel, our collective desire to visit popular spots can lead to overtourism, overcrowding or commercialisation. Sometimes, all three. No one wants it to be this way. Not the people visiting and not the locals, who simply adapt to the tourism boom to make a living.
The Turquoise Coast is yet to suffer this fate. Boats cruise through the bay daily and bring visitors with them, but the villages are not overrun by tourists and manufactured souvenir shops. Instead, docking at places like Kaleköy — a town so picturesque it looks photoshopped — reveals quiet cobbled paths leading to ancient Lycian settlements and tables adorned with crafts handmade by local women.
The few cafes in Kaleköy welcome guests and offer what I’m convinced is some of Turkey’s tastiest dondurma (Turkish ice cream), in addition to friendly service. In peak season, you can venture up hill to Simena Castle for photos unmarred by crowds and views of the sparkling bay to rival any in Greece or Italy. The towns dotted along the southern coast are real treasures in this world we often take for granted.
On my way back to the boat in Kaleköy one afternoon, I stopped to speak with a lady selling dresses.
“Merhaba,” I said, smiling. She repeated the ‘hello’ back to me, matching my grin. “Did you make these?” The lady nodded, lifting the needle and thread in her hand to show me her work in progress.
“You like?” She asked, shyly. “Yes. They’re very pretty,” I replied, running my hands through the soft fabric of each dress and examining their details. Some were made of tie-dyed fabric, with rows of shells sewn to the hem, while others were plain cotton with hand-embroidered fish dangling from the edges.
“How much is this one?” I asked, pointing to a black beach dress with rainbow tassels. She thought about it for a few seconds. “Fifteen lira.” A whole AUD4.
My time on the gulet boat with the group and our gracious hosts anne and baba — or mum and dad, as they told us to call them — was the highlight of my Turkish adventure. We learned about the culture and customs, sunbathed and had some old-fashioned fun playing card games, all with the stunningly clear southern coast waters as our backdrop. After a whirlwind itinerary of ruins and bustling cities, our days spent sailing provided an ideal respite and opportunity to reflect on some of the amazing things I had experienced along the way.
Each morning, we’d weigh anchor and sail to a new spot in the bay, each more dazzling than the last. The water was always a perfect contrast to the weather; in the mornings it was crisp, in the harsh afternoon heat it was refreshing and in the evenings it was mild against the setting sun. I looked forward to diving in, mask on face and go-pro in hand to capture any sea life I encountered. All sorts of creatures inhabit the bay of Gokkaya, but myself and two others were the only ones lucky enough to spot a sea turtle as it poked its head up for air.
At noon, we’d jump back on the boat and baba would take us past sights like the sunken city of Simena, where we would marvel at the remains of such an ancient civilisation. Meal times were always a delight, as dishes and dishes of traditional Turkish fare were presented with love by anne. We’d then proceed to pile our plates of dolma, sarma, mouth-watering pilav and manti dumplings. With every ‘mmm’ and ‘yum’, anne’s smile would widen. How she produced such flavourful dishes in a kitchen no more than two metres wide, is something I will never know.
The afternoons were spent swimming and sun baking, alternating at leisure. The moment our lunches had settled and we started to feel peckish, it would be afternoon tea time. Within minutes, anne would bring out an array of tea cakes and biscuits, along with pots of apple tea and Turkish coffee. Just when we thought we couldn’t eat anything more, the sound of an engine rumbling inevitably filled the air. Seconds later, a man with an enormous smile would appear by the side of the boat, in a dinghy with an ice cream freezer! The man was a genius. For a few minutes, Magnums and Calippos would be distributed with fervor. With the amount of ice creams he sold to us each day, I was never surprised to hear his dinghy approach.
From Ölüdeniz to Butterfly Bay, Kaş to Kekova, the Turquoise coast is home to some seriously jaw-dropping scenery. And despite the places I’ll visit next, or the sights I’ll see ten years from now, I know my time sailing through the bay will stick with me along after I return one day.
Set sail along the Turquoise Coast for yourself on one of Intrepid Travel’s small group tours in Turkey.
Hero image by April Wong.