Standing at the top of Simena Castle on the Turkish coast, a small group of new friends from different continents discuss the definition of “intrepid”.
We’re trying to find the perfect translation in Turkish, but there doesn’t seem to be an exact fit. Someone offers “brave”, the crescent moon and star of the Turkish flag waving in support behind them. From a breezy corner of the 4th-century Lycian ruins, someone else yells “Adventurous!”. “Fearless,” says another voice, and then “spirited”.
Cesur is the closest we come in Turkish. Later, when I’m back in Australia, I’ll ask someone to clarify what intrepid means in English. He’ll tell me it’s the unplanned moments between curated experiences that stay with you forever. I didn’t realise it at the time, but our short boat trip from Kaş to Kekova was brimming with intrepid moments.
I grew up waterskiing in northeastern Victoria and have been on plenty of boats. I’ve done Ha Long Bay’s emerald waters in Vietnam, island hopped through Greece, cruised down the Nile – and this was my second time afloat in Kekova. Still, there was something special about our gulet, a traditional wooden sailing boat from Turkey’s southwest coast. I have a theory. Let’s call it the Three Ps. For any travel experience to be memorable and meaningful, the following components need to be favourable: the people, the plates and the place.
Here’s how a single night sailing Turkey’s Turquoise Coast proved my Three P Theory:
We must have resembled children hyped up on cordial as we boarded the gulet via a wobbly, wooden walkway. As we heaved our bags on board, we were met by an outstretched hand. The stabilising grip belonged to Mehmet, owner of the boat alongside his warm-hearted wife, Sebahat. They named the vessel Gizemha, a portmanteau of their children’s names, and run tours for three quarters of the year, returning to their fishing roots the rest of the time.
The couple welcomes guests on board the way someone else might into their home, politely requesting that shoes are left under the bench with the kind of smiles that make you want to hug a stranger. Mehmet drives, helps with the cooking, and is a generous pourer of rakı. Sebahat is a fabulous home chef, always watching to make sure everyone is happy, and will sit down beside you after her husband goes to bed to share photos of her children and Instagram account (go on, give her a follow: @sebahatmehmetyilmaz).
The food aboard Gizemha rivaled the best meals we ate on shore. Mehmet set up a small, portable grill on the stern to cook marinated chicken, throwing blocks of charcoal to his son aboard another nearby boat. We swam as he cooked, poking our heads up like hungry seals, lured by the nostalgic scent of barbecue. Meanwhile, in a scorching kitchen barely big enough for one, Sebahat cooked a feast in a white apron speckled with pink flowers.
Our group naturally emerged from the water just in time for our first meal, a spread of six dishes including taze fasülye (braised green beans in tomato), pasta shells in a deluge of yoghurt sauce and aleppo pepper, fresh tomato and cucumber salad, mixed rice and orzo pilav to go with the chicken, and Sebahat’s signature herb-laden zucchini fritters. Come dinner there was another feast of whole grilled fish, beef köfte, zucchini, bulgur and more salad and pilav and dessert – flaky rounds of syrupy phyllo pastry sprinkled with walnuts. We squished together around the table and recounted what was perhaps the most “intrepid moment” of our trip.
Earlier that day we’d docked at Simena village (known as Kaleköy in Turkey) to admire the sunken ruins from the top of the castle. On our way up, our guide mentioned that some of Turkey’s best ice cream is found here. “It’s called The I Am Here Cafe,” he said. “I think you will soon see why.” We didn’t think much of it, until we stopped on the way back down.
“I Am Here!” said a voice with a thick Turkish accent. “I Am Here!” it said again, this time closer. Soon the voice had a face, belonging to the friendliest man in Simena, if not the country, named Melvut. He showed us his small kitchen, where fresh fruit is used to make ice cream flavours like cactus fruit and black mulberry. My favourites were the tahini and goat’s milk.
Melvut dished out half scoops as tasters and encouraged us to follow the stepping-stones through his manicured grass. They led to an Instagram-friendly frame, complete with hand-painted “I Am Here Cafe” signage. When a guest sticks their head through the frame, Melvut produces a mirror from the top of the stairs, using the sun’s reflection as a blinding beauty light – all the while reminding you, “I Am Here”. Curious as to whether others had been as pleasantly surprised by the experience, I looked up The I Am Here Cafe and was warmed to see flawless TripAdvisor reviews. I doubt I can describe it better than the most recent one: “The ‘I Am Here Cafe’ should be called ‘The I Am Here For You Cafe’.”
You can have a good time with the right people and the right food anywhere in the world, but when the setting is worth writing home about as well, the experience goes from memorable to magical. There can’t be many places where you’re the only group standing on 4th-century BC Lycian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman ruins – including a small theatre for 300 people carved into the rock – in peak season. That’s where we found ourselves at the Simena castle, the Mediterranean lightening around the foundations and semi-submerged Lycian sarcophagus of Kekova’s Sunken City, like nature’s watery spotlight. The next morning we’d kayak around the ancient trading post, destroyed by earthquakes, but swimming was banned in 1986 as a protective measure.
We sailed past other boats and pulled up beside a few when stopping to swim, but the aquamarine bays and coves were noticeably uncrowded. Even without the history lesson, the coastal landscape is the kind that makes you feel lucky to be alive. Our gulet cut through the jewelled water, passing rocky outcrops and shrub-scattered islands as we cruised between swimming spots until dusk. It was a little bit too much of a coincidence that The Four Seasons’ Oh, What a Night started playing just as Mehmet filled the first rakı glass, but we were dancing hours before. That night we slept on the deck, pulling sun beds out from the shade cover for a better view of the shooting stars. Somehow, I felt just as far away from the Southern Cross as I did right at home.
Does the Three P Theory stack up? Find out for yourself on a small group adventure around Turkey now.
All images by Liam Neal.