You won’t find a better way to explore Turkey’s Turquoise Coast than from the decks of a gulet (a traditional wooden boat). But did you know you can experience a blue cruise like this on a backpacker’s budget? You can sail the stunning Turkish Riviera from Fethiye to Olympos on a 4-day cabin charter from just $260. That’s crazy cheap.
Watching a display of shooting stars as you drift off to sleep, no noise but the waves lapping against the side of the boat. Waking up to the sunrise in a secluded cove, to the smell of pine and herbs and honey. Padding barefoot along the deck, bracing yourself for a dive into water that sparkles like gemstones. Afterwards, you plot the day’s adventures over a breakfast spread of tomato, cheese, cucumber, olives, coffee, bread, and jams.
The catch? For the cheapest prices, you’ll have to share a boat and can expect the facilities to be basic. Oh, but it’s worth it though.
Read on to discover why.
WHY TAKE A FETHIYE-OLYMPOS BLUE CRUISE
I used to be scared of the sea. One of my first memories is of being on a ferry aged 3, afraid to go anywhere near the guardrail. My mind boggled at how anyone could think boats were safe.
A gulet cruise in Turkey converted me.
It was an ex’s idea. We were in Fethiye, heading for Olympos on the Turquoise Coast on the south-west of the country. A backpacker’s haven with treehouses and beach-side ruins, it has drawn hippy types for decades.
The scenic coastal route to Olympos would take a few days and a few buses. But in Fethiye, we discovered that a 3-night cabin charter on gulet cruise could take us along the same route.
This stretch of coastline isn’t the easiest to explore by road. Many of the villages and bays along this coast were inaccessible to road traffic until the 1970s and, despite the new highways, there are still many parts that are difficult to access by car or public transport.
What better than to drift lazily between them on a boat?
A cabin charter is where you rent a room on a boat with other travellers (I use the word ‘room’ loosely). Once I learned the price, I was sold. With food and accommodation costs factored in, it wasn’t much more expensive than making our own way there.
Any fears I had of water were quickly dispelled once I strapped on a snorkel mask and jumped into those crystal clear turquoise seas. The food was as good as a restaurant, but with a much better view.
It wasn’t long before I was a convert to travelling by boat.
Related read: Top 10 Bluest Waters in the Mediterranean
WHAT IS A BLUE CRUISE?
Gulet sailing in Turkey refers to a type of sailing charter in this southwestern corner of Turkey, typically week-long liveaboard trips along the stretch of coast from Bodrum to Antalya with an emphasis on enjoying the nature as much as the sights and towns.
Gulet cruises in Turkey are also commonly referred to as a ‘blue cruise‘ or ‘blue voyage‘. Same thing.
The gulet cruise industry is popularly credited to Cevat Sakir – the Fisherman of Halicarnassus – a writer who was exiled to Bodrum in 1925.
He fell in love with the simplicity of life and beauty of the area, often taking his literary friends out on sponge-diving boats when they visited. Several books were published about these trips, and before long fishing boats had been converted for the tourists seeking the same experience.
WHAT IS A GULET?
A gulet is a type of traditional Turkish wooden motor sailing vessel, originally used for fishing and sponging. If you’re wondering how to say ‘gulet’, it’s pronounced more like ‘goo-let’ than ‘gull-et’.
Although gulets do have sails, you can expect to motor cruise most of the time. Since gulets became popular for charters, adaptations have been made to the design to make it more comfortable for living aboard but less suitable for sailing. They have roomy decks with plenty of space for al fresco dining and sunbathing, and are wide and stable vessels.
The downside of motor cruising is the engine noise. And if you’re looking to learn how to sail, this is not the trip for you.
But if you want to experience life at sea for a few days and explore the coast by boat then gulet sailing in Turkey is great fun and great value. Turkey isn’t the only place in the Mediterranean you can gulet cruise; similar vessels have cropped up in Croatia and Montenegro, but this stretch of coast is the spiritual home.
Related read: Heading to the Turquoise Coast? Check out our interview with local blog Slow Travel Guide on making the most of this beautiful region.
WHAT TO EXPECT ON A CABIN CHARTER
Most boats offering cabin charters have around 12 passengers and 3 crew, although some party boats cram on more than that. Your meals are provided on the boat and there’s ample room on deck for lounging around, sunbathing, playing cards. A bimini provides shade and protection from the sun. You’ll spend most nights at anchor, hanging out with your fellow passengers, although there are opportunities to link up with other boats if you feel like it (particularly at the infamous Pirate Bay disco). It’s a great way to travel for singles, although you find plenty of couples and friends on the cabin charters too.
The cabins on budget boats are tiny and unlikely to have (working) A/C, meaning it’s more comfortable to sleep on a mattress on deck. If privacy/air-conditioning/showers are more your style then check out more expensive voyages with higher spec boats.
Typical stops between Fethiye and Olympos include:
- Butterfly Valley
- Pirate Bay
Other hubs where you can start/finish a gulet cruise are:
- Rhodes (for Greek islands)
HOW MUCH DOES A GULET CRUISE COST?
So you think sailing’s just for the super-rich? That’s what I thought too. Having grown up inland with no particular interest or experience of watersports, I’d never given sailing a moment’s consideration. I assumed that it was out of my budget and didn’t see the appeal.
Until I tried it.
Cabin charters are the best way to try sailing on a budget
- Cabin charters are shared trips where you rent a cabin rather than the whole boat
- Itineraries tend to be fixed
- It’s a great way to meet people if you’re travelling solo
- Worried about sharing a small space with strangers? Gulets are spacious compared to standard cruising yachts
What’s a typical price for a gulet cruise?
The cheapest rates I’ve seen online for 2018 are around the €200 mark for the 4-day Fethiye-Olympos route, which tends to be the cheapest option. The higher the price, the better the facilities on the boat. 7-day itineraries start at around €300.
When comparing operators it’s wise to check what’s included. Some allow you to bring your own booze, which can make a difference to your budget if you’re bringing the party spirit. Otherwise alcoholic drinks are sold on board.
BOOKING A CABIN CHARTER ON A GULET
If you’re travelling in peak season (July/August) you should consider booking in advance in order to secure the itinerary/boat that you’re after. That said, there is plenty of competition so it’s not strictly necessary.
The benefits of booking when you’re already in Turkey are that you’ll be able to compare operators, get a sense of the other passengers and crew, and potentially negotiate a lower price—particularly in shoulder season or if you’re travelling solo and hope to avoid paying the dreaded single supplement.
Some people like to party more than others, so talk to the operators to find the boat that’s the right fit for you. Find out who else has booked, make sure you know what’s included in the cost, and don’t forget to check out online reviews.
Things to bear in mind:
- You will be sharing a small space and basic facilities with strangers
- Expect to sleep on deck under the stars, it’s too hot in the cabins unless you’re splurging on a luxury boat with A/C
- Hangovers at sea are an awful thing
Speaking of hangovers . . .
How to avoid a party boat, if that’s not your scene:
- The cheaper the voyage, the more likely it will be full of party animals who have lined the freezer with booze
- Particularly so in the university holidays – July/August
- Fethiye-Olympos (and the reverse) tends to be the cheapest route and most popular with backpackers and young travellers
- Check the ages of other passengers when booking
I loved the gulet cruise experience so much that I brought a group of friends back the following year.
It wasn’t my last sailing experience either, since then I’ve gone on to sail on a tall ship around the Balearics, crewed on a classic yacht, and been a volunteer crew member on the Phoenician Ship Expedition around Africa.
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