PSERIMOS, Greece — “Our boats are for people who don’t like crowds,” Muhammet Okumus, our captain, tells me. “Even though there can be six or so gulets in a bay in summer, the places we go never see cruise ships.”
He’s right. It’s easy to be basking in the solitary glory of an Aegean inlet and suddenly feel territorial when another gulet with all of eight passengers pulls into your bay.
Okumus pulls out a map and asks me, “Where do you want to go next?” I cannot remember ever being asked that on a cruise.
Gulets are traditional Turkish sailboats that have plied the Aegean and Mediterranean for thousands of years, originally as trading ships and now as private charters or small-group excursion boats that explore the southern coast of Turkey and the Greek islands. These days, it’s an affordable, customized way to reach the outer Greek islands, which see far less tourism than do the better known spots such as Mykonos and Santorini, where cruise ships dock.
Unlike the monster cruise ships, these vessels house as few as four and sometimes as many as 20 passengers. They typically have elegant polished mahogany interiors, Turkish rugs and tall masts, and they come with a captain, a cook and a first mate in charge of cleaning and serving drinks. Because they stay mainly in calm waters, they rarely hoist the sails and will motor for the most part, although if you request it, the sails will go up in a wind.
In July 2011, during the peak of tourist season, I joined friends on a gulet leaving from the harbor at Bodrum in southwestern Turkey. We had booked through Southern Cross Blue Cruising and were on the smallest of its ships, the 62-foot Timer. There were six of us onboard, and for $2,000 a person for the week we were fed lavish meals, served cocktails on deck, taken wherever we wanted to go and spent as much time on shore as we liked.
The six cabins on the Timer were small but perfectly adequate, with two shared bathrooms. If you are willing to pay more, many gulets have lavish staterooms with en suite bathrooms.
Because I had sailed along the southern coast of Turkey before (well worth doing), this time we headed to Greece’s Dodecanese Islands, an archipelago that gets few tourists and has no thrashing nightclubs. Here, locals live as they have for centuries, herding goats, diving for sponges, fishing, going to church and farming. This is the Greece we wanted to see.
We spent the first night anchored at Orak Island, a forested Turkish island with sheltered bays and turquoise water. “Dive in,” Okumus said as soon as the anchor dropped. “Hors d’oeuvres whenever you’re out.” The water was calm, warm and clean, and the tiny beach was a lovely place to sit and watch a huge sun melt into a deserted stretch of mainland.
After a cooked breakfast the next morning, we began the 21/2-hour sail to Kos island for customs entrance into Greece. Although it is only 21/2 miles off Turkey, Kos is a Greek island (a sore point for the Turks), and it gets typical Greek isle levels of tourism. The harbor is lined with restaurants, nightclubs, hotels and souvenir shops. But it also has a castle, an old mosque and the rambling ruins of the world’s first medical school founded by Hippocrates (460 BC-370 BC). Although I do not suggest lingering in Kos, it is a fine place for a Turkish-influenced Greek dinner overlooking the lighted ruins.
On Pserimos, the first of the northern Dodecanese Islands we reached, we encountered a lovely arc of beach, a village with a couple of tavernas, a few houses, hundreds of goats and three Orthodox churches. This was old-style Greece, so we took the dinghy ashore and walked through the dusty streets to visit one of the churches. From the outside it was plain adobe. But inside it brimmed with riches — silver candelabra, crystal chandeliers, velvet drapery and oil paintings of saints. The glaring difference between life outside the church and within suggested that this tiny sanctuary was an opulent escape for this sleepy Greek town.
Taking a seat at one of the beachside tavernas, I watched the scene as the end of the workday approached and men flooded in for an ouzo. They had brick-hard faces from working in the fields or on the sea. Even the waiters seemed grim and reserved, until they broke into smiles and offered “Greek” coffee (which, of course, is Turkish) or went out of their way to walk you to where you were going.
Kalimnos, the next island, looked rocky and impenetrable until Okumus veered starboard toward a cliff and the entrance to a narrow harbor came into view. We sailed up the narrow channel leading to a fertile valley and the enchanting town of Vathi, where we immediately went ashore to have a drink at the local taverna.
“You like ouzo?” the bartender asked, one of the few islanders who spoke English to us. “I make my own. Very good. You try. No charge.” Then he pulled up a chair and sat with us to watch our reaction. His ouzo tasted like wild herbs. I imagined it tasted of the arid hills that surrounded his bar. I grinned at him and he seemed pleased.
In between islands, life on board was so relaxing that I could feel my longevity increasing by the second. We would attach our iPod to the boat’s sound system, have the first mate pour us a drink and then lie under the canopied cockpit or on mattresses in full sun on the top deck. Sails between islands were never longer than a couple of hours at most. Once at our destination, whether we were berthed in a small harbor or anchored in a bay, we could go ashore to hike or explore, staying as long as we liked. If the boat was anchored, we had only to stand on the beach and wave our arms and Okumus would fetch us with the dinghy.
The menu on board changed daily and included fresh salads, vegetable mezzes and fresh fish. A single fish can cost upward of $100 (that’s not a typo) in a restaurant on a popular Greek island, but they are plentiful in the country’s far eastern islands and the waters of Turkey. Our chef knew how to cook them flawlessly in his tiny galley. He’d go ashore and buy the fish or calamari from the fishermen, who returned to shore in their brightly painted wooden craft around noon, having been out since 4 a.m.
The harbor at Lipsi island was lined with such fishing boats, bobbing around the waterfront with their nets spread out to dry. Lipsi town looked quintessentially Greek: It had a cluster of whitewashed buildings with blue doors and the imposing Agios Ioannis Theologos (St. John Evangelist) church on the hill above. It also had a very cool vibe, and it paid little heed to tourism.
The food, served in tiny tavernas and cafes, was delicious. Islanders produce wine and cheese and raise sheep. They also make medicinal thyme honey, said to have excellent antibacterial properties and used since the time of Hippocrates to dress and heal wounds.
The town was charming: donkeys tied up in front of tiny churches, men with huge mustaches on mopeds, old women in black dresses and baggy stockings sitting outside their homes, fishermen mending their nets, retired sponge divers selling enormous sponges in the plaza.
Wandering about town in the early morning, I bought a jar of thyme honey from a bakery. As I left with my jar of amber “medicine,” the owner said, “Stop!” She ran over smiling, handing me a gift of a loaf of cinnamon bread hot from the oven. The day before, as I had left a café, the owner had given me a bunch of basil and thyme, and that morning a sponge seller had gifted me with some of his bounty. No wonder it was my favorite island, though I worried about how the alarmingly generous Dodecaneseans would make a living.
We also spent a night on Leros, a fertile island with a Venetian castle and four ancient windmills used to grind corn during the Venetian occupation of the island before the Ottomans conquered all of Greece.
On the final evening, we stopped once again for a swim in the turquoise waters of Pserimos. As I dived off the deck, I thought about how a trip like this, with a boat and a bay to oneself, is becoming a rarity.
But for now it remains the perfect anti-cruise cruise.