I sit atop the remains of a seaside amphitheater in Knidos and, through the midday haze, look out across the shimmering Aegean. How refreshing it must have been to take in a show from atop these marble slabs, with stars and moonbeams as stage lights, listening as the players' voices pierced the murmuring harbor's tides. Yes, the countless churches throughout Italy, Greece, and Turkey are historic, but the sea is eternal. And while the buildings and monuments of Knidos are now ruins, this harbor has changed very little since the city's heyday in the 4th century B.C.
Several gulets-the traditional, broad-beamed, two-masted wooden sailing vessels of Turkey-are anchored in the harbor now, their masts towering above the same protected coves that sailors would have favored in the days of Caesar and Nero. Gulets are intertwined with Turkey's coastal history, first as a means of moving commercial goods and, more recently, as vacation vessels, so the view of them at an archaeological site feels natural. I rise and walk the stone path away from the amphitheater back toward what remains of several temples, peeking over my shoulder at the proud, wide, mahogany-planked hulls. I wonder how many of our ancestors walked this same path in handmade sandals, looking back over their own shoulders to see who had just sailed into town.
Today's visitors include Mare Nostrum, which, at 144 feet long, is one of the largest wooden-construction gulets to come out of Turkey's shipyards. She is owned by a local man who says he has had "maybe 10 other boats in 20 years," a man who launched her in 2008 with specific intentions of bringing internationallevel luxuries to gulet charters in Turkey.
That's a tall order, and not just in terms of size. It's fair to say that gulets, based on the several trips I've made to Turkey and the many boats I've toured here, have earned much of their unfortunate reputation as charter yachts of a lesser caliber on the world's seas. You used to be able to find-and it wasn't terribly long ago-gulets chartering at $1,000 per couple for an entire week. Sure, there was no sound shield around the generator, but that didn't matter because the skipper wouldn't turn on the air conditioning anyway, preferring to save fuel while you suffocated. Even the nicer gulets would often degrade rapidly from a lack of maintenance. A gulet that looked good for charter one year might literally be falling apart the next.
"It's just in the past three years that there has been an enormous increase in quality among gulets," says Missy Johnston, president of Northrop and Johnson Worldwide Yacht Charters, who regularly visits Turkey to inspect gulets before offering them to clients. "Some of the better local agents from Turkey have started to attend the Genoa and Antigua charter shows, to see their international competition. The old gulets with leaking showers-that is not what charter is about in Turkey anymore at the luxury levels."
Mare Nostrum was designed to be the jewel of the modern fleet. Everything from her fixtures, which are imported from Italy, to her layout, which differs from classic gulets, was thought through in advance of construction. Mare Nostrum is not a private yacht that is offered for charter. Instead, she is a purpose-built charter vessel. And a very nice one at that, with smart features, a hull design so stable that it almost feels as though stabilizers are engaged underway, and a weekly rate that will make a lot of people give Turkey a second look as a Mediterranean charter destination.
Her sheer size allowed Mare Nostrum's owner to change the main deck layout from that of traditional gulets, where guests had fewer gathering spaces, to an arrangement more conducive to privacy and traffic circulation. There is still a large sunpad at the stern, plus a seating area with cocktail tables where most other gulets have their outdoor dining. Moving forward, you come to the raised main saloon, which on most other gulets takes up the rest of the amidships deck space. On Mare Nostrum, that saloon structure (which is topped by guest seating) gives way to an on-deck opening with a dining table that easily seats 12. Forward of that is a wide bar that provides the same type of service area as pantries on large motoryachts, with an opening that stewardesses can reach through to grab plates coming out of the galley-the last raised structure before you get to the bow seating area.
The effect of this design is that, with 12 guests onboard, you never have a sunpad shortage or seating traffic jam. During my few days aboard, I enjoyed a feeling of space not typically found on sailing yachts, in general.
Mare Nostrum's cabins, too, are different, a function of the owner's experiences with previous charter clients. "I used to have boats with large master cabins," he told me, "but the couples would come and feel that one cabin was better than the others. Now, I build all the cabins similar, and there are no complaints."
There would be none from me, as my cabin-virtually identical among five of the six onboard-included a queen-size, walkaround bed, a desk, a settee, a flatscreen television, and a head with his-and-her sinks plus a full-size massage-jet shower, toilet, and bidet. (The sixth stateroom is similar in size and features, but with twin beds instead of a queen.) I'm not exaggerating when I say these cabins are larger than many aboard charter motoryachts in the 120-foot range. And they're finished entirely with mahogany, creating a rich, classic ambience that no fiberglass yacht I've seen can even approach.
The layout makes Mare Nostrum an ideal charter yacht for five or six couples who want to split a weekly charter rate, and especially for clients who are interested in getting good value for their money. At 45,000 per week-which includes meals, domestic wines and beers, local taxes, limitless WiFi, fuel for the main engines and generators, and air conditioning 24 hours a day-Mare Nostrum's rate is comparable to what you would pay for an eightto 10-guest motoryacht in the Western Mediterranean, where food, drinks, and fuel are tacked onto your bill as extras, and where you often have to pay exorbitant marina fees instead of, oh, say, anchoring in a harbor overlooking ancient ruins or a historic castle.
"I believe that right now, in terms of worldwide charter, the Turkish gulet is the best value for money," Johnston says, "and I mean that no matter what level of luxury you choose. This boat is certainly at the top level."
The idea of value for money is also a hallmark of Turkey's modern port cities, each of which boasts a bazaar filled with leather goods that you can haggle over-a memorable adventure in and of itself. (I received stares of awe in the States when admitting what I paid for my custom-cut, three-quarter-length, fully lined leather jacket. Price negotiated at the Marmaris bazaar: $200.) Beautifully crafted, custom-made belts and bags are options too, often at attractive prices. You'll also find silks, jewelry, pottery, spices, teas, and the ubiquitous Turkish rugs, some of which you can get for thousands of dollars less than you would pay back home.
Such finds come from a culture of a new kind, of course, one in which commerce so often takes center stage. I wonder how a traveler might think of it a few thousand years from now, when our own great-grandchildren's civilization is long ruined and the gulet has once again evolved. I suspect-indeed, I hope-that this traveler, like me, will close her eyes and let the eternal Aegean breezes cool her face and fire her imagination.
Mare Nostrum takes 12 guests at a lowest weekly base rate of 45,000. Contact Northrop & Johnson Worldwide Yacht Charters, (800) 868-5913; www.njcharters.com.