The Magic of Travel by Gulet


I was born on the sea (quite literally!) and have always enjoyed opportunities over quite a few decades to travel by boat or ship. Perhaps I should qualify that by saying my always-practical preference is to be able to see the shoreline – whether mainland or island – within swimming distance, and to enjoy the company of a small group of travelers whose names I can remember rather than a herd of several hundred or even thousands whose individual names are quickly forgotten.


The Romana Gulet in Croatia Romanca ship in Croatia


In June 2006 when I boarded my first gulet to explore the south Adriatic coastline of Croatia between the ancient cities of Split and Dubrovnik, it was love at first sight for me. Then when I reignited that love in September 2023 while navigating Turkey’s southwest Lycian shore, I knew I had not been just having a 17-year nostalgic dream. In both cases, it was ROW Adventures that brought their decades-long skill as tour operators to the experience. Indeed, there is a measurable magic in traveling by gulet that is hard to replicate with other cruise accommodations.


Ya Selam Gulet on the water in TurkeyYa Selam ship in Turkey


So what is a gulet (pronounced goo-let)? Many centuries ago, it was designed as a small-crew cargo vessel or fishing boat sailing Turkey’s shores during the Ottoman Empire. These double-masted, durable hardwood and brass transporters gradually infiltrated other eastern Mediterranean shores as well. During the 20th century and in keeping with technology, they became motorsailers with powerful engines providing the primary locomotion. The elegant sail configurations became less and less used for function and more for tradition, elegance and additional strength of the vessel.


Three people sitting in lounging chairs on the sun deck of a yacht as a crew member brings them drinksCrew member serving drinks to guests aboard the Romanca in Croatia.


Vacationing Aboard a Gulet 

Fast forward to the mid-20th century and the millions of vacationers are quite suddenly determined to discover the world. A good many were looking for authentic local experiences, and gulets were there to make a relatively quick evolution from maritime working vessels to luxurious yet still-classic wooden yachts. Initially they were renovated from cargo or fishing use to tourism for six to 12 guests; more recently gulets have been built from scratch for tourism and often owned by the captain, with each one handmade to fully meet the expectations of a tourism clientele. Acknowledging the magic of the gulet, this has been done without compromising the historical design which is such a consistent attraction for gulet travelers. What’s not to like about fresh-stained teak and gleaming brass?


Inside of a cabin on a traditional gulet ship

Inside a cabin aboard the Ya Selam gulet in Turkey.


While modern gulets offer functional cabins with ensuite bathrooms, they do not have the space or the many optional extras of a hotel room. So the ideal place to chill, chat, catch the sun or make notes on your trip is the deck which is surprisingly spacious both at the bow and the stern. A staff of four, including the captain, cruise manager, assistant (who polishes a lot of brass in his spare time) and the all- important chef, are always on hand to answer questions, collect wet towels from a swim or paddle boarding around a secluded cove, drive the zodiac and offer service with a smile.


A crew member aboard a chartered Gulet standing in the bow ready to tie the boat up to a harbor

Crew member aboard the Romanca getting ready to dock in Croatia


On board the Croatian Romanca, our classic motorsailer predictably appointed with stained hardwood and highly-polished brass, we sampled the gourmet harvest of both sea and land. That certainly included some of the finest Croatian wines, well respected in many European countries, but an unexpected treat for guests mostly from North America.

At every port, our cruise manager, Vlado, was first off the yacht to visit his favorite local produce markets, bakeries, butchers and fishing boats. His credo was “everything fresh today” on what could easily have been billed as a gourmet dining cruise. Handing over his purchases to our 6- foot, 5-inch Croatian chef, barely able to stand upright in his tiny, shiny galley kitchen, the results were culinary magic all the way from Split to Dubrovnik. There’s that word “magic” again!


A wide variety of food in white serving plates on a wooden table

Food spread aboard the Ya Selam in Turkey


All meals on a gulet are family style at a large table bolted to the stern deck with everyone passing bowls and platters of food around. Under the circumstances, it is hard not to develop an intimacy with a group of perfect strangers – even the most reserved along them. What’s not like at home are the dishes and condiments which are consciously Croatian or Turkish on these trips. One fellow traveler on my Turkish gulet declared that breakfast was “more like cocktail hour in North America” with many varieties of olives, cheese wedges, tomatoes, halva and sliced vegetable sticks for dipping in tsiki, yogurt and hummus.

Perhaps surprising, I learned that Turks mainly take tea with their breakfast or a weak coffee in large cups. That powerful Turkish-style coffee which many of our all-North American “family” were pretty excited to have at their fingertips even before they had breakfast soon learned that the real thing, served in miniature cups and strong enough to curl your hair, is nationally revered as a standalone drink, a ritual, not to be mixed up with food eating!


The outdoor dining room aboard the Romanca ship harbored for the eveningDining table ready for guests to enjoy dinner aboard the Romanca in a quaint harbor in Croatia.


ROW Adventures Picks Exceptional Guides 

The fifth person on the working team, the tour guide, is equally important as the crew to a successful gulet cruise. That person is chosen by the tour operator, and expected to be part of the visitor family. Sitting around that spacious dining table, the guide briefs and debriefs guests daily about the off-gulet experiences, acts as a liaison with the crew and land-based drivers, leads all tours through ruins and quaint villages, and oversees sea kayak outings to ensure that the “family” is pointed in the right direction. Perhaps anyone can be trained to do that part of the job, but the wild card is compatibility. Why? Because the highlights of any trip are often meeting just the right local people on a hiking excursion or sharing the many touching, insightful, astonishing and humorous stories about life in their country.

Ozlem, our Turkish guide, illustrated the compatibility wild card in spades (if you will excuse the pun!). A career archaeologist who knew the deep and varied history of the region we were exploring, both as an academic and from growing up there, she could juggle half a dozen requests at one time, answer every question without using a single word of academic jargon, and maintain a great sense of humor punctuated with a hearty laugh that engaged and relaxed everyone.


Turkish woman teaching an American woman how to make a traditional turkish meal

ROW Adventures traveler learning to make a traditional Turkish meal from a local.


Most travelers jump at a chance to explore an unfamiliar destination with any local resident. However, to follow in the wake of someone who can point to 20 generations in the monastery graveyard – that’s 500 years of relatives –is just about as insider as it gets. Mišo, island son of Vis, country vineyard and boutique winery owner, just happened to be the guiding eyes and ears on my Croatian gulet cruise. On each of the four islands we visited between Split and Dubrovnik, he professionally shared his knowledge of the region, but there was a subtle shift from guide to host the minute we clattered down the ship’s gangplank into the heart of Vis’s historic harbor town of 2,000 citizens. During our visit to Vis, Mišo’s comfortable intimacy with the surroundings, the people, and the passion of generations brought rewarding bonuses as we discovered “his” island exhaustively.


Four travelers hiking down to a cove where two gulets are anchoredFour guests hiking back to the Ya Salem for an evening aboard.


It was the last day of my Turkish cruise as I lay on my back bobbing in the bathtub-temperature Mediterranean waters surrounding our anchored gulet, Ya Selam. I pondered yesterday’s highlight of kayaking just a few meters over top of the early Greek ruins of a prominent trading city. About 2,000 years ago most of it had slithered down into the crystal-clear sea during an earthquake, and I marveled at the tangible history I had experienced during my gulet cruise. I also congratulated myself that I had followed the rules specified by the captain on our first day: no shoes onboard, no paper in the toilet, and no swimming till the engine is turned off, none of which I would have to follow when I got home. Well, that’s all part of the magic, isn’t It?


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Authoring Note:

British Columbia-based Alison Gardner is a travel journalist and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine; a richly-illustrated resource for mature travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide.

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