Boat life

Less than 24 hours have passed since we were cruising the Mediterranean on a 90-foot-long wooden sailing ship. Yet somehow I can’t quite remember what I did between the time I woke up yesterday and our disembarkation 7 or 8 hours later. I know we ate breakfast. Later came a light lunch. I know I spent time laying on the velour-covered foam mattresses laid out on the rooftops over the main salon and the fo’c’sle. Rocked gently by the boat’s forward motion through the swells, I didn’t sleep. It felt more like a dream, an existence untethered from time.

Steve and have only a cruised a few times before, always on smallish vessels in exotic waters — down the Amazon, up the Nile, meandering among the fantastic rock formations of Vietnam’s Halong Bay. A close friend had sailed for a week on Turkey’s Turquoise Coast ten years ago, and her descriptions tantalized me; made me realize such cruises were a hugely popular touristic option. But the global lockdowns triggered by Covid halted all that maritime activity. I eventually learned that our cruise westward from Olympos would be the first offered by Alaturka, an old, well-respected Turkish cruise operator, since the onset of the pandemic. Although Turkey was never very locked down, tourists couldn’t get there because many governments stopped allowing their citizens to travel. The results were catastrophic for cruise companies like Alaturka. It didn’t operate at all in 2020 or 2021; the company had to offload 2 of their 4 vessels. Rahmi, the captain of our boat, had to sell his car to survive. Ali, the chef, lost the restaurant he ran during the off-season.

Their delight at finally being back on the water probably contributed to the ambient ebullience when we boarded Saturday afternoon. I myself was flooded with pleasure-tinged adrenaline at the sight of all that varnished wood and polished brass.

View of our sister ship, which sailed carrying a private charter group.
Not hard to understand why they call this the Turquoise Coast.

Didn’t take me long to figure out how comfy those mats were.

We learned we would be sailing with a crew of 5 tending to 18 passengers from all over the globe: 4 girls hailing from Australia, New Zealand, the US, and Canada, the latter married to one of three hilarious medical residents from the Canadian Maritime provinces. The other 9 were white South Africans, all friends and family of Andre, celebrating his 50th birthday with several weeks of bacchanalian partying.

Andre’s crew started slamming down the hard stuff within minutes of coming aboard. Here’s Andre starting off our first full day with a slug or two of tequila — before breakfast.

We set sail but stopped several times for excursions over the next three days. That first afternoon we made for a seaside village called Simena (aka Karakoy). A dinghy took us ashore, where a short steep climb led us to ruins built by the Lycians 2300 years ago.

The view from the ruins

Then we were off again, motoring over more ruins, submerged in the azure water. As the sun neared the horizon we docked at a bigger, more boisterous town called Kas to spend the night there.

Steve and I toured the town then returned to the boat for dinner.
Meals took place at this long, sociable table.
All the food was excellent; a standout were these beauties, which the chef grilled over a grill set up on the bow sprit.

Several of the South Africans were avid divers, and Sunday morning a group set off to explore an underwater wreck. That night we were supposed to dock again in another party village (Kalkan), but late in the afternoon a brewing squall made the wind so fierce we had to anchor in a protected inlet.

It was really nippy!
And so windy Rahmi had to lash down our speaker to keep it from flying overboard.

The change in plans prompted the South Africans to organize a game involving dice and tequila (several bottles of it, consumed in the form of shots.) Miraculously Steve and I (alone) had the sense not to join in, giving us the almost unique experience of feeling like teetotalers. Still, we drank enough gin and wine to enable us to join the riotous dancing that ensued both before and after dinner.

I was just as happy not to be hung over when the helmsman cranked up the engine at 5 the next morning. In our cozy cabin, we managed to snooze despite some serious rocking. When we finally arose and made it on deck, it felt like we had journeyed to a different watery planet, this one windless and painted in a different palette.We once again motored to a deserted beach and were ferried onshore to Butterfly Valley.

It was a great place to hike, shady, filled with flowers, and culminating in a pretty waterfall. Returning to the beach, we found it transformed…

…by a horde of day boats.

…who found plenty to drink.
The water looked so beautiful I swam from the beach back to our ship.

That swim felt exquisite. The sun was hot; the water not too chilly. But it turned out to be the only time I got into the water on the trip. Every time I was tempted, the other option was stronger.

Most of our fellow passengers jumped in several times a day.

Steve and I also passed on the opportunity to jump off the (alleged) second highest paragliding site in the world, though the Canadians went and seemed to enjoy it.Steve and I did join in on the final excursion of our trip. Late Monday afternoon we anchored off St. Nicholas island……where a short dinghy ride took us to a trailhead leading to some Byzantine ruins built in the 7th century.

The ascent through the crumbling stonework and old tombs was pleasant. At the top, everyone else from our boat had hauled up cocktails or bottles of wine, forethought Steve and I had lacked. The landscape alone was pretty intoxicating, though, and we took some pleasure in being sober as we scrambled down over the rocks and scree in the deepening gloom.

That night after dinner, we moved the long table once again and this time danced to more ethnic fare: Turkish and Greek folk dance music, The Circle of Life from the Lion King. I may not remember every archeological site. I may not be able to tell you how I passed all those lazy hours. But I don’t think I will ever forget that revelry.

Ali was both a great chef and a fine dancer.

Cruising the enchanted bay

In 2008 Steve and I took the first cruise of our lives, down the Nile. There are other waterways we’d liked to cruise some day, but we’ve saving them until we’re older and infirm, unable to handle the rigors of more adventurous travel. We made an exception to that rule for Halong Bay; spent Thursday and Friday nights sleeping on the Treasure.

Our cruising home

It is possible to see the bay on a day boat, but that would be arduous. The bus ride from Hanoi takes more than three and a half hours. We boarded our bus at 8 a.m. Thursday, reached Halong City shortly before noon, and boarded a small pontoon boat that transported us to the junk, a handsome motorized sailing ship that sleeps about 30.

The Treasure was lovely: dark polished wood and rich upholstery, our cabin well-designed and comfortable. Meals consisted of multiple courses, many of them tasty sea creatures freshly harvested from the bay. Steve and I did all the activities: tai-chi lessons on the deck at dawn,

Vietnamese cooking lessons both evenings at 6 p.m. In between, we climbed into a sturdy double ocean kayak and paddled for hours, following our guide around the islands. We paddled to a deserted sand beach (one of the few left in the bay, we learned, due to shellfish farmers stealing the extraordinarily fine-grained sand to use in their aquacultural enterprises.) We toured a sea cave and a floating village, home to about 100 of the bay’s 500 resident fishermen. All of it was fun.
Getting into reed boats for a tour of the fishing village

None of that compared, however, to the pleasure of simply gazing at the staggering beauty surrounding us. Halong Bay has been included on at least one of those recent lists of Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It’s been declared a World Heritage Site on two counts — for nature and beauty. We couldn’t quibble with those designations. The place is as spectacular, in its own way, as the Grand Canyon or Table Mountain in South Africa. What makes it so special are the 1,969 islands that stud it. Composed of highly eroded limestone, what makes them so special, in turn, is their great height. The legend goes that they sprang up from seeds of jade spit out by dragons protecting the local folk from an invading army. Today they’re covered with jade-green plants, and they indeed look magical.

I was somewhat prepared by how splendid the bay would be. What was unexpected was how superbly our expedition company (Handspan Tours) managed to organize our itinerary to keep us out of sight of other cruisers. The first tours of Halong Bay began just 10 or 11 years ago. Steve and I have friends who visited in 2005 and were the only passengers on their junk. Now, however, some 500 tourist boats play the water daily — 300 for daytrippers and 200 for overnight cruisers. I’d read warnings online of how traffic-jammed the bay can seem, marred by the sight of garbage floating on the water. But the Treasure steamed to a relatively pristine section. Once moored, we often were the only visitors in sight.

I’m not a good enough writer to describe the bay and islands adequately. So here are a few digital impressions:

I’m hoping all these photos will upload because the Golden Sun Palace, our hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, has very good wifi. We arrived back late yesterday afternoon and already my neurons are overloaded with the effort to take this place in. I’ll let them calm down, then I’ll try to describe some fraction of it.