Fortifications all along the Lycian coast attest to times, centuries and even millennia ago, when foreign visitors – Greeks, Persians, Romans – tended to arrive armed to the teeth. Inland especially, daily life seems to unfold much as it did then. Before descending into Selimiye, on the Bozburun peninsula, we passed several small posses of elderly, black-shawled women walking to or from the nearest well, alongside mules carrying water containers.
Selimiye had been recommended to us as somewhere not yet fully discovered by foreign tourists, or at least not on the same dispiriting scale as Kalkan on the Gulf of Antalya to the east, where we had been a few summers before, and which had seemed scarcely less British than Cornwall. Selimiye, we were told, was like Kalkan 25 years ago, still more fishing village than tourist destination. That sounded perfect.
It did not disappoint. Selimiye would be photogenic even without the handsome remains of an ancient watchtower on a rock in the bay, a Turkish flag fluttering above it. Our base was the newly opened Badem Tatil Ev, a small but perfectly formed boutique hotel halfway up a steep hillside overlooking Selimiye, practically in the shadow of a ruined 11th-century castle. What had really drawn us here, though, was the chance to combine our stay with exploring the glorious western stretch of the Bozburun peninsula by boat. Exclusive Escapes, the tour operator that markets the hotel, offers trips that combine a stay there with a cruise of two of more days aboard a traditional gulet. We had heard of dozens of wonderful bays accessible only by sea, affording rare and precious privacy. A friend had told me that at nearby Dirsek, impossible to reach by road, there was a restaurant festooned with photographs of visiting celebrities, including Bill Gates, Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie.
Our sleek gulet, Faralya, was moored in Selimiye harbour, a short walk from the hotel. Nobody seems to know for sure how these wooden Turkish boats evolved, whether their origins lie in freight or fishing vessels, or even warships. Gulets don’t have keels, and can’t tack, but are weighted with ballast and lead to keep them stable. Some are impossibly gleaming and grand; Faralya, with its deck of bleached rather than burnished wood, was more homely.
Within minutes of introducing us to the cook and first mate, our captain Baris Ilhan was steering Faralya towards Bencik Bay, where we dropped anchor for the night. The flight and airport transfer were already a distant memory as we all dived into what seemed the most turquoise and unpolluted waters in the entire Mediterranean.
My wife and our three children slept on deck that night, while I, landlubber that I am, preferred the comforts of the cabin below. We were all woken at dawn by the sound of donkeys braying; indeed the soundtrack of our progress over the next two days was provided by all kinds of creatures onshore, notably a lone white goat standing at the top of the spectacularly vast cliffs overlooking Gunluklu Bay, its insistent, echoing bleat sounding eerily like a warning.
Heaven knows what it might have been warning us about, however. I’m not sure I’ve ever spent two days as carefree as I did on Faralya – swimming, reading, eating and sleeping while the crew looked after us splendidly, knocking off only to crowd around a laptop watching – so intently that they seemed to be trying to memorise every frame – a subtitled version of Django Unchained.
From the water it was easy to appreciate just how fiercely successive Turkish governments have protected this coastline from development. The only blot on a singularly lovely landscape was an unsightly concrete monolith, the deluxe D-Hotel Maris, its clientele sunning themselves on white beaches of imported Egyptian sand. We sailed by, tutting and feeling ineffably superior. Otherwise, the handsome pine-forested mountains rising from the sea reminded me of photographs of stretches of the Côte d’Azur a century ago. One can only hope that the Turkish authorities will be mindful of what the French Riviera has become, a construction free-for-all, and remain resolute.
On day three, following warm farewells from the crew, we decamped to the Badem Tatil Ev. Its name translates as Almond Holiday Home, which evokes a shabby Victorian villa on the English coast catering for the over-eighties. That could hardly be more misleading. A delightful, bijou hotel, perfectly located on what just three years ago was a hillside covered in almond trees, it is owned and run by Zeki and Gonul Çelebi, he a former civil engineer, she a genetic scientist.
Having themselves had to wrestle with bureaucracy to build their hotel, on land given to them by his parents, the Çelebis were well-qualified to explain the strict controls over building projects in Selimiye. Nonetheless, the village is certain to grow, so now is the time to go, while it has only 200 hotel beds, and most summer visitors are still Turkish.
We hired a car one day and drove – along alarming mountain roads whose numerous hairpins must have helped protect the area from development – to the tip of the peninsula. Once we had passed through Bozburun itself – a small but bustling town which is one of only three gulet-building centres in all of Turkey – we felt more and more as if we were driving through the Old Testament. There was at any rate no evidence of even the 20th century, let alone the 21st, except ourselves of course.
Around one bend we were flagged down by an old woman and her granddaughter, who offered us figs the size of peaches and peaches the size of melons. In the end we settled for a hessian bag of almonds, costing 10 lira (just under £3).
We climbed back into the car, charmed. “Mind you,” said my wife as we drove away, “that’s no less than I would pay for almonds in the supermarket at home.” Some people know just how to puncture a mood.
Brian Viner was a guest of Exclusive Escapes (exclusiveescapes.co.uk) which offers a week’s trip, with five nights at Badem Tatil Ev and two onboard the Faralya (which sleeps up to six guests) from £649 per person including transfers. Return flights from London start from £250