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Sailing along the Turkish coast on a ketch; Intimacy: Voyagers in groups of eight to 28 can enjoy themselves in the style of the rich and famous.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

KAS, Turkey -- The sea of tourists trudging obediently behind their guides' placards marched onto the eight mega-buses that would take them back to the port. Landing craft would motor them -- 40 at a time -- out to their giant cruise ship anchored far off the Mediterranean coast. They looked haggard and sweaty. Long day, not over yet.

We watched the scene sympathetically from an outdoor cafe as we sipped cold beers and munched on salty olives and feta cheese. Then we ambled down a narrow brick street lined with tidy carpet stores and food stalls, exchanging greetings with shopkeepers as we made our way to the little marina where our boat, the Cevri II, bobbed seductively under a softening late afternoon sun. Up the little gangplank, my seven fellow passengers, our Turkish guide and I settled cozily into deep cushions on the aft deck, accepted chilled white wine and roasted-pepper-and-pita hors d'oeuvres from our crew of three and watched the sun set quietly over the distant mountains.

I really hate to rub this in, but ...

My cruise was better than your cruise.

Time and again during my nine-day jaunt aboard a 78-foot gulet (a twin-masted teak motor-sailer, technically called a ketch), I thought how delicious a way this was to go to sea.

There was no room service, no nightly show, dance band or even a pool as on the big cruise ships that sometimes ply this stunning swath of Turkey's Mediterranean Tur-quoise Coast. Our six cabins were on the smallish size -- though each had a private bathroom, windows that opened and a reasonable amount of storage space.

But look at us floating in a crescent cove at Kekova Island, our only overnight neighbors two tiny fishing boats, their grizzled occupants quietly mending nets in the moonlight. And there we are gliding gracefully into the lively village of Fethiye to shop for fresh grouper and piquant spices that our young chef will sizzle with onions, red peppers, tomatoes and olive oil for a deck-top feast under the stars. And every once in a while, when the wind is right, watch us zoom across the water, sails unfurled, dolphins jumping alongside us, the breeze cooling our sunburns and making our eyes tear -- from the salty air, from sheer joy. But why just watch us when you could join us?

Intimate guided cruising adventures -- aboard sailboats, luxury motor yachts, and riverboats are becoming the hottest trend in cruising worldwide.

Tycoons and other wealthy travelers long have indulged in the pleasures of private yachting. Now regular folks in groups of eight to 28 can cruise alongside the swank set in prime waters near and far. The price is similar to the cost of a cruise-ship cabin -- from less than $1,000 per person a week to more than $4,000, depending on comfort and amenities.

* See Alaska's Inside Passage aboard a 12-passenger cabin cruiser that visits small towns and wilderness areas inaccessible to the big ships.

* Venture out in a wooden riverboat along an intricate web of Peru's Amazon tributaries, islands and marshes teeming with wildlife.

* Swim with scores of dolphins while exploring the Bahamas in an eight-passenger schooner that homes in on prime playing grounds.

* Explore the tiny islands, powder sand beaches and coral reefs around Bali aboard a 12-passenger sailboat, joining local festivals and artists in their workshops.

Our nine-day Turkey sail (which was mostly under motor due to limited time and uncooperative winds) was part of a 17-day guided hiking and archaeology-appreciation excursion run by an Idaho-based outfitter. For an extra charge, we added on a three-night excursion to inland Cappadocia, where we hiked through a phan-tasmagoric landscape of rock churches and houses, explored underground cities that descended 18 stories into the earth, and drifted aloft in a hot-air balloon for a bird's-eye view of the area's bizarre geological formations.

Our group of three couples and two solo women, mostly in our 40s and 50s, worked hard to keep our diverse personalities copacetic in close quarters -- a few flare-ups notwithstanding. Our guide, 42-year-old Yasemin Konuralp, is an outdoorswoman who runs an adventure company with her husband, Cemil, out of their home base in coastal Antalya.

During our sojourn, we saw many of the landmark sights the big ships include, but, oh, what a difference our small boat -- and group -- made. Those sorry sack cruise passengers we saw in Kas were crammed into creaky launches blaring Zorba music to buzz by the famous sunken cities off Kekova Island. We, on the other hand, glided over in the Cevri, donning snorkel gear to inspect at leisure the craggy fourth-century B.C. ruins submerged in the shallow turquoise water. Then we hiked the abutting mountain, picking our way around crumbled city walls, before swimming back to the boat for a lazy shipboard lunch -- the only sounds the lapping of soft waves against our hull and birds cackling overhead hoping for leftovers.

At the Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus, which attract more than two million tourists annually, cruise passengers were bussed in en masse around 10 a.m. to schlep -- under a scorching sun -- behind numbered flags, umbrellas or inverted water bottles held aloft by local guides, who recited dates and details in dreary monotones. Our guide, Yasemin, brought us to the ruins at 8 a.m., when the morning was still fresh and cool and we had the place practically to ourselves. We strolled amid brilliant red, yellow and purple wildflowers growing between the ruins, tested the acoustics of the perfectly preserved second-century B.C. amphitheater (booming out a rousing "friends, Romans, countrymen" from the theater floor) and listened appreciatively to Yasemin's impassioned tales of the living Ephesus she loves to reveal to her small groups.

We awoke early each morning to steaming coffee and cay (fragrant Turkish tea), orange juice, eggs, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, feta cheese, fruit, yogurt and fresh bread from the local bakery -- all laid out on a wide aft-deck wooden table where we took most of our meals. (Another table was available inside during inclement weather.) Then we cruised to an isolated cove for swimming, took a dinghy over to a seaside archaeological ruin for a hiking expedition, or docked at a nearby village for strolling, lunch and a little shopping. Handmade Turkish carpets and flat-woven kilims were our weaknesses, and our boat's storage spaces soon filled with a sultan's supply of silk, wool and cotton weavings.

Lunches were an eclectic meld of nourishment and adventure. One day we hiked a narrow trail along the roiling Saklikent Gorge to a cafe set deep in the mountain cut. We were served fried fish hand-rolled in thin pancakes as we sat on wooden platforms lashed to trees suspended above the rushing waters. During a visit to a trout farm a few days later, we followed connecting bridges to a dining grove where we ate our fish surrounded by bubbling pools of future food.

Some days we left the boat at dock or anchor and journeyed inland, such as the morning we took a van into the mountains to trek amid flocks of goats at the pillar tombs of Xanthos, ancient Lycia's greatest city. Xanthos' legacy is a tragic one, much like that of Israel's Masada. In 540 B.C. the population committed mass suicide rather than face slavery under invading armies. The descendants of the few survivors re-enacted that same sad scenario 500 years later in 42 B.C. A seventh-century incursion finished off Xanthos for good.

On the afternoon we sailed to the pebbly beach at Olympus, a local farmer took us by tractor-pulled flatbed through a river valley lined with pink oleander to the path for Chimera, legendary home of a mythical fire-breathing beast. A steep forest walk led to a startling sight -- flames licking out from cracks all about the rocky hillside, fueled eternally by natural gas. Alas, not a marshmallow in sight!

Tombs were everywhere we went -- sculpted into cliff faces, dug into caves, constructed atop hills like miniature stone mansions for the dead -- a testament to ancient civilizations' belief that life might be short but afterlife was, well, forever, so one might as well make home-sweet-eternal-home as grand and durable as possible.

No matter how exciting our land excursions, we relished most our time on the boat -- by day, sailing along the coast or braving a little chop at sea; at night, anchored in a quiet cove or tied up at a town harbor, where the sounds and smells of village life and periodic wail of the local mosque calling the faithful to prayer wafted through our dinner conversations and into our dreams.

We liked our affable jack-of-all-services first mate, Avni, 28, and talented chef, Yusef, 23 (who cooked up a storm despite his much-repeated resentment at having to come up through the ranks even though his father owned the boat). But our hearts (all right, the women's hearts) belonged to our 44-year-old captain, Dogan Yuvanc -- compact, muscular build, thick shag of salt-and-pepper hair, simultaneously intellectual and sentimental, and, oh,that smile.

After navigating the seas and shorelines with piercing attention by day, he softened into the evening over a glass of rake (a Turkish anise liquor), confiding life dreams and lost loves, and proudly producing snapshots of his teen-age son and German girlfriend.

The captain's eclectic cassette collection constantly surprised us as it set a nightly tone or heralded an event. As we approached the beach at Olympos on a sparkling sunny day, the boat's little stereo speakers bongo-ed out a lively Jimmy Buffett tape, putting us in a party mood. At dinner that night, we hummed along with Nat King Cole: "And I say to myself, what a wonderful world," then drifted off to sleep enveloped in the sweet strains of Mozart.

On a fine windy day, as, sails flying, we zipped across the sea, our loudspeakers boomed out a rousing Rod Stewart number: "We are sailing stormy waters; Lord, we dare you to be free."

The musical thread turned somber our last night aboard the gulet, as our after-dinner stargazing was joined by the heart-tugging harmony of Andrea Bocelli and Sara Brightman singing "Time to Say Goodbye."

Indeed, it was.

There were hugs all around as we prepared to dinghy to the dock at Kemer amid huge piles of luggage and Turkish carpets that made us look like refugees with sun hats and cameras. We laughed with the captain and crew as we waved good-bye, teasing one another over memories we had built during nine days together.

Then they were gone, specks on the horizon, bound for the boat.

From the dock, as we waited for a van to take us inland, we could still see the Cevri II gleaming in the tranquil water, waiting to welcome her next happy group.

I hated them already.

A TURKISH GULET

Prices are per person, double occupancy, and unless noted, do not include airfare.

My trip was organized by ROW, an Idaho-based outfitter that has run trips to Turkey for 15 years. This year the company will run alternating east- and westbound itineraries between Marmaris and Antalya, prime cruising grounds. The 15-day trips, including nine nights on the gulet, depart May 15 and 25, June 18 and 28, Sept. 3 and 13, and Oct. 1. Price: from $2,695. A three-night Cappadocia extension before or after the gulet trip costs about $750. For information, call 800-451-6034.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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