Cruising the Croatia coast, where islands are just a few hours' sail apart and harbors welcome overnight boats, is a breeze for all ages.
Croatia has long ago been discovered. Since Roman times and through the centuries, until and including the present, invaders have flocked to this land with its long and lovely coastline on the Adriatic, for a number of good reasons.
The Europeans seemed to have had Croatia to themselves until the last few years when the rest of the world woke up to it. According to the Croatia Tourist Office (800/829-4416), the United States sent 98,000 visitors to Croatia in 2004, up nearly 50% from the previous year.
The Dalmation coast on the Adriatic, stretching from the Pula peninsula in the north south to Dubrovnik and the Albania border, remains the country’s premier attraction largely due to the low-cost carriers that fly directly to Dubrovnik from Rome, Paris and Frankfurt.
Today, in the small medieval towns of Dubrovnik, Korcula, Hvar and Trogir, all on the water, the visitor traffic in mid-summer is a rising tide of those who have already been to St.Tropez, Mikonos, Marrakesh and the Hamptons.
Sailing the Coastline By Private Yacht
For our autumn visit, we chose to sail a part of the southern coastline. Like us, there were more than a quarter of a million foreign tourists registered as “sailors” last year, nearly all during the country’s April to September high season. Our party chartered a 47′ Beneteau Oceanis from the excellent Sunsail organization based at the Aci Marina in Dubrovnik, and left it in the marina at Kremik, near Trogir, on the eighth day. We did not venture north to the medieval capital city of Zagreb or the scenic Plitvice National Park, both highly recommended and to be found on most Croatian itineraries.
Our multi-generational complement of four ranged from 83-years old downwards. We also took with us a paid skipper, carefully pre-screened for experience, good references, capable English language skills and a depth of knowledge of the history and highlights of the places we planned to visit. This decision also paid off for us in another way — the modest fee for having a local skipper aboard more than offset the insurance otherwise charged for a bareboat charter.
Skipper Goran proved to be a charming Croatian-born sailor who was most considerate and understanding of the four experienced sailors aboard. He diplomatically blended in and out of the group, aboard and ashore, throughout the week while doing all the “heavy lifting” and taking care of the boat chores along the way.
The many small islands we passed, after leaving Dubrovnik on a bright, warm September afternoon, were picturesque limestone outcrops with bright green vegetation, some pine-clad. These were just a few of the estimated 1,100 islands that are counted all along the Dalmatian coast.
The Joys & Challenges of Mediterranean Sailing
Many of the islands in this area are quite close together and it requires only line-of-sight navigation, for the most part, to sail safely from one to another. The well-equipped Oceanis 473 came with the now ubiquitous GPS as well as local charts. We never had any problems at all in making our way in, around, and between the islands and the mainland. The water is generally very deep close to the islands and, where it is not, the buoy and beacon system shows the way.
The joys of Mediterranean sailing — typically mooring stern to the quay in tiny villages, running out the gangplank and walking across the dock, literally in many instances, to the nearest restaurant — do not need to be described to anyone who has been in such places.
These most often family-run restaurants typically have 10 or fewer tables and an abbreviated menu, serving wonderful fresh foods, local fish and vegetables and inexpensive but truly excellent, most drinkable, local wines. Meals are topped off with home-made fruit pies and similar desserts and coffee; all this for less than the price of a modest entrÃ©e at any local restaurant at home.
The Coast’s Island Hideaways: Mljet, Korcula, Vis
From Sipan we sailed west to Mljet (pronounced “Miette”), a small, sparsely populated island that is mostly a National Park with a large interior saltwater lake. The lake has its own island on which is a quite splendid 12th-century Benedictine monastery. Known as “The Green Island” for its heavily wooded slopes and shores, Mljet was famous for its local honey and the therapeutic qualities of its warm (inland) saltwater long before the monks came along. Today the monastery is under renovation, but can be visited via a short walk from the village of Pomena and a brief boat ride. It is well worth that effort.
Korcula is the name of a large, well developed, island and the name of its principal town, a destination in itself, the town where Marco Polo was supposedly born. A sophisticated tourist-oriented town with a big, well equipped and very busy marina, the core is a main square overlooked by 14th and 15th-century towers reached via broad 19th-century stone steps.
Many of Korcula’s shops, restaurants and the busy side streets are essentially walking distance from everywhere, no matter whether you arrive by a commercial ferry from the mainland or by private boat, as we did. The approach to Korcula has to be one of the best photo opportunities in all Croatia, especially in the morning when the sun shines on the oranges, yellows and ochres of the stone walls, towers, and tile roofs of the Old Town.
Westward to Vis, the largest inhabited island farthest from the mainland, site of the lovely small town of Komiza, perhaps our favorite overnight stop, where recorded history goes back to the 4th century. The harbor, well protected by a breakwater, is a semi-circle filled with local fishing boats and other small craft in addition to the visiting yachts. The quay is lined with restaurants and the side streets radiate outwards from it, gently climbing the hills into tiny residential areas.
These neighborhoods of small walled gardens and open spaces are filled with fruit trees which relieve the stonework of the walls and houses. Each island boasts its own local vineyards and Vis is no exception. High behind the town a serious castle, built by the Venetians, is illuminated at night, giving a fairy tale atmosphere to an already enchanting town.
Offshore a few miles from Vis is the island of Bisevo where a Blue Cave can be visited by dinghy, for a fee that seems to go straight into the pocket of a local. But the official looking receipt, complete with photo of the cave, is a sign that this attraction of sunlit water in the interior of a limestone cave has recognition both as a tourist attraction and perhaps as a small source of revenue for the island’s population, which maybe can be counted on two hands! If you go, be sure to arrive there in the middle of the day when the light is strongest inside the cave. Only then will you see the crystal clear water at its brilliant turquoise best.
Offshore from Split: The Big Island of Hvar
Hvar, the island, and Hvar the town, is perhaps the local rendezvous for big yachts and their celebrity owners as well as for those who arrive by other means. The Jadrolinja ferry service serves Hvar from Split and other northern ports, continuing south to call at Korcula and Dubrovnik. The big white ships ply the waters up and down the long Dalmatian Coastline serving both tourists and locals like a bus service between the islands.
St. Stephen’s Square seems to be the hub of Hvar nightlife with its adjacent narrow, cobbled streets, lined with galleries, restaurants, boutiques and all of the usual attractions for people on vacation who don’t expect to go to sleep until the wee hours. The meeting place of choice is a huge 16th-century well in the center of the square. With its chic, international crowd throughout the summer months, Hvar is a scene not to be missed.
The island of Brac stretched away to our right the next day, some five miles distant. Due to the time, we headed north again, leaving behind the opportunity to visit Bol, one of the islands’ few sand beaches and a Brac highlight. Our only complaint today, perhaps the only complaint about the whole trip, was there was not enough wind – hardly any, in fact. With the sea like glass, clean and clear, and sunshine in abundance, it was declared time to swim.
One by one we all went overboard, taking care beforehand to stream astern a long lifeline with a float at the end and all the time leaving at least one person aboard to “mind the ship.” It was photo time as we swam away the excess calories of good Croatian food and wine and soaked up the warmth of the sun on deck afterwards. All good things come to an end, however, and for us it meant starting up the 65hp Volvo diesel engine and heading for our final destination, the Kremik marina, north and west of Trogir
The Fairy Tale Port of Trogir
Like so many marinas in the Mediterranean, this one serves several charter companies including Sunsail and is well equipped to serve the sailing community, with shops, restaurants and hot showers, all luxuries to new arrivals. So our last overnight was alongside, where we enjoyed the comforts of these shore-side facilities before packing up the next morning, bidding farewell to the skipper and taking a taxi into Trogir.
The “Frommer’s Guide to Croatia” says of Trogir: “The stuff of fairy tales and one of the most enchanting towns on the Adriatic coast, bar none.” Quite a recommendation after all the lovely places we had just visited. But it turned out to be justified. Founded in the 3rd century and later occupied by the several invading and controlling entities through the ages, Greeks, Romans, Slavs, Venetians, Austrians and finally Croatians, it seems that everybody left some sort of mark that is distinct and discernable.
The Old Town of Trogir is a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can walk along its length and breadth within an hour without much hurry – unless you get waylaid by the charm of its interior residential streets and market area. Just across the water, on the “mainland” (for Old Town Trogir is on a tiny island), there is a more modern and commercial part of the inevitably expanding life of Trogir.
Our hotel in Trogir was the lovely Concordia, with its 300-year-old faÃ§ade right alongside the fortress on the waterfront. The guest rooms are tiny but adequate, and the staff was so attentive and accommodating we wanted to stay for ever, but our plane tickets dictated otherwise and one night was all that was possible. Trogir is simply one more place of note on the Dalmatian Coast to return to, to enjoy in more depth another day.
Did we see Croatia? No.
But we were privileged to visit this country and enjoy a small sampling of the flavor of a wonderful land whose people were friendly, where our money bought meaningful things without bankrupting us and where the weather cooperated late in the season to give us a priceless souvenir — warm memories of a destination we can recommend to families of all ages who will appreciate it for its historic, scenic and cultural offerings.
A truly rewarding experience.
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