Croatia & The Balkans: Sail away with me

Croatia & The Balkans: Sail away with me

Life on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast is smooth sailing, finds Katie McGonagle

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It’s colder than it looks, I realise, as I lower myself gingerly rung by rung off the back of the ship and into the calm waters of the Adriatic Sea.

The sun is shining and bringing out brilliant shades of turquoise in the clear waters, but this early in the season, it hasn’t quite worked its magic on the temperature, which is still a few degrees lower than I’d like.

Nonetheless, I take the plunge and a few seconds of swift breaststroke later, I’m basking in the shallower, warmer waters that lap Zlatni Rat, a golden pebble beach that moves its position with the wind.

Even when a little on the chilly side, the Dalmatian coast is absolutely stunning: unspoilt, unhurried and awash with natural beauty spots tucked away in its tranquil coves and tiny islands.

I’m here with Orbital Travel, which branched out from its core Nile cruising product to introduce Croatia last year. The operator enjoyed such a strong uptake of sales to the destination that, in February, it added small-ship cruising with local company Katarina Line.

My cruise – from Split to yachting favourite Hvar and low-key island Braç – is just a taster of the usual week-long island-hopping itineraries, but it’s enough to convince me the growing numbers of Brits who flock to Croatian shores each year have got the right idea.

So all that’s left is to brace yourself and dive in.

Split: Gateway City

Weekend-break favourite Dubrovnik has tended to be the first port of call for visitors to Croatia, but second city Split is deservedly becoming better known.

It’s easy to reach, with a flight time of under three hours from Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted. Flights also serve the destination from Bristol, Manchester, Leeds Bradford, Newcastle, Belfast and Edinburgh.

These include low-cost services from the likes of easyJet, Norwegian, Wizz Air, Thomson and, plus scheduled flights from British Airways and Croatia Airlines.

Once there, most tourists head to the historic centre, Diocletian’s Palace, a half-hour drive from the airport. Despite its name, this isn’t just one building; covering three hectares, it’s a network of ancient structures and winding streets built at the turn of the fourth century as a home for Roman emperor Diocletian, who retired there in AD305.

Split Peristil - Image credit: Croatian National Tourist Board, Ante Verzotti
Image credit: Croatian National Tourist Board, Ante Verzotti

Protected by Unesco since 1979, it’s one of the best-preserved Roman palaces, particularly in its sub-structure, which has been used as a filming location for cult TV series Game of Thrones, and the Temple of Jupiter, now St John the Baptist church.

But you don’t have to be a fan of ancient history to get lost in its narrow alleyways or appreciate its quirky eccentricities, whether it’s the two Egyptian sphinxes shipped in for decoration by the Roman emperor, or the washing lines strung up between the apartments of the 1,000 or so residents who still live there.

Then there is the enormous statue of medieval bishop Gregory of Nin, which sits just outside the Golden Gate.

As the first priest to conduct church services in Croatian instead of the official Latin, the reforming bishop was something of a people’s hero, so local superstition has it that if you rub the statue’s golden toe, your wish will be granted – and with his Gandalf-like appearance, I can almost believe it.

The pretty seafront promenade is worth a stroll too, with its array of pavement cafes, ice cream stands and market stalls selling local lavender and other Croatian goodies.

But a good tip for a sunny day is the locals’ favourite hangout, Bacvice Beach. It’s only a few minutes’ walk from the historic town (past the port and across the railway bridge) but doesn’t make it on to most tourists’ radar, so it’s a good spot to let off steam Croatian-style.

Hvar: Cruise with class

This island has long been beloved by the yachting crowd – Giorgio Armani, Bill Gates and Tom Cruise have visited – but the explosion in popularity of Dalmatian coast cruising means more of us are cottoning on to its charms.

From the moment we arrive at its picture-postcard harbour – a wide promenade backed by red-roofed houses and lush forest, all overlooked by a stone fortress – I can see why those celebs have chosen Hvar as their favourite port of call.

Hvar Harbour - Image credit: Katarina Line
Image credit: Katarina Line

The enormous main square is full of cafes and shops, towered over by St Stephen’s Cathedral at one end, but it’s only when you detour into the little side streets that the town’s real character comes to light.

Largely built by the Venetians after their arrival in 1409, when the whole of the Dalmatian coastline was sold to the Italians for 100,000 gold coins, its Renaissance-style upper town is all winding alleyways and pretty balconies a la Romeo and Juliet, with the signature Venetian lion carved into a well outside the former Governor’s Palace.

That Italian influence can still be felt across the country, in its language (many Croatian words have their roots in Italian), its Catholic heritage, but most especially in its cuisine.

And in Hvar, one of the best places to enjoy that fine Italian cooking is the Palace Hotel, a grand colonnaded property converted from the former Duke’s Palace.

Not only is the building packed with character and the food packed with flavour, but terrace restaurant San Marco offers sweeping views across the main square and harbour below.

Braç: Shifting sands

The island of Braç (pronounced ‘Bratch’) is a short sail from Hvar, but the atmosphere is markedly different. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it quiet, it attracts nothing like the numbers visiting high-end Hvar, so there’s a much greater sense of Croatian island life.

The beautiful Zlatni Rat beach is just a few minutes around the shore from Bol, the island’s capital, which is home to a host of pretty pavement cafes and canopy-fronted bars where I would have happily whiled away an afternoon.

There are plenty of small beaches dotted along the shore – some so tiny there’s barely room for more than one beach towel at a time – and a long footpath that hugs the coastline revealing one incredible sea view after another, punctuated by only the occasional windsurfer in the distance.

But convince clients to tear themselves away from those glittering views for a stop at the unassuming Stina winery – the ideal place to learn about local wine-making traditions.

Stina winery, Brac Croatia

And when I say local, I mean it: all the grapes used in Stina wines are grown in vineyards high in the island’s steep hills, and the winery takes its name from the white marble-like stone for which Braç is famous (it’s the same stone as was used to build Diocletian’s Palace in Split).

It’s a relatively small-scale operation, producing 135,000 bottles a year, but its chic wine bar and enthusiastic staff, who will happily offer tastings of native varieties such as posip or plavac mali, make it well worth a stop.

This is definitely a winery with as much character as the vintages it produces, but discovering little surprises such as this – and the other quirks to be found on every island – is exactly what cruising the Croatian coastline is all about.

Cruising Croatia

Anatolian Sky has boosted its Croatia programme with two new ships, the Adriatic Pearl and Nikola, offering round-trips from Dubrovnik and Split respectively. The cruises are in addition to existing itineraries onboard Princess Aloha, Vita, Futura and President, calling at Dubrovnik, Split and Zadar, as well as Istrian resort Opatija and popular Adriatic islands such as Hvar, Braç, Mljet and Korcula.

Back-Roads Touring is offering a Croatian Wilderness Sailing as part of its new Charming Waterways collection – the first time the land-based operator has branched out into chartering luxury ships. The eight-day programme sails around central Dalmatia visiting Mljet and Lastovo. Departures are available from May to September 2016, with prices starting at £1,595.

Prestige Holidays is featuring breaks to the annual half-year party in Korcula on June 30, where celebrations include a masquerade pageant, dancing, music and fireworks at midnight. With accommodation in Hotel Borik, a new property in the village of Lumbarda, seven nights’ B&B, departing from Gatwick on June 29, starts at £589.

Specialist operator Sunsail has introduced Croatia yacht charters that allow guests to earn an internationally recognised sailing qualification. An instructor will provide tuition during flotilla holidays from either Hvar or Krka, then test up to three passengers, so they can earn the International Certificate of Competence required to skipper a yacht. Prices start at £476 a person based on six sharing a Sunsail 47 Premier for a week, including skipper fees (flights and insurance are extra).

Insight Vacations has added a nine-day Dalmatian Elegance tour. Passengers will cruise the Adriatic coast on a ‘mega-yacht’ and visit a winery in Korcula, take a cable-car ride in Dubrovnik and enjoy a village feast in Kuna. Prices start at £1,384 for eight nights’ accommodation, some meals, VIP transfers and a tour leader (flights are extra).

Travelsphere has boosted the number of departures on its eight-day Deluxe Adriatic Explorer tour from five in 2015 to eight in 2016. Starting in Split, the cruise takes in medieval town Trogir, Krka national park, Sibenik and Zadar, and includes walking tours of Hvar and Split, sunset on Braç Island and dinner in the village of Krilo. Prices start at £1,349.

Tried & Tested: Spalato

Cruising the Dalmatian coast is as relaxed and carefree as it gets – stop for an impromptu swim, sunbathe on the sundeck – yet the atmosphere on this small ship is even more chilled-out than most.

With just 19 cabins, passengers get to know each other pretty quickly. That sort of atmosphere isn’t for everyone, but those who like to interact with their fellow holidaymakers will find the well-appointed communal areas the perfect spot to chat over a glass of local vino.

Spalato is an A+ vessel, the second of four levels of luxury in Katarina Line’s 45-strong fleet, behind the eight ‘deluxe’ ships but ahead of the more backpacker-oriented ‘A’ and ‘B’ categories, which suit younger travellers seeking a party-boat vibe.

The decent-sized cabins are practical if not luxurious, with private facilities and air-conditioning. Passengers sleeping in the eight below-deck cabins need not worry, as they are surprisingly light and airy.

The food served up in the dining room is typically Croatian – lots of melt-in-the-mouth gnocchi, goulash, marinated meats and feasts of seafood – but the real star of this cruise is the gorgeous Dalmatian coast, best admired from a lounger on the ship’s elegant sundeck. Now that’s relaxed and carefree.

Book it: Orbital Travel offers a seven-night Southern Explorer Cruise, starting in Split, from £915 in September. The price includes half-board accommodation on an A+ category ship, flights from London, transfers, a ‘captain’s dinner’ and a tour of Dubrovnik.


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