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Sailing the Adriatic

Written by Gemma D’Souza

I have just returned from an unforgettable fortnight in the stunning country of Croatia. Time was spent cruising the charming islands, exploring the fascinating cities of Dubrovnik and Split and, of course, indulging in the very best of Croatian cuisine.

Dubrovnik Terracotta roofs
Cypress trees in Dubrovnik

Marco Polo once stated “I have not told the half of what I saw”. So, as I sit in a bubble of post-holiday blues, I will endeavour to bring you the lowdown on the Croatian islands – including the most indulgent places for a remote retreat.

The first things I noticed flying into Dubrovnik were the incredibly tall Cypress trees. The azure waters and the bright terracotta tiles were also vying for my attention, but my eyes were focussed on those trees, standing tall and proud, dominating the landscape and skyline.

Croatia is a country with a rich and complicated history. It’s been occupied and ruled by the Greeks, the Romans, the Hungarians, the Venetians, the Ottomans and Hapsburgs, and the Austrians, amongst others. It was part of Yugoslavia, under Tito, until it gained independence in 1991.

Today, Croatia exudes resilience, and proudly welcomes the millions of tourists that arrive every year to experience everything from the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic Sea to the myriad of charming, remote islands.

Explore Croatia yourself aboard our Signature Croatia Cruises. We offer unbeatable, exclusive itineraries on the best ships in the Adriatic. 

Dubrovnik Harbour
Jesuit Staircase, Dubrovnik

Between the area I stayed in (called Lapand) and the Old Town of Dubrovnik, the locals live, breathe, and eat all things Croatian. After a year of no tourism due to Covid, enthusiasm was understandably through the (terracotta) roof. My drivers and tour guides shared boundless energy and passion for their hometown of Dubrovnik – the pearl of Croatia.

Back in the 19th century, ship building and the collection of sea salt were the biggest industries. Today, tourism is everything. Travellers come from across the world to embrace everything that Dubrovnik has to offer – including the backdrop of the global-hit TV show, Game of Thrones.

During a guided tour of this breathtaking city, die-hard fans discussed in depth the plot and scenery of the various episodes. For those who hadn’t seen it – admittedly myself included – we were pointed out the famous steps in the Old Town. This is where a naked woman walked with her head held in shame. At the bottom of the steps you can even grab yourself a ‘shame cocktail’ from a local bar.

Approximately 1,000 people live within the city walls, surrounded by an architectural blend of Renaissance and gothic design. No wonder this city of unique cultural and political history was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The buildings were impressive in every sense, but what stunned me most was the cleanliness of it all. Surely a dedicated team must spend their days cleaning the white limestone walls and cobbled pathways? It’s pristine.

It’s easy to fall in love with Dubrovnik, but even more so by night. The cobbled side streets were delicately lit up and, wherever you were, the city looked perfectly romantic. I would advise every visitor to take the cable car ride, not only for the insanely beautiful views but also to get a better perspective and scale of the city.

Apart from the port, you can see the entire city from the top. The contrasting colours of Dubrovnik are iconic, yet they complement each other beautifully –the terracotta roof tiles are stern and bold, and the Adriatic Sea dances in turquoise sparkles.

Oyster Tasting in Ston

Wooden pontoon in Mali Ston
Oysters in Ston

After a few days exploring this elegant city, I was ready to set sail on a small-ship cruise and sail the scattered, magical islands of Croatia. The Adriatic Sea entices tourists from across the globe. Yet in some ways, the islands and reefs of Croatia are considered some of Europe’s last remaining wildernesses. I was excited to find out for myself.

As we cruised north of Dubrovnik and, only an hour into cruising the Adriatic, I envisioned the week ahead. There are certain trips that feel more like journeys than destinations – sailing the Croatian islands being one.

Late afternoon we arrived in Slano – a quaint village with a small harbour, still on the Croatian mainland. After a short bus and boat ride, we were soon floating on a wooden pontoon in Mali Ston, immersed in a seafood paradise, surrounded by oyster farms and mussel beds. The bay itself has been famous for seashell cultivation since the Roman Empire and today, a family-run business is passed down the generations, keeping the largest oyster cultivation in the Adriatic alive and prosperous.

We were in for a real treat. With unwavering confidence and knowledge, a member of the youngest generation of this family (only 18-years old) held our attention on the pontoon, and educated us in the process of oyster cultivation. There is no denying that oysters are an acquired taste but, nevertheless, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience, accompanied with plenty of the local white wine. Mussels and other nibbles like fresh bread and local olive oil are also served on this rustic paradise.

Mljet
Swim stop

The following morning, we arrived in Mljet National Park on Mjlet Island. I was cruising with a large number of guests from California on the west coast of America. As we walked around this idyllic national park, I heard comments of how much it reminded them of Lake Tahoe, their very own “home away from home”.

The national park has two lakes, conveniently named Small Lake and Large Lake. These are saltwater lakes, encircled with limestone, and are in contact with the littoral zone of the sea through a system of narrow canals. The morning was magical. After a swim and pleasant wander, I passed a quaint café named Mali Rai, which translates to little paradise. Indeed, it was that.

Back on the ship, we cruised further north. Sailing past tranquil lagoons, isolated chapels, olive trees and remote houses – the archipelago was truly stunning. Swim stops are an integral part of a Croatia cruise. As the ship anchors, you are invited to plunge off the back of the ship into the sparkling Adriatic Sea.

As I jumped in, I felt infinitely small, but unexplainably liberated. The Adriatic is one of the saltier seas and as a result, you’ll find yourself effortlessly floating. I spent an hour in the sea. It was easy to lose track of time.

Korcula
Vis

That afternoon, we arrived at Korčula Island. This island’s identity is wrapped up in romantic souls and inspiring travellers. Marco Polo was a merchant, explorer and writer who spent decades travelling through Asia and along the Silk Road. It is said that Korčula island was the birthplace of Marco Polo and, as a result, the island boasts a few restaurants and bars named after him.

The white limestone in Korčula can also be seen in other places across the Mediterranean – Istanbul, Dubrovnik and Rome, to name a few. As sunset drew in, our local guide recounted some of the island’s quirks and traditions – one being the tradition of brotherhoods. The oldest brotherhood of All Saints was established in 1301 in Korčula by the bishop of Korčula.

The following day we were back sailing north, and docked on the island of Vis. I fell in love with the simplicity of the island. Walk further inland and lose yourself in a maze of side streets and limestone alleyways. Side restaurants and bars covered in plants were all vying for attention, offering almost every possible cocktail and local wine available.

A group of us sat down to eat pizza. Sure, this is not the most traditional of dinners, but Vis is relatively close to the eastern coast of Italy so there is naturally a little Italian influence. We walked off our evening meal by strolling through alleyways and gorgeous streets, passing plenty of content resident island cats along the way.

Hvar
Brac

After another day of swim stops and a midday indulgence of food and drink, we arrived at the island of Hvar. While Hvar has a reputation of being a party island, look beyond and you’ll find so much interesting history and architecture.

Hvar is deemed to have the most sunshine in all of Croatia. In fact, rumour has it that if it snows in Hvar, or rains for a period longer than seven hours, everything in the island is free of charge: the hotels, the bars, the restaurants, the clubs, you name it.

The island is also famous for its lavender, vineyards and local wine. So naturally, we hopped on a transfer through lavender fields, ending up at a beautiful underground wine cellar. Sampling one local rosé, two white wines, two red wines and a dessert wine, we soon declared our love for Croatian wine and swayed our way out into the bright sunshine.

We then made our way in search of boozier revelry for a Friday night. As we ate fresh fish and shellfish for dinner, we were amused by the antics onboard a super yacht that had just pulled in to Hvar port. Glasses drained, were soon back on our ship, reflecting on another day in paradise sailing the Croatian islands.

The next day we cruised to Brac Island (pronounced “Bratch”). This is the longest and most elevated island in central Dalmatia – at 48 kilometres long and only 14 kilometres wide. Brac is inviting because you can easily lose the perception of time. You get the sense locals come here to spend slow and unrushed time with their family and loved ones.

Memories
Trogir

A few hours on board and I found myself regularly sitting up on the top deck, soaking up the rays with a sweet cappuccino in hand. There is nothing tiresome about sailing the Adriatic. Each wave broke in a dramatic fashion. The rays of sunshine reflect perfectly onto the sea. The gentle rocking of the ship sent most people on board into an afternoon lull. Books and kindles were planted on faces as everyone slipped into a well-deserved holiday nap.

Even in the height of August, we drifted around for a week and encountered only a handful of other ships or yachts. Inland, you’ll see nothing but rocky shores, olive trees and untamed forests.

We spent our penultimate night in Trogir which is actually attached to the mainland via a bridge. Its beautifully preserved old town is known for its mix of Renaissance, Baroque and Romanesque buildings. After another informative guided tour, we boarded the ship for a memorable Captain’s Dinner. Accompanied by the captain himself, we ate a delicious dinner and danced the night away. A week has gone by and we have all made new and lasting friendships.

Split
Musician in Split

The final stop on our Croatia cruise, and where we all disembarked, was the city of Split. Unlike Dubrovnik, I had no prior expectations of Split. I was thoroughly impressed and find it hard to describe Split in words. It’s like nothing I have ever seen before.

The jewel in Split’s crown is Diocletian’s Palace. This is an ancient palace built for the Roman Emperor Diocletian, completed for his retirement in AD 305. The ancient fortress has become the integral part of Split’s Old Town. Several shops, cafes, restaurants and apartments are located in the old buildings on narrow streets of the palace. In fact, approximately 3,000 people live on the territory of Diocletian’s palace today.

You could spend several days admiring the palace. A guided tour is essential because there is so much you would potentially miss without one. For example, inside the walls that remain standing, you can find 3,500-year-old sphinxes, brought to Split from Egypt for the Emperor.
An evening in Split was spent promenading and just enjoying things at a much slower pace of life. It also set the precedent for my final destination in Croatia, Plitvice National Park. Turquoise-coloured lakes and fairy-tale-like waterfalls make up the park, which quite frankly, feels like something out of a dream. Made up of 16 terraced lakes, connected by beautiful waterfalls that extend into a limestone canyon.

Plitvice Lakes
Gemma

I spent the afternoon meandering through the park along a chain of gem-like pools with a fantastic local guide. Forest greens and electric blue waters stunned me at every corner. Waterfalls tumbled and roared. The perfect end to a perfect week.

Life on board the small ship cruise was a little piece of heaven, and Croatia truly exceeded all expectations. Each island continues to evolve and as they do, old souls adjust to new realities. Tour guides, restaurant owners, and local residents go out of their way to smile, chat and laugh with tourists, who have come from near and far to experience Croatia.

For now, I’ll drop the anchor on this article. You have heard about my week spent cruising the Adriatic, but in the words of Marco Polo, “it will surely fill you with even more wonder”.

Gemma sailed on a Signature Dubrovnik to Split Cruise. Explore all Signature Cruise itineraries here.

This article was originally published in Issue 4 of Unforgettable Travel Magazine

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