Cruising Croatia

by Robin.McKelvie

With remarkable scenery, an idyllic climate and superb seafood, the coastline of Croatia well deserves its reputation as Europe’s new sailing playground

Just over a decade ago Croatia lay relatively undiscovered, but today its remarkable Dalmatian coastline has become the new hotspot for discerning sailors and boaters. And no wonder. One of Europe’s newest nations boasts a littoral studded with 1,185 islands, an idyllic Mediterranean climate, a string of stunning Venetian towns, bountiful local seafood (as well as truffles, wine and prosciutto) and a level of value for money at the top end that puts France and Italy to shame.

Bill Gates, Bernie Eccelstone and the Benetton family are all said to be amongst the savvy travellers now steering their superyachts towards the Adriatic, but you are equally welcome here with even the smallest of yachts.

Split is the perfect starting point, as Dalmatia’s largest city oozes a palpable sense of living history. The Greeks, Venetians and Romans all vied for control of these lands, and it is the latter who left the biggest trace, with Split’s core still founded around Emperor Diocletian’s millennia-old palace. Today, designer-clad models and the local cognoscenti pose along the waterfront Riva and ease over cobbles once smoothed by Roman sandals.

The pick of Split’s restaurants is Sumica (Put Firula 6), an ideal introduction to the rich larder of Adriatic seafood you will discover throughout Dalmatia. You will soon see exactly why Italian gastronomes nip across the Adriatic to dine. Hotel-wise, the palace itself sports a brace of chic boutique hotels, the Peristil and the Vestibul Palace. Le Meridien Lav Hotel have also opened a five-star resort (the most lavish on the Croatian coast) south of the city, which has become a destination in itself, with its own casino and marina.

Split has waylaid many a sailor over the years, but the way to really discover Dalmatia is to break free of Split’s charms and explore the coastline with a cruise south to Dubrovnik, taking in the essential islands as well as some hidden corners. First up is Vis, the most remote island, set adrift deep in the Adriatic on the very cusp of Italy. This hideaway was closed to visitors as a naval base until 1989, so development is still pleasantly low-key.

Vis is famous for its white wines - you can sample them in the sprinkling of seafood restaurants that cater for passing discerning palates. The best is Villa Kaliopa (Vladimira Nazora 32). This exclusive oasis serves up freshly grilled fish in an immaculately manicured garden laced with towering pines, ornate sculpture and flickering candles. Around the other side of the island lies the tiny islet of Bisevo, home to Croatia’s answer to Capri’s Blue Grotto. You can scuba dive right into the caves and see the unique play of light and water, or just cruise in on a dinghy.

Time now to pulse into the new shiny face of Croatia, in the form of Hvar Town, on the island of the same name. This is the glitziest of the island hubs, attracting the moneyed crowd from the capital Zagreb as well as the attention of the international jet set and Hollywood big guns Tom Cruise and Sharon Stone. Hvar Town’s setting is sublime, with an old port so well-preserved that it looks as if the Venetians just left yesterday. The main quayside today is the most exclusive place to dock with the glitterati at now legendary style haunt Carpe Diem, carefully surveying new arrivals.

Just yards from the moorings is Hotel Riva, a seriously sexy boutique hotel housed in a 100-year-old dame that has been reinvented as the island goes seriously upmarket. Dine there, take in the DJ sounds or ease up into the warren of cobbled streets, where fresh rosemary and lavender scents the air, with a choice of gastronomic escapes now welcoming in the superyacht set. Despite the new arrivals, relative old timer Macondo (Petar Hektorovica) is still the best. Take a seat on the outdoor terrace and settle in for the best seafood platter you will probably ever savour.

Any regrets at leaving Hvar Town will quickly be dispelled by the epic scenery en route to Korcula, the island so impressive that Marco Polo decided to return to his birthplace there after exploring the world. The first sight of Korcula Town, with its postcard-perfect ramparts rising from milky blue seas, with the rugged mainland mountains forming a vertiginous background, is still enough to bring a smile to even the most world-weary adventurer. Make sure to eat at Adio Mare (Ulica Sveti Roka) before moving on, an old town fish restaurant you’ll be able to find by the gorgeous grilled aromas pervading the cobbled streets.

Dubrovnik is the coast’s biggest star and makes a great journey’s end. Eulogised by Lord Byron as the ‘pearl of the Adriatic’ and by George Bernard Shaw as ‘paradise on earth’, Dubrovnik more than justifies the hype, backed by steep limestone crags to the rear and fronted by the sublimely blue waters of the Adriatic. In between is a perfectly preserved city-state, nestled within medieval walls that house a cocktail of baroque churches and palaces, as well as the Pucic Palace Hotel, a romantic 19-room hotel hideaway laden with antiques. Immediately outside the hotel you can enjoy heaped plates of seafood risotto and mussels at local haunt Kamenice (Gunduliceva Poljana 8) for less than a glass of water in St Tropez.

Dubrovnik has recaptured much of the chic reputation it revelled in when star-crossed lovers Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor played out their real life dramas here. The A-listers are back and Hollywood stars such as John Malkovich are amongst those said to be snapping up secluded villas in the hills. As Dubrovnik’s pedestrianised old town gets busier each year, the smart set are heading out to the expansive five-star Hotel Dubrovnik Palace for smooth Mediterranean cuisine in their fine dining Luna restaurant. Their Sunset Lounge is one of the sexiest escapes on the coast. From here you can savour the sun melting down over the Dalmatian islands as you congratulate yourself on your cruise exploring Europe’s hottest new boating playground.

Robin.McKelvie

As a full time travel writer and photographer for over a decade I have visited over 90 countries. Over 3,000 of my articles have appeared in 100+ magazines and newspapers in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, UAE and the USA including the Daily Mail, IOS, Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Scotsman, Sunday Herald, National Geographic, BA Highlife, CNN Traveller, Wanderlust, Sky Travel, TNT and Emirates Open Skies. I am also the author of travel guides to Bermuda, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Scotland for the likes of Berlitz, Bradt, Dorling Kinderlsey, Insight and Thomas Cook and have contributed to many others, as well as writing for the Internet. I write monthly travel pages in Highland Life and easyJet, as well as doing TV and a regular travel slot on BBC Radio Scotland. My photographs have been published with my copy and independently in 100+ outlets and my current stock is over 30,000 35mm transparencies and over 35,000 digital shots. For more information on me please see http://www.robinmckelvie.com or my dedicated Scottish travel website http://www.insiderscotland.com.