CON­FES­SIONS OF A CRUISE CON­VERT

WA­TER-TRAVEL SCEP­TIC ANNE FULLER­TON CHECKS HER RESER­VA­TIONS AT THE DOOR FOR A FIVE-STAR VOY­AGE FROM VENICE TO DUBROVNIK.

Qantas - - CRUISE -

I wasn’t a “cruise per­son”. I knew this in­stinc­tively, though I’d never been on a boat larger than a ferry. I un­der­stood the ap­peal on a the­o­ret­i­cal level but it sim­ply wasn’t my thing. You can keep your con­ve­nient bor­der cross­ings, fine din­ing and bour­geois pil­low menus, I thought smugly, for I once trav­elled 17 hours across Cen­tral Amer­ica on the floor of a rusty mini­van.

Pre­con­ceived ideas about en­forced itin­er­ar­ies and manda­tory conga lines had ren­dered me a land­lub­ber un­til an op­por­tu­nity to em­bark on my maiden voy­age pre­sented it­self. Crys­tal Cruises’ Crys­tal Esprit (crys­tal­cruises.com), a 31-suite, 62-guest yacht, would spend seven nights sail­ing from Venice to Dubrovnik, a dis­tance of about 650 kilo­me­tres, dock­ing each day at a dif­fer­ent port along Croa­tia’s pic­turesque Adri­atic coast.

Hav­ing spent an idyl­lic week in the re­gion a decade ago, I was scep­ti­cal that any trip could live up to that ini­tial so­journ. Back then, you could get an ocean­side cock­tail at a sin­gle-digit pri­ce­point, terms such as “New Riviera” hadn’t yet en­tered the lex­i­con and King’s Land­ing ex­isted solely in the imag­i­na­tions of a sub-group of fan­tasy-fic­tion fans. But brochure im­ages of rocky out­crops lapped by eye-wa­ter­ingly blue sea proved ir­re­sistible. I wanted to wan­der palm-lined prom­e­nades and hike down sunny cliffs to se­cluded beaches. If I had to dance the conga, so be it.

I needn’t have wor­ried. It’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine a place bet­ter equipped to sell the ro­mance of wa­ter travel than Venice. Step­ping out at Venezia Santa Lu­cia sta­tion, vis­i­tors are slapped in the face by the beauty of the Grand Canal, where ocean meets Neo­clas­si­cal façade in a scene that’s both in­stantly recog­nis­able and deeply sur­real. Af­ter go­ing through se­cu­rity at the cruise ter­mi­nal, my com­pan­ion and I head to our suite, where any fears of nau­ti­cal claus­tro­pho­bia are lulled into sub­mis­sion by huge pic­ture win­dows, el­e­gant dé­cor and a twin bath­room that dwarfs those of most lux­ury ho­tels.

We haven’t even had time to pop the com­pli­men­tary bot­tle of cham­pagne when there’s a knock at the door. It’s our but­ler, drop­ping by to see if we need help un­pack­ing (there’s a sen­tence most writ­ers don’t type very of­ten). Natha­nial runs through the list of in­dul­gences and ameni­ties at our fin­ger­tips: spa, sauna, fit­ness cen­tre, pool, Pa­tio Café, Sun­set Bar and Grill, Yacht Club din­ing room, cock­tail lounge, wi-fi, pad­dle­boards, jet skis, kayaks, 24/7 food, bev­er­ages and al­co­hol via room ser­vice… but I’d al­ready spied my favourite fea­ture on the way in: a deep-sea sub­mersible. It’s the model Vladimir Putin owns, a staffer tells me proudly. If hav­ing the same fu­tur­is­tic ocean bub­ble as Rus­sia’s bil­lion­aire pres­i­dent isn’t the height of ex­trav­a­gance, I don’t know what is.

The fol­low­ing days prove equally op­u­lent. The first shore ex­cur­sion is to Mo­tovun, a me­dieval town in the heart of Is­trian truf­fle coun­try. In 1999, just half an hour’s drive from here, Gian­carlo Zi­gante dis­cov­ered the “Mil­len­nium”, at the time the largest white truf­fle ever un­earthed. The Guin­ness World Records-bust­ing 1.3 kilo­gram fun­gus could have fetched a small for­tune at auc­tion – a sim­i­larly hefty find in Croa­tia sold for $US330,000 that year – but Zi­gante in­stead hosted a lav­ish feast for 100 of his clos­est friends. The stunt pushed the re­gion’s truf­fle in­dus­try into over­drive and ce­mented Zi­gante’s il­lus­tri­ous place

in tu­ber his­tory. We sam­ple white truf­fles, black truf­fles, truf­fle honey, truf­fle-in­fused choco­late, truf­fle carpac­cio, truf­fle oil and truf­fle salt – a sea­son­ing said to be so beloved by Oprah Win­frey that she car­ries a jar of it in her hand­bag at all times.

An­other day, we visit Saints Hills win­ery on the Pel­ješac penin­sula, where a gi­ant named An­ton guides us through the area’s va­ri­etals. An opera singer with a tan deeper than his bari­tone, a white pony­tail and an en­sem­ble of head-to-toe li­nen, he re­counts child­hood mem­o­ries of rid­ing his grand­fa­ther’s don­key around the neigh­bour­ing is­land of Korčula and din­ing on black­bird pie – “highly il­le­gal but very de­li­cious”. In the shade of a ter­race, we make our way through five dif­fer­ent wines and I catch up on cruise gos­sip with a re­tired Texan who al­ready knows which crew mem­bers are dat­ing, afraid of com­mit­ment or tee­ter­ing on the brink of a break-up. It oc­curs to me that the itin­er­ary has been so packed with shore op­tions that, apart from break­fasts and the evenings (mer­ci­fully conga-free), I’ve barely spent any time on the ship. Tempt­ing as it is to lounge away the days ab­sorb­ing Aperol Spritzes like sun­shine, the week can just as eas­ily serve as a sam­pler of Croa­tia’s 1000-plus is­lands.

I find my­self men­tally book­mark­ing places to re­turn to, in­clud­ing Vis, a quiet is­land of just 90 square kilo­me­tres and the fur­thest-flung of the Croa­t­ian ar­chi­pel­ago. For more than four decades, it was a mil­i­tary base and off-lim­its to tourists, lend­ing a sleepy, un­de­vel­oped am­biance to the only set­tle­ments, Vis Town and Komiža. Though Vis is prized for of­fer­ing a glimpse of the “unspoiled” Mediter­ranean, you’ll still find rem­nants of Croa­tia’s bat­tle-scarred past scat­tered among the peb­ble-strewn coves and idle row­ing boats. Dur­ing World War II, the iron­fisted leader of the Yu­goslav Par­ti­sans, Josip Broz Tito, built a cave bunker here in the side of Mount Hum – it then served as his mil­i­tary head­quar­ters. Bri­tish and Amer­i­can forces also used the is­land as a strong­hold from which to at­tack Nazioc­cu­pied Europe. To­day, the wa­tery crash site of a B-17 bomber at­tracts divers, which speaks to the trans­for­ma­tion that Vis has un­der­gone in only a few decades. In­dus­try is now geared al­most ex­clu­sively to­wards tourism, wine and agri­cul­ture – sam­ple all three at Val, a restau­rant that serves tra­di­tional an­chovy pie at the wa­ter’s edge.

On the sec­ond-last day, with the end near­ing all too quickly, I vow to live life to its cruisi­est, opt­ing for a morn­ing sail­ing trip to the is­land of Sveti Klement. We dock near a sandy beach at Palmižana, where the only res­i­dences – a sprawl of bun­ga­lows en­sconced in lush gar­dens – have be­longed to the same fam­ily for more than 100 years. This is where Bey­oncé and Jay-Z spend time, a New Yorker with prop­erty on nearby Hvar tells me. Af­ter some pre-lunch swim­ming, I take to the waves on a jet ski – a process that in­volves get­ting on and off three boats. I’m not sure if it’s the wine they gave us on the sail­ing boat, the thrill of feel­ing tem­po­rar­ily air­borne or the fact that this is the clos­est I’ll ever get to be­ing Ri­hanna but speed­ing across the ocean, I grin and let out a high­pitched “whooo!” I’m em­bar­rassed to dis­cover later that it was au­di­ble to the speed­boat op­er­a­tors 100 me­tres away.

“It’s good,” one of them re­as­sures me. “It means that you’re en­joy­ing your­self.” Per­haps I’m a cruise per­son af­ter all.

In­dulge in the fruits of the Is­trian truf­fle har­vest in the me­dieval town of Mo­tovun

For­est meets beach at Palmižana on the is­land of Sveti Klement

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