Go for the history, stay for everything else
Mixing chartering and culture: the spectacular Croatian coast can be enjoyed for its rich history as well as its posh present-day vibe
Heaps of history—that’s not usually what comes to mind when you plan a sailing charter, but if you like a bit of culture mixed with your cruising, Croatia is the place to go. Caught between two worlds, (the whitewashed laid back vibe of the Mediterranean and the brash demeanor of Balkan Eastern Europe) Croatia is a paradise with multiple personalities. Add in great cuisine and wine, a few UNESCO sites, more islands than you can count along the Adriatic coast and fair winds, and you have a sailing vacation that will make you not want to leave—ever. Granted, flying into the city of Split isn’t exactly convenient from most places in the United States. But once there, it’ll be worth the trouble, I promise. In fact, before setting sail we made a point of taking some time to explore the old town section, which I hadn’t visited since my childhood.
The first stop was Diocletian’s Palace, less a palace and more like half the old town itself. A UNESCO Heritage Site, the palace was built by a fourth-century Roman Emperor, but was repurposed by subsequent generations and now is a mix of architectures from several centuries. Standing in the peristyle, you can see evidence of the many civilizations that passed through here from antiquity on. Neoclassical architecture mixes with the walls of the temple of Jupiter on one side and the Cathedral of St. Domnius on the other. In the middle are Egyptian granite columns and even a sphinx. Point your camera anywhere, and you’re bound to capture centuries of history in a single snapshot.
Having arranged our charter with Navigare Yachting, one of the world’s leading charter operators and presumably the largest in the Mediterranean, we eventually made our way to the medieval town of Trogir (another UNESCO site), just 20 miles away near their base. This is the main departure point for many Dalmatian Coast charters as boats meander through the local islands, some reaching as far south as Dubrovink (yup, another UNESCO masterpiece).
The sheer number of masts in the multiple marinas near Trogir makes even the biggest Caribbean base look small, and given the number of yachts Navigare turns over, they run a spectacularly efficient and friendly service. That said, since all charters start and end on Saturday, it was pandemonium by the time we arrived. So after securing what seemed to be one of only three dock carts in the entire marina, we stowed our provisions and luggage and headed out to explore.
Strolling along Trogir’s waterfront, you’ll find the ever-present gulets (local tourist barges) stacked three and four deep on the quays. These giant boats are floating powerboat pleasure palaces where professional
crews provide everything from local knowledge to excellent cuisine. They’re a ubiquitous sight around the Adriatic—but don’t get stuck behind one at the fuel dock as they pump 300 gallons at a time.
Our one-week itinerary was ambitious, including nine destinations on five islands, with our first stop being Vis Town (on Vis Island) where we tied up Med-moor-style to the wall. Bunched in tight, with fenders squeaking against neighboring boats, we toasted our arrival and ventured out to arrange a taxi for the next day’s trip to Komiza, a charming fishing village on the other side of the island. Our subsequent excursion was worth every Croatian kuna, as our guide was a bit of a World War II buff who exulted in showing us every partisan cave and hiding spot on the island. We even finished up with a wine and olive oil tasting—not your average charter outing.
After that we set course for Bisovo, a small island to the west of Vis and home of Modra Spilja (Blue Cave). Arriving in the crowded harbor, we caught a mooring and waited our turn to board a skiff, which is the only way to enter the blue cave—no dinghies allowed. Without so much as a “Duck!” our driver gunned the outboard and jammed the small boat, loaded to the gunwales with sunburned tourists, into the cave and cut the power. From there, propulsion was only via a long pole, Italian gondola style. Inside, everything glowed a brilliant blue, the result of the ambient light bouncing off the white sand below. It was beautiful but brief, and was followed by an equally unnerving egress via the same small hole.
Next we headed east (because we had received no chart briefing, seemingly somewhat standard here, we were picking our ports of call carefully) around Vis to the Pakelni Otoci—loosely translated as Hell Islands, although there’s nothing hellish about this string of islets that clearly serve as the getaway hotspot for local yachties. Water toys and bars littered the beaches, and the various coves formed great windbreaks where to enjoy a sundowner, surrounded by natural beauty with no city in sight.
Next morning we ducked around the corner to Hvar Town on the island of Hvar, a bustling community of cafes and chic clientele chauffeured around on six-figure tenders belonging to nine-figure superyachts. A destination of the glitterati, Hvar harbor is where Onassis-type yachts rub elbows with humble local fishing craft and every kind of sail and powerboat in between. We also checked out Stary Grad (Old City) on the northern shore of the island, which is much less glitzy than Hvar and exudes an Old World charm with modern amenities. No longer a part of the dour Eastern Bloc,
Croatians make excellent entrepreneurs, capitalizing on every corner of Stary Grad. Each nook and cranny houses a quaint café or gourmet food shop that would make Napa Valley foodies envious.
As a side note, our Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 439 seemed to serve as a magnet for uber-competitive European sailors. As soon as we appeared over the horizon, a tacking duel would inevitably break out—why exactly I’m not sure, but given the caliber of sailors aboard, we fared well every time. Because the winds were amenable and the distances just long enough, we actually did quite a bit of real sailing, which is another thing that often goes missing on a sailing charter.
By this time, we had begun congratulating ourselves on our outstanding itinerary, thinking we were gifted in picking our spots, with each town more beautiful than the last. However, as the trip continued and we pulled into Milna on Brac Island and Maslinica on Solta Island, we realized that it wasn’t so much our inventive itinerary that made each town spectacular, but the fact that each town quite simply is spectacular. In Croatia it seems, you just can’t drop anchor in anything but a stunning harbor with a splendid town under striking cliffs.
Beyond that, the food and wine are excellent in Croatia. Along the Adriatic, the choice was usually fish paired with a local white wine. Every menu featured the Croatian national specialty, cevapcici, skinless fingerling sausages made of minced pork, beef and lamb, eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner with just about anything from eggs to French fries. Due to the numerous towns, provisioning was easy and frequent.
Croatia also does a swift business in lavender, and purple bundles of the stuff hang at every tourist kiosk. You can buy lavender scented soap, oil, perfume, tea and even candy. It makes great gifts as does jewelry made of the local polished white granite that seems ever-present in the dry mountains.
For those who sail by the book, be warned: Croatia is the Wild West on the water. Right-of-way rules are mainly driven by testosterone and horsepower. Keep a good lookout because these guys would rather collide than lose face, especially if there’s a woman at the helm. Don’t be surprised to see a boat try to race you to the quay and even bump you out of the way as you’re backing up with fenders out to Med-moor.
Then there’s “The Yacht Week” a mindboggling marketing phenomenon that is not just a week, but a jamboree that lasts all summer long. Man-bun-toting hipsters in tiny swimsuits (worn by both genders) group together on chartered vessels and get around, often inebriated by midday, with the help of paid skippers. This international sailing odyssey of 20- and 30-somethings serves as a relentless onslaught on both visitors and locals, as they party their way from town to town. Whenever we spotted any of the long “The Yacht Week” banners flying from backstays or stickers emblazoned on hulls, we picked up and went elsewhere. That said, I must admit, they make for spectacular people-watching.
Speaking of people watching—don’t. Although there are designated nudist beaches in Croatia, they can’t seem to contain free-spirited Europeans. Modesty rules don’t apply to anyone on a yacht, especially if flying a French or German flag. There is no shortage of individuals blowing in the breeze, so if you’re of a delicate nature, stay below in the early mornings and late afternoons when the spirits seem unusually free.
Finally, there’s the language. Being of Eastern European descent, I found Croatian to be decipherable. However, for many, the local signage is second only to Greek for being completely useless. Eastern Europeans have an affinity for consonants, and some island names (like Krk) have no vowels at all. Add to that a bounty of accent marks and plural and possessive word endings that change the spelling of a word completely, and most Anglophones are lost.
That said, Croatians love to practice their English and will go out of their way to help you, especially if you look particularly lost. English is spoken in most restaurants and shops, so you’re safe there and a smile and some humor will get your through the rest.
A WEEK ISN’T ENOUGH
Even with nine islands covered, we barely made a dent into all that the Dalmatian Coast has to offer. We would have needed two weeks on a one way charter to really cover the territory down to Dubrovnik where even more history awaited and that’s assuming we wouldn’t have been distracted by the food, wine, and more excellent sailing along the way. All this made me want to return, or better yet, to never leave. s
Stalls packed with all things lavender grace the squares at every stop (left); the cave of Modra Spilja is worth the blue ambience, despite the nail-biting entry (center); every nook and cranny on the Croatian coast hides a restaurant, cafe or lounge that will make you forget about your watch (right)
Beautiful Hvar Town has a busy harbor, so getting a mooring is a matter of great luck (below); the view from the fort in Hvar overlooks the nearby Pakelni Otoci islands (opposite)