An­other Side of Croa­tia

For years, Joshua Levine had been trav­el­ing from his home in Paris to his adopted home on the is­land of Hvar with­out ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the other coastal at­trac­tions nearby—un­til a cruise awak­ened him to the var­ied won­ders of the Adri­atic.

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CRUISING -

VIS IS SAID TO BE ONE of the pret­ti­est of the 1,244 is­lands along Croa­tia’s Dal­ma­tian

Coast. I can see it in the dis­tance from the is­land of Hvar, where some 15 years ago I bought an old stone house that I spend time in when­ever I can. But I had never been to Vis, even though it’s only 30 min­utes away by boat. Jadrolin­ija, the ex­ten­sive Croa­t­ian ferry net­work that is the life­line for the is­lands, doesn’t go there di­rectly from Hvar. By the time you take the ferry two hours to the city of Split and then an­other two hours out to Vis, you’ve killed the whole day. I un­der­stood the logic of this sys­tem from one of my neigh­bors, a Hvar na­tive who hadn’t been to Vis ei­ther. “Why would I want to go there?” she asked me in sur­prise. The ferry sys­tem is de­signed for na­tives like her who use it to work and shop on the main­land—not for is­land sight­see­ing.

All of which is to say that the best way— in­deed, the only way—to revel in the full glory of the Dal­ma­tian Coast, from the lush penin­sula of Is­tria at the top to the medieval walled city of Dubrovnik at the bot­tom and Vis right smack in the mid­dle, is to find a cruise ship that will hop from port to port in a way that few of Jadrolin­ija’s fer­ries seem to want to do. Now, I am not or­di­nar­ily a big fan of cruise ships: I pre­fer my build­ings ver­ti­cal and sta­ble, not hor­i­zon­tal and bob­bing. But the Crys­tal Esprit, which does reg­u­lar week­long sail­ings in the Adri­atic from May through Septem­ber, is dif­fer­ent. Sleekly retro­fit­ted by Crys­tal Yacht Ex­pe­di­tion Cruises in 2015, it car­ries only 62 pas­sen­gers. The cabins are roomy and plush, and the inside and out­side bars, lounges and restau­rants all have a clubby at­mos­phere. So I did not hes­i­tate to em­bark in Venice for a seven-day cruise along the coast, mak­ing port at some places that I al­ready knew well and oth­ers that I’d been mean­ing to see for years but sus­pected I would never get to. The fish­ing port of Rov­inj, our first stop, sits about mid­way down the western coast of Is­tria, the ar­row­head-shaped hump that juts into the Adri­atic just south of Tri­este, Italy. Road signs are in Croa­t­ian and Ital­ian, >>

and Italy’s happy in­flu­ence has given Is­tria a rep­u­ta­tion for some of Croa­tia’s best eat­ing and drink­ing. With that in mind, I set out with a small group of pas­sen­gers to the medieval town of Mo­tovun, about a 45-minute bus ride in­land.

The Vene­tians built this re­mote hill­top strong­hold to con­trol ac­cess to the forests of Mediter­ranean oak be­low, which they used to con­struct their naval gal­leys. But it turns out that truf­fles love to nes­tle in the roots of th­ese oaks, and so we gorged on a ridicu­lously rich po­lenta with black truf­fles at Mondo restau­rant, a ram­shackle col­lec­tion of rooms perched by the steep cob­ble­stoned path to the hill­top. We bought lo­cal truf­fle cheese and jars of black truf­fles to take home. And we lis­tened to the tale of Gian­carlo Zi­gante, who in 1999 found what was then the largest white truf­fle in his­tory—it weighed 1.3 kilo­grams— ac­cord­ing to the Guin­ness Book of World Records. He dubbed it the Mil­len­nium Truf­fle, and, af­ter spurn­ing ex­trav­a­gant of­fers from around the world, shared it with his friends. Good for you, Gian­carlo! On board the Crys­tal Esprit, we formed lit­tle cliques and gos­siped cat­tily about the other cliques. A posh English four­some who played bridge ev­ery night took a lot of heat, but I don’t re­call why. I fell in with a group of cou­ples that in­cluded a for­mer FBI coun­tert­er­ror­ism agent, an ac­coun­tant from New Jersey and an English travel agent. The travel agent’s wife brought along a can­is­ter of anti-sea­sick­ness pills, but she hardly took any. The Crys­tal Esprit is a smooth-sail­ing ship, and the Dal­ma­tian wa­ters are ex­cep­tion­ally boat-friendly: the sea stays >>

In Šibenik, the Krka River tum­bles over its traver­tine bed in a se­ries of seven daz­zling wa­ter­falls that bring in tourists from all over

deep al­most to the shore­line—and there’s vir­tu­ally no com­mer­cial traf­fic to avoid.

Af­ter Rov­inj, we put in at Šibenik, where the Krka River meets the sea. A short drive in­land, the Krka tum­bles over its traver­tine bed in a se­ries of seven daz­zling wa­ter­falls that bring in tourists from all over—an­other not-too-dis­tant but oddly in­ac­ces­si­ble land­mark crossed off my bucket list. Back in Šibenik, the FBI cou­ple and I sam­pled in­ge­niously reimag­ined, tra­di­tional Dal­ma­tian dishes at Pele­grini, one of only three Miche­lin-starred restau­rants in the en­tire coun­try (the cubes of beef tongue breaded with sage and mush­room dux­elles were a stand­out).

Af­ter that, it was on to Vis, and, I have to say, it is exquisite. Like so many of th­ese is­lands, it has a craggy spine of lime­stone, but its land­scape is par­tic­u­larly sav­age and wild. Mar­shal Tito holed up in the caves at the cen­ter of the is­land to­ward the end of World War II. It was here that he ne­go­ti­ated the fu­ture of Yu­goslavia. Back in the day, peo­ple stayed put; our guide said his great-great­grand­mother lived in­land and never once saw the sea, only a few me­ters away.

Charm­ing fish­ing vil­lages are in am­ple sup­ply in Croa­tia, but Komiža on Vis has got to be among the top three. Set at the foot of Hum moun­tain, the town boasts a hand­some fortress over­look­ing the har­bor and was built as a de­fense against pi­rates and paid for by a fish tax—the record catch here is 3 mil­lion sar­dines in a sin­gle day. (The fortress is now a mu­seum that proudly claims the world’s largest col­lec­tion of knots. Just say­ing.) Ev­ery year on De­cem­ber 6, the peo­ple of Komiža set a fish­ing boat aflame as an of­fer­ing to Saint Ni­cholas, then bless new boats with the ashes from their hand­i­work.

On Hvar, I by­passed group ac­tiv­i­ties and went straight to my house, where work­men were build­ing low stone en­clo­sures called jeru­las around the two olive trees in my gar­den. I am honor bound to re­port, how­ever, that some of my new­found friends got extra merry on an ex­cur­sion to the Tomić win­ery in the town of Jelsa. Who can blame them? Croa­t­ian wine has been mak­ing a name for it­self in the past 10 or so years, and vint­ner An­dro Tomić, who runs the win­ery and pro­duces a po­tent Plavac Mali, is among the rea­sons why.

Next up was Korčula, where leg­end has it that Marco Polo was born. We were faced with a dilemma: take a dreamy sail­boat cruise around the ma­jes­tic walled har­bor, or hang back and watch the broad­cast of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wed­ding ship­board. In the end, we man­aged both. Anne, our group’s English rose, col­lab­o­rated with the Crys­tal Esprit’s hero­ically flex­i­ble chef, and we re­turned from the cruise to a proper buf­fet of fresh-baked scones, with cream and straw­berry jam, and fin­ger sand­wiches of smoked salmon and cu­cum­ber (“With the crusts cut off!” Anne an­nounced tri­umphantly.) This kind of bend-over­back­ward help­ful­ness char­ac­ter­ized the ship’s whole crew.

We dis­em­barked the fol­low­ing morn­ing in Dubrovnik, the jewel of the Adri­atic that is now crawl­ing with Game of Thrones groupies (part of the se­ries was filmed there). I didn’t feel like hang­ing around. Dubrovnik is one of those re­mark­able places, like Venice, whose pop­u­lar­ity may be its un­do­ing. But this cruise had opened up a new vista for ex­plor­ing fantasy des­ti­na­tions in a re­gion I have come to love dearly. Among them are Las­tovo, Rab and the Kor­nati ar­chi­pel­ago. I can’t tell you when I will get to see those places, but at least now I can tell you how. crys­tal­; seven-night sail­ings from US$6,980 per per­son, all-in­clu­sive.

Fa­mous for its Re­nais­sance architecture, the small Croa­t­ian town of Šibenik also serves as the gate­way to the wa­ter­falls in Krka Na­tional Park.

In the port of Šibenik, Crys­tal Esprit pas­sen­gers can dine at Miche­lin-starred Pele­grini, which serves dishes like sea snail and veal tartare.

The medieval town of Mo­tovun, lo­cated in cen­tral Is­tria, was for­ti­fied by the Vene­tians in the 13th cen­tury.

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