A family trip to Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast opens the author’s eyes to a gorgeous, versatile cruising ground that just may be The Next Big Thing.
“In Croatia, they serve fish with the head attached, always!” our captain and tour guide Gogo proclaimed in an accent slathered with squashed Slavic vowels. He had taken my wife’s family and I by boat to a seaside restaurant on an island off the city of Dubrovnik. And now we were staring at a menu written in Croatian as a waitress set down carafes of icy-cold white wine to combat the relentless midday summer sun. “That way no one can serve you a fish that is not the fish they say it is! Also,” he added happily, “we eat the fish with our hands.” Gogo scanned the occupants of the table expectantly before zeroing in on me. “You will do this, yes?”
I paused for a beat. “Uuhhh, yeah. When in Rome.”
“Ah ah ah!” Gogo responded, wagging his finger back and forth. “When in Croatia!”
Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is nothing short of paradise. And this is something I did not know before I went there last July. I remember hearing about Croatia as a boating destination maybe six or seven years ago, and at the time I knew little of it. All the name conjured up for me was a handful of NBA players and a terrible and recent war. Basketball remains a national passion, and happily, the country has rebounded magnificently from the bloody conflicts of the early ’90s.
Today, Croatia, and particularly its Dalmatian Coast, which stretches from Rab in the north to the Bay of Kotor in the south, is a seaside wonderland heaven-sent for boaters. The water is nearly as blue as it is in the Bahamas, and limestone and dolomite cliffs jut straight up out of them in many areas—a geographical hallmark that defines the area. Seventy-nine islands and 500 islets dot the Adriatic there, and they range from deserted wildernesses to club-kid heaven, with parties raging until sunup. The coastal cities and towns are ancient, stretching back into Roman times. Dalmatia has actual castles, and it’s no surprise that the HBO megahit Game of Thrones does a large amount of shooting here. The locals are friendly, they all speak English, and they are more welcoming to Americans than some of their western European counterparts (but don’t get them started on the Russians). Beer, wine, and food are a particular point of national pride for Croatians. And while I don’t think I’ve ever visited a country where I haven’t heard some iteration of, “Our beer is the best beer in the world!”—except in England, where they know their place—Croatia actually has a leg to stand on. If you visit, try a bottle of richly flavored Tomislav and thank me later.
The Croatians also highly value boating and nautical knowledge, not surprising considering how much of their country rubs up against the sea. At each of the three cities I visited, Split, Dubrovnik, and Hvar, the harbors were lined with gleaming motoryachts, working fishing boats, and scads of sailboats. The country is particularly obsessed with sailing, and is well suited for it. There’s good reason the notorious Yachtweek, with all the ensuing bacchanalia, is held here every summer. In the country’s cruising season, which ranges from May to October, the water is calm and warm, the sun shines brightly, the breezes are gentle, and the coastline is awash with smiles. The only thing you need to watch out for is the sea urchins, which line the rocks here just below the surface, and pose a very real and annoying threat to anyone not keeping an eye out for them. Oddly though, the waters turn up very little other sea life, at least as far as I could tell. This isn’t the Caribbean, where you can wade out 50 yards off the beach with a mask and snorkel and see uncountable brightly colored fish darting about. That being said, the cerulean Adriatic is still nice to look at.
Of the three cities I visited Split was far and away the largest and most modern. Its harbor, the Port of Split, is the largest port in Croatia and the third largest in the entire region. It easily handles pleasure vessels of any size, and gives cruisers access to a fashionable city lined with trendy clothing stores, boutique hotels, and plazas offering world-class people watching. If you’re in town, one must-see attraction is the live music outside the Luxor Hotel. Bands play a mélange of styles in an ancient courtyard while talented dancers—I assume they must be professionals of some sort, though it was never made quite clear—float through the night across the slick, flat stone.
It’s understandable that you may not want to take your own boat from the U.S. to the Adriatic. But have no fear. there are plenty of chartering options in Croatia. The Moorings (www.moorings.com) has been in the area for years and does a fine job, and www.croatiacharter.com, also offers a mulititude of different vessels and charter styles. Either way, with a cruising ground this beautiful, you simply can’t go wrong. Unless if you don’t get a boat. Trust me, it makes all the difference.
Charter of Course
Dubrovnik is another ancient city and is famous for its red-roofed houses, and the Walls of Dubrovnik, which, having never been breached, are considered one of the great defensive fortifications of Medieval Europe. The Walls encircle the Old City and make for spectacular sightseeing from a boat. You might even see one of the city’s expert cliff divers fling themselves from the top of the walls into the waters below. Just make sure you leave that one as a spectator sport (unless you’re incredibly brave, really stupid, or both).
Lastly, the resort island of Hvar was described to me succinctly by a friend who had been there before: “Hvar is paradise.” She wasn’t lying. The island is quickly becoming a yachting hot spot for the rich and fabulous, and it’s no secret why. The port is easily accessed by boats large and small—when we were in town there were two Sunseeker 116s docked side by side—and once in port, there is plenty to do. Of particular interest is Gariful, a seafood restaurant frequented by royals, celebrities, and of course, Roman Abramovich (who else?). A short boat ride from the main island to Palmizana is an absolute must. That island is dotted with hidden coves and beaches, as well as a few otherworldly bars and restaurants built right into the rocky coastline. It’s a place unlike any I’ve ever been, as is most of the Dalmatian Coast, which is precisely why I hope to return one day soon.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.