It seems that the greatest concentration of charter yachts is not in the Caribbean as you may expect, but rather in Croatia, a tiny country that for centuries has been caught between two identities: the laidback vibe of the Mediterranean and the brash demeanor of Balkan Eastern Europe. Being of two characters, Croatia is a surprise to all who visit and the best way to see its languid coast, which stretches between Sibenik and Dubrovnik along the blue Adriatic Sea, is by boat.
We chartered with Dream Yacht Charter out of Marina Boatic outside of the medieval town of Trogir, where they run a spectacularly efficient and friendly service that turns boats around quickly between charters. I was surprised that we didn’t receive a chart briefing but I soon learned that this was not an oversight but rather the Croatian norm. I sat down with the chart and mapped out an approximate route.
A Wandering Itinerary
Before even boarding the boat, you’ll want to visit Split (about 20 miles from the marina) and Diocletian’s Palace, which is 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 architecture that shows off Roman, Byzantine and Egyptian artifacts within a 300-foot radius, all jam-packed together, one dynasty rolling over the last. Even if you’re not the museum type, you can hardly miss the energy of the history that meets you here.
Once aboard the boat, we left the busy marina and sailed south to spectacular Korcula Island. We had favorable wind and spent most of the day on one tack, settling into our trip. Korcula is just a few hours’ sail from the world-renowned walled town of Dubrovnik (another UNESCO site) that’s worth a multi-day stay. Much of the Game of Thrones was filmed here but even if you’re not a fan of the show, Dubrovnik’s walls, cliff-side cafes, museums, restaurants and views are spectacular. Heading south first took us out of the immediate charter traffic so we enjoyed a bit of peace. We picked up the islands as we ran back north just when everyone was heading elsewhere.
Among the highlights was Vis Island where we bunched in tight, with fenders squeaking against neighboring boats, and toasted our arrival by arranging a land tour complete with a visit to Tito’s submarine tunnel and the charming fishing village of Komiza on the other side of the island. Our excursion was worth every “kuna” as our guide was a bit of a World War II buff who exulted in showing us every partisan cave and hiding spot.
Almost next door to Vis is the island of Bisovo, which is the home of Modra Spilja (Blue Cave). Arriving in the bay, we caught a mooring and waited our turn to board a skiff, which is the only way to enter the Blue Cave – no private dinghies allowed. Inside, propulsion is only via a long pole, Italian gondola style. With the sun outside high in the sky, everything inside glows a brilliant blue, the result of ambient light bouncing off the white sand below.
After lunch, a few hours on a beam reach had us anchoring off Hvar Town on the island of Hvar. This is a bustling international community of cafes and a chic clientele chauffeured on six-figure tenders to and from their nine-figure superyachts. A destination of the glitterati, Hvar harbor is where Onassis-type yachts rub hulls with humble local fishing craft and every kind of sail and powerboat in between. The hike to the top of the fort is well worth the sweat for the amazing views and cool ice cream.
We took a taxi to 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.
The holding ground in Hvar harbor is sketchy so for the night, we crossed the channel and found an idyllic cove on the northern side of Sveti Klement (St. Clement Island). With prior reservations, you can eat at The Fisherman’s House on shore, which is like having an excellent dinner at a local friend’s house since it’s a family-run establishment with only a half dozen tables. Their cove has mooring balls and is well protected from everything but northerly winds.
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 wheel of your boat. Don’t be surprised to have boats race you to the quay, bumping you out of the way even as you’re already backing to a Med moor.
Also, there’s “The Yacht Week”. This mindboggling marketing phenomenon is not a week, but instead a jamboree that lasts all summer long. Manbunned hipsters in tiny swimsuits group together on chartered vessels and are often inebriated by midday. This international sailing odyssey of 20- and 30-somethings is a relentless onslaught on both visitors and locals as they party their way from town to town. Whenever we spotted the long “The Yacht Week” banners flying from backstays or the stickers emblazoned on their hulls, we picked up and went elsewhere.
Finally, there’s the language. 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. However, Croatians love to practice their English and will go out of their way to help you. English is spoken in most restaurants and shops and a smile and some humor will get your through the rest.
By mid-week, we thought we had been spectacularly smart with our itinerary. Each town was more beautiful than the last and we congratulated ourselves on our outstanding choices. However, as we pulled into towns like Milna on Brac Island and Maslinica on Solta Island, we realized that it wasn’t our superior abilities that made each town mesmerizing, but that each town simply was mesmerizing. Here, you just can’t drop anchor in anything but a stunning harbor with a splendid town under striking cliffs. Every stop offers an opportunity to lounge while enjoying a glass of rakija, Croatia’s answer to grappa, or slivovica, plum brandy that will take the paint off your car.
The food and wine are excellent in Croatia. Along the Adriatic, the choice is usually fish paired with a local white wine. Every menu features the Croatian national specialty, cevapcici, which are skinless fingerling sausages made of minced pork, beef and lamb. They’re eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner with just about anything from eggs to French fries. Due to the numerous towns, provisioning is easy and affordable.
It turns out we weren’t super sailors who pieced together an unusually amazing trip even without a chart briefing. We were just average visitors who discovered that you really can’t go wrong anywhere in Croatia whether it’s sailing, history or charm that you seek. The country just seems to have a bit of everything.