Crystal clear seas and more than 1,000 islands make Croatia one of the world’s best cruising destinations. The water is clean and unspoiled; nature reigns supreme. Last summer my husband and I chartered a 42-foot Jenneau sloop for a sailing holiday among these idyllic islands. Our two teenage daughters accompanied us – spending most of their time sunning on the deck, reading, listening to music or occasionally jumping off the stern into the deep blue water to swim.
Although Croatia has been a favorite getaway for “in the know” Brits and other Europeans, it is just hitting the radar for American travelers. When European tourists started going to the Croatia, (formerly Yugoslavia) in the 20th century, it wasn’t for the historic and cultural attractions of fortified towns, Roman ruins, or museums, they came to bask in the sun along hundreds of miles of jagged coastline, and bathe in the pristine Adriatic waters.
Why, you may wonder, would we travel so far to cruise when we live in San Francisco Bay Area, where it’s possible to sail every weekend of the year? Here are ten reasons why we chose Croatia and why we fell in love it:
1. Following the Wind. There was an exhilarating feeling of freedom to chart our own course and sail where we wanted, when we wanted, and to anchor wherever we wished. We moved to the rhythm of nature — at the mercy of the wind and waves, sailing every day. We discovered that one of the most restful ways to enjoy a vacation is to lounge on the deck of a sailboat; indulge in leisurely meals in the open air; watch the vastness of the sea; and rock to sleep to the gentle movement of the waves.
2. Cooking is Optional. So I opted out. I did not prepare one dinner aboard. Every night we anchored in a different bay or along the waterfront of a small village. We always had a selection of open air restaurants with fresh fish, caught by local fishermen hours earlier. Cold beer, local wine and delectable pastas topped off dinner.
3. Great Food in Every Village. Every morning I went ashore and joined a group of village ladies at the local bakery to buy fresh bread, warm rolls, croissants and pastries. In some villages we frequented French-inspired pastry shops and Italian ice cream stands. Small markets sold regional cheeses, wines, olive oils and hams as well as vegetables and fruit recently picked from local organic gardens.
4. Savor the Sunny Season. Thanks to Croatia’s balmy climate from April to November, mostly rain-free days, sea breezes, clear, clean warm water, and relaxed atmosphere, water buffs can soak up the sun and swim for hours.
5. Revel in the Rich History. Many of the coastal towns we visited were surrounded by thick stone walls, round watch towers, town gates too narrow for today’s vehicles, and cobblestone pedestrian streets through the historic town center. In medieval Trogir we wandered through the labyrinth of ancient streets and into piazzas filled with colorful umbrellas, outdoor cafes and gelato shops tempting us to try every flavor (Tiramisu was my favorite). Quaint shops offered soft leather products, the latest European fashions, and silver jewelry. During the peak summer season, July and August, the streets swam with visitors, but in June, when we went ashore mornings and evenings, it was quiet. The outdoor bazaar and farmers market, located across the bridge from the island, is where you’ll find inexpensive sandals, sundresses, t-shirts, and organic vegetables. The tiny strawberries were so fragrant we couldn’t resist. The colorful seaside promenade is lined with outdoor cafes and restaurants. Trogir, founded in the third century BC by Greek colonists, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a place not to be missed.
6. Architectural Splendor. Dubrovnik, known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” is one of the world’s most spectacular and best preserved fortified cities. Massive thick walls and medieval fortress towers circle the historic center. We walked through the old town on shining smooth limestone pedestrian streets and lingered in open-air cafés (you won’t miss Starbucks, the espresso is delicious), and stopped to shop small boutiques. With teens in tow, we often stopped to shop.
One morning we hiked up steep steps to the top of the thick walls encircling the old town and were rewarded with panoramic views of the sea, over the terracotta roofed town houses, cloistered gardens and copper domes of Baroque churches. The damage from the 1991-1992 War for Independence has been painstakingly restored and Dubrovnik has regained its former magnificence. Cruise ships from Venice and the Greek Islands stop here and almost every tourist makes a stop in Dubrovnik so expect crowds, especially from July and August. If you want to avoid the crowds, visit in the spring or fall.
7. Search for Treasure. Located on Hvar Island, the historic town of Hvar was our favorite. It is nestled beneath three mountains and crowned by an old Venetian fortress, which is illuminated by yellow floodlights after dark. Hvar was first settled by the ancient Greeks and later inhabited the Venetians. In the 15th century the town was built by the Venetians as a port of call for their trade ships between Venice and the Black Sea. Today the charming harbor is filled with fishing boats, yachts and water taxis. The town of Hvar boasts elegant hotels, fashionable shops, lively nightlife and exquisite restaurants. Vineyards, lavender fields and small coastal villages dot the thin, long island.
8. Melt into the Mediterranean Pace of Life. Sailing along the Croatian Coast and among its multitude of islands is a slow-paced vacation. We sailed into deep blue bays, backed by fields of olive groves and vineyards and dropped anchor, took a swim and napped while the only sound we heard was the gentle lapping of the sea. Far from the crowds, noise, cars, roads, and traffic, we slowed down and found the peace and solitude that replenishes the body and soul.
9. Island Hopping Made Easy. Ferries depart cities and towns frequently, so day-trips are a breeze or select a few islands and settle in. There are regular ferries from Split to the island of Hvar’s main port of Hvar and the small towns of Stari and Grad. Or, if you’re a sailor, charter a yacht for a week or month and sail on your own wherever the wind blows you. Another option is to hire a captain and crew.
Visit Croatia while it’s still affordable and before Starbucks, McDonalds, Costco and other prominent U.S. vendors arrive.