Cruising World Magazine

God must be looking down on all the charter companies in Croatian ports and wondering what took them so long. After all, chartering must be what He made them for. Although the country is less than 300 miles long, its tortuous indentations offer more than a thousands miles of coastline, protected by nearly a thousand islands.

Cruising World MagazineSummer conditions are normally benign, the biggest winds – the north easterly Bora, which blows from the mountains – is rare in high season and in any event is usually well-forecast. Even when strong winds do blow, the string of offshore islands offer protection which prevents large seas building up. Add to this Croatia’s largely undeveloped coastline, and we have all the ingredients for the ideal charter destination. Jeremy Tutt, General Manager of The Moorings, says it’s been the most popular charter destination over the past 3 years and shows little sign of slowing up. “There’s lots of variation, with true charm and character, and there are few natural hazards. Although it can blow a bit outside the season, most of the time it’s quiet.”

The main cruising area is in Dalmatia, in the south of the country, (Croatia actually lies north west/south east, but mentally most people straighten it out to a simple north/south). The high, impassable mountains have always formed a barrier that has separated the coastal people from the interior, and Dubrovnik, down at the southern end, is even further removed and for many hundreds of years was an independent state. Dalmatians have traditionally worked on the sea, not just as fishermen or ship builders, but as seamen and even today the merchant fleets of the world would probably be unable to function without their Dalmatian crew.

Cruising World MagazineDubrovnik is an unmissable place. The image of the city’s walls rising almost vertically from the sea to protect its tiny harbour, is one of the best-known sights of the world. Because straight-line distances in Dalmatia are small, most charter companies based in Dubrovnik offer one-way charters between their bases further north – typically to Split, about 100 miles away, whose airport can also be used for the return or outward journey. This allows even one week charterers to cover the best sights of the region. Dubrovnik’s marina is also one of the prettiest anywhere. Built in the grounds of an old summer palace, some five miles up-river, it’s more like a resort than a marina. The Old Town is a short taxi or bus ride away, and if time allows there’s a detour to the top of the mountain overlooking the city where the best photographs can be taken.

Cruising World MagazineThe cruising ground around Dubrovnik is incomparable. The lush green Elaphit islands are just a few miles apart and the furthest, Šipan, has one of Croatia’s best restaurants on the seashore of its northern bay – Kod (“Chez”) Marko. Opposite Šipan, on the mainland, is the walled town of Ston, which used to be the limit of the Dubrovnik Republic, but time doesn’t usually allow a visit and instead boats head for the island of Mljet. (Providing further justification for the old joke that one of Croatia’s biggest export is consonants.) This has been established as a National Park, with the bay of Polace offering complete protection, as well as a base from which to explore the nearby fresh lakes and the old Benedictine Monastery on the Island of St Mary’s.

Cruising World MagazineThe island is opposite the 60-mile long peninsula of Pelješac, behind which is a protected cruising ground, rarely entered by visiting yachts. At the head of the peninsula is the ferry port for Korcula, (commonly principal towns in Dalmatia have the same name as their island). One of the many walled Venetian towns of the Eastern Adriatic, Korcula is one of the most dramatic, jutting out into the narrow straights between the mainland, it was an important Venetian trading post, and has the most glorious cathedral. The fish-bone layout of the town’s streets is unique and is said to channel cool air into the houses during the summer. There is a large ACI marina just by the town, which often becomes full in high season, but charter companies can often arrange a booking in advance. Korcula is best seen either by sunrise or sunset, when town becomes dramatically highlighted by a low sun.

Beyond Korcula, on the way to Hvar, is one of Dalmatia’s secrets. The island of Šcedro has an official population of just one. The redoubtable Mrs Kordic lives here year-round while her son, the island’s official gamekeeper, commutes from nearby Hvar island. Although most visiting boats anchor in the bay of Lovisce, where there is a choice of anchorages and restaurants, those in the know get to Scedro early and go to Monastir Bay where the Kordic family has their home. Their little cluster of houses was built next to the old monastery which is now abandoned, and they rent out some of the buildings for the summer. But be warned there is no electricity on the island, and the Kordic’s restaurant is lit by a 12v lamp, powered by a wind generator. They produce their own vegetables and wine, and take a boat out in the morning to catch fish for the evening’s meal, which is taken on their little terrace overlooking the water’s edge.

Hvar has now once again become fashionable, and in high season is packed with boats of all sizes. Rather than tangle with them, the best bet is to leave the boat in the marina on the nearby island of Palmižana, and take the ferry in. But my own favourite is a secret harbour just to the north of town, which used by the Yugoslav vice-President, whose villa is nearby. It’s the only time I’ve felt as though I had my own private berth.

There is a narrow passage between the islands of Brac and Solta on the passage towards Split on the mainland, and if time allows Milna on Brac is worth looking into. It’s a typical, unassuming Dalmatian town, with a long and attractive public quay, and a peaceful and relaxed place to moor after Hvar. On the mainland itself, although Split has a marina at its centre, an alternative is to go to Trogir which is very close to the airport and where it’s possible to moor just outside the walls of this pretty fortified town. The town has many shops and a magnificent cathedral, along with a wide range of restaurants and bars to choose from. Split in contrast, is Dalmatia’s largest city and is a bustling, working town, which has grown around the old Roman palace built by Diocletian at the end of the 4th century AD. The huge palace grounds have been adapted over the centuries and is now an integral part of the city’s centre. It’s quite extraordinary to see almost perfectly preserved Roman structures jostling alongside modern additions.

North of Split is a second Dalmatian cruising ground, served by a number of marinas where charter companies have bases. The biggest attraction of this are the offlying Kornati Islands. These virtually uninhabited islands have almost no trees, and their profiles have been worn down over the millennia into barren outcrops rising gently out of the sea. There are a number of ‘oases’ in some of the more protected bays where restaurants operate during the summer and ACI have even built a seasonal marina here, which is like a large summer camp. But the best areas are where there’s no one else around, and peace descends with the night.

Opposite the Kornatis, on the mainland, the ancient city of Šibenik stands guard over the deep Krka river. It’s been an important trading centre for centuries and its 16th century cathedral is now listed as a World Heritage Site. One of the area’s premier tourist attraction is upriver from Šibenik. Passing through a large lake, ACI has built an inland marina around the waterfront at Skradin. From here ferries take visitors into the National Park to see the Krka Falls, a stretched out series of waterfalls, where swimming is allowed. It’s a great place for a picnic.

Recent government changes have required charter boats to be registered as Croatian. This has transformed the chartering scene and the UK companies operating there have had to reorganise their fleets. Fortunately most have managed this, and offer a wide choice of base and cruising area. One holiday is not enough.