Our elegant 100-foot yacht, Romanca, docked beam-end in the medieval harbor-town of Starigrad on Hvar.
Photos and story by Alison Gardner, Editor of Travel with a Challenge
Among Croatia’s 1186 islands bobbing in the Adriatic Sea, there are 66 inhabited islands that dot the turquoise and royal blue waters along the Dalmatian Coast. Looking at photos of these islands, particularly aerial views, one cannot help but wonder if the images have been enhanced. Surely, the colors of the water, the brightly sand-fringed beaches, and the whimsically-crenalated shorelines with uncountable coves and bays could exist only in imagination. However, Croatia’s islands are indeed picture postcard perfect. No touch-up required!
I journeyed to Croatia’s islands to experience the timeless qualities of this slim north-south alcove of the eastern Mediterranean where centuries-old olive orchards and vineyards fan out from stone-built villages sited in times past in order to hide from sea-faring pirates; where well-preserved medieval fortress towns lure visitors through narrow, often staircased cobbled streets; and where fishermen still set out each day to harvest the abundant fruits of the Adriatic Sea as their ancestors have done for two thousand years. Even such a short distance seaward from the formidable mountainous shields that fall one to two thousand feet to the mainland shore, the islands seem to belong to a different time and culture with each one having a distinctive story and personality.
Since we usually motored rather than sailed between islands, it was a special treat when crew raised the massive sails on this graceful ship.
With travel experience in the region spanning 20 years, U.S.-based ROW Adventures has been running small-scale yacht trips on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast longer than any North American adventure travel company. With an acceptable maximum of 16 fellow travelers with whom to share such an adventure and ROW’s well-seasoned guide, Mišo Poduje, whose own family heritage in the islands runs very deep, September seemed like the perfect shoulder month for my island exploration. Check out our companion article, “Mišo’s Island”, for our guide’s very personal introduction to the less-visited island of Vis from which Marshall Tito’s Yugloslavia made a considerable contribution to World War II while operating out of a mountaintop cave.
Accessible by Jadrolinija ferry or private yacht, Korcula’s red clay roofs are only a stone’s throw from Croatia’s fortress-like mainland mountains.
Our ROW Adventures cruise stitched together a string of the largest and most historically-diverse islands – Korcula, Hvar, Vis, and Brac – where we tied up our floating hotel alongside the defensive walls of medieval towns or anchored in protected coves that seemed to close off the outside world both literally and figuratively. By day, we stepped ashore to follow stony pathways through fragrant pine forests, or to stroll among ancient vineyards and olive orchards that speak to hundreds, even thousands of years of settlement in a perpetually sun-washed landscape. Here is a sea-moderated climate where palm trees are abundant and flowers bloom in abundance most months of the year.
A ninth century Romanesque church is an unexpected treat during an evening stroll through a tiny backstreet square in Starigrad on Hvar.
In July and August, the picturesque medieval harbor town of Hvar is a favorite playground of Europe’s nobility and Hollywood celebrities. In other months, it become a tranquil, rewarding treat with few visitors.
There was something quite magical about navigating into an ancient harbor while standing astride the top deck of a traditional vessel like the Romanca. Great skill seemed to be required to jostle for narrow dock space to tie up and let down the gang plank for immediate access to medieval streets. Sometimes the space available was so narrow, we had to back in with only the beam secured to the mooring bollards. Or sometimes the size of a harbor precluded gaining any direct land connection at all because too many other vessels had beat us to port for the night. Then the captain and crew would expertly lash our motorsailer in parallel tandem to other vessels of similar size.
In Hvar town’s miniature harbor, we had no choice but to link ourselves securely to the fifth vessel away from the actual dock. Disembarking guests wishing for a bit of shore leave had to be fairly swift and agile to cross from one bobbing deck to another while acknowledging total strangers as we passed through their public areas to make our way ashore. This procedure seemed strange to us landlubbers, but the nautically informed thought nothing of it!
Back aboard Romanca, our classic motor sailer elegantly appointed with stained hardwood and highly-polished brass, we sampled the gourmet harvest of both sea and land. That certainly included some of the finest Croatian wines, well acknowledged in many European countries, but an unexpected treat for guests from North America.
Our cruise manager, Vlado, was first off the ship to visit his favorite local produce markets, bakeries, butchers and fishing boats on every island. His credo was “everything fresh today” on what could easily have been billed as a gourmet dining cruise. Handing over his purchases to our 6-foot, 5-inch Croatian chef, barely able to stand upright in his tiny, shiny galley kitchen, the results were culinary magic all the way from Dubrovnik to Split.
Romanca Cruise Manager, Vlado, triumphantly returns to the ship with fresh fish for dinner.
Each day there was time to relax and watch the Adriatic world go by and time to be as active as any senior could wish .. swimming in a turquoise-bottomed cove, exploring medieval streets, museums, and churches or taking a half-day hike in the countryside. Miso’s long strides and go-ahead energy occasionally left some of us scrambling to keep up, but he had an unerring sense of what was special to share about any of these islands that he knows so intimately.
Korcula is an exquisite fortified town where Marco Polo is said to have been born, though documentation is slim. However, it is clearly documented that in middle age he was a commander in the Venetian navy, defeated just offshore in the epic Battle of Korcula by the Genoese navy. During his subsequent brief imprisonment on the island, he had time to write his famous China travel accounts while locked up from 1298 to 1299.
I particularly appreciate unlikely stories, so if I were to pick one “Jewel of the Adriatic” that will remain most vivid in my memory, it would have to be the hike to the Hermitage of Blaca. Yes, here is an entirely improbable monastery founded in 1552 by a small community of priests weary of constant harassment from Ottoman Turks swarming the Dalmatian coast during that period. In selecting their deep valley mountainside on which to build, they clearly wished to be invisible to both Turks and marauding medieval pirates while still being able to eek out a living from what appeared to be very harsh surroundings.
We anchored in a tiny bay and zodiacked ashore to a virtually invisible trailhead, then set out on a one-hour walk up hill through fragrant pine forests filled with bird song. The terrain opened into ill-kept remnants of olive orchards and vineyards along a narrow path of loose limestone rock absolutely devoid of soil. Winded and hot, we soon witnessed for ourselves the well-preserved evidence of this monastery’s genius over nearly 500 years.
Today the Hermitage of Blaca is state-managed as a wonderfully inaccessible tourism site where we saw all the tools of a fine commercial venture, making wine, honey and other agricultural products for trade and export. Never a large operation, generations of monks and priests clearly put their growing wealth into learning, classical music and eclectic collecting on a grand scale. So well connected to the outside world was this community that, clinging to the near vertical landscape, they built an impressive, well-thumbed library covering many subjects, had their own printing office, hired virtually all the neighboring villagers and operated the only classrooms for children to go on to higher education. Most astonishing, Blaca was a world-renowned astronomical observatory with the latest telescopes and an expertise that was recruited by scientists around the world during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The trail from the cove to Brac’s hermitage is trod by few international visitors, a real gem for active seniors who love unlikely stories in their travels!
However, my favorite mental snapshot of this monastery visit was the full-length shiny black grand piano in a small sitting room reached by a narrow stone staircase. Clearly determination had topped common sense as I learned that a musical monk and a host of villagers had successfully carried this heavy, awkward load from our tiny cove to the monastery. I had just navigated the very same narrow, rock-strewn trail with nothing more cumbersome than a light daypack and a hiking stick.
Romanca lies at anchor in a tiny Brac island cove where a well-camouflaged hiking trail leads to a 16th century hermitage.
A typical stepped street in Korcula’s fortified old town, all cleverly curved to reduce wind tunnelling.
ROW Adventures, www.rowadventures.com, offers its “Jewels of the Adriatic” 12-day island-hopping tour of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast with four departures each June and September. Both worthy of a feature article in themselves, Dubrovnik and Split are spectacular frozen-in-time UNESCO Cultural World Heritage cities that anchor the beginning and end of the “Jewels” cruise. Each itinerary includes nights at a hotel in Split and Dubrovnik, but you may wish to allow extra time to absorb the atmosphere of either city. They reinforce the Croatian National Tourist Board slogan, “The Mediterranean as it once was”.
ROW also hosts yachting tours around Turkey, Greece and Croatia, barging trips on many of Europe’s waterways, and small-ship adventure cruises in Alaska, British Columbia and the Galapagos Islands. Most recently, ROW has added walking tours in South America and an Algerian walking tour. Each season ROW features a selection of adventures exclusively for baby boomers and seniors (ages 50+) who prefer to travel with their own age group.
Croatian National Tourist Board, www.croatia.hr. Croatia’s islands are hot and dry in summer, mild and humid in winter. Shoulder seasons are best to experience comfortable temperatures, and to avoid crowds and summer prices. Lonely Planet named Croatia as its pick for top 2005 tourism destination in the world – just ten years after peace in the region was officially declared. Such worthy acknowledgement must have seemed like a fairy tale at the time, as unlikely as winning an Oscar for Best Picture!
Recommended guidebook: The Rough Guide to Croatia by Jonathan Bousfield (2013) available in paperback or ebook. There are also regional and city ebooks for many of Croatia’s most important areas.
Don’t forget to check out our guide Miso’s very personal introduction to his own island of Vis.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.