It has been a few weeks since our last destination blog post from Vis and the Pakleni Islands off Hvar. In that time we’ve bid farewell to our beloved Croatia – who graciously introduced our family to the nomadic cruising lifestyle. We’ve also flirted with Montenegro (post to follow soon) and as I write, we’re in the midst of our first overnight passage (24 hour, 200km+) south to customs entry port Gouvia, Corfu in Greece’s Ionian Islands. So as not to fall too far behind, here are some highlights from our last two weeks touring the southern Dalmatian islands and coast.
Having met just a handful of Australians in our first two and a half months, either the early summer season was imminent, or it was the preference of Croatia’s southern islands amongst our fellow countrymen and women – but the Aussie floodgates opened once we hit Korcula. Whether it be sharing a bay with another long-way-from-home Aussie-flagged yacht (whose crew would often row over for a friendly hello) or one of dozens of old wooden gulets, come week-long live aboard cruisers, with music blaring, packed with bikini-clad gals and bare-chested fellas; frequently swearing loudly in a familiar accent and bomb diving off the highest decks.
Mike and I know these wooden gulet boat trips all too well. Given they were our tour of choice to explore Croatia back in summer 2006. And our partying actions – despite what felt like a complete disregard for the culture and country at the time – like many 20-something Aussies who’ve trod the same well-worn path, it was a roaring good time.
Korcula Town was another scenic, walled and densely populated peninsular – and a pretty locale to stop a few nights.
Polace at Mljet National Park provided a protected two-night anchorage during some blustery weather and a pleasant sightseeing day around Mljet’s two aqua blue lakes, island monastery and cool, fragrant pine forests. When your legs were regularly cooped up in a small living space, any opportunity for a substantial stretch of the legs was most welcomed.
Inching closer to Dubrovnik and the southern end of the long coastline, we’d been recommended to visit another historic walled old town – particularly to taste the famous product from its never-ending rows of oyster and mussel farms. With strong northerlies on the nose, we decided against navigating up the shallow channel and instead anchored in nearby Slano Bay, taking the local bus to Ston.
A lesser-known township off the tourist trail – yet only 45 minutes north of Dubrovnik – Ston was not just any walled old town. Incredibly, Ston had the second longest remaining fortified wall in the world at 5.5 km (behind China’s goliath Great Wall). After hiking up and around a portion of the town’s walls for some awesome views, we devoured four dozen fresh Ston oysters between us, washed down with several glasses of cold Karlovacko. Tasty!
As Croatia’s tourism crown jewel and one of Europe’s most popular destinations, Dubrovnik needs little introduction. The fortified old town hugs a rocky coast, and given the town was violently shelled during the civil war just two decades ago, its skyline comprises a sea of painstakingly rebuilt red-tiled rooftops. Today the setting is easily one of the most photographed scenes in all the Mediterranean.
Dubrovnik’s old town was striking and well worth a visit even if just to circumnavigate the old walls and fill up your camera memory card with postcard perfect pictures. Having visited Dubrovnik seven years ago, honestly I have to sadly admit this was one special place that mass tourism and the cruise ship trade had suffocated the charm and magic. As daily they disgorged thousands upon thousands of tourists shoulder-to-shoulder into the humid, enclosed old town. We counted four new cruise ships arrive and depart each day that we were there.
I read that there was talk of limiting the number of people permitted into the old town each day, as it was clearly obvious the enjoyable capacity had been surpassed. Perhaps it was just a shock after the early season freedoms and space we’d relished to date. But if and when you are to visit this photogenic destination, we suggest it best to leave your wall walk and alleyway roaming until late afternoon or early evening once the hoards have returned to their floating hotels for their pre-paid dinner on board.
Not an area favourable for yachts, we sat anchored in Dubrovnik’s Gruz Harbour for five hours (and were just about to take the tender to shore) when at 6:00 pm the Harbourmaster finally decided to advise us that anchoring there was forbidden. As the official ACI Marina was full with charter yacht handovers, we were left with little choice but to moor at a private sailing club marina nearby.
The next day we were gouged 100% extra for a catamaran; where every other mooring had never been more than a 50% surplus. And at A$220 p/n to tie up to a slab of cement, laid moorings and plug in power, it was by far the most we’d paid in our three-month cruise up and down the coast. As I’m sure you can understand, when you are trying to make your money stretch over nine months – and you’ve already supplied your own bed, bathroom and kitchen sink – regular hits like that do not make for a sustainable budget!
What we wished we’d known at the time – and will happily recommend to other yachties heading north to Croatia – was the picturesqueseaside village of Cavtat. A perfect alternative, Cavtat was located just 15 kilometers south and offered regular taxi boat and bus services up to Dubrovnik. Therefore our last two days in Croatia were savoured with blissfully calm weather in a free anchorage (we do love free!), just around the corner from our selected customs clearance port.
Whilst our experience with Dubrovnik’s crowds and an overpriced mooring had left us slightly bothered and disheartened, in Cavtatwe topped up on the relaxed Croatian good vibes and uncrowded vistas to depart on a high note. We also ended our stay with a much-anticipated visit from the bronzed lovebird newlyweds Bek and Joel, who’d also been soaking up the sun and fun of this friendly country. After plenty of laughs, swims and wedding story catch-up over beers, we very much look forward to welcoming them back on board soon in Greece.
Well what more can we say? Early March we arrived to bitter winter’s-end bora winds where even snowflakes made a brief appearance; we now depart in the midst of a Mediterranean heat wave. Arriving well before the seasonal crowds provided us with many glimpses of how the locals live and communities tick for the other half of the year. Croatia’s 1,200+ islands and islets gifted not only a visual smorgasbord around every corner, but provided plenty of learnings and lessons about the boat, local weather characteristics and Mediterranean sailing etiquette (or lack thereof).
This was all whilst learning to live closely together and accommodate each other’s strengths and weaknesses. And as the initial set up, maintenance and modification period for the boat, there were several deadlines and itinerary constraints to work around. This made for some challenging moments and other times when patience has been essential. Yet all part of the adventure!
We have simply loved every minute of our cruising visit of Croatia and hope we’ve inspired a few of you to add this deserving country to your travel wish list. Its rich diversity of landscapes, crystal clear bays, unassuming old towns, mind-blogging history (from ancient to very recent civil unrest) and friendly, welcoming locals will be long treasured.
Though it’s time to move on. We’re excited to be changing the local courtesy flag for some new colours and to find what wonderful surprises, adventures, characters, mishaps and memories the next few months have in store. We hope that you’ll stay with us on this journey.
To conclude, here again are some favourite images from our time in Croatia (along with a splash from Venice).
Do vijenja Croatia!