Richard Holmes is enchanted by glorious scenery, living history and the laid-back lifestyle on offer as one cycles and cruises around the Kingdom of Dalmatia of southern Croatia.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the islands of Dalmatia, where a crenulated coastline stretches hundreds of kilometres along the far southern reaches of Croatia. It’s a coastline that hides charming villages and bustling towns between steep, pine-clad hills. At their feet, the waters of the Adriatic shimmer turquoise, crystal-clear from surface to sea floor. Here ancient castles and medieval walls overlook sailing yachts tugging impatiently at their anchors, harking back to the sailors who have worked these waters for more than 2 000 years.
Dalmatia has long been a haven for seafarers and little has changed today. While large cruise liners ply the waters offshore, the savvy traveller will seek out a more intimate way to discover this sought-after slice of the Mediterranean. Sailing charters are widely available for the skilled and adventurous, but by far the best way to discover the islands of central Dalmatia is to hop aboard one of the smaller motor-yachts that sail from the attractive harbour town of Split.
The second-largest city in Croatia, Split combines the charm and history of Dubrovnik with a more authentic taste of everyday life. There’s UNESCO-protected heritage in the remarkable Diocletian’s Palace and the Cathedral of St Domnius, but also a buzzing local nightlife in the many restaurants and bars set in and around the old city walls. If you have time to explore further afield, the Marjan Forest Park shows off the dramatic mountains that frame the city inland.
But it’s the sea that draws most travellers to Split, and a multi-day island-hopping cruise is an ideal way to discover the offshore islands. Comfortable rather than luxurious, the motor-yachts are similar to a Turkish gulet, with rooms ranging from double compartments to cosy bunk beds ideal for families. Most boats accommodate about 24 passengers, looked after by a handful of friendly crew.
The below-deck accommodation may be compact, but the spacious public areas are where guests spend most of their time, swapping travel tales while admiring the passing scenery. Nights in Dalmatia are spent moored in quaint harbours, followed by a short sail among the islands the following morning.
Some travellers find this is a little sedate, which is why local tour operators offer cruises that combine inter-island sailing with daily mountain-bike tours on terra firma. Then you can enjoy the best of both worlds: soaking up the stunning coastal scenery while exploring the islands by bicycle. A dedicated cycling guide, who will adjust the route according to the fitness of the group, leads each ride. The Travel Boutique by Live the Journey can arrange both the cycling and the cruise aspects of your holiday.
Seven-night cruises are a popular choice, offering sufficient time to get under the skin of the region. That starts from the first day, when the yacht moors in the delightful harbour town of Milna on the island of Brač. Famed for the gorgeous beach at Zlatni Rat, the island dishes up typical Dalmatian scenery of steep pine slopes tumbling down to crystal waters. No surprise that many tourists simply cycle in their swimwear, hopping off for a cooling dip when the mood strikes.
The second day of your cycle–sailing adventure sees you saddling up for a 43km route around the island to the town of Bol. Climbing to 570m above sea level in a morning may sound daunting, but electric-assisted bikes are available for those with less sturdy legs. Keep your eyes on the wonderful landscapes and you’ll be at the summit in no time!
The hard work is well rewarded with an authentic farm-style lunch – and a well-earned rest – enjoyed in the shade of pine trees in the village of Gazul. From here it’s mostly downhill to the town of Bol, with the road offering dramatic views across to the island of Hvar. While most of Dalmatia’s islands tend to keep a low profile on the tourism radar, Hvar is different. Its principal town, also called Hvar, is the party capital of the Adriatic, so expect a vibrant nightlife on its streets and in the port.
But first comes an unforgettable day’s pedal through the island’s lavender and rosemary fields, with the road taking you past the ancient town of Stari Grad and the wine-producing centre of Grablje en route to Hvar, where the boat – and a refreshing swim – are waiting.
In Hvar you can swap your cycling kit for something smarter before setting off to explore the restaurants and cafés that spill out onto the squares. There’s good shopping to be found here, with a range of local craft shops and chic boutiques open until late in the evening. The island is famous for its wine cellars and there are plenty of dedicated bars where you can try their products.
Don’t over-indulge though, as the next day’s cycle across the island of Korčula is challenging. Often thought to be the most beautiful of the Adriatic islands, Korčula fortunately has dense pine forests that provide welcome shade as you pedal clear across it to the main town. The beauty of letting the Travel Boutique take care of your itinerary is that you can simply enjoy yourself, secure in the knowledge that the complicated arrangements have been taken care of.
Across Dalmatia and its islands you’ll find wonderful local seafood and lamb, often cooked in the traditional way of ispod čripnje. Translated as ‘under the bell’, this involves using a ceramic or metal cover to slow-cook the meal, with a single large dish typically shared at the table. Whether you’re dining aboard the motor-yacht – packages are typically half-board – or in local eateries, seafood dominates local menus.
And so the days pass in a golden haze of fine local food and glorious scenery. There’s the gentle cycle along the fringes of Mljet Island National Park, where natural lakes hide a 12th-century Benedictine monastery and private coves beckon for another swim in the cobalt-blue waters. There’s the seafaring town of Orebic, and a pedal along the dramatic Pelješac Peninsula where vineyards have been tended for centuries. The last day’s cycle is perhaps the most memorable: up to the Mirabella Fortress that guarded the charming town of Omis from the notorious pirates of the Adriatic.
It’s easy to understand why those pirates of old set up shop here. As you sail back towards Split after seven days afloat, the Dalmatian coastline rolls away to the horizon. The scenery is a timeline of the past week, a tapestry of pine forests and vineyards, shimmering seas and quaint villages. And by now I think you’ll agree: it’s hard not to fall in love with the islands of Dalmatia.
Don’t miss Dubrovnik!
Whether you visit to ogle at the real-life King’s Landing from Game of Thrones or are drawn to the history of this pretty harbour city, if you go to Croatia you simply can’t miss a stop in Dubrovnik.
The highlight of any visit is the view of the terracotta-roofed city from its ancient encircling walls. You can enter the walls via three gates, but your best bet is the Ploče Gate; it’s not as busy as the (admittedly impressive) Pile Gate and you’ll get the steepest hills out of the way first. Remember to walk in an anti-clockwise direction and to take plenty of water on hot days.
The cableway to the summit of Mt Srð whisks you to a viewpoint 405m above the city’s eye-catching rooftops. It runs until 9pm most months of the year, so time your visit for just before sunset. From on high, it’s not hard to see why the poet Lord Byron dubbed Dubrovnik the ‘jewel of the Adriatic’.
For a break from the crowds – Dubrovnik can be extremely busy in summer – take a 10-minute ferry ride from the Old Harbour to the island of Lokrum for wonderful swimming and a visit to its medieval Benedictine monastery.
Plan your trip with Live the Journey
Getting there There are no direct flights from South Africa to Croatia, but you’ll find easy connections via Istanbul, Doha, Frankfurt, Munich or Zurich.
When to go May and June are the best months to visit the Dalmatian coastline, with mild to warm weather. Cycling cruises are popular in April, May, June, September and October, but (due to hot weather) not available during July and August.
Visas South African passport-holders require a visa to visit Dalmatia. If you have a multiple-entry Schengen Visa, you don’t need a separate one for Croatia. Visit the website for more info.
Currency The Croatian Kuna is the official currency. ZAR1 = HRK0.48
TAILOR-MADE HOLIDAYS Contact email@example.com or 021 863 6400.
*Book your cycling and sailing escape to Croatia exclusively through the Travel Boutique of Live the Journey. For more information and recommendations, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 021 863 6400.
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