At the deep end in Croatia
GO CROATIA:After years of hearing about the wonders of scuba-diving, CONOR POWERtakes the plunge in the Adriatic
FOR MANY YEARS now, I’ve been hearing about how wonderful scuba-diving allegedly is: “It’s a whole new world down there . . . you simply have to try it . . . it’s so addictive . . . it’s amazing . . . you feel great when you’ve done a good dive.”
And that was just my wife Fiona. She’s a highly experienced diver but, as is the case with many hobbies in life, her diving days pretty much ended almost two decades ago when she became a mother.
Our children – aged 10, 13 and 15 – have grown beyond the stage of sand castles. They had taken to snorkelling like fish to water and it was now time to introduce them and me to the pleasures of a world more sub-aquatic.
Croatia is one of the best countries in Europe in which to try scuba-diving. It’s blessed with a beautiful rugged coastline and warm waters that are teeming with exotic Mediterranean sea life.
We were staying near Porec on the west coast of the Istrian peninsula. This is the “Italian” piece of Croatia – a triangular chunk of beautiful green country that was once part of Italy and where all the towns and villages have a distinctly Venetian feel mixed with the Slavic.
The Porec Diving Center is just outside the pretty Italianate town on the shoreline next to a complex of hotels. We found it in the shade of pine trees next to an inviting-looking beach bar.
We were in a group with a couple of tourists from Germany. Milos – the owner of the centre – greeted us, along with his English-born wife Gwen. We were shown a 20-minute video that took you through the basics of diving. This was preceded by filling out lengthy medical questionnaires and signing consent forms.
Milos came back into the room when the video had ended and checked that we had understood everything in it and that we still wanted to go ahead.
It was, he repeated, simply an “introduction” to diving that we were experiencing today. It would give us a good idea of what diving was all about. Diving was not for everyone, he pointed out, and if, at any stage, we wanted to quit the whole thing, then there was absolutely no shame in bowing out.
AFTER SELECTINGand then struggling into our wetsuits, we were taken outside and methodically introduced to our diving apparatus. I discovered that sub-aqua gear is very heavy indeed.
You have a jacket that inflates and deflates at the push of a button to adjust your buoyancy, attached to which are an air tank (heavy) and various attendant tubes and gauges (a lot heavier than you might think).
You must also wear a weight belt around your waist (very heavy), so as to keep you under the water. Wearing all of this at once feels like carrying in a knapsack a pair of 10-year-old boys who don’t get along.
We then clambered into the pool containing water about chest height. Here, we were gradually introduced to the notion of first putting our heads into the water and then, holding hands in “ring-a-ring-a-rosy” fashion, we all fell down together, submerging ourselves completely.
We went through all the basic procedures that we had practiced on dry land – breathing, coping with the demand valve falling out of your mouth, what to do when your air runs out and signalling to your instructor if something is wrong.
Our youngest son decided to bow out at this stage. His age, according to Milos, was at the lower end of suitability for a diving experience, and he had difficulty holding onto the demand valve in his mouth because of a loose tooth.
Divers can look quite James Bond-esque when swimming around under the sea, but you don’t feel particularly cool when you’re walking around beforehand. Like a platoon of seals trying hard to look and walk like humans, we waddled apprehensively past groups of bemused sunbathers to the slipway, put on our large fins and shimmied backwards into the water.
But once we were in, we were free. Fiona’s experience meant that she was allowed swim without attaching herself to an instructor, while I floated along linking arms with a dark bearded stranger.
There is a slight tendency for your body to roll, but once you get into your stride, kicking your legs gently from the hip so that your huge fins propel you forward, your breathing settles into a relaxed pattern. Suddenly you’re Jacques Cousteau floating in a silent world a whole universe away.
The visibility was good and we saw all kinds of fish – dozens of medium-sized grey ones and some tiny purple ones. The sea floor was a maze of rocks, plants and all manner of shellfish that opened and closed at the touch.
It was all over far too soon and by the time we were dressed normally again, we were breathlessly swapping stories with one another from our brief adventures under the sea.
My wife was right all along – we’re all dying to do it again and you really do feel great after a dive.
Porec where to . . .
Hotel Porec, Rade Koncara 1, Porec, 00-385-52-451-811, hotelporec.com. Not the quietest location, but a very convenient base next to the bus station and within a 10-minute stroll of the old town centre. Standard double rooms from €50 B&B in peak season, €40 off-peak.
Hotel Mediteran, Plava laguna, Porec, 00-385-52-415-900, plavalaguna.hr. Just 2km south of Porec, this family-oriented hotel is very close to the diving centre and has its own pool as well as being by the sea. Half-board rates from €65 per person per night in high season.
Valamar Riviera, Obala marsala Tita 15, Porec, 00-385-52-400-800, valamar.com. To get a real feel for the charm of this mediaeval Italianate town, it’s better to stay in the heart of it overnight. Superb quality in this recently-opened hotel that overlooks the harbour with views across to St Nikola Island. Double rooms with breakfast from €142.
Bistro Tri Kantuna, Glavica 34, Tar, 00-385-52-959-073938. Family run with a true Istrian flavour, this restaurant is located in the village of Tar 12km north of Porec, but it’s worth a detour for the atmosphere and value. Dinner for four with beer and wine came to just €29.
Peterokutna Kula, Dekumanova 1, Porec, 00-385-52-451-378. You’ll spot the rooftop terrace parasols of this converted 15th-century tower long before you reach it. In the heart of the old town, it offers good service at reasonable prices, considering its prime location.
Zlatna Ribica, Nikole Tesle 21, Porec, 00-385-52-452-272. Fine seafood in a beautiful setting with waterside and old-town view. Prepare to spend about €45 per person before drinks.
Basilica of Euphrasius(Eufrazijeva Basilka). Located in the centre of town, it’s a complex of buildings that includes a 6th-century Byzantine basilica, bishop’s palace, atrium and campanile. The latter is worth seeing, even if only for the gorgeous views from the top.
Other nearby attractions include the Baredine Caves(baredine.com) and the even more pretty Italianate town of Rovinj-Rovinio, just 30km south.