On a voyage of discovery in Croatia

 

JACQUES COUSTEAU described the Adriatic as one of the cleanest seas on earth. It is flanked mostly on one side by scythe-shaped Republic of Croatia and Italy on the other. Part of former Yugoslavia, the country gained independence in 1995 after a bitter war during which the term ethnic cleansing became common in the English lexicon.

The Dalmatian coast, which stretches south to the Gulf of Kotor in Montenegro, is held by many to be the best and one of the least discovered cruising areas in Europe. With more than 1,800 islands, one could sail for decades and still discover new anchorages in this birthplace of Marco Polo. Navigationally, there are no tides of any significance, which makes for simple planning.

We were a crew of five whose ages stretched from seven to 72 – me, my parents, my husband and our daughter. Our mission – find a reasonably priced boat within an hour or so of Zadar airport and explore the Dalmatian islands. There is no recession when it comes to yacht charter in the Adriatic, so our only last- minute budget option was a 42ft very narrow beamed motor boat named Gangaro.

The number of berths listed was 6+2, which was probably fine if the two extra persons were insomniac midgets. Two of the double berths resembled matchboxes and, in the hottest weather Croatia had witnessed in more than 40 years, we found the dead air at night stifling. Fearing my parents would die of suffocation one night at 4am, I spent an hour or so flapping their bedroom door to try to recycle the air while they slept soundly.

We chartered our boat from Murter, a delightful island with many coves, three large marinas and lots of stunning anchorages. The secret to this island is the small village of Betina, a small local harbour with a few lazy lines and a tiny boat building industry. A little road train connects the village with Murter town, which delighted both my parents and their granddaughter.

Our first port of call was Kornati National Park, an archipelago of 89 islands with 69 species of butterfly and abundant marine life. George Bernard Shaw commented that “On the last day of Creation, God decided to crown his work and thus created Kornati Islands out of tears, stars and breath”.

Ironically, at the end of the 19th century, Austrian surveyors came to record the archipelago and their local guides, deciding to poke fun at them gave many of the islands vulgar names. Little did they realise they would be forever recorded on nautical charts.

WE SAILEDaround for days, surrounded by spectacular backdrops taking the afternoons to snorkel in jade green waters examining sea cucumbers, sea urchins and various species of goby. Our favourite overnight stop was Smokvica Vela, with a seasonally inhabited village of two restaurants and six houses.

Here, time completely stopped, we were lulled to sleep at night by the soporific lapping of water against the hull and our wake-up call was the few seagulls hovering over a tiny fishing boat with that evening’s dinner on board.

Another overnight stay was in Primosten, which a guidebook described as a “picture-postcard town”. The town, while picture perfect in the old area, is somewhat overshadowed by tourism and jaded locals short on charm at the end of the season. The small harbour was busy and bustling with super yachts filled with loud Russian men badly in need of good dentistry, and restaurant prices reflected in the length of the boats.

A colossal 150ft yacht berthed beside us had all the locals excited beyond belief. I enquired as to what the furore was about from a waitress in the harbour bar. “It is Berlusconi, it is Berlusconi, it is on our radio and television that he is here,” she cried as the entire town crammed the pier trying to get a glimpse of Italy’s most famous playboy.

Now, from the bow of our small wooden craft, we had a perfect viewpoint and unless the Italian prime minister has had some serious facial rejuvenation and inherited two small and very bored looking red-haired children, it was clearly someone else with his family on this €50 million yacht. We left deciding that we wanted “real” Croatia – places undiscovered and not in any guidebooks.

WE SET A COURSEfor the small town of Pucisca on the island of Brac. As we entered the estuary we could smell the pine trees and as we steered into the channel one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen stood before us. A small town built entirely of perfect white limestone by the Venetians rose like an amphitheatre from the harbour walls. Stone from the local quarry that stands at the estuary entrance was used to build the white limestone columns of the White House and much of Venice. Terracotta tiles and green shutters were on every building giving a wonderful sense of harmony underneath a canopy of pine trees. The only hotel is owned by Countess Deskovic who flung open her palace doors to take paying guests.

The town has a summer music school which offered an evening recital of Mozart’s Magic Flutewhile we were there. We ate in Konoba Lado, a little family run restaurant with spanking fresh fish and lamb slow cooked on the barbecue. Even the lemonade was homemade and the wild chicory handpicked from the forests nearby. A hearty meal for five, including lots of local wine, saw change from €100.

No matter how big a boat is, it is still a confined space and after weather, the quality of the company is critical. All sense of modesty and need for privacy needs to be neatly packed away. Considering the age differences, the torrid heat and confined space, it was a miracle we were all on speaking terms after two weeks. Then again, waking up to blue skies each morning, jumping into green waters at anchorages straight out of a James Bond movie and eating mountains of freshly-grilled squid are fine compensations.

What's on the menu: Croation cuisine

Four words describe Croatian cuisine – local, seasonal and reasonably priced – and most restaurants have identical menus. Squid and octopus are ubiquitous as are Dalmatian ham and cheese from Pag.

Italys historic influence is very evident and most menus will have risottos, pastas and some good pizzas.

Lots of mainland-based restaurants have entire lambs turning on a spit over coals outside. The wafts would make even a vegetarian’s mouth water.

Fish (besides cephalopods) is divided into two categories – fresh and wild. But in truth there’s very little fish in the Adriatic and prices, by the kilo, are high for varieties that are usually readily available elsewhere.

Meanwhile, sea urchins are abundant in the sea – you can just pick your own dinner.

Wine lists are notably very short and most islands have their own produce. The quality is excellent for the price you pay – €10 will buy a decent bottle of Croatian wine, with Gra’evina, Posip and Plavac Mali being the most popular grapes.

Local wines have no sulphites or preservatives and we were all nicely surprised one morning after a night of indulgence to discover the benefits of this.

If in doubt, the house wine is a good choice as it is a matter of local pride rather than a chance to offload plonk.

Recommended wines include Korta Katarina 2006 and Plavac Mali Posip Grgic Vina 2009. Coffees are good and cost less than €1.

Restaurants in Murter town include Zameo for excellent risotto nero and sorbet di limon. At Restaurant Trabakul in Betina, you can pull up beside your table by boat and devour some delicious lamb.

The local currency is the kuna, but the euro is widely used. Croatian post offices and banks provide a better exchange rate than Irish banks.

Get there

Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Zadar during the summer months. Shuttle.hr provides airport transfers.

Boating: the basics

What you need

A skipper’s licence, although ours were never checked. If you don’t have papers but know your maritime rules, you can sit a Croatian skipper exam in Sibenik at the harbourmaster’s office.

We encountered quite a few craft with no knowledge of maritime collision regulations; it was mainly an issue coming into harbours.

While we were there, a 46ft sailboat caught fire at 4am at anchor and burned to a crisp. In another incident, a 45ft speedboat crashed straight into a Bavaria 46 under sail at a speed of 25 knots, completely ripping the port bow apart. A five-year-old asleep in the forward cabin miraculously survived.

Charter and charges

Mooring charges vary by marina. Restaurants with moorings expect your custom if tying up. Marina hotels are overpriced – especially on Solta Island.

For yacht charter, see jarusica.hr. We bargained 20 per cent off a last-minute two-week charter, down to €4,000.

Useful contacts

Croatian weather forecast:+ 385 60520520.

Search and rescue:+ 385 9155.