Go with the flow

 

While some of CATHERINE MACK’s friends were off tackling marathons, she decided to get in shape by going on a swimming holiday in the Adriatic

I LOOK DOWN at my hands pushing through the turquoise water and have a weird realisation. They are exactly the same shape as my father’s. I guess we rarely watch our hands in action, but here I am, 20km off the coast of Croatia, striding through the waves, and I have this bizarre hand moment. I have been swimming for an hour, and have entered that solitary, pensive zone that only swimming helps me reach. Each stroke takes me back to early swimming days in the Irish Sea, when my dad held on tightly to my hands, teaching me not to fear the water but to let it carry me gently. “Go with the flow, and you will love it,” he would say, and how right he was.

I discovered SwimTrek, a holiday company that takes you on open-water swimming trips around the world, about a year ago. Dreadfully unfit since having children, and with a bad case of middle-aged malaise, I decided things had to change. While other friends tackled marathons, I headed for the pool, and started training in January for my first week-long holiday alone – no kids, lots of sunshine and, most importantly, the sea. I chose Croatia for various reasons. I hadn’t been there before, had heard great things, the swims were not as tough as some other trips – average three kilometres – and jellyfish are few and far between in the Adriatic.

So here, at last, is the real thing. After five months of swallowing chlorine, being pushed aside in the fast lane, dry skin, verrucas and endless bad hair days, I find myself on the tiny car-free island of Prvic, a 30-minute ferry ride from the medieval city of Sibenik.

Prvic is just one of 1,185 Croatian islands – of which only 47 are inhabited – along the country’s nearly 6,000km of coast. It is base camp for the week, where a group of 15 of us take over a hotel overlooking the shore. We are a mixed bunch – and, despite all my anxieties, not the swimming-club types who do endless arm stretches, slurp funny coloured drinks and besport tight swimsuits that might as well say “I have absolutely no cellulite and absolutely no life.”

These were all real people, with wobbly bits, warts and all. The only coloured drinks on show are beer or wine, and stretching is not recommended for open-water swimming, so I am safe. We range in age from our late 20s to our 50s, are equally diverse in swimming experience and are a good mixture of Swiss, Irish, American, English and Scottish, with swimming guides from Finland, South Africa and Canada.

On the first morning we are instructed to meet on the beach. Some are proudly buck naked bar Speedos; others, like me, slowly peel off sarongs before daring to dive. The guides assess our levels over a 200m swim, then split us into three groups, giving us pink, orange or yellow swimming hats, according to our level.

I delight at the fact that I am put in the bottom, yellow-hat group. No pressure: just go with the flow, remember. Dad’s words are, however, long forgotten, as I get off to a bad start on this first mini strike into the Adriatic, my chest tightening horribly, as I struggle to breathe smoothly. “That always happens on your first open-water swim. It’s just anxiety; don’t worry about it,” one of the pink-hatted Speedophiles – his term, not mine – tells me as he sunbathes just a little smugly back on the beach, not even out of breath.

But there is no turning back. We jump aboard our boat for the week, and Jadran, its Croatian captain, leads us to nearby Tijat island, where the calm water is about 24 degrees and the air about 32. We yellows are to take off first, getting a head start from the oranges and pinks.

“Before you get in I have to lube you up,” says Kate, our superfit Canadian guide, donning latex gloves and Vaseline. We stretch out to have our sensitive bits smothered so we don’t chafe. Saltwater does strange things, apparently – and this is, for sure, the most bizarre holiday ritual I have ever had to undertake.

Within minutes 15 fluorescent hats are bobbing along the coast of this stunning little island, its pine trees and white rocky shores disappearing past us as we swim. The oranges and then pinks soon disappear past me, too, but rather than trying to compete I stop and watch the impressive athleticism of my fellow swimmers.

Each group has a boat following alongside, in case we need anything. We have been taught some hand signals, including a W sign, to let them know when we are stopping to wee. There’s no sign for chest tightness, unfortunately, and it is still hovering, but I try to ignore it. By the time I reach the target lighthouse, just under an hour later, I realise I am ahead of my fellow yellows and, miraculously, still breathing.

Back in the boat the guides hand me an orange hat, and I get cheers all round. As if by magic the chest tightness disappears, and I am ready to take whatever the waves throw at me.

Later that day we are filmed swimming in the open water, which we watch back over beer that evening at the hotel, getting some tips. The next day I concentrate on putting all the tips into practice, and sail through a beautiful swim between the islands of Zmajan and Kaprije. This is our first crossing, as opposed to following the coastline. No more clear, shallow water: this is the deep blue sea, with nothing but a pink cottage in the distance to aim for. But the sun’s rays, which cut through the depths, provide a guiding light of inspiration, as we all eventually find a steady rhythmical pace over two kilometres.

The feeling at the end of a swim is pure elation. I fall back into my meditative state on this crossing, only to be jolted out of it by the appearance of white sand, rocks and fish below me. This is when you realise that land is near and lunch is waiting. No holding back on the food on this trip, either, with divine spreads of pasta, couscous or rice salads, cold meats, cheese and fruit.

Jadran also spoils us regularly, emerging from the sea with whitebait or mussels that he throws in a pan with butter and garlic, then hands out like sweets. The creme-de-la-creme moment comes when he produces oysters. Just like that. He must be making some Croatian woman happy somewhere, I think to myself.

We take on two swims a day, totalling about five kilometres, although the distance is irrelevant if the water is choppy. One day we head inland, up the Krka river towards Krka National Park. We moor at the yacht metropolis of Skradin, then hike four kilometres alongside a wooded gorge to the breathtaking Krka Falls, seven of which gush down moss-covered steps to merge into one magnificent mother of a waterfall that hurtles into Lake Visovac.

Here we join hundreds of other bathers to bask in our first freshwater swim. The afternoon’s challenge is to swim four kilometres back down the river, with the current carrying us most of the way.

At least that’s what they tell us, but I struggle here, fighting off a stitch, drinking most of the river in an attempt to find breathing space between the waves, and slowly drifting from my group. Kate checks in with me. “Please tell me we are over halfway,” I beg, but I know by her face that she doesn’t have the answer I was hoping for. I give in and slump back into the dinghy, feeling sorry for myself.

After a few words of encouragement she drops me back with the group, and I’m off again for the final two kilometres – still a battle, but I get there in the end.

Nights back on Prvic are never dull. The guides book us a table at a different restaurant most nights; the food is always excellent and the company superb. Sea bass, tuna, sardines, mackerel and squid are regulars, eaten at restaurants so close to the water you can almost fish for seconds.

Some of the swimmers are able for copious amounts of Croatian wine, but I show my age and retire early most nights with a book. Having been carried by the hands of Neptune every day, I want nothing more than to sink ecstatically into the arms of Morpheus every night,

After the hiccup of my river swim I decide not to let it set me back, and enjoy every swim from now on. I feel myself get stronger every day, and, although I’m never head of the pack, I battle on at my own pace, encouraged by the determination of those just ahead of me.

One of the most exciting swims starts just outside Sibenik harbour, where we head one morning for coffee, shops and “to clear a few heads”, says Mia, our other gorgeous guide. Back on board Jadran drops us at the entrance to a sea tunnel carved into the cliffs by German occupying forces in the second World War; they used them to conceal their boats and then surprise enemy ships.

We swim through the tunnel, sticking together tightly in this eerie hideaway, called Hitler’s Eyes by locals, and let the water carry us through like some sort of theme-park ghost ride. The light at the end of the tunnel reflects off the Adriatic, which then sucks us back along its glorious coastline for a few kilometres, to another ancient sea construction, the 16th-century fortress of St Nicholas. We are able to wander around every corner of this derelict but still imposing structure, with views across the channel we have just conquered.

Sadly, every good trip has to end, and our final two-hour boat ride takes us into the far reaches of Croatia’s sea territory, Kornati National Park. Cones of white rock covered in sun-bleached shrubs emerge from the water in their hundreds, creating endless reefs for us to swim around. There is no water on these islands, rendering them uninhabitable, but they are totally swimmable.

We jump in and head straight to the shore of one of them, for nearly three kilometres following underwater contours that conceal endless caverns and schools of fish. I enjoy every stroke on this last day, as favourable currents help us along our final two swims of the week.

As Jadran’s tanned, strong hand reaches out to pull me back aboard for the last time I hold it tight and thank him for all his support during the week. And later that night, as we all toast each other’s achievements, I quietly raise a glass in thanks to, and in memory of, the strong hand that first led me to the water all those years ago.

** Catherine Mack was a guest of the Croatian Tourist Board (http://gb.croatia.hr) and SwimTrek (00-44-1273-739713, www.swimtrek.com), which also organises open-water swims in Greece, Egypt, England and Scotland. Its six-day Croatian trip costs from about €830, excluding travel and evening meals

Go there

Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Zadar, where you can take a bus to Sibenik and then a ferry (www.jadrolinija.hr) to Prvic Luka, on Privc island. If you arrive outside ferry times, order a 24-hour water taxi (00-385-98-668500).

Where I stayed

SwimTrek arranges for its guests to stay at Hotel Maestral (www.hotelmaestral. com, 00-385-22-448300), a small waterfront hotel with clean, contemporary style, excellent food and friendly service. Built from Croatian white stone, with traditional green shutters, you can’t miss it when you step off the ferry in Prvic Luka. The swimmers take over the hotel for the week, so it starts to feel like home.

Where to eat

Restaurant Val, which is part of Hotel Maestral, serves contemporary Croatian cuisine, including squid-ink risotto, prawn tagliatelle and Dalmatian ham, plus a good selection of local wines.

Restaurant Punta (00-385-22-448994) is another waterfront restaurant, where the owner’s blue eyes glisten almost as much as the sea below. Traditional food, fantastic service and generous servings of rakia, a local liqueur that is a must with a Croatian crepe.

Restaurant Nanini (00-385-22-448105) specialises in the traditional peka meal, where a mixture of fish, lamb and vegetables is slowly cooked in a wood-burning oven.

Restaurant Mareta (00-385-22-448712) is the first restaurant you see as you step off the ferry. The platter of fish is highly recommended – watch the skill of the waiter as he fillets them all in seconds. The ice-cream stall next door is owned by the restaurant, so you won’t have far to go for the best dessert on the island.

5 other activity holidays

1 Atlantic Sea Kayaking. 028-21058, www.atlanticseakayaking.com. West Cork-based kayaking company that heads to the autumn sunshine in Croatia, kayaking around the Elafiti chain of islands, northwest of Dubrovnik. The holiday costs €1,075 per person sharing.

2 Vodice Dive. 00-385-98-1914597, www.vodice-dive.com. Learn to dive in Croatia, and explore the ancient wrecks, reefs and underwater caves around its island havens. Based in Vodice. Diving courses from €250.

3 Explore!00-44-845-0131539, www.explore.co.uk. Take a family adventure holiday in Croatia with this award-winning responsible-travel company. You’ll white-water raft down the Cetina river, abseil down the Gubavica waterfall, bath in natural basins, kayak, hike and swim. From £645 (€765) per person, excluding flights.

4 Inntravel. 00-44-1653-617949, www.inntravel.co.uk. Another award-winning walking- and cycling-holiday company, offering two unguided walking holidays in Croatia, one in and around the Unesco World Heritage city of Dubrovnik and its nearby island, the other among the fortified hilltop towns of Istria and the Ucka Mountains. From £618 (€730) per person for eight nights, including car hire and accommodation but excluding flights.

5 Exodus. Via Abbey Travel, 01-8047153, www.exodus.co.uk. Cycle the Dalmatian coast from Split to Dubrovnik, an eight-day journey along the mainland and around the islands of Hvar and Korcula. The scenery alternates between seaside villages, mediaeval walled towns and quiet pebbled bays. Expect to cycle 45km a day. From £949 (€1,120), including flights from the UK.