The Proper Cruising Grounds: Croatia
By Amy Ullrich "With this big boat and only three persons, you must be a very happy man. And two women!" Bumboat driver
Yes, Arthur Beiser is a very happy man. One of the two women is Germaine, his wife of many years; the boat, Ardent Spirit, a 58-foot sloop designed by Bill Dixon and built in 1988 by Moody, is the most recent of a series of four sizable cruising boats they have owned over more than four decades. I, the second woman, am a very happy guest, one in a long line of happy guests who have sailed with the Beisers in European waters. For Arthur and Germaine, who live in southern France and cruise all summer, this is but one of many summers spent in the Adriatic; they first came to the Dalmatian coast in the mid-1970s and have returned often, sometimes on their way to Venice. For me it's a welcome invitation to spend two weeks at the end of June sailing in a place that has long been near the top of my life list. To say nothing of cruising with the man who wrote The Proper Yacht, which Ardent Spirit most surely is.
"You must be crazy, going to a war zone."—My friends
It's true, there was a war here; it started in 1991 and ended in '95. There are some reminders: The winding 300 kilometers of the Adriatic Highway from Split, where my flight landed, to Dubrovnik, where I was to meet Ardent Spirit, passes through two checkpoints delimiting a bit of seacoast that was granted to Bosnia through the Dayton accords. And, as you enter the gates of the Old City of Dubrovnik—now entirely restored'you are greeted by a map showing where damage from shelling occurred and text pointing out that the new roof tiles, different in color from the old ones, are a constant reminder of the war. If you look out over the rooftops from a high point, you can notice them.
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But much more in evidence than wartime damage are the tourists—fortunately for me, fewer in number in June than there would be in July and August. June seems to be the month of all-male German-speaking cruisers; August, Arthur tells me, brings Italians.
The splendid walled city of Dubrovnik—it has the finest city walls anywhere in the world, says one guidebook'was built at the end of the thirteenth century, when the area was under Venetian control. Coastal Croatia has many "small Dubrovnik”s and “little Venice"s, so the real Dubrovnik is the perfect place to start exploring the local cuisine (at a restaurant that hangs over a small beach), the architecture, and the ice cream (at a small café that hangs over the walls).
The feeling is Mediterranean, as is the powerful summer sun and the vegetation: olive and citrus trees, rosemary, laurel, cypress, and pines. Because of the heat we skip a walk on the ramparts—there is only one place to enter and exit, so once you're there you're committed—and end up at the municipal museum in a building called Rupe (the holes), originally a granary, built in 1542.
"CUVAJMO MORE OD ZAGADENIA: KEEP SEA CLEAN"—In red letters, at the top of the chart
The sea here is remarkably clean and, unlike the Mediterranean, still full of fish. I have the opportunity to experience both in our first anchorage, Polace, at the western end of the island of Mljet. The water is not only clean—clear enough to see everything on the bottom and the fish swimming by—but is just cool enough to be refreshing after a hot 35-mile motorsail from Dubrovnik. At the end of a longish entrance is an anchorage that has total protection from everything. The palace for which the place is named dates to the fifth century; the restaurant (one of several) offers rascasse, a Mediterranean fish, cooked Dalmatian style, in broth with potatoes.
The next day we stop at the island of Korcula—a little Dubrovnik—to see the town where Marco Polo was born and to walk on the much smaller ramparts. The locals are all (to judge from the sounds emerging from every open window) busy with the World Cup, but fortunately the ice cream shop is open. A brisk sea breeze comes up as we head for our evening anchorage.
Croatia has an 1,800-kilometer coastline, 1,185 offshore islands of various sizes, and truly remarkable anchorages. Korcula is our last urban stop; we're heading for cruising territory (alas, it's one of the few brisk sea breezes that come our way). Ardent Spirit, with a watermaker and amply stocked freezers, plus a washing machine, doesn't require frequent replenishing of anything. We share anchorages with foreign-flagged vessels we take to be chartered boats, but there are other ways—ferries, gullet-type passenger boats, fishing boatsto move around the islands.
In the Pakleni Islands, off the north end of Hvar, we stop in another spot protected by wrap-around islets. Many of the numerous swimmers are daytrippers who come by ferry from Split to go to the beach. Ashore, the small island is porous-looking limestone with stone walls and rosemary bushes. There is a small shack where we buy ice cream before slogging up to the top for a view of our surroundings.
"Good Weather forecasts are available in English."—From an information sheet for cruisers
Good weather we have in abundance. Every day is hot and sunny, and we have clearly entered the summer period of light to moderate winds. This is probably because Internet weather reports of cold and gales for weeks before I left encouraged me to bring warm clothes. However, we are able to stay on the move, covering a good 30 miles most days by whatever means of propulsion is available. A remote control for Ardent Spirit's genoa makes it as easy as channel surfing to take advantage of a breeze when it comes and equally easy to furl it when the breeze dies.
The Kornati Islands—all 140 of them—are the ne plus ultra of Croatian cruising. Deforested by the Venetians, who took the wood for building, they are now silvery-white limestone hills patterned by mile upon mile of stone walls, some sparse vegetation, and the occasional ancient church or other ruined building. There may be a clump of houses or fishing boats in a bay here and there, but for the most part the islands are uninhabited.
At the southeast tip of Dugi Otok (Long Island) we enter Telascica Bay, the largest bay in the Adriatic and surely one of the most beautiful anywhere. The bay, a national park, is divided into ten different anchorages by the bay's shape and by five small islands and five islets. At the head of our bay is a restaurant where Goran, the owner, serves lamb baked under a bell with garlic and potatoes. Judy and Bill, cruisers from Michigan, notice our U.S. flag as we enter the bay and stop by; they join us for dinner, which finishes up with palacscinca (crepes) with homemade peach jam. The peaches are local, as are the wine and the homemade cordials that are given to us at the end of the meal. But our waitress is a transplant (of Croatian descent) from Seattle.
In the morning a park launch comes by. "You take garbage?" Arthur asks. "Yes," says the driver, in English (which is a good thing, since Croatian isn’t the kind of language you just pick up in a day or two), "and I take money also." We pay up the park fee and a mooring fee; a number of harbors have moorings for rent, provided by the Split marine district. Next to visit is Toni's bumboat, which carries an overflowing cargo of cheeses, sausages, fresh bread, and fruits and vegetables.
We end up in Trogir, which is close to the Split airport, where I will depart and the next wave of guests will arrive. This tiny walled town—pedestrians only—is an island connected to the mainland by a bridge. We are tied up at the busy town quay, just opposite a café that, happily enough, serves elaborate ice cream concoctions; the English-speaking waitress is from Brazil. While walking through the town I spot a post card with an aerial view of the island, which is about one-third green space. When we circumnavigate Trogir on foot, which takes about twenty minutes, we see that the green space is a soccer field (plus a little more). A tower at one end of the wall has been made into a movie theater. On the mainland on the other side of the town is a busy outdoor market full of flowers and produce.
Inside the walls, narrow streets wind around residential buildings, restaurants, shops, and churches, occasionally opening up into a larger square surrounded by cafes. We have our farewell dinner at an outdoor restaurant where the "best" Croatian red is tasty and ten dollars a bottle and the French fries are the best in the world.