It’s easy to run out of superlatives when you’re talking about sailing in Croatia: the 1,800 miles of coastline, arguably the most beautiful in the Mediterranean, stretching most of the length of the Adriatic; the hundreds of inlets and bays in the scores of islands that make it even more of a sailor’s playground; the thousands of hours of sunshine that bless said coast and islands; the predictable summer winds that bring sailors back year after year. You can see why I was looking forward to revisiting Croatia, where I’d last sailed back in 1999.
Back then, we enjoyed two weeks’ sailing in the Kornati islands in the north of the country, near the border with Slovenia. If you’re wondering how you could spend two weeks sailing in one comparatively small area without getting bored, well, put it on your bucket list—it is a hauntingly beautiful region that still ranks high among my favorite cruising grounds. This time around, the destination was Dubrovnik, the medieval city in the south of Croatia that’s become recently famous as the setting for much of the Game of Thrones TV series, and its surrounding islands.
Our mixed crew of Brits and Americans had arrived a couple of days before me and so had time to soak up the joys of the old walled city. It truly is spectacular, even more so considering the pasting it took from Serbian/Montenegrin artillery over a lengthy siege during the 1990-91 conflict. More than 600 shells were lobbed into the UNESCO world heritage site from the surrounding hills, but you’d never guess it now, so lovingly were the damaged buildings restored.
Dubrovnik has always been a tourist magnet, but even more so now, with legions of GoT fans flying in to pay homage to the familiar scenery featured in the series. In fact, when there’s a cruise ship in port, you can hardly move through the packed streets. Luckily, in true European tradition, there are plenty of sidewalk bars and cafes where you can sip a cold beer and people-watch.
We picked up Salma, an immaculate Beneteau Oceanis 51.5, from the Navigare Yachting base at the ACI marina outside of the city and stocked up with essential supplies at the small supermarket nearby. We were assured that there would no problem finding more provisions along the way, and so it proved. In any case, we aimed to eat ashore most nights, and our rough itinerary took that into account. It soon became obvious that unless we wanted to clock up serious mileages each day, we would have to restrict ourselves to the islands of Mljet, Korcula and Lastovo, each of which was blessed with attractive-sounding ports and anchorages. Still, I mentally kicked myself for not booking a one-way charter between Dubrovnik and Split, about 100 miles up the coast. That would have allowed us to also visit Hvar, Brac and Vis, three islands renowned for their beauty.
But never mind that. We motorsailed 17 miles to Okuklje on Mljet, Salma’s broad beam and hull chines keeping her as upright as a catamaran in the light air. Okuklje proved to be a well-sheltered little hook-shaped bay, steep hillsides providing all-round protection. We dropped the anchor in 30ft of water, clear of the restaurant-owned moorings, and dinghied ashore for dinner. Here for the first time, I noticed that the dinghies provided by charter companies here are almost laughably small—four was definitely a crowd, with wet backsides guaranteed in any kind of a chop. With seven of us, it meant two or three trips each way. The pleasant staff at the restaurant made up for it by gifting us a bottle of the local wine to take back to the boat.
Arising early after a peaceful night on the hook, we motored a few miles to a small bay and anchored for a swim. The waters of the Adriatic are a brazen blue, shimmering in the sun, irresistibly inviting even to one such as I, who would rather be on the water than in it. As we lazed in the cockpit the wind came up, so we set sail and reached toward Polace, at the top of the island, at a leisurely 4 knots. This bay is named after the ruined Roman palace that has presided over it for more than 2,000 years; much of it still stands, testament to the skill of its builders, and to the importance of these islands in Greek and Roman times.
Now the waterfront is home not to rows of Roman trading galleys but to a handful of restaurants, each with its own dock on which the owner stands, docklines in hand, beseeching visiting boats to tie up. This is accomplished in a more dignified fashion than in the Greek islands; you dock stern-to, but instead of dropping anchor when you back up to the quay, you are handed a “lazy line,” which is attached to a mooring block set some way off. When your stern lines are made fast you simply motor against them to keep the boat off the wall until the lazyline is made fast to a bow cleat. With the open-air tables of the Calypso restaurant just a few steps away, it was a very civilized arrangement. Our obliging waitress, Marina, even brought our beers to the boat to save us the trouble of having to go ashore.
That night we dined island-style, most of us ordering lamb cooked “under the bell,” a local specialty in which the meat is slow-roasted over a bed of hot embers while covered by a ceramic lid. As a barbecue addict, I approved wholeheartedly.
Bidding farewell to Mljet late next morning, we enjoyed yet another gentle reach for the 15 miles to Korcula, the walled town at the southeastern tip of the eponymous island. With strong winds forecast for the coming night, we decided not to go stern-to the town dock, but to anchor in the more sheltered bay around the corner. I was worried about the depth, well over 40ft in mid-harbor, so we anchored as close to shore as we dared, let out plenty of chain and backed down hard on the hook to dig it in. Lots of others had the same idea, and by nightfall the harbor had filled up. At 0200 the sky lit up with flashes of lightning and the boat rocked with the first blasts of wind and rain. For the next two hours, we were treated to a classic Mediterranean thunderstorm, with lightning zig-zagging over the mainland mountains and thunder reverberating across the anchorage. Deck lights blinked on around us and drenched crews shouted at each other as boats began to drag, a half-dozen of them circling the bay in the driving rain in search of a better spot to anchor. Having been there, done that a few times, I was glad not to be part of the action.
The morning dawned bright and beautiful, and we spent it exploring the maze of narrow streets in Korcula (pronounced Kor-chula) old town. It was built by Venetians and is beautifully preserved. It is the birthplace of explorer Marco Polo, and the house he was (allegedly) born in still stands. The spire of St. Mark’s cathedral dominates the town, and the views to the steep gray mountains on the mainland were stunning.
It was still blowing 20 knots from the northwest, and we (in hindsight, foolishly) elected to motorsail the 25 miles to the top of Korcula island, where a cluster of sheltered bays promised good anchoring. It was a long, hard slog to windward, and we would have been better off backtracking around the bottom of Korcula and taking advantage of the wind to sail to the island of Lastovo. It was a tired crew that picked up the last available mooring in Uvala Gradina, knocked back a few glasses of wine in the glow of a gorgeous sunset, and amused ourselves watching the determined crew next to us ferrying each other to shore in their tiny dinghy while trying not to get wet in the stiff breeze and chop.
By the morning, though, the wind had dropped and the sun was shining brightly. We explored a couple of tempting-looking bays on the south side of Korcula, had a swim and then sailed the 15 miles to Skrivena Luka on Lastovo, the last island on our agenda. A narrow entrance opened up into a lovely circular bay, with a host of mooring balls and a long dock to which we backed up next to a boatload of jolly Germans. Dinner, as usual, was excellent; I had acquired a fondness for one of the local specialties, black risotto cooked in squid ink. It tastes much better than it sounds.
We arose early next morning and set off on a 38-mile motorsail to our final destination, Luka Saponara on the south side of Mljet. We were escorted into the lovely enclosed bay by an enthusiastic gent in a RIB who spotted us on the horizon and came out to shepherd us onto a free restaurant mooring. Fortunately, the eatery turned out to be a winner, located on a hilltop with a great view over the anchorage, and we had one of the best meals of the week—for me, the signature dish was wild boar, washed down with some excellent local red wine.
And that, sadly, was about all she wrote. Two of the crew had flights out the next afternoon, so we set off for the base in the morning, topped up the diesel and were back in the marina by lunchtime.
It had been a good week, but all too short. As usual, at the end of a charter, we were left to muse over anchorages unvisited, islands unexplored, at the same time grateful to have experienced a tiny slice of what this wonderful cruising ground has to offer.