It felt as if we were dreaming as we left our Moorings 40 catamaran Vana tucked safely in a pristine, deserted cove and motored our dinghy into the village of Pasadur, on the west end of the island of Lastovo. My shipmate Nicola and I were nearing the end of a nine-day cruise in Dalmatia, the southern part of Croatia, and had found ourselves in a place forgotten by the 20th century. We’d discovered a lost land where days slipped by at their leisure.
Our starting point had been The Moorings base in Marina Agana, about 20 miles south of Split, the largest city in Dalmatia. A few days after that we had left the beautiful chaos of bustling Hvar harbor to strike out for more isolated anchorages. It was late August, the end of high season in Croatia. I’d already spent two summers in Croatia working as a trip leader for a travel company, and knew the area well. The second time round I’d come to love Dalmatia in particular, the rugged southern stretch of Croatian coast, the length of which is peppered with over 1,200 islands.
Nicola and I had met the previous November at the Sailor’s Bar in Gran Canaria. Her boat was tied up a few spots down from the Hallberg-Rassy 40 Windleblo, aboard which I was serving as crew. ?Every time I walked by I’d say hello, and we’d chat a bit. After our respective passages across the Atlantic, we reunited in St. Lucia, spent a few weeks together and decided we probably ought to see each other again. New York, Vermont, Prague and suddenly I was asking her if she’d skipper Vana for the week?—?a perfect opportunity to actually spend time sailing together.
Vana was a lovely boat, well kept and well equipped. We provisioned at Studenac, a 10-minute walk away through the boatyard, and then returned to the charter office for the skipper’s briefing: an informal coffee conversation with Moorings expert Daniela that dramatically improved our understanding of these intricate cruising grounds, with their many rocky islets and channels.
Among other things, Daniela explained to us that in summer the weather in Dalmatia is variable, with a number of different local winds to be aware of. The bura, for example, blows down from the mountains—typically out the northeast—as air cooled high on the slopes of the Dinaric Alps rushes down to the warmer, lower pressure air at sea level. It usually lasts for no more than three days, but can be quite gusty and kick up some serious chop on the usually benign Adriatic, especially in the narrow channels between islands and at night.
The mistral also blows from the northwest, and is a consistent, warm, friendly breeze in this part of the Med during the summer. It usually picks up mid-morning, peaks mid-afternoon and dies in the evening. The jugo, on the other hand, is a southeasterly wind that typically brings clouds and rain.
In terms of navigation, the tides are negligible (as is the case throughout the Mediterranean) and the islands of the Dalmatian coast tend to plunge dramatically into the sea, so that the water is usually quite deep very close to shore. The bottom is often rocky, which can make for challenging anchoring. Setting a shoreline or two on the beach is often a good idea to keep you boat from swinging and ensure the hook stays set.
Later we sailed to western Šolta, where we spent our first night anchored in a narrow snake of an inlet just south of Maslinica. The bottom of this slackwater cove was soft mud, unusual in this typically rocky-bottomed region, and the anchor held just fine, making for a nice relaxed start to our adventure.
For the past 20 years Croatia has struggled to face down a demon: the war that broke out in the early 1990s when the country declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and was invaded by the Yugoslav National Army (an invasion that was ultimately repulsed). However, those tourists who have come back in recent years have discovered one of the most striking and pristine landscapes in Mediterranean Europe, complemented by welcoming locals eager to share their country’s beauty.
In Croatia old men still offer strangers the figs they pick on late August mornings as they walk slowly home to sit and drink homemade wine all afternoon. Tiny fishing boats still putter out every night to bring to market some of the finest tuna the Med has to offer. The undiscovered still exists in Croatia?—?what has been lost is waiting to be found by those intrepid enough to search for it.
In many ways the country’s complexity was reflected in our itinerary. Setting sail from the quiet harbor in Šolta and arriving in Hvar, for example, provided an incredible study in contrasts, both aboard and in terms of the scenery.
Snagging a mooring ball, we squeezed into a line of yachts Med-moored along the dock, after which some co-workers and a gaggle of our Balkan friends turned up to enjoy one of the hottest summer destinations in the Med. That day we visited two of my favorite eateries, Palmižana Meneghello and Mizarola. Then in the evening our Croatian friends Mato and Julijana Brautovi? arrived and we all headed to dinner in Milna, under the olive groves at charming Konoba Lambik. We left the Brautovi?s “for one more drink,” but it was not until 0700 that they made it back to Vana, a sopping Mato and a giggling Julijana clambering aboard clumsily trying not to wake us after a rare all-nighter.
When it came time to take on water, the harbor wall was already jammed with yachts tied stern-to, and the chop kicked up by the southerly jugo had the boats bouncing and bobbing restlessly. The harbormaster had asked us to stand by, so Nicola had to spend some time dodging fishing boats, water taxis and other cruisers as we waited for a spot to open up. Eventually, though, we filled our water tanks and were ready to go.
Back in Time
Setting out from Hvar for the island of Vis marked what Nicola and I saw as the true start of our adventure. We’d left most of our revelers in Hvar, so that only Julijana, Mato and a dear Slovenian friend of mine, Jerry Moon, remained. I’d only seen Vis from the slopes of Hvar and Bra?, perched on the Adriatic’s horizon. Lastovo was a place I’d only heard about in stories. In my mind these were mystical places, forgotten by the modern world, “the Mediterranean as it once was.” For most of the 20th century Vis and Lastovo were used as naval bases and were closed to foreigners. Only in 1992 did the military abandon this outpost in the Adriatic, leaving behind a place gone dormant.
The sail from Hvar to Vis was brilliant, a beam reach before a Force 4 southerly breeze. Mato was out cold in his cabin, but the rest of us enjoyed meandering through the islands on the picturesque southeast coast of Vis. Nicola paid special attention here?—?although well charted, some rocks hardly break the surface and it pays to give all hazards a wide berth.
Peeking into the inlet at Stiniva, we found steep cliffs framing a narrow cove that opens at the last second onto a hidden pebbly beach, accessible only by dinghy. However, the bottom was untenably rocky, so we hopped two coves east, to Vela Travna. Here, our plow-style anchor caught on the first try, after which I swam over some shorelines to make Vana secure as Mato finally decided to show his weary face.
Despite his condition, Mato unhesitatingly leapt into the refreshing water, then hopped onto the dinghy for a fishing outing on the not-so-benign sea. Meanwhile, Nik, Jerry and I trooped over to Mala Travna, where we’d heard a bearded hermit was living. He was nowhere to be found and the konoba, or café, was closed, but the cove was one of the most beautiful?—?and isolated?—?I’ve seen in Croatia.
The customary Dalmatian remedy for most any affliction is a shot of rakija?—?brandy, made by distilling the skins and pulp left over from wine-making?—?and a dunk in the sea. I tend to ignore the former, but have always enjoyed the latter (as did Mato).
The prevailing currents of the Med flow into the eastern Adriatic and up the Dalmatian coast. The water slowly moves counter-clockwise around the Adriatic basin, finally flowing south out along Italy’s smooth eastern shore. This current, combined with the great care Croatian people exhibit toward the sea, make for the cleanest and most swimmable water I have found in all of Europe. I’ve only seen seawater of such a vivid ultramarine blue in the middle of the Atlantic and in the British Virgin Islands.
Our second day in Vis we awoke extra early, waited over coffee for Mato to come back from octopus-hunting, and set sail at sunrise for Biševo, a small island a few miles southwest. We wanted to visit the famous Blue Cave, which is accessed by a small narrow tunnel. We arrived around 0815 and set about getting the dinghy down to motor over. On our way we encountered the harbormaster, who informed us that we’d be required to pay upon our return, a lucky break because everyone else is required to visit the grotto aboard official tour boats.
The five of us in our small dinghy rowed into the opening, unsure of what to expect. After about 30 feet we turned the corner? and collectively caught our breaths as we found ourselves entirely alone in a spacious grotto lit brilliant cerulean blue by the sun streaming through a huge underwater cavern mouth.
“Well, we’re here, might as well…” I said and slipped over the edge of the dinghy into the perfect, cool, backlit water, where I was soon joined by Nicola, Mato, and Jerry Moon. Alas, on returning to Vana we were informed that swimming is strictly prohibited and that security cameras had caught us red-handed. Fortunately, Julijana’s native bluster came out swinging, and we were let off scot free to skip across the channel to Komiža for a long nap on a mooring ball.
One of Julijana’s fabulous meals and a night of deep sleep later found Nicola and me waving goodbye to the Central Europeans as they toted their bags down the dock towards a waiting taxi. We’d reserved the last five days of our charter for ourselves alone, a dream come true and a chance to answer some questions that lingered in our minds.
A Timeless Finish
As soon as we said our goodbyes we motored out of Komiža Bay and sailed dead downwind to Lastovo, our final destination. As we did so we slipped into a daze, unable to believe how perfect everything was. Just off the uninhabited isle of Mr?ara on the west end of Lastovo we set anchor in a perfectly protected cove with no one else in sight. A long snorkel confirmed our suspicion?—?the environment was as pristine below the surface as it was above.
Like in a dream, experiencing Lastovo seemed both eternal and instantaneous. We took a scooter for three hours and rode almost every road on the island. This was it. We’d reached our destination, intended and not: Lastovo and a state of being that was utterly pure, present and uncontrived. Nicola and I fell in love then and there, in the hills and coves, racing along the dirt roads.
Eventually, of course, necessity called us back to the mainland via the halcyon southwest coast of Kor?ula, where we were gingerly wrested from our waking slumber. A sudden storm blew in and whipped us, reefed, across the channel from Bra? and safely to Vana’s home. In our last moments aboard, Dalmatia seemed to implore us to stay, begged us to take refuge in a narrow inlet and wait out the storm. The rain started moments before we hopped on our bus home to Dubrovnik.
The Moorings April through October is tourist season in Croatia. Typically April, May and October are rainier, while July and August represent peak season, meaning charter fees are higher and the nightlife is more exciting. The Moorings in Croatia operate out of Marina Agana, located in the town of Marina, less than an hour by bus from the main terminal in Split or 25 minutes from the Split airport by taxi. The town is small but has all the amenities needed to cast off for a week of sailing.
Food prices are roughly comparable to the United States. The best value will be found on the mainland at the larger discount stores—Lidl, Getro and Konzum. For a midweek provisioning on the islands, most towns also have a small grocery store or two.
Many cafes & bars have Wi-Fi and pay-as-you-go SIM cards are inexpensive and easy to find. Our Moorings charter boat had Wi-Fi onboard, including limited data, with the option to purchase more on board. This made it easy to check meteo.hr, Croatia’s best weather website.
Charts for the area are accurate, and while there is plenty of yacht traffic during the high season, there is only a moderate amount of commercial traffic to contend with.