The notion of a cruise was never appealing to me, the crowds, the waste, the touristy feeling of leaving with mass hordes off a boat. No, thank you, ever! A recent Adriatic cruise along the Croatian coast with its rugged shoreline, thousands of islands, and medieval charm in each new locale, has me forever changed about traveling by boat because the 30 person cruise with only 13 aboard felt more like a yacht. After smoothly gliding into several ports each day, the M/S Karizma (with Kompas International Travel Group) was always the sexiest vessel in the harbor. To wake up at sea, enjoy breakfast with the waves and my fiancé, and know that a new adventure was on the horizon made me thrilled to be alive.
Croatia had been on my daydream list for over fifteen years since friends in Washington, DC use to frolic each summer with models on stone pebbled beaches, while the Dalmation Coast only became dreamier with my love of HBO's Game of Thrones. My mom ventured on a similar boat excursion over ten years ago and excitedly reiterated, "You will love it!" and my dad brought back tales of wonder and amazement of Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia just a few years ago.
There is immense beauty to arrive at each new charming town by sea, just like the explorers long ago, whether that be Marco Polo or Odysseus. Sometimes our yacht Karizma was the only boat in port, except for a few sailboats, thanks to traveling in the off -season (May). What gets me on this ocean expedition is the intimate way we get to see a multitude of islands, especially the juxtaposition of the sea and land with sloping terraced vineyards. It makes me want to escape and trade the hustle of Los Angeles life for a quieter existence where I can breathe deeply the crisp, fresh air and get lost in nature on my own parcel of land.
Each day we stop at one or two new locations and sleep in the harbor. It becomes a daily occurrence to hear the church bells ringing letting us know it is noon. A cat often strolls by. Detailed carvings on churches remind us of the 15th-century past. Pink and cream facades peal and little shops are tucked in old cut stone facades selling red coral jewelry and gelato. A monastery and medieval fortress with a watchtower are always close. Little sparrows squawk and circle ancient castles built at a time in history I try to imagine. The shades of the sparkling blue ocean contrast with white pebble beaches sprinkled with sea urchins that look like chocolate chips. The water is so clear as if a bath was drawn. In some remote way I feel connected to my Italian ancestors here. Due to a period of Venetian rule and its proximity to Italy, Italian influences are prevalent in food, faith, and architecture.
In another coastal town in Croatia, the similarities are starting to blend together. We stumble upon a cemetery on top of a town hanging off the landscape with sweeping ocean views and distant islands. After hours of twisting and turning through streets with uneven cobblestones, climbing narrow charming passageways, our knees need a break. The best coffee and Babic wine with a plate of marinate sardines are necessary. The beauty of each new Croatian island and coastal town is meandering through them, slowing down a bit, and thinking about what life could be like to exist off the sea and land.
When in Croatia, don't miss:
Plitvice Lakes National Park- After landing in Zagrab from America, we awoke the next day and drove 80 miles to see Plitvice (before boarding our boat in Zadar) to explore the enchanted stair-stepped lakes and waterfalls. Although freezing, with intermittent rain, and ridiculous crowds due to a holiday, Plitvice Lakes is one of Europe's premier natural wonders and worth the drive to view these interconnected pools, waterfalls, springs, chutes, and caves extending over five miles. The glow from below is due to the travertine, a mineral created when limestone dissolved in the water gradually collects and petrifies into ridges and ledges. The sunlight refracts at different angles off the minerals causing a jewel-like color, from deep blue to turquoise.
Zadar – After flying to Zagrab, our 7 night cruise started in Zadar and headed down the coast to end in Dubrovnik. Zadar is perfect to explore on foot and was one of the most modern cities we visited although filled with ancient architecture. Admire the old walls built in the 16th century by Venetians as a defense from the Turks, the 16th century Port Gate where the Venetian lion still guards, and before you know it, you will run into a mini market in the city center selling honey, lavender, and limestone products.
In the center of town when we arrived at dusk a beautifully choreographed dance number with over ten girls around ruins occurred paired to hypnotic tunes. The impressive bare circular Church of St. Donat on the Roman Forum (the city's main meeting place in the 1st century BC) is used for occasional classic music recitals, and it worth a look inside. The peninsula is rimmed by the seaside promenade where sailboats catch the glistening sunset and an inventive Sea Organ has been carved under the walkway where eerie melodies are powered by the sea. Nearby, admire the Greeting to the Sun at night with its 300 glass plates set as a large circle within the stone paving that absorbs energy from the sun and shows off a multi-colored light display.
Sali – After sailing by the Kornati Islands with over 140 islands with coves and crystal clear waters, we landed in peaceful Sali with only about 2,000 residents. Spend an afternoon or an evening in this tiny seaside town. To the right of town, take a walk on a paved walkway along the coast or head left to climb 100 steps for views and more restaurants. Finish with wine at Maritimo or a dinner of cuttlefish spaghetti, octopus, clams, and langoustine at one of the many charming local spots. You can guarantee the fish are fresh!
Krka National Park – Think waterfall mania! Although packed with annoying crowds, even in May, this national park (an hour from Sibenik) was formed to protect the Krka River and thus the river has created a series of spectacular and impressive waterfalls, gorges, lakes, and rapids on its trip through the mountains. Krka is another jaw-dropping must-see experience with 150 feet tumblers making 17 cascades. Again, the falls were formed from deposits of limestone sediment (travertine).
Sibenik – Inspiration for the Game of Thrones is very evident here, from the name Little Sparrow to the House of the Many Face Gods, to entering and leaving the harbor. The views from Sibenik as the sun set will remind you of GOT's town of Braavos, because it is. Pure Croatian influences, and situated on a broad bay, the town hugs the slopes with its steep, winding streets and passageways of stones leading up to the center and farther up, ruins of a 16th century hilltop fortress. Above the harbor get lost in the town with its ancient romantic churches, monasteries, and stone dwellings. We watched the sunset accidentally in an enchanting cemetery hanging high above the town and later capped our night off in the harbor with pizza and wine. Don't miss the Cathedral of St. James, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. Built in stages between 1431 and 1536, this white Gothic-Renaissance Cathedral has an exterior frieze made up of 74 carved faces.
Trogir – You do not want to miss this UNESCO-listed city on a small island just a few city blocks in length. This fully preserved medieval town dating back to the 3rd century BC (once colonized by the Greeks) was named Tragurion (Hmm, Game of Thrones name, I think so). The south-facing seafront promenade is lined with cafes, restaurants, hotels, and ice cream shops. Explore the city with its narrow, cobblestone streets in a few hours. View coat of arms and other family symbols over doorways or windows, some 700 years old. The main square boasts the Cathedral of Saint Lawrence with its bell tower, along with a clock tower and palace. Due to limited time, we climbed Kamerlengo Castle, where the dragons were chained up in Game of Thrones. The 360 degree views from the top were spectacular – harbor views, mountains hugging the town, and even the island of Ciovo connected by a bridge. Brave the rickety, steep, narrow climb up the inside of the castle, and spiral through the tower with a crumbling interior with mini stalactites and stalagmites.
Bol on Brac Island is known for its stone that built Diocletian's Palace and the White House in Washington, DC. Brac Island is also the place to sip Bolski Plavic red wine and taste locally raised lamb. This area is considered a wind surfer's delight too. The Golden Horn or Zlaatni Rat is said to be the best beach in Croatia, as the sand forms a golden horn off the island's clear blue waters. Apparently, the mini peninsula changes shape and position depending on the winds. Too cold for a swim stop in May, we heard the entire beach is covered with people in summer. Walk along the water on the limestone pathway and admire the modern chic homes with perfect front yard ocean views. Vendors sold goods along the tree-lined quiet walkway. Before boarding Karizma, a generous man in town who owned the Moby Dick restaurant let me sample a free glass of the famed blue grape wine. It was too good to be true, and now I long to taste this luscious wine back in Los Angeles.
Split – Walk this bustling town and admire the historic city center defined by the limestone walls. Admire Roman Emperor Diocletian's Palace, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site constructed as an imperial retirement home and one of the only UNESCO World Heritage sites where people still reside. Croatia's second largest city is home to some of the best preserved Roman ruins in the world. It is a major hub for transportation to many of the other islands and coastal towns. Take a tour below the 3rd-century palace where you can witness many scenes filmed in Game of Thrones, such as when Daenarys sits in her throne room, where she trained her dragons, and where the 'kill the masters' scene in season 4 takes place when dozens of slaves sit around a fire discussing whether they should fight for her.
An A cappella group serenaded us under the open-air oculus in Diocletian's Palace. We hiked up to the Bistro Caffe Bar for views of the entire city and harbor, and were gladly greeted with lemon Ozujsko beer as we were soaked in sweat. Our hike down past homes presented us with many restaurants serving dinner outside offering fresh fish, marinated sardines, and seafood pasta. For around $40 we enjoyed a feast at Vidilica.
Hvar gets a lot of hype due to the jet-set crowds and yacht week parties. Even if you are there to party, don't miss the vineyards, lavender fields, amazing restaurants, and climb up to the looming 16th-century fortress. It seems like a far journey, but a steep winding walk past gardens and harbor views, is well worth the exploration of this former medieval castle with a creepy dungeon. The sunset atop the fortress was one of the most memorable and Instagram-worthy moments of the trip.
Also, find a place to sit overlooking Hvar Town's harbor for sunrise or sunset and watch the colors splash. Historic sites are endless, such as the first public theatre in Europe (older than Shakespeare's theatre) and the Franciscan Monastery where we learned the nuns used agave plants to make lacy crochet decorations. We devoured sushi at a luxe table on the street then spent the evening right around the corner on a mini side street at Vintage Wine Bar with their impressive service allowing us to sample wines and cheeses before buying. Marinated and salty sardines with numerous cheeses were washed down with sensational Croatian wines (like PRC from Hvar Island and Tomic Plavac Mali Barrique) with a sticker price less expensive than LA.
Korkula, a walled city was one of our favorite stops because of its quiet charm and carved out path of restaurants hugging the island's aquamarine water. Once again, wander through cobble-stone narrow streets and in minutes you will arrive at the Gothic-Baroque Cathedral of Saint Mark. Soak up the history, sip their famous golden wine called Grk, sample gelatto, and bring back that perfect jewelry souvenir. Legend has it this is the birthplace of Marco Polo. If you have time, explore the island's vineyards, wineries, hills and hiking trails, and other quiet towns.
Mljet was supposedly a favorite holiday spot for the Greek hero Odysseus who met the nymph Calypso here, which is thought to be Homer's lost island Ogygia. Nearby Korkula, experience nature and history on Mljet National Park with its dense pinewood forests and two interconnected saltwater lakes. After hiking through the woods from the harbor, take a boat to the middle of the larger lake to a enchanting 12th century monastery and Church of Saint Mary. Afterwards, bike around the lake on the island, swim, and marvel at the vineyard views. You can rent bikes or kayaks right near the lakes.
Dubrovnik known as the "Pearl of the Adriatic" is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Stroll the old town with its 80 foot 15th century stone walls or walk the city's medieval walls to view the ancient city grid. Visit the Rector's Palace and Franciscan Monastery with its Pharmacy (where you can bring home all-natural skin creams). Slow down with a coffee or wine or pizza in the Placa, the main thoroughfare lined with cafes, restaurants, galleries, and shops. Everywhere you turn you are reminded of scenes from Game of Thrones, like Blackwater Bay or King's Landing right outside the walls to the right, and the city center stairs where Cersei performs her walk of atonement. The market scenes may also pop in your mind as you meander by tiny lanes and stone houses. Nearby on the island of Lokrum, find the Iron throne.
Other highlights of sailing on the Karizma included the friendly crew who met our every need, the warm jacuzzi and blankets aboard the ship, the delicious breakfast each morning, the portholes in our room to rest and view the changing landscape from our bed, and the luxury of not having to worry about moving our luggage daily from one town to the next or having to find a new hotel.
Like with all good things in life, the world has caught on to Croatia's immaculate charm as the summer months are swarming with tourists, even in the heat. Plan your trip accordingly.
To learn more and book your own expedition on the Karizma , contact Kompas USA http://www.kompas.net/cruises/ships/ms-karizma/. Boats can be rented out for family reunions, weddings, or private parties too.
All photos courtesy of Melissa Curtin and Mark McDavitt.