116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The scenic Dalmatian Coast offers beauty and history
Apr. 9, 2023 6:00 am
My husband and I have never been attracted to cruises, preferring instead to travel on our own. But when some Chicago friends invited us to join their book group for a September cruise along the coast of Croatia, we said yes for several reasons. One was the size of the vessel — instead of a mammoth ship with thousands of passengers, the boat held just 38. Another was that we’d sail along the Dalmatian Coast, said to be among the most scenic in the world. And the third lure, frankly, was the price, which was very reasonable for a seven-night journey.
The cruise turned out to be one our favorite trips, a sun-drenched idyll that was a perfect mix of relaxing hours spent watching the scenery go by, fascinating shore excursions to historic towns and cities, and swims in the turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea. An added bonus was the chance to visit the Croatian city of Split, which we toured on our own before boarding the ship.
Split’s crown jewel is Diocletian’s Palace, built in the 3rd century by the first Roman emperor to abdicate voluntarily. Diocletian spared no expense in his retirement home, building it so well that the structure continued to serve as the heart of the city long after his death. Today Diocletian’s Palace is part Roman, part medieval, and part modern. My husband and I walked for hours through its narrow, twisting streets, entranced by its warren of shops, restaurants, hotels and living quarters for several thousand residents.
The next day we headed to our ship, which was docked in the harbor just down the hill from the palace. After dropping off our bags in our small-but-comfortable room, we explored the ship, a three-deck yacht with 19 cabins. A dining room and kitchen filled much of the main deck, while the top deck had lounge chairs, a hot tub, and 365-degree views of the busy harbor filled with boats.
At a reception that evening we met our fellow passengers. While the majority were from Chicago, our group included Irish and German relatives of book group members, giving the cruise an international flavor.
After the boat’s eight-member crew introduced themselves, cruise manager Stan Utrobicic gave us an introduction to our upcoming journey. “The trip you’re about to take is along the most beautiful coastline in the world,” he said. “I’m biased because I’m Croatian, but it’s true. We’ll sail along the wild and mountainous Dalmatian Coast, stopping at beautiful islands and amazing historic sites. My goal is to make you fall in love with Croatia.”
Utrobicic’s glowing appraisal of the trip turned out to be accurate. Most days began with sailing in the morning, lunch on board, and then a stop at a city or town where he led us on a walking tour, followed by explorations on our own. Our ports of call included several of the more than 1,000 islands that dot the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Croatia.
On Korcula we wandered through an ancient town encircled by walls and listened to the story of 13th-century explorer Marco Polo, whom the island claims as a native son. Situated on a peninsula, Korcula’s street plan looks like a fish skeleton, with slanting streets leading down to the water. The unique design cools the town in the western breezes of summer, then protects it from the eastern winds of winter.
Another afternoon we visited Mljet National Park, said to be where Odysseus of Greek legend spent seven years being held captive by the nymph Calypso. As we biked on rented cycles past two picturesque seawater lakes inside the park, we concluded it wouldn’t be a bad place to be stranded.
On the Peljesac peninsula, we spent an evening in the rural village of Kuna, first visiting a local donkey farm and then heading to a restaurant-tavern for a meal of hearty traditional foods. On the glamorous island of Hvar, which is known for its jet-setting visitors, we had a tour through its harbor area and learned of the island’s lavender industry. And on the island of Brac we sampled the beach pleasures of the Golden Cape, a sinuous curve that changes in shape with shifting waves and sea currents.
The highlight of our cruise was Dubrovnik, which is among the best-preserved medieval cities in the world. We arrived at sunset, cruising slowly beneath the city’s massive walls as we enjoyed a buffet dinner on the top deck. Along the way Utrobicic told us about the history of the city.
“In the 14th and 15th centuries Dubrovnik rivaled Venice in power and influence,” he said. “Today it’s most famous for its connection to the series Game of Thrones, but it earned its name of the Pearl of the Adriatic long ago.”
The next morning we headed into the city, beginning our tour with a cable car ride to the top of Mount Srd, a spot that offered panoramic views of the historic quarter far below. The peak offered an additional perspective on the city through its Homeland War Museum, which details the role Dubrovnik played in the Croatian War of Independence from 1991-95.
After descending from the mountain, Utrobicic led us on a tour of the city. Even if you’re not a Game of Thrones fan (the historic district served as King’s Landing in the series), Dubrovnik is an enchanting city filled with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings. After the tour we walked along the top of the city’s fortified walls and then relaxed in an outdoor cafe overlooking the harbor.
In addition to shore tours, nearly every day we had a swim stop in a secluded cove. With temperatures in the 70s and 80s, the conditions were perfect for paddling in the crystalline waters of the Adriatic. Adventuresome passengers tried stand-up paddleboards while more timid swimmers used noodles to keep them afloat.
Another highlight of our journey was the food, which featured many traditional Croatian dishes made from fresh fish and produce along with locally sourced wines and olive oil. We learned that while Dalmatian cuisine is heavily influenced by Italy, other Croatian dishes blend Slavic, Hungarian and Turkish elements, a reflection of the country’s multiethnic history.
The trip ended with a captain’s dinner followed by lively entertainment provided by local musicians. The next day we disembarked in Split, bidding a fond farewell to our fellow passengers and to the crew members who had treated us so well. Stan Utrobicic had certainly done his job: we had fallen in love with Croatia.
If you go
Katarina Line offers a variety of cruise options along the Dalmatian coast. Cruises similar to the seven-night trip described here cost about $2,000 to $2,400 per person, depending upon cabin choice. Guests fly in and out of the Split International Airport, with free transfers to the boat. Also included are most meals and guided shore excursions. For information see katarina-line.com.