Cruising the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia

With more than 1100 ruggedly beautiful islands strung along its shoreline, Croatia’s 1100 mile Dalmatian Coast has become one of the most popular cruising destinations in the world.  We left Moonshadow in the ACI Dubrovnik Marina over the winter with plans to start the season with a cruise northwest up the coast towards Italy.

After a very busy month in the States catching up with family and friends in California and a week in New Orleans attending the Jazz and Heritage Festival, we returned to Dubrovnik to find Moonshadow looking a bit untidy from neglect, but in otherwise good condition.  

For the first time, our caretaker had done a less than stellar job of looking after our second home, adding to the workload of bringing her out of mothballs.  Nonetheless we were able to get Moonshadow back in cruising trim and provisioned in five days.  We were also spurred on a bit by the lofty cost of berthing.  Having been reverted to the casual rate of €100 (US $140) per day for berthing at ACI we were anxious to get out on the hook.  At those rates, we wouldn’t be spending much time as “dock potatoes” this season!

Wanting to take things a bit easy and regain our sea legs, we headed out early in the morning before the prevailing northwesterlies kicked up and steered a course to the nearby Elaphite Islands.  At our first stop, the picturesque fishing village of Suðurad on the island of Šipan, the bottom was so covered in weed that we were unable to set our anchor after four attempts. Not a good omen for the launch of our cruising season and strike one against the Adriatic Pilot (2008 edition!) which had reported it as a “sand bottom.”  Plan B was a hop across the channel to the island of Lopud where we anchored in Uvala Lopud.  We spent a couple of days swinging on the hook off the picturesque old village, a cluster of rustic stone houses with terra cotta roofs, giving way to rock terraced gardens on the hillside behind, on top of which was perched the obligatory fortification.  We enjoyed a few strolls along the waterfront, sampled a couple of the local wines (good but rather expensive), caught up on a bit of cleaning and polishing and adjusted back to life on board.  The ambience was affected a bit by a noisy hotel construction project on one side of the bay with heavy equipment operating well into the evening.  Another sleepy little village waking up to tourism.

Suðurad harbor, Šipan Island

Uvala Lopud, Lopud Island

Moonshadow anchored in Uvala Lopud

Heading northwest again we were able to sail with the jenny most of the way to Luka Pola?e on the island of Mljet, much of which is a pristine National Park.  We were fortunate that the protection and holding were excellent as we had two days of what was most likely a Scirocco-a strong and dusty southwesterly wind that originates in the deserts of Africa.  We did manage to get ashore and hike to the other side of the island to visit a couple of saltwater lakes and hop a ferry to the island monastery of Santa Marija.  Along the way we had an Australian moment when we came upon and scared off a large brown snake that had been sunning itself on the trail.  

Colorful cruising under spinnaker and “awniker.”

After a couple days, the winds had moderated to around ten knots so we departed Mljet and headed to the Island of Korcula, sailing about half way until the winds dropped off.  We found good anchorage in Uvala Luka, a short dinghy ride away from the old walled city of Korcula.  The old town juts out into the sea on a small peninsula.  It is characterized by narrow streets and red-roofed buildings surrounding a piazza and a large cathedral situated in the middle of town. Atop the city wall is a tree-lined boulevard dotted with small indoor/outdoor cafes.  On Sunday morning it was quiet except for church goers.  We walked around and through the town in less than an hour.  One interesting feature was a bar located in one of the fortification turrets.  Patrons apparently climb a ladder to the top level and the drinks are hoisted up from the bar below using a hand dumbwaiter.  The view of the rest of the city and mainland Croatia across the channel must be spectacular.  Unfortunately it was closed on Sunday morning.  We found a café outside the old city walls which offered Greek coffee-a sweet, strong and a slightly muddy brew which we had come to enjoy in Turkey and Greece.  What we were served bore no resemblance and in fact tasted like the Irish Coffees served at the Buena Vista in San Francisco.  Not wanting to be rude, we started happy hour at 1030 hours!  We have come to learn that it is not uncommon for the Croats enjoy to their first beer or glass of wine after breakfast.




The medievel walled city of  Korcula


We started early the next day so that we could make it to Hvar before the prevailing winds kicked up.  Hvar is reputed to be a hot spot and the small harbor can get very crowded so we wanted to get in early to secure a spot in the anchorage.  When we arrived there was ample room, but it took us three attempts to get the anchor set in the weed bottom.  It was once again incorrectly reported to be “mud, good holding” in the Adriatic Pilot-strike two. 

The anchorage filled up throughout the day, mostly with bareboat charter boats getting very cozy on short scopes.   One of them came in and anchored in front of us, right over our anchor, on a very short rode.  They ignored my “evils” and I, not wanting to be an ugly American, abstained from asking them to move.  No good deed goes unpunished as sure enough that night, when we were ashore enjoying a nightcap in a waterfront watering hole, the wind shifted 180?.  We could see by the masthead lights what was happening, so we quickly paid the bill and made a dash for the dinghy.  Fortunately we arrived in time to fend off and prevent any serious damage.  While Merima stayed on fender patrol, I headed back ashore and found the crew who didn’t seem the least bit concerned (charters never are!).   I’m not sure if they were drunk or just plain idiots, but I had to ask the skipper three times to move the yacht.  That’s what I get for being Mr. Nice Guy!

Hvar is a very attractive medieval hillside town with Gothic palaces, narrow pedestrian-only streets paved in marble, a huge Italian-style piazza and a fair bit of nightlife.  Perched above the town on the top of the hill is an old citadel.  We hiked up to the citadel on a clear day where we enjoyed a commanding panoramic view of Hvar town and the surrounding islands.  Wandering the narrow streets later on, we came upon a small winery.  The proprietor served us some samples of his hand-crafted wines, which were reasonably good, reasonably priced and sold in second-hand, screw top, unlabeled one liter water bottles.  Next door we noticed a quaint local restaurant which we decided to try that night for a meal out.

The restaurant, Konoba Menego, turned out the best dinner out that we had in Croatia.  The atmosphere was casual and convivial, the prices reasonable, the house wine very good, and we enjoyed chatting with the owner/chef and some of the other patrons.  One of those with whom we had a nice conversation was a Croatian tour guide.  He was a wealth of information but told us that as far as he was concerned we had already seen the highlights of the Dalmatian Coast. 

The next day I glanced up at our worn and faded Croatian courtesy flag, pondered the words of the tour guide the night before and our experiences of Croatia so far.  After a short conversation, Merima and I decided that we would spend a bit less time than we had originally planned in Croatia and more of the season in Italy.  Merima had lived in Italy for two years and speaks fluent Italian, and I have to admit I was hankering for some Italian cuisine and culture.




Hvar town

The next morning we weighed anchor and made for the mainland city of Split.  Upon arrival, we discovered that one of the areas designated in the Adriatic Pilot for visiting yachts was now a ferry berth. Strike three!  The only remaining tie up (other than an ACI Marina at €100 per night) was along the broad and handsome promenade by the old city.  The good news was that there was plenty of space.  After tying up we soon discovered why.  After a ferry made its typical high-speed approach, sending off a large wake, we began bouncing off the hard bottom.  We had no choice but to immediately split from Split! 

Fortunately for us, it was just an hour away to the city of Trogir, which had two well-protected anchorages to choose from.  Trogir is a very handsome 15th century walled city built on an islet situated in a channel between mainland Croatia and the island of Ciovo.  A draw bridge, which no longer opens, forms a barrier between the two anchorages, so one must circumnavigate Ciovo (about 12 nm) to get from one to the other.  We opted to go around the long way to try the western anchorage, which offered more swinging room.  The anchorage proved to be good, but the Adriatic Pilot, now well out of strikes, failed to mention that there was a rather noisy and unsightly ship yard operating 24/7 nearby.

The following day we enjoyed wandering around the labyrinth of narrow streets in the old walled city and picking up some excellent bread and provisions at the daily open market next to the town.  We didn’t know if it was too early in the season or the state of the economy, but large fleets of bareboat charter boats were still tied up in the ACI Marina across from Trogir town.  Late May or early June might just be an ideal time to cruise Croatia.

The broad waterfront promenade at Trogir

Serenading sailor, Trogir

Keen for a bit of quiet, we headed back to a small group of islands near Hvar town and attempted to anchor in the channel between Planikovac and Marinkovac Islands.  We weren’t having much success due to the thick weed on the bottom, and during our final attempt, after we had already put the anchor on the bottom and were paying out chain, an Italian-flagged yacht came in and cheekily dropped their anchor right on top of ours, payed out a short bit of chain and then the crew hopped in the dinghy and headed into a nearby café for lunch.  We abandoned the anchoring attempt and headed a couple miles west to another bight called Uvala Vinogradiš?e where we were able to hook on the second attempt.  It was a lovely and quiet spot, if not a bit cozy with yachts that arrived throughout the day.

The next day in light airs we motored to the west end of the island of Kor?ula to the town of Vela Luka and anchored in Uvala Plitvie, a wide open bay with a mud bottom and excellent holding (finally!).  We went into Vela Luka have a walk around and get some provisions and gasoline for the dink.  The town has a shipyard and a cannery but appears to have fallen on hard times.  There were numerous small grocers, but most of the other shops were closed for siesta. The row of waterfront cafes were all situated downwind of the moored fishing boats and the odor was a bit off putting.  There was a very modern INA fuel station on the quay.  We popped in to fill up our 10 liter gas jug and by the time the liquid inside reached the “full” line, the pump showed 12.5 liters. When I questioned the attendant about the amount I was given some well-rehearsed cock and bull story about heat, expansion and temperature differences between the tank and the outside air.  25%, I doubt it!  It wasn’t an overly warm day and I think the only thing expanding was the owner’s wallet.  What a rip-off!

Plagued by light air again, we motored to the island of Lastovo and to an anchorage called Skirvena Luka (hidden harbour).  It was a lovely open but well-protected anchorage with a narrow opening.  The surrounding shore had some attractive holiday homes, some old fisherman’s cottages and a couple of restaurants with floating marinas for boating patrons.  This seemed to be a popular lunch or dinner stop for yachts moving up and down the coast.  We were entertained by a group of young men who were staying in one of the cottages.  They had a long liquid lunch and were entertaining themselves (and everyone in the harbor) by singing Croatian anthems between meal courses and swims in the sea.

Merima uses some calm-water time for polishing

We departed early in calm wind and water and headed back to the island Mljet-this time to the village of Pomena.  Because we had motored or motor-sailed so much in recent days, we hadn’t run the genset or watermaker and were running low on fresh water.  Upon arrival we were told that to tie up to the quay would cost about US $70 per day but due to a shortage, water was being rationed to the tourist hotels and there was none available for yachts. We gave it a miss and anchored off of nearby Pomeštak Island and took a stern line to a tree, bringing back fond memories of Turkey, where we first had done this style of anchoring.  Holding was good and it was a nice protected spot looking toward the village.  There was even a good WiFi signal from the big hotel in the village.  The only bad news was a bareboat that had tied up next to us.  They returned from dinner around midnight and the low battery alarm was going off so they had to run the engine to charge batteries.  This happened a few times throughout the night, disturbing our sleep.  Idiots!

After a couple days of chilling out, we dropped the stern line and picked up the anchor early in the morning and made our way to Uvala Šunj on the island of Lopud.  Along the way saw a pod of dolphins that hung with us for about 45 minutes.  Interestingly, we regularly saw dolphins in Croatian waters, but never more than two or three at a time.  Shortly after we anchored a charter catamaran arrived and anchored quite close to us, ignoring all the other open and shallower space in the bay.  We were beginning to think that Moonshadow is Croatian for “anchor close to us.”  If that wasn’t enough, the eight or so overweight men all stripped naked and began swimming and sunbathing on the decks of the cat.  Fortunately the bare-ass bare boaters took off before I had to go ask them to move and we had a quiet evening with a stunning yellow/red sunset and a barbeque.

Sunset at Uvala Šunj 

We headed into the marina at Gruž, the commercial port for Dubrovnik, to fill up with water and provisions and to wash the boat.  The “marina” which was nothing more than a typical municipal quay, charged what was a record high for us, US $185 plus water and power per day, and didn’t even have a laid mooring line!  This seems to be a popular stop for megayachts, as there were three in that day.  With no laid mooring lines, they usually splay out two anchors to counteract any wind shifts, so coming and going is always an interesting exercise as anchors become crossed and fouled.  It is all too apparent that the city dumps raw sewage into the harbor, as for most of the day the smell of effluents was almost unbearable.  Gruž harbor is literally a toilet!  Eating dinner on board would have been like dining in a latrine so we went had a nice pizza dinner out at a café in town. 

At about 0200 the next morning we were hammered by the mother of all thunderstorms.   Lightning was nearly on top of us with nary a second between the blinding flash and the deafening crack of thunder.  Accompanying it were heavy rains and wind bullets, prompting a regular check of our anchor and dock lines, and ruining the chance for any sleep.  As a final crescendo to the pyrotechnic display, we were pelted with hail the size of acorns.

If you can bear the cost and the smell of Gruž, it is a convenient place to get provisions and supplies.  A large and well-stocked Konzum supermarket is five minutes walk from the marina, and along the way there are a reasonably stocked hardware store and chandlery as well as a few other useful shops.

We were happy to escape the olfactory assault of Gruž and headed south to the quaint little medieval village of Cavtat, passing by for a glimpse of the old walled city of Dubrovnik along the way.  We found good anchorage in the small bay south of the village after a lumpy ride down.  We spent a couple relaxing days preparing for the next leg of our trip and enjoying a stroll and a drink in one of the many lovely little waterfront cafes.  Cavtat seemed to be pretty happening in a laid-back sort of way.  The locals were friendly and the whole place had a very cool vibe.  On the last afternoon when we were preparing the boat to leave, we were treated to a kick-ass country and western concert given by a band from the States who played in town.


The village of Cavtat

Cavtat is the southernmost port of entry for Croatia and with northerlies forecast; the weather looked favorable for a Saturday departure for Brindisi, Italy.  We had hoped to get away at first light around 0500 hours so we could make the 118 mile trip in daylight hours.  Checking with the local officialdom, they work from 0800 to 2000, and one must leave IMMEDIATELY after check out, NO EXCEPTIONS.  Furthermore, one must bring their vessel to the Customs Quay and tie up along side to complete check out formalities.   We wanted to be first in line, so we tied Moonshadow up there after all the official’s offices closed for the night.  A bit cheeky, but at least we got a good night’s sleep and didn’t have to worry about a backlog in the morning.

I was at the Port Captain’s office at 0800 sharp, where I was given clearance papers for Brindisi and handshake and well wishes.  A short walk down the waterfront and I found the office of the local Policija who stamped our passports.  Funny, both officials wanted to be certain the boat was on the Customs Quay, but neither bothered to even poke their head out the door to see if she was there.  At 0820 we tossed off the lines and headed south across the Adriatic Sea towards Brindisi, Italy.

A few footnotes on Croatia:

People were generally warm, helpful and honest, if a bit brusque.

Language is no problem as English is widely spoken.

Marinas are plentiful.  ACI (Adriatic Club International) owns roughly half of the 40 facilities on the Croatian coast and while they are modern and secure, have the highest prices we have encountered to date.  Furthermore, I was told it is their policy to increase prices by at least 10 % annually without advanced notice.  This is your advanced notice!

Anchoring fees have been reported in the pilot and by other cruisers.  We were never approached for anchoring fees, but were charged admission to the National Park.

Repairs are available and we had good experiences.  Minor engine work and teak repair (from the attempted break-in last season) we had done was of good quality and reasonably priced.

Dining out is relatively expensive considering the quality of the food.  If you like fried or grilled meat and potatoes, pasta or pizza, you will be in heaven as this is the common fare. Croatia would be a vegetarian’s nightmare. 

Provisioning is good with plenty of supermarkets and a good selection, but food prices are very high.

Wine is very good, relatively inexpensive and there are many local varietals.

Environmental concern is severely lacking.  While the Croatian waters are generally beautiful and very clear, we have not seen so much plastic and rubbish in the water and on the shorelines since Indonesia.  Some cities pump raw sewage into the sea.

Weather was generally pleasant and spring-like. 

Crowds were light in most places, either due to the early season or the poor economy.

Sightseeing is very good, but to avoid disappointment, we would suggest you go to Croatia before you visit Greece or Turkey.

Tourism is a booming industry.  Large tourist resort hotels are being built at a rapid rate and locals are quickly learning how to snatch tourist dollars.

Television had American movies every night in English with sub-titles.




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