SPLIT — From the deck of our boat we watched a spectacle that had everyone in this bustling port city spellbound: a river of sailboats streaming out from the harbor to a sparkling turquoise horizon. Though Croatia had just joined the European Union and marked its 22d year of independence, the talk of the town was of a smaller but perhaps equally telling milestone, the record turnout for the opening day of Yacht Week 2013.
It was a sign of the times. Long a bargain destination offering sun and pebbly beaches to the masses, Croatia is fast evolving into a haven for sophisticated boaters. With modern marinas, a food and wine scene that’s the envy of central Europe, and a charter yachting industry catering to all budgets, it is rapidly whittling market share from more established sailing spots such as Turkey and Greece.
And yet, for all its dreams of transforming into a glitzy yachtsman’s paradise, Croatia remains a place rooted to the past — “the Mediterranean as it once was,” to quote the tourist board. By sea, that dual nature shines through. As Robert, the manager of the yacht I was on, put it, “on a boat, you get the best picture of Croatia. One night you’re dancing in some fancy shmancy harbor town, and the next morning, you’re in a fishing village — the real Croatia.”
Eager to experience both the upmarket and down-tempo sides of the country, and savor all the pleasures in between, my dozen traveling companions and I had booked a nine-day jaunt aboard Navilux, a 123-foot luxury motor yacht. Our mission? To lazily wend through the Dalmatian archipelago, a spray of over 1,200 islands scattered along one of the Mediterranean’s last unspoiled seaboards.
From Split, Dalmatia’s regional yachting hub, we set sail for Trogir, a UNESCO-registered hamlet of narrow alleyways. As sunset splashed its pink gold over the creamy limestone blocks of St. Lawrence Cathedral, I wandered the main square. Grafted onto its walls was an architectural crazy quilt of Venetian loggias, Gothic window casements, and Romanesque columns salvaged from war-damaged palaces around town. It was quintessential Croatia: a borderland where creeds, cultures, and ideologies have long mingled — and often violently collided — to create a tapestry far richer than the sum of its parts.
Of course, we hadn’t traveled here just to admire Croatia’s quiet charms. Thirsting for action, we headed for Hvar, once a key trading post of the 16th-century Venetian empire, now the Adriatic’s chicest hot spot.
To get some perspective, we hoofed it past swanky bars spilling out onto the waterfront and up a steep switchback trail, through succulent gardens thrumming with cicadas, to Spanish Fortress. The view repaid the hike — with interest. Windswept battlements that sheltered the townsfolk from Ottoman raiders in 1571 overlook a mosaic of terra-cotta roofs and the green humps of the Pakleni islands trailing out to sea.
Later, hungry for a taste of Hvar’s famed night life, we hit Carpe Diem, the Adriatic’s most hallowed sundowner haunt. The crowd seemed curiously subdued. At 2 a.m. we found out why when a fleet of fast boats sped the revelers to a nearby island — where the real party began and raged long past dawn. Well before then, we called in our own tender and slipped away to the Navilux, far from the madding crowd and throbbing beat.
There, we found our crew jigging for cuttlefish, whose ink would find its way the following day into a delicious lunch of black risotto. “It helps us unwind,” Robert said of their moonlight pastime.
We needed no such help. Between sightseeing outings, we lolled away the hours in a bliss of sunbathing, hot-tubbing, and gazing from the sundeck at the surrounding seascape, which afternoon light softened into molten pastels and smoky coastlines. To get the blood pumping, once a day we dropped anchor at a remote island inaccessible to the holiday-making hordes. There, we explored tree-lined coves by paddleboard, kayak, or jet ski, all provided by the boat. Or we donned fins and snorkel and slipped into cool waters said to be the second cleanest in the EU.
After our stopover in Hvar, we set course for an island that couldn’t have offered a starker counterpoint, bucolic, low-key Vis. Here, as with many places in Croatia, the turbulence in the country’s past has a silver lining. Vis’s status as a military base kept it off-limits to tourism until 1989. Though pleasure craft now clog Vis Town’s picturesque harbor and its miles-long waterfront boasts artists’ boutiques alongside taverns reputed to be the best in Dalmatia, life here ambles along at a languorous, smell-the-roses pace.
It’s a place where morning coffees are nursed long past noon, where backyard vineyards growing the local Plavac Mali grape border the main drag, and where a mid-road netless game of badminton between two boys had right of way over traffic. Despite the bluntly named Consume! supermarket at the center of town, relics of the communist past abound, from the red stars on headstones in the palm-fringed graveyard to plaques commemorating the dogged resistance of Tito’s partisans.
Much mellowed out, we made for comparatively jumping Korcula. Along the gusty narrows leading to its harbor town, we ran a gauntlet of sailboarders riding a stiff bora wind. Behind this colorful swarm the lush wine country of the Peljesac peninsula unfurled its patchwork of vineyards, lavender fields, and olive groves etched with ancient dry-stone walls. As scenic approaches go, this one set a sky-high bar.
But Korcula Town, glinting like a pearl at the neck of the Peljesac Strait, would not be upstaged. Past its stout ramparts and sentry towers, we strolled a herringbone grid of streets lined with restaurants and shops hawking filigree and Murano glass and found it lived up to the hype as a less mobbed, mini-Dubrovnik.
In the twilight of Venice’s thousand-year empire, this fairytale citadel unseated Hvar as the Venetians’ Adriatic stronghold. With its Tintoretto altarpieces, lapidary stonemasonry, and Gothic footbridges overarching narrow streets, Korcula has the Most Serene Republic’s fingerprints all over it. It also claims Marco Polo as a native son. I remained unconvinced. After feasting on local delicacies in the courtyard bistro of Kanavelic, I doubted a congenital wanderer could hail from a place nobody in his right mind would want to leave.
But leave we did, and our next destination more than soothed the sting. A long land mass flecked around the edges with gumdrop isles perfect for exploring on a paddleboard, lush Mljet reigns supreme in Dalmatia’s collection of natural wonders. Recognizing its potential as a tourist cash cow, the old communist regime declared a large swath of this island a national park in the 1960s.
We applauded their foresight as we trundled in a van that runs hourly from the tiny port town of Polace to Mljet’s twin salt lakes, the larger of which features a 12th-century Benedictine monastery, St. Mary’s, perched atop a stony islet. En route we drank in a sweet-smelling arcadia of Aleppo pine and Holm oak, still prowled by mongooses brought here in the 1910s to curb the viper population.
For our send-off dinner we made our way to Sipan. Guidebooks warn of uncleared landmines on this island of lofty dolomite crests and verdant citrus orchards a few miles north of the tourist epicenter of Dubrovnik. When I marveled that such an appealing landscape had evaded development, Robert said the explanation lay underfoot.
“Investors have been scared ever since the war,” he said. “We like to keep it this way — untouched,” he added. “Who knows how much longer we can.”
Many here worry — and just as many pray — that admission to the EU will open the floodgates to foreign investment. Already, one arm of the main town, Sipanska Luka’s wishbone-shaped harbor, has been scraped bare to make way for the vacation compound of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. On the opposite shore, scattered fishermen’s houses, scruffy but folkloric, poked their pumpkin-hued roofs through a canopy of evergreens. The contrast spoke volumes.
Two decades after throwing off the yoke of a millennium of foreign rule, Croatia, the new kid on the European bloc, is still reckoning its course. Where it winds up in another 20 years is anyone’s guess. For now, it remains a place where you can smoothly tack between its split personalities — aspirational and traditional — in the course of a leisurely afternoon.