Affordable island hopping in Croatia? What could go wrong?

According to Croatian history, the Greek hero Odysseus was shipwrecked and held captive on the Croatian island of Mljet. Visiting in May, I and six other sailors embraced the myth when our 54-foot yacht’s engine failed.

“Remember, Odysseus spent seven years on Mljet,” said Ivan Ljubovic, our captain. “We can do two nights.”

In the scheme of things, the clogged fuel filter that impeded our progress on a seven-night cruise from Split to Dubrovnik on a yacht – which passengers helped sail – was insignificant. Although an engine, even on a sailboat, is vital for docking and keeping to schedule on calm days, most of my companions agreed that being ambushed in a village with Roman ruins in a turquoise bay was an acceptable fate.

I was resigned to what, in my opinion, were worse inconveniences when I signed up for the trip last November. Then, tour operator G Adventures put several trips on sale during the Black Friday weekend. Its best deals came in the off-season, which meant potentially cold weather and closed restaurants and attractions. But heading out in late April for seven nights of island hopping for around $1,300 – after a 30% discount – was too tempting to pass up.

My cousin Kim agreed and we planned to bring raincoats and meet in Split to test the budget.

Little about the itinerary was published before departure and nothing was firm.

“Split and Dubrovnik are sorted,” said the captain, who would pilot the ship alone and serve as our guide, on our first day. “Everything in between is an adventure.”

It all started with the Sauturnes, a beautiful Kufner yacht with four comfortable guest cabins, four economical bathrooms where the retractable faucet doubled as a shower faucet, and a spacious galley. Our “crew”, a mix of Australians and Americans aged 18 to 75 – all of whom also took advantage of the promotional price – spent most of their time on top of the boat, where foam mattresses invited sunbathing and an awning on the cabin provided shade.

The weather, which was sunny and comfortably cool, wasn’t our biggest concern. The G Adventures website mentioned well-known islands, including the beaches of Brac and Vis, which represented a convincing Greek idyll in the film “Mamma Mia 2”. But as many places would be closed in the low season, we would proceed, according to the captain, based on the dictates of the weather and conditions on land.

Meals were not included, which meant finding open restaurants was critical. For breakfasts and lunches on board, we each contributed 50 euros (about US$54) towards communal groceries, which we bought at local markets. At night we had dinner in restaurants; AG Adventures advised a budget of $250 to $325 for the week, which was accurate, although we often splurged on Croatian wine (a jug of house red wine averaged $15).

After the frenzy of grocery shopping and moving into the cabin with bunk beds that Kim and I shared, we experienced the Zen of sailing as the ship departed on a sunny morning for Hvar, 70 kilometers long, the longest and supposedly longest island. sunny Croatia. .

Neighboring islands drifted by as the wind shaped the sea into inconstant ripples and swells. A flock of shearwaters flew by at eye level.

Within hours, the summits of steep Hvar appeared, revealing terraced lavender fields and olive orchards. Driving through a long, narrow cove, we arrive at Stari Grad, a village of stone houses with terracotta tiles, as travelers have done since 384 BC, when Greek sailors from the island of Paros settled here.

Our dock provided a front-row view of the fishing boats and cafes that liven up the waterfront. Stari Grad’s attractions, including the Greek ruins of Faros and a 17th-century Venetian cathedral, hadn’t yet opened for the season, but we loved exploring the narrow streets and deserted squares of the old quarter.

From the seafront, a 20-minute aerobic walk up a steep hill crowned by a giant white cross offered views of Stari Grad and the plains beyond, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of 4th-century farmland, with stone walls encircling vineyards and olive groves. . .

That evening, we followed them to Konoba Kokot, a farm-to-table restaurant specializing in “peka,” a type of barbecue where meat is cooked under an iron lid filled with embers. The family who run it opened in the off-season, welcoming us with refreshing shots of rakija, a local herbal liqueur. At a long table under a gazebo, we enjoyed homemade goat’s cheese, wild boar pâté, and, by the fireplace, roast lamb, veal, and octopus with unlimited jugs of red and white wine for 35 euros per person.

Small ships are unmatched in entering small ports, but a yacht trip is also a bit like camping, starting most mornings with DIY instant coffee. Marinas offered free changing rooms with showers.

The cold temperatures have apparently deterred the celebrity-filled mega yachts, which are known to anchor in Hvar Town on the south coast of the island of Hvar. Our captain declared it the “Mykonos of Croatia” as we passed through the port bustling with visitors carrying shopping bags and ice cream cones.

With good weather forecast, we docked in an undeveloped cove east of town. The mooring belonged to the owners of the Moli Onte restaurant, who transported us to disembarkation in a motorized boat, giving us enough time before dinner to visit the fortress above Hvar and have an Ozujsko beer in St. Dalmatian Square.

Back on board, with no artificial light to illuminate the night sky, we went up to the upper deck to watch the stars. While my companions went to bed, I grabbed a blanket and a hat and lay under the stars for the evolving show, waking periodically to see the drama of the rising moon, reflected in the still water.

Fingers of gray rock descended to meet sloping vineyards along Hvar’s southern coast as we set out for its neighbor, Korcula. On our longest day of sailing, five hours, I jumped at the opportunity to play first mate, manning the jib sail lines.

To end the trip, Captain Ljubovic sailed to a quiet cove on the Peljesac Peninsula, where the blue Caribbean waters, cloudless sky and sandy bottom convinced us to dive despite the numbing sea temperatures.

15th-century walls surround Korcula’s historic center, earning it the nickname “Little Dubrovnik.” Beyond stone gates carved with a winged lion representing the empire of Venice, which controlled much of the Adriatic after the 13th century, narrow alleys led to ornate churches and mansions. There was no better historical trip than getting lost in the web of pedestrian paths. Or that’s what we told ourselves as we passed Marco Polo’s supposed house, still closed in pre-season.

Along the seaside walls, restaurants served pizza and seafood under lights strung from pine trees, and we watched the sunset from an old tower, now converted into the Massimo Cocktail Bar, which requires diners to climb a ladder to the roof. , a warning against second rounds.

The most romantic port of the trip was also the busiest, at least in the marina, which hosted a Polish sailing regatta. When I went to the shower at 6am the next morning, I found a group still dancing happily on top of a yacht littered with empty drink bottles and crushed potato chips.

We left Korcula in strong 20 knot “yoke” or southerly winds and Captain Ljubovic let out the sails, saying “You paid for the sailing holiday, not a speedboat”.

As we walked back and forth towards Mljet, the boat tipped over at an uncomfortable angle and we took photos of the ocean foam.

In Mljet, where the western end of the island is home to Mljet National Park, we rented bikes (10 euros) to travel a grueling route through the park’s mountainous spine. On the other side, we cycled through two inland lakes and took a boat trip to a 12th century monastery built on an island in one of them (entrance to the park, 15 euros).

Anchored in the still-sleepy town of Polace, we heard stories of the high season, when around 100 yachts anchored in the bay and members of the band U2 were seen cycling in the park. After a brief swim, the town shone at sunset and the Stella Maris restaurant welcomed us with grilled sea bass (25 euros) and prawns (20 euros).

“I’m really glad I chose this time because I don’t get crowds,” said my shipmate Nova Hey, 46, from Sydney, who was traveling with her 18-year-old daughter.

In the morning, I had the trail to Montokuc peak all to myself. The approximately three-mile round-trip hike reached one of the island’s highest points, a rocky outcrop with stunning panoramas shared by a family of wild goats.

Not long after, the Sauternes’ engine refused to start, leaving us stranded in a national park on a remote island, without mechanics.

The next morning, Captain Ljubovic devised a solution, but it didn’t last long and the engine died again, this time right in front of a cave in Mljet that, we joked, must have been Odysseus’ refuge.

After a morning of light sailing, a mechanic from the mainland arrived by speedboat and within an hour we were driving towards the Franjo Tudman Bridge, which spans the entrance to Dubrovnik’s marina, where warm rains awaited us.

“Dubrovnik is the most expensive city in Croatia,” said Captain Ljubovic as we spent the last of our money, 70 euros, hiring a taxi van to take us to and from the walled heart of the old city, about 15 minutes away. from distance.

With two large cruise ships in port, Dubrovnik was packed with visitors and the price to climb the stone walls that surround the city was a shocking 35 euros. (The next two days Kim and I would spend post-cruise in the city, we purchased the more comprehensive Dubrovnik Pass for 35 euros, which included entry to the walls as well as several museums and public bus transportation.)

On our last night, we measured the lack of crowds versus closed museums; perfect weather for hiking versus inviting water for swimming; ample dock space versus more restaurant options – and we felt like we’d come out ahead sailing bargain season.

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