Words by Robyn Mitchell
After their stunning performance to take second place at this year’s FIFA World Cup, Croatians have yet something else of which to be proud. This young nation, which stepped out from the Bosnian war of the mid-1990s, should be congratulated for investing in sports development just as it has bolstered its attraction for international tourists.
While some visitors to Croatia will be following in Game of Thrones footsteps, and others will be seeking it out as a destination that until not so long ago wasn’t featured in the itineraries of larger touring companies and cruise lines, savvy travellers - especially those who prefer a vessel to a vehicle - are realising that small ship cruising is the way to explore this Balkan country.
Croatia boasts around 1780 kilometres of Adriatic coastline, land which was historically strategically significant to the maritime trading routes to and from Venice. Many of the seaside towns along this Dalmatian coast started life as important ports for ships carrying cargo from faraway places back to Europe. Today, their robust protective walls house a treasure trove of narrow cobbled streets, lined with an assortment of Intsa-worthy buildings, and leading into picturesque town squares adorned with colourful umbrellas inviting you to stop awhile at one of the many cafes or gelateria.
Onboard the Peregrine Dalmatia, we have an adventurous few days ahead of us as we sail from Split to Sibenik, Zadar, Primosteen and Trogir – and take in a side trip to walk amongst the lakes of Plitivice National Park.
Embodying the small adventure cruise ship to perfection, the Peregrine Dalmatia takes up to 31 guests across 16 cabins and features a variety of communal spaces including a panoramic dining room and large rooftop sun deck complete with comfortable seating and sun loungers. It’s also equipped with kayaks, SUPs and snorkelling gear – very necessary because while this cruise visits some amazing ancient towns it also takes us to the stunning islands and sparkling waters of the Kornati National Park.
No matter where we’re visiting, our small ship is the perfect size to berth right in the heart of the action. We’re never more than a few minutes’ walk to the old town centres where we find markets selling tantalising produce and restaurants tempting us with local dishes. Prices are reasonable, the service is spot on and the people are friendly.
In some ports, we spend time with a local guide uncovering more of the history and character of the place. From ancient Roman times, through the conflict period and until present day, each town leaves an impression. Zadar is particularly memorable with its 9th century St Donatus Church and 20th century Sea Organ and Greeting to the Sun contemporary installations.
As our time comes to an end I’m reminded why small group travel is so sought after. I spent my time in the company of friends old and new, more time than I would have had if I’d been travelling without the benefit of a tour leader who knew all the local secrets and showed us around his homeland with passion and insight. I learnt more because instead of being preoccupied about where we had to get to next or which restaurant to try, my mind was clear and open – ready to appreciate the new places I was visiting and create memories I’m still enjoying now.