Cruising in Croatia - Why size matters
Venice, Split and Dubrovnik, three iconic destinations in the Adriatic that are a ‘must’ for most cruise ship passengers cruising this most beautiful of coastlines. The reason they are a must? They are, each of them, fantastic places to visit in their own right, but the main reason is that even most small to medium size cruise ships can’t actually get into to any other ports along Croatia’s coastline – Which is perfect as that means that the small ports and towns are not inundated by hordes of cruise passengers and that their skylines are not dwarfed by the multi-story behemoths otherwise known as cruise ships.
Why our passengers don’t need binoculars
Having just returned from a glorious weeks cruising on what, by local standards is quite a large vessel, I can confirm that, if you want to see and experience some of the very best of Croatia, any vessel that weighs more than 500 tonnes is worth avoiding. 500 tonnes is the limit for most of the port and villages along Croatia’s Adriatic coast. Ships that are considered small in most of the world, have to drop anchor off shore and tender their passengers to and from the port, while the medium to large vessels can’t get anywhere near most of the nicer spots anyway, though their passengers may get a glimpse through their binoculars.
We joined MV Futura in the harbour at Split, just a short stone’s throw from the extraordinary Diocletian’s Palace which is worth a visit in its own right. Diocletian's Palace should have been one of the ancient wonders of the world and still to this day dominates life in central Split; A traffic free warren of restaurants, homes, cafes, shops and monuments.
Grow your own dinners
We cruised the calm waters of the Adriatic to the ancient town of Korcula, stopping for a swim in a secluded bay en-route and passing a host of islands of all shapes and sizes. Korcula is a dramatic walled town and the birthplace of Marco Polo. We explored the town on foot before indulging in a tasting of some very local and very acceptable wine and cheese. After a little retail therapy we headed inland to a mountain farm and restaurant. Many restaurants in this part of the world grow their own vegetables and olives, and make their own wine and cheese, and some catch their own fish too. Apart from tasting all the better, our visits do help maintain the local way of life and culture by providing a really important income to many of these small scale farms on the islands and the coastal region.
Next stop Mljet, National Park with a famous monastery on an island on a lake on an island. We took time to wander round the salt lakes in the shade of Croatia’s greenest island, on foot and by bike, before hopping on the boat where the small lake meets the large lake to visit the Benedictine monastery and taking a cooling swim while watching the many fish in the clear waters. This island is tranquil, completely unspoiled and much more wooded than any of its neighbours.
Dubrovnik is beautiful, very well known, and best visited in the mornings and evenings when the swarms from the cruise ships have retreated. I highly recommend the 2 kilometre walk around the city walls to give you the best views and feel for Dubrovnik.
Our next few days were spent in a haze of swimming in tiny bays, the waters are warm and clear enough to make snorkelling worthwhile - This isn’t the Great Barrier Reef, but the sea is so clear you should be able to see plenty of fish.
In the evenings we visited a collection of small ports and harbours, Kusice, Hvar & Bol, where we sampled many local restaurants, flavours and possibly slightly too much grape juice. Bol is a very small yet perfectly formed fisherman’s village where the open air cafes huddle along the harbour wall. The nearby Zlatni Rat (Golden Horn) is the most famous and remarkable beach in Croatia, protruding like a crocodile's snout into the clear Adriatic waters (though occasionally the action of the wind and waves can change the shape of the beach radically).
Hvar is the jetset resort of the Adriatic. The buildings around the town square, including the cathedral, date from the 16-18th Centuries, and the square itself was an inlet of the sea until filled in and paved in about 1720. The walk up the the fort that dominates the town is a good leg stretch and the views are spectacular. And it was from this vantage point we became most smug, looking down on our vessel moored in the harbour below, as the passengers from a small to medium sized cruise vessel were being tendered to and fro from the vessel anchored way off-shore. Some 600 passengers being tendered ashore and back - It’s going to take a while.
Finally we made our way back to spectacular Split which, unfashionably, I preferred to Dubrovnik. There was a real buzz about the place and, although it is a major tourist destination and a great place to spot some vast megayachts, it is also much more of a place for the local population, who make use of the many shops bars and restaurants (and fish market).
Custom made - Slartibartfast implicated?
If you had to design a region specifically for small ship cruising you would probably end up with something very close to Croatia’s Adriatic coastline. Slartibartfast (According to the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, he liked to design fjords when building a new planet) would have added the coast of Montenegro, more specifically Kotor Bay, but I think he could have been persuaded to look at Croatia too. Dozens of small islands, covered with small, medieval towns supplied from a plethora of local farms and surrounded by small bays and inlets.
There may be a better place for small cruise ship cruising, but I can’t think of one - on this planet anyway.
See our selection of small ship cruises in Croatia