It’s 6:30 a.m. as the Freedom of Croatia pulls away from the dock, heading into the aquamarine sea along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. The early-morning autumn sun casts a soft glow over the still-sleeping town of Split, the origin of my four-day trip on a crewed private yacht. The plan is to visit four of the more than 1,200 Croatian islands that dot the Adriatic Sea. From my perch on the yacht’s upper deck, I watch the town’s palm tree-lined promenade grow smaller in the distance.
In the last decade, Croatia has become a top vacation spot for Europeans in search of sun and warm seas. Americans have been later in discovering Croatia, but that is slowly changing as the country grows in popularity as a travel destination. Croatia’s Mediterranean climate is perfect for vineyards, olive groves and lavender fields, and its ancient cities, such as Split and Dubrovnik, are well-preserved. Many films and TV series, including the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, were filmed in Croatia, helping to put it on the tourist map of late.
Map by Oksana/stock.adobe.com
Croatia is also famous for its plethora of islands, making island-hopping an excellent way to explore the region. One of the best ways to do so is by chartering a crewed private yacht, ranging from small boats for a family to larger yachts for a group of friends.
Croatia has a long history as a ship-building nation, so it’s no surprise that the Freedom of Croatia was built by a local family. Operated by Goolets, a family-owned private yacht charter company, the yacht has a large dining room (and two onboard chefs), an expansive deck and 19 comfortable staterooms. My friends Meryl and Rebecca and I were invited to join other friends and acquaintances for this sailing trip in Croatia. Our loosely knit group, which soon became fast friends, makes up the entire passenger list. Along with 11 crew members, we’ll spend the next four days visiting Croatian islands and stopping in quiet bays to swim and snorkel along the way.
Our first stop is the island of Brač. The largest island in central Dalmatia, it comprises several villages and towns. We disembark in Bol, home to 1,400 residents, where outdoor cafés with flower boxes and small shops line the waterfront. Many of the island’s ancient buildings were built with radiant white limestone, the same raw material used to build Diocletian’s Palace in Split.
Alfresco dining offers picturesque waterfront views in the town of Bol on the island of Brač; Photo by xbrchx/stock.adobe.com
Walking through a quiet neighborhood along a path shaded by pine trees, my friends and I come to the pebble beach of Zlatni Rat. During the busy summer months, the beach is filled with tourists, but we’re here in October and have the beach to ourselves. I walk through the shallow waves and find the water so clear that I see everything at my feet. Even in early fall, the water is 70 degrees.
Later, we stop at the Stina Winery to sample local wine. Graševina, a white wine with the aroma of sweet apples, is the most widely planted wine grape in Croatia. I purchase a bottle to bring home.
Back on board, we have a delicious lunch and sail to Hvar, Croatia’s most popular island. Humans have lived here for more than 3,000 years, and the town of Stari Grad dates to 385 BC. Originally founded as a Greek colony, it was taken over by the Romans. The Venetians arrived later and left their mark, too.
As in many Croatian towns, that ancient past has been meticulously preserved throughout Hvar. Walking its tidy cobblestone streets, I feel as if I were walking in a postcard. In summer, the streets are filled with tourists, but in the off-season, the sound of my footsteps echoes against the 13th-century city walls. Hvar is a top lavender producer, and I catch the sweet smell of lavender as I pass local shops.
Fortica fortress looms high above the town of Hvar; Photo by daliu/stock.adobe.com
At dusk, my friends and I walk to Fortica, a fortress built by the Venetians in 1278. Bells peal from the illuminated fort, which looms high above the town.
At Gariful, a luxury restaurant along the waterfront, we see Hvar’s modern side. Popular with locals, visitors and international celebrities, this hot spot entices with fresh local fish, produce and wines. Most Croatian cuisine revolves around local seafood and produce, and our meal at Gariful is a three-course delight.
Sailing near the picturesque island of Korčula, we pass quiet coves, pebble beaches and hills covered in olive groves and vineyards. Some of the best Croatian white wines are produced on this tiny island.
Exploring historic Korčula is a journey through the 13th to 16th centuries, says our local guide. She entertains us with fascinating tales of one-time resident Marco Polo. We retrace the island’s rich legends as our guide leads us through the narrow alleys of Old Town.
Sailing on that next morning, our ship’s captain finds a protected cove and drops anchor. The crew pulls out snorkels, standup paddleboards and a jet ski. It’s time to enjoy the water.
Before reaching Vis, we detour to the Blue Cave, a geomorphological monument of nature on the island of Biševo. On a motorboat, we enter the cave through a small opening in the rock. Light streaming through an underwater opening in the cave gives a luminous blue light to the water. It’s an otherworldly experience that delights all aboard.
As we sail into the harbor at the island of Vis, it looks vaguely familiar. That’s because the movie Mama Mia! Here We Go Again was filmed here. I recognize many of the film’s locations and learn that locals appeared as movie extras.
We tour the town of Komiža, population 1,300, with a local guide arranged by Goolets. “This is a true fishing village even today,” he says. “People still make their living from the sea.”
Vis is the farthest inhabited Croatian island from the mainland; Photo by Janna Graber
Then he shows us a very different side of the island. In four-wheel-drive cars, we head up winding roads into the hills. At one point, we stop and walk across what looks to be a grass-covered pasture. During the later years of WWII, our guide tells us, this was an airfield for the British air force. War planes in distress could land here, where they could be quickly repaired and sent back into combat. To commemorate that history, British residents come back once a year for a cricket match on the grounds.
As the sun begins to sink, we drive even higher. Stopping near the top of the island, we have a panoramic view of its coastal villages and winding coastline. Sitting on a flat rock, I watch the sky grow bright pink and then fade to darkness as the sun slowly sinks.
HOW TO VISIT THE CROATIAN ISLANDS
Croatia has become one of the top yachting destinations in the world, but you don’t have to be rich to charter a yacht there. Many charters cost about the same price per person as a luxury cruis
You can choose the charter option that’s right for you, ranging from a basic boat that you operate yourself to a crewed yacht complete with a chef.
A well-respected private yacht company in Croatia, Goolets offers more than 100 vessels at all price points, from wooden Gulets with four cabins to mega yachts for 20 to 24 guests. Goolets is owned by husband-and-wife Alenka and Mitja Mirtič, who launched the company in 2005 after taking their first yachting holiday together and falling in love with cruising—and each other.
Photo by Goolets
After learning your group’s size, desired itinerary and preferred level of service, Goolets will customize a cruise that fits your needs. You can choose to add onboard meals and drinks. The most popular option is to include breakfast and lunch on board but have dinner at a restaurant in each destination.
If a charter yacht doesn’t appeal, you can visit several Croatian islands by ferry. The two main ferry companies, Jadrolinija and Kapetan Luka, offer daily trips from Split to numerous islands.
English is widely spoken throughout Croatia, and there are many excellent hotels, restaurants and shops.
ONE FINAL TIP: Croatia is a bustling destination in the summer, and some places can be crowded. Consider a visit in spring or fall, when prices are lower, crowds are fewer and the weather remains pleasant.