Our Cruising Columnist knows a thing or two about holidays at sea. So what's the voyage that has her and her travelling companion reaching for the superlatives?
"This has to be our best holiday ever," says my husband Dion as he stretches out on a sun lounger cradling a long glass of ice-cold beer.
This best holiday ever is a 13-night cruise of the Croatian islands.
Our journey begins in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, where we are to spend two nights at the central Palace Hotel. The hotel has a sense of old-fashioned grandeur but with bedrooms that are big and bright.
Here we are to meet our fellow travellers, who until now have just been a list of names. Over the next two days they arrive from a variety of destinations, some just beginning extended holidays and others having spent time exploring elsewhere.
The majority of our fellow passengers hail from Perth, which leads to a lot of friendly banter and rivalry throughout the cruise as our preferred WA football teams head towards the grand final.
Exploring Zagreb, we find it is divided into three parts: the fortified Upper Town, home to St Mark’s Church and the Croatian parliament (Sabor); the Donji grad (Lower Town), with its shops, restaurants, cafes, theatres and parks; and finally the modern area of Novi Zagreb, which is a jungle of high-rise buildings.
Zagreb has more museums per square metre than any other city in the world. The Museum of Broken Relationships is perhaps the most original and still accepts exhibits from dejected lovers.
Leaving Zagreb, we drive 130km to the coastal city of Rijeka, where we will board our home for the next 13 nights, the 18-cabin Emanuel. This very comfortable vessel started life in Split in 1955 as a 300-passenger ferry based in Dubrovnik and servicing the surrounding islands. In 1995, it was sold as scrap and after extensive renovation commenced its first commercial voyage in 2006. Emanuel now boasts warm, wooden sun decks, a dining room with a bar and passenger cabins on the bottom two decks.
Before setting off, we are treated to a guided coach tour of the Istrian countryside, visiting the ancient town of Pula, with its well-preserved Roman amphitheatre. We then take to the hills to a family homestead where we are welcomed by a group of local folk singers in traditional costume who entertain us throughout the magnificent lunch of slow-roasted ox.
Working off lunch, we walk around the medieval hilltop town of Motovun, taking in the panoramic views across the countryside before proceeding to Opatija, where the Emanuel is waiting for us, having repositioned during the day.
Mainland Croatia hugs the North Adriatic coast. Because of its strategic coastal position, this beautiful, rugged and mountainous country has seen numerous different rulers. The differing occupations are reflected in buildings throughout the country, where beautiful Romanesque churches are complemented by Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings from the Venetian period. Scattered along the coast like a broken string of pearls are more than 1800 Croatian islands, of which only 47 are occupied. The islands’ inhabitants are mainly employed in the tourism industry, the life-blood of this country, while the others try to eke out a living from the rocky earth, growing olives and lavender and making wine.
The next morning sees the start of our cruise, which will take us through the Kvarner Gulf, along the coastline and down to Dubrovnik, calling in each day to explore the small islands dotted along the way and anchoring in bays to take cooling dips in the crystal-clear waters.
Throughout the cruise, the crew of seven makes every effort to make our holiday as pleasurable as possible. Ante, the cruise director, is a Mister Fix-it. He manages to come up with everything that is required or requested — always with a minimum of fuss and a dazzling smile.
Our first island call is Mali Losinj, followed by the beautiful ancient Roman colony of Zadar. Here, as at each port, we are met by a local English-speaking guide who gives us an insight into each island’s history, individuality, population and idiosyncrasies.
Next is Trogir, an island sandwiched between the mainland and the holiday island of Ciovo.
One guide labels this island as the least desirable place to stay overnight due to the pealing of bells from the island’s 13 churches, the low-flying aircraft going in and out of Split airport and the noisy revellers coming over the connecting bridge from Ciovo.
The small Dalmatian town of Omis, on the Cetina river and surrounded by gorges, is our next port of call. This island has an intriguing pirate history. As a permanent reminder of its past, the fortress of Mirabela, once used by the pirates as a lookout over the Channel of Brac, rises above the rooftops. Here, wandering the narrow, cobbled streets — across which the houses lean, as if to kiss — you can almost see the ghosts of old.
The next day sees us in Pucisca, on the island of Brac, famous for its white stone. Brac stone has been used for centuries in the world’s palaces and cathedrals, most notably in the White House. We take a look inside the island’s special stonemasonry school, one of only a few in Europe, where pupils are taught not only the normal school curriculum but also the age-old stonemasonry skills, using the same tools as those in the past.
On the island of Vis, we inspect the caves that were Tito’s headquarters during World War II and see the signs of former British occupation, such as old airstrips and military camps.
Next day sees us in the ancient walled city of Korcula, believed by many (especially Croatians) to be the birthplace of Marco Polo.
Nearing the end of our cruise we visit Mljet, one of Croatia’s national parks. This island has a long history of ecological damage. In order to ease their transport problems, Benedictine monks, once the feudal lords, dug a channel to the south coast from the lake Veliko Jezero, causing the freshwater lakes to turn into seawater.
Even more damage has been caused by small Asian mongooses introduced to the island in the early 20th century to reduce the prevalent population of venomous snakes. This proved to be very successful but in the process most of the island’s birdlife has also been wiped out.
On our last day, we sail past the beautiful walled medieval city of Dubrovnik, perched high on the edge of the cliffs. From this vantage point, we pass by the cliff face and the towering walls surrounding the city, which still show the scars of the Homeland wars.
We turn back to the quiet bay of Zaton, where we will anchor for the night.
Here Dion and I sadly leave the Emanuel, because of time restraints.
Once again Ante has catered for us by arranging a car to meet us for an early airport departure as well as a rubber duckie ride to get us ashore in plenty of time.
This is the end of our best holiday ever and we have to bid a fond farewell to our fellow passengers, who will disembark in Dubrovnik for the final stage of their holiday back through Split and the Plitvice Lakes to Zagreb.
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