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Beguiled & Besmitten

2013 October 4

A family leaves the little inconveniences behind and discovers the charms of charter cruising along Croatia's Dalmatian Coast

Even the best travel guidebooks are merely a reflection of someone else's experience, so we embraced the journey of sailing in Croatia with open minds and enthusiastic hearts. We had read that the scars of the country's war that ended in the 1990s were still evident in the landscape and the people. We heard of difficulties using the local currencies, the Kuna and Lipa, and of food scarcities, unpredictable winds, baffling language and a general gruffness left over from the days of Soviet influence.

So it was no surprise that buying a bag of ice required both resourcefulness and Kuna, the latter of which was hard to come by during our Sunday arrival just outside Dubrovnik because the banks were closed. We hoped all would be straightened out by morning, only to learn then from the marina bank clerk that she was out of Kuna and uncertain when more would arrive. Ice was nonexistent and the onboard refrigeration aboard our chartered Jeanneau 44i sloop Soyo Kaze struggled in the Mediterranean heat.

We headed for a Konzum grocery store just outside the marina gate to supplement our pre-ordered provisions with chicken, fruits, vegetables, bread, beer and wine, not knowing if the islands on our itinerary would have similar markets. We were warned that credit cards are not accepted in many places.

At this point, still jet lagged, we were unaware the charms of Croatia can remain hidden if you allow yourself to become blinded by the little frustrations and inconsistencies, not unlike those encountered when sailing in Italy. But before our week on the Dalmatian Coast came to an end, we would undergo an insidious transformation, beguiled by the country's ancient cities, natural beauty, balmy winds, clean drinking water, turquoise sea, soaring mountains and proud people-not to mention the ice cream.

Our crew of my wife Christine, daughter Juliana, son Zack and his girlfriend Lizz Vaghi, rejoiced at leaving the dock on the first day of the cruise. It was midmorning as we chugged down the deep inlet toward the Adriatic Sea, passing beneath the Franjo Tudman suspension bridge, armed with a Navionics chartplotter, Garmin electronic BlueCharts in our handheld GPS, paper charts, ruler and dividers. Our excitement was palpable. We were looking for adventure, exotic ports, things foreign.

Sipan and Lopud, components of the Elaphite Islands, were the two most logical stops for our first night on the hook. We picked Sipan because it was farther along our route, and three hours later we were sailing into the sheltered bay. The fishing town bragged a church, two tiny markets and a few restaurants, so we rowed the inflatable to the quay that traces the harbor perimeter. A restaurant owner was nice enough to take our U.S. dollars for a bag of ice. It meant cold rum drinks and, from our perspective, could very well have been the last bag of ice in Croatia. We wanted to buy fresh fish but each time we ask someone, the answer, accompanied by a shrug, was the same: "No fish today. All fish go to Dubrovnik."

Perplexed, we joked among ourselves the children of Sipan are probably nurtured on a book entitled "All Fish Go to Dubrovnik." We began to wonder whether it was possible to buy a fish in a country renowned for its seafood. Zack and Lizz prepared a feast of chicken and vegetables and we got our first taste of the local wines, which along with the extra-virgin olive oil proved to be a highlight of the region's gastronomy. The night passed quietly under a full moon, the tide change of less than 2 feet barely spinning our sloop. There were so few lights the sky was literally aglow with stars, and in the trees all around the sound of cicadas resonated. It was a song we came to appreciate.

The early morning breeze was up so we plotted a course for Ston, which is on the mainland's Peljesac Peninsula. It was a straight shot northwest to the narrow inlet and the village of Broce. Sailors on a LinkedIn forum suggested Ston as a spot for oysters, another Croatian delicacy, but it meant navigating the long and potentially shoaled Kobas Stonski Kanal. Zack and Lizz wanted oysters. So did I. We entered the marked channel and sailed until we reached Broce, anchoring near the mouth of the canal in 20 feet of water.

The hamlets of Ston and Mali Stone didn't reveal themselves until we were 50 yards off. Ston's medieval stonewalls with guard turrets and ramparts-the longest in the world after China's Great Wall-came into view, snaking up the steep mountainside. Two sailboats larger than ours were anchored.

With the dinghy at the dock, we wandered, impressed by the saltpans, flourishing market in the main square, and a slew of restaurants and churches that quickly spread upward with the lay of the land. An old woman let us sample her extra-virgin olive oil from a jug. It was among the finest I have ever tasted. We climbed the wall, but it was hot. A better idea dawned: retreat to a narrow alley darkened by tarps and umbrellas, where the restaurant menu offered three kinds of risotto made of mussels, shrimp and a black version darkened by octopus ink. It was here we finally got to taste Ston's delectable oysters.

Rather than spend the night anchored at the Ston canal entrance, we sailed southwest for Mljet, an unspoiled island 20 miles long, with a sprawling national park, two interior saltwater lakes and a 1,000-year-old Benedictine monastery. We were awed by the mountain range to starboard, its jagged peaks nearing 5,000 feet. After sailing nearly the entire island of Mljet at 8 knots, a glorious experience all of us would gladly relive, we ducked into Polace at the western end, weaving through channels flanked by rocky outcroppings and dense foliage.

Once again we consulted our trusty cruising guide, the Croatia Cruising Companion by Jane Cody and John Nash, published by Wiley Nautical Publishing. The book provided charts and essential information for each anchorage. Big yachts were tucked into nooks and crannies, stern lines tied to trees. Although the depthsounder displayed 90 feet, we approached cautiously under sail until the lush anchorage came into sight. Two rangers soon arrived in a skiff to collect a per-person park fee the equivalent of about $20, valid for seven days. The fee covered the bus ride to the inland lakes and ferry to the monastery.

The anchorage at Polace unveiled itself as a true hurricane hole, so sheltered the surface was a mirror. We were one of about 40 boats, the most we had seen in any one place. Many languages carried over the water, but we heard no English. We hiked, snorkeled along the shore, and again dined in the cockpit, listening to Italian radio and playing cards until nightfall, eventually falling asleep to the cicadas' music.

Ideally we would have spent another day in Polace, but Croatia has dozens of islands to explore, so we set sail northwest for the island of Kor?ula, excited by the prospect of visiting Marco Polo's birthplace and the possibility of attending a Moreska sword dance. Kor?ula Town on the east end of the island, often called Little Dubrovnik because of its medieval stone ramparts and narrow streets, was bustling. We came in under sail and med moored at the pricey ACI Marina docks and paid the equivalent of $130 per night, glad to refill the water tanks, connect to shore power, recharge our electronics, buy bags of ice and enjoy the luxury of being able to step off the boat into a city built during the Middle Ages. Within minutes of tying up, an elderly woman offered to sell Zack a wheel of Trappist cheese. The marina showers were immaculate so we lingered under the plentiful warm water before striking out onto streets where sandal-clad Roman soldiers once walked. The restaurant choices were seemingly endless. We sampled the local chicken kabobs, sardines, sea bass and pizza while quaffing local beer. Nearly every street was lined with outdoor cafes, some perched on the ramparts overlooking the harbor.

Kor?ula Town was clearly the sort of place where you could spend hours sipping cappuccino, espresso and lemoncello while listening to church bells. Julie and Christine were enraptured by the locally jewelry, much of it handcrafted with red Adriatic coral. Zack and Lizz vanished into the maze of streets, returning to tell us about Massimo, an outdoor cocktail bar atop an ancient stone turret. Julie insisted we head there immediately. Two metal staircases and a wooden ladder led to the roof, which was crowded. We squeezed into the mix and ordered wonderfully concocted ice-cold drinks that weren't shy on the key ingredients.

Kor?ula's famous sword dance is only performed once a week in summer, so we stayed the night and bought tickets for the next evening's show, performed in a makeshift stone arena. The performers in lavish costume were all men, with one exception, the woman over whom their disagreement focused. The 40-minute dance started slowly but eventually turned to frenzy, the men from both camps slashing at each other with two, stubby metal swords. Blood spilt and sparks flew as the blades collided as the audience cheered wildly.

Determined to buy fresh fish, Zack scurried into town at 7 a.m. and was finally successful. He returned carrying sea bass and sole. We reluctantly slipped our lines, vowing to return to this enchanting island. With little wind, it was a 30-mile motorsail eastward to Lopud Island, but still morning when we arrived at the small settlement with its sandy beach. Croatia isn't known for its beaches, but those on Lopud Island supposedly ranked the best. Nearly a dozen sailboats were bobbing at anchor amid weaving jets skis, work barges, passenger ferries, fishing skiffs, water skiers and muscular powerboats. It was a bit of an upscale circus atmosphere. Once ashore we strolled the waterfront lined with restaurants, boutique shops and coffee bars, relishing the fresh croissants and ice cream.

By Caribbean standards, the beaches here would not have taken honors. But in Croatia, Lopud's thin strand of dark sand and the beach known as Uvala Sunj on the opposite side of the island was rated highly. It was a rolling night at anchor. In the morning we sailed around the island to see Uvala Sunj first hand. The tiny bay was jammed with anchored boats, the beach a mass of sun worshippers. With no desire to fight the crowd, we shoved off and simply sailed for several hours, awed by the rugged and beautiful mountains along the coast that divides Croatia from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The thought of spending our last night afloat at the dock made everyone glum, so we studied the chart and decided on Veliki Zaton, the closest anchorage to the inlet we would need to traverse to reach the Sunsail base by 8 a.m. Veliki Zaton wasn't much of an anchorage, but the sand and kelp bottom held us firmly. We snorkeled. Zack got squirted by octopus ink and pricked by urchins. It was an opportunity to turn the remaining provisions into a makeshift feast.

The sound of anchor chains woke us before dawn. The only two sailboats in sight had crisscrossed and there was a shouting match going on in French as they sorted out the mess. The wind was blowing 25 knots, the short sets of waves getting choppy, yet we could see it was dead calm outside the little bay. Our sloop bounced until we sailed into the flat water. Soon we were at the Sunsail dock, backing stern-to in Mediterranean fashion. The boat had bow thrusters but we didn't need them. Cleaning crews were anxiously awaiting our departure. Our spirits were buoyed only by the fact that we were headed to the five-star Bellevue Hotel in Dubrovnik and not straight to the airport.

Oozing with ancient culture, Dubrovnik was unlike any other city we visited, so authentic it serves as a backdrop for the fictional fortress King's Landing in the hit television series "Game of Thrones." We expected that at any moment our favorite characters would dart across an alley brandishing sword or dagger.

The wall was astounding, both as a feat of architecture and military fortress. It took us three hours to walk it in the unrelenting midday sun. Eighty feet below, small sailboats and fishing vessels bobbed in the harbor. Laundry hung from lines behind stone buildings, a reminder this wasn't a Disney franchise and that people still live here under red-tile roofs. No cars were allowed beyond the drawbridge.

Inside the massive wooden gates, the old city underwent a transformation at nightfall. Quiet alleys came alive, the candlelit tables filled with people eating, drinking, laughing. Music emanated from every quarter. Art galleries and opera performances beckoned passersby. All was vibrant, magical, and we felt privileged to be part of it.

Sasa Racunica, the Bellevue Hotel's executive chef, said the Dalmatian Coast is blessed with plentiful seafood that shapes the regional cuisine. As he put it, "Fresh every day. Sea to table." The octopus salad, sea bass, risotto and langostina at his restaurant, Vapor, were some of the finest we tasted in Croatia.

At the foot of the towering cliff behind our hotel, guests and locals floated effortlessly for hours in the blue sea, a national pastime we witnessed at every turn. From our balcony, it resembled a loosely choreographed ballet. People were climbing to the highest points of the craggy cliffs and leaping into the water. We joined them and floated, which was the lesson we learned in Croatia: Don't get mired in the miniscule, just float, let your preconceptions drift away, and enjoy this emerging Mediterranean jewel where the absence of industry and overdevelopment affords healthy air, unpolluted groundwater and an opportunity to sail through history.

For more information on this charter, visit www.sunsail.com.