Although touted as the new place to be seen, Natarsha Brown finds that it is still possible to find your own intimate corner of Croatia.
The early spring sun rises over the Dinaric Alps, casting the reflections of the terracotta-roofed villages along the craggy shoreline across the crystal-clear waters and up the bright, white hull of Futura, a 47-metre-long sailing yacht drifting by just offshore. Mimosa in hand, I luxuriate in the warmth of the sundeck’s Jacuzzi, taking it all in with nothing and no one in sight except for the moving theatre of Croatia’s spectacular Dalmatian Coast. Kilometre upon kilometre of imposing limestone karsts — speckled with olive trees, grapevines and fields of perfumed lavender and orange blossoms — gives us a wonderland of hidden beaches and private coves. And enveloping it all: water as clear as a glass.
© LUCINDA HAYDEN
Island-hopping through time
In Croatia, bigger isn’t necessarily better — since larger ships are unable to access harbours in the heart of cities and smaller towns — and Katarina Line’s fleet of premium and deluxe yachts are the perfect way to explore the corners of the ‘Land of 1,000 Islands’. Futura is not a racer, with a cruising speed of nine nautical miles, 19 cabins and a lounging sundeck totalling a surface of 200 square metres; she is an intimate and elegant setting. Harking back to yesteryear, when cruising was a high society affair that called for gourmet cuisine and fancy dress, the concept is simple yet genius: lower density vessels focused on immersing discerning seafarers in inspiring destinations.
Our first port of call is the most beautiful of Croatia’s islands and its best-kept secret. From the water, Korčula is the archetype of postcard-perfect. Jutting out into the sea, its 14th-century town walls cocoon a melange of beautifully restored Renaissance buildings, Romanesque cathedrals and marble-paved alleyways. Chic restaurants line the fringes, where contented tourists sip glasses of Pošip – the local white – and enjoy views of the mainland’s mountains across the Pelješac Channel. We arrive with plenty of time to wander its narrow streets with our local guide, Andrea, who points out the alleged birthplace of Marco Polo.
© KATARINA LINE
The mini pearl of the Adriatic
If Dubrovnik is the pearl of the Adriatic, Hvar is the mini pearl of the Adriatic; offering the country’s most sophisticated hotels, most modern and innovative restaurants and the general sense that this is the place to see and be seen. The harbour hums with the quiet energy of the wealthy and the well-heeled, the destination of choice among the likes of Roman Abramovich, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Bill Gates and the Hollywood set. Newcomers quickly settle into the Hvar rhythm: a late-morning breakfast in a shady part of St Stephen’s Square; a lazy afternoon at the beach followed by sundowner cocktails at Hula Hula; and by 10pm everyone is glam and back on the streets, eating, drinking and shimmying on harbourside terraces beneath a roof of stars.
Although host to A Midsummer Night’s Dream-type madness in the mid-year, come shoulder season, Hvar returns to its mysterious and medieval self. Its traffic-free streets and exquisitely ornamented buildings are reminiscent of Venice, and looming above it all is the grandiose Fortress Fortica Španjola, unfurling down the hillside towards the patchwork of red rooftops, myriad of churches and megayachts in the marina below.
© LUCINDA HAYDEN
The biggest of the Adriatic islands, Brač is home to Croatia’s most famous stretch of sand, the alluring Zlatni Rat beach. We dock, and I look up to see the epitome of a castaway island: a spit of white pebbles that tapers into the sea, made dramatic by its backdrop of towering pine-forested mountains. In town, our first stop is Stina, a local winery operating a cellar and wine tasting room on the waterfront, where we taste the top drops, including its Plavac Mali. Then to the local markets, where a capella groups croon beneath crumbling ivy-clad porticos while I stock up on cherries, almonds, bottles of chilli olive oil and truffle salt.
I’m unsure whether it is the tranquillity of the early season, the traces of history or the small-town ease of the locals themselves, but I have never before felt so acutely that I have stepped back through the pages of time. It’s not hard to believe that the islands look the same as they always have or that, for all its increasing popularity, Croatia will always retain its beguiling charm.