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Click for picturesThe little island
  village of Maslinica,
  approached through
  a string of protecting
  islets, presents a
  classic film set, with
  a baroque castle,
  flowers a-plenty,
fishermen and wine
  barrels by the quay...

The Dalmatian coast and islands of Croatia has been a little like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Our first contacts were when Tito ruled — "We will be forever grateful he kept the Russians out". After his death — We are a (just another) European country". After the 1991/2 conflict — "We have thrown off the last shackles and can now get on with life". All the while, tourism has grown steadily, except for the short hiccup over ten years ago — the British, surprisingly, were last to return. Happily, the suffocating development suffered by some Western Mediterranean countries has been largely avoided.

The scenery has always been stunning, but historically hotel standards were at best variable. Bathplugs were always missing: "Why do you want to sit in your own dirty water" — not a major issue, but it illustrates the lack of understating that was held of clients' expect-ations. It is refreshing to see in the hotels, and in some of the private accommodation, that recent refurbishment enables Croatia to compete with standards anywhere whilst some of the best have conserved the local characteristics. The 1970's monoliths have not been refurbished as many consider they would not fit the ever more demanding holiday markets.

Nowadays, a more relaxed atmosphere is widespread. The conflict, which surprisingly finished as long ago as 1992, has rid Croatia of the all-demanding Federal Government. It was refreshing to find no bitter-ness, just a few jibes at the Serbs — but more a relief that they have freed themselves. One also has to go out of the way to find any
traces of the conflict along the coast.

The old city of Dubrovnik is effectively fully restored, as beautiful as ever and probably in the best state of repair for literally centuries. The ancient fortified ports of Ston and Mali Ston are undergoing extensive repairs. A few pock marks are evident, but much of the work relates to damage caused by an earthquake. Slano is still the most damaged and is a depressing sight, but it is a lovely bay for lying at anchor and swimming or windsurfing.

Yachts and tourists — particularly from Italy, Germany, Australia and America, as well as the British — now flock to sample Dalmatia's delights. So particularly during July and August, there are many visiting yachts. This coast and off-lying islands arguably offer the most varied or complete two weeks' cruising ground in the Mediterranean. Flights before were scarce with only Croatia Airlines providing direct flights into Split and Dubrovnik. However, these are now plentiful and regular with British Airways flying daily into Dubrovnik, for example.

Yachting has literally sailed blithely on. It is a 'drowned' coast so that there are many fjords and an idyllic necklace of islands. This combin-ation offers good sheltered sailing and many safe havens. And it has some of the cleanest waters of the Mediterranean, making this a yachtsman's paradise only spoilt by a few of the marinas — but these now infest most popular sailing grounds around the world.

Arguably, Dalmatia has possibly the best sailing grounds in the Mediterranean. Split is at its heart, which makes the city and neigh-bouring ports a good homeport. Our homeport on this occasion was about half an hour from Split Airport at Kremik Marina, but the attraction is over the hill where the picturesque village of Primosten sits on a former island now connected to the mainland.

Having sailed the area many times, we enjoyed a bareboat charter.
We waved goodbye to our charterers and headed south in a good breeze. Enjoying more wind than normal for September, it was quite manageable. Throughout the summer the prevailing wind is south westerly although stronger winds from north and south can blow. Whilst the northerly Bora is usually a winter wind, it can make its presence felt any time. It is the equivalent of Greece's strong summer wind, the Meltemi. However, the Bora is less consistent. Being more
like a politician, it can veer and gust strongly without notice! As we experienced — just when you thought it was safe to shake out the
last reef…

None of the winds even started to challenge our yacht's seaworth-iness, but the most disturbing observation made was the deterioration of the sailing abilities of charterers in general. In the past, one has always looked up to both the Germans and Austrians as the most able and disciplined of sailors, as they pride themselves in acquiring ever more certificates. However, several times we came across crews on 40-foot bareboats who were seriously and literally out of their depth. They only get away with their lack of skill because the cruising grounds can basically be navigated by eye and the currents and tides are only slight.

During our cruise, we were to visit numerous old favourites and a few new places as well. As there are almost too many options for good overnight stops, it has to be admitted that the decision was often made on the basis of remembering which place has the best restaurant.

We headed out of Kremik for our first planned port of call — the little island village of Maslinica, enchantingly approached through a string
of protecting islets. It presents a classic film set — baroque castle, flowers a-plenty, fishermen and wine barrels by the quayside, two buses a day. Just the film crew is needed.

We sailed straight past, so enjoying our first day's sail that we contin-ued to Rogac further along the indented coastline of Solta Island, which forms part of the Split Gulf. Again, a simple village scene: one shop, one restaurant, one bar, our yacht and one Port Captain.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, Port Captains are the greatest exponents of bureaucracy and all yachtsmen dread their time wasting. Spotting the Rogac Port Captain on the quay, we asked when he wanted the yacht's papers. He told us that he would come to us if he wanted anything — he was obviously too busy washing his car! Things have truly changed in recent years because we never saw another Port Captain on our trip.

Our port of call highlights on the cruise were varied to the extent that they could have been different countries, from the town of Split with 200,000 inhabitants to deserted bays.

Split is the exception in being so large, but its fame arises from the Roman Emperor Diocletian's legacy — a truly great palace which is a mini city in its own right and in which many people still live and work. This 1,700 year-old centrepiece of the harbour front forms the back-drop to the fashion parade with its crowds of people promenading
each evening.

Just across the gulf is Sutivan, a quiet contrast, where the only crowds are the small fishing boats in the palm-fringed harbour. Thompson's Adriatic Pilot describes it as the prettiest village on Brac Island. Strong competition to that claim comes from Milna, a larger village tucked at the end of a deep inlet on its north west coast. But others would prefer Bobovisce or Supetar.

Milna's Venetian architecture, its tiny cathedral and narrow back streets are captivating and photogenic. Sights consigned to the history books are the donkeys carrying the day's harvest or fire wood, but they have been recently replaced with mini-tractors. Less missed is the smelly old sardine factory.

On a grand scale is the dramatic and impressive Hvar city, which as usual for this historic waterway of the Adriatic Sea is steeped in history. Some regard it as being on a par with its more famous neigh-bour, Korcula. It may be a city, but there are still only some 3,000 people. We have visited numerous times but it never fails to excite
and impress. On the downside is the exposed harbour. If the wind is
in the south, one has regrettably to overnight in a tired marina on
one of the nearby off-lying islands.

Hvar Island is reportedly the sunniest island in the Adriatic, which helps it to produce much good wine, but it is also the world's largest source of lavender. The brave can hire a moped and ride over the mountains, passing the lavender terraces, to any of Jelsa, Vrboska and Starigrad. We sailed on. Each village is charming and, space permitting, would warrant waxing lyrical.

Our furthest foray was to Vis Island, used by Tito as his base during part of World War Two and only relatively recently opened up to foreigners. The main town of the same name has a quiet, relaxed atmosphere. Postcards portray the smartest of bands. Their practice room was nearby our mooring and we could only assume that they had all swapped instruments for the evening! We relaxed serenely in the notable Villa Kaliopa restaurant, but next day — due to a swell and a very low entrance — we were unable to re-visit the magical blue grotto on the off-lying islet of Bisevo. It is always worth trying.

Yes, we did eventually catch up with the film set of Maslinica as well as fitting in other visits — including the contrasting bustle of every-one's favourite, Trogir. This tiny island city is wedged between the mainland and Ciovo Island. The narrowest of streets contain lots of restaurants and bars, many al fresco, which creates a great atmosphere.

Everyone has their favourite places and enthuses over their beauty. However, the scale is greater here as the towns of Split and Dubrovnik, together with Trogir, are all UNESCO special world heritage sights.

At the end of our cruise, there was much debate as to which port of call had the best restaurant. Trogir's was lively and buzzing. Vrboska's restaurant owner was most attentive, plying us with complimentary liqueurs. And he even gave us an audio tape of the local klappa singing group. Sutivan's also gave us complimentary walnut liqueurs. No tips were expected, it was just that there were few people in both restaurants and we just struck up conversations.

For emotive atmosphere the Villa Kaliopa in Vis has no equal, so says the author. The tables are spread out under the palm trees, surround-ed by scented shrubs in the walled, formal gardens of the villa which was built by the famed pharmacist, Garibaldi. Diners eat and drink to subtly piped music whilst rubbing shoulders with the numerous spotlit statues and putti.

The food in Dalmatia has always been very acceptable in private res-taurants and now the standards have been raised further. It is very much a sea food and red meat cuisine, with most restaurants offering very similar menus and prices. The range of dishes is now widening — although still a little limited, but very adequate for two weeks' holiday. Vegetarians are progressively less reliant on having to fall back on pizzas, eggs, salads and savoury and sweet pancakes in most places. The Italian-style ice creams are liked by all. Incidentally, we drink the tap water as it is some of the purest in Europe.

The cost of ingredients in shops is a little less than in the UK and —
as the restaurants are seemingly not much more expensive than the ingredients — it is not really economic to self-cater. Although a salad lunch under sail or at anchor in a remote bay can make it worthwhile. It is interesting that the Croatian restaurants always seem to have ingredients and things that are never seen in shops. Sadly, due to the devastating scrub fires every year, barbecue fires can no longer be permitted. Not so many years ago, a motor yachtsman tried to sub-stitute a flare which ignited and promptly consumed several hundred acres of greenery.

A typical three course evening meal will cost around £12 per person inclusive of drinks, but not bottled wine. Drinking branded wine in restaurants is now relatively expensive as both the equivalent of the strict appellation contrôlée and — one assumes — cartels have upped the prices in restaurants and shops. However, an alternative is to try the local wine sold by the jug — but ask to taste first just in case! Some are more acceptable than others.

A typical menu would be as follows: The starter would be any Prsut — the excellent local smoked ham, octopus salad, various local sheep or cow's milk cheeses (their fried cheeses being particularly good), and soups. One of our best was lobster soup in the Domino Restaurant in Dubrovnik. The main courses feature steaks, which are especially good value, of all the familiar styles and always very tender, spicy sausages and spicy meatballs, pork, occasionally lamb plus chicken — which was always regarded as too inferior to offer but is liked by the tourists.

The choice of fish varies with the day's catch but always with squid and often with mussels and langoustine. Confusingly and frequently they are priced by the kilo. Lobster is relatively expensive compared with steak, but it is still offered at a very acceptable price. You will
be offered various salads and vegetables, including the old staple of French fries. Finish off the meal with an ice cream or pancakes plus coffee — either in the restaurant or at a nearby café for a change of atmosphere.

Back to the wine. Look carefully and you can find an inexpensive but very palatable unbranded wine in shops. Some real bargains can be found in the dark doorways of the local producers — a barely legible sign is often just visible — but you must taste first and it is safer to stick to red wines. They also sell the local eaux de vie fire waters of plum brandy — Slivovic, Lozavaca and Travarica. It is life preserving
to buy those spirits in shops whilst the good local vodka, brandies
and gin will be value for money.

Our latest visit was a great success. In addition to the sailing, we had travelled by car down to the Dubrovnik area. It was heartening to find that throughout the coast and islands the area is thriving and stand-ards of accommodation improving daily. The Venetians first sailed these waters, which certainly now provide one of the best sailing areas in
the Mediterranean. The Croatians are well aware of what a treasure they have and are determined (apart from building marinas in the wrong places) to preserve it as best they can. — Tim Stevens


Sunscape Yachting
— Run by Julian Sheppard, whose background in sailing in Croatia goes back to the 1980s when he worked with Bonnie and Tim. Offer two well balanced flotilla cruises from their base in Split. Telephone: 0870 444 2842.
Sunscape Yachting Click to go there now

Croatian National Tourist Office
+44 (0) 208 563 7979.

Croatia Airlines offers regular scheduled services.
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---------------------------------------------------------------- Dalmatian Islands