Croatia

A Swell Time

Words Danika Porter

Photos Danika Porter

February 2017 from issue 49

A Swell Time

The upside is a complete lack of crowds. On the other hand, the weather can be a little unpredictable. Danika Porter sails from Dubrovnik out of season and discovers a charming coastline dotted with idyllic islands.

For three hours, we’ve been taking advantage of strong winds, weaving along the coastline and seeking refuge from the building momentum of the open swell. Sheer limestone, topped with thick vegetation, erupts from the water to create tall rocky islands. We’re heading towards Ston, a southern town on Croatia’s Pelješac Peninsula.

As we sail up the inlet, a European twin to the Great Wall of China materialises on the hills before us. Fortifications enclose the town then snake up over the mountain. Travelling five kilometres, all the way to Mali Ston (Little Ston), it is the world’s second-longest wall.

It’s day four of our five-day sailing adventure along the South Dalmatian coast. Summer is still on its way, and the weather in these parts can be somewhat unpredictable at this time of year. When we boarded the catamaran Tom Sawyer in Dubrovnik, our skipper Zeljko warned the itinerary would change depending on conditions. The upside is we’re dodging the massive summer crowds who’ll flock to the area in the coming weeks. As we sailed away from the city we passed three colossal cruise liners – soon, there’ll be 12 a day heading into the harbour.

Ston isn’t only famous for its wall. It’s also renowned for its superior oysters and mussels. Before we head to shore, I pocket a lemon from the galley in the hope a delicious slippery partner can be found. We are greeted by Zeljko’s friends Ante and Sanja, who own Bistro Stagnum. Ante drives us to Little Ston to meet his brother Branko, who happens to be a third-generation oyster farmer. The fertile waters are clustered with oyster farms that are only detectable by simple wooden frames poised just above the surface.

Branko arrives in his dinghy with freshly hauled oyster lines and deftly cuts the craggy shells free from the overgrown nets. He shucks each one to reveal the salty treats within. It is prime oyster season, so these mature beauties are giant nuggets of meaty, creamy flesh. It’s a rustic setting, just a weathered table by the water, but I’m in oyster heaven. Branko scoops a massive bounty of fresh mussels into a bag for us to deliver to Sanja.

Ante and Sanja have kindly opened their restaurant courtyard to serve us lunch, and we’re soon tucking into platters of steaming mussels and fresh bread. Such a meal would not be complete without a crisp white, and Ante serves a delicious žlahtina wine indigenous to the island of Krk, much further north.

Long seafood lunches aren’t exactly unheard of when it comes to exploring the Croatian coastline, but afterwards I’m reminded of why this one with Huck Finn Adventure Travel is different. Instead of heading back to the Tom Sawyer and lazing away the afternoon on deck, we burn off lunch climbing the narrow steps of the town walls.

From Ston’s town walls, tessellated salt flats – the source of another of Ston’s highly regarded exports – are clearly visible. For a tiny town it packs a big produce punch, but we’ve got a three-hour journey to reach our evening stop at Zaton Bay, so we grab just one more thing: a bottle of Ston’s finest wine to sip on the deck. As the sun sets behind us, we take turns playing our favourite tunes. With musical tastes spanning the world, it turns out to be quite the eclectic twilight mix tape.

Loaded on to the Tom Sawyer is a collection of bicycles, kayaks and paddleboards, so instead of simply peering at tiny dots of paradise like Lopud Island – it has just a hundred residents during winter and travel is by foot, bicycle and golf cart – we take on its landscape. On that first day – the first stop no less – we hiked to Polacica peak. After a lung-straining ascent, we arrived at the remnants of the fifteenth-century Sutvraˇc fort. This is guide Maja’s local secret and clearly not on the tourist trail. The fort has crumbled beyond recognition and navigating around it is quite treacherous. We end up 215 metres above where our catamaran awaits, and the view of Lopud and the ocean dotted with islands was a breathtaking introduction to what was yet to be explored.

Our days are filled with sailing and a variety of activities. That afternoon we arrive at Šipan Island with a hurried plan to cycle to the other side of the island by nightfall. The distinct fragrance of wisteria fills the nostrils as we pedal along quiet roads. When the climb becomes too savage we get off and push, but this also allows us to absorb the postcard countryside. It’s a vista of citrus groves, family vineyards and ruins abandoned in a tangle of ivy. Our destination is Suˉduraˉd, a petite harbour boxing in rows of weathered fishing boats. It appears deserted except for some excitable children too focused on kicking a ball to notice the tourists riding past.

Next we visit a local legend: Dubravka restaurant in Šipanska Luka, regarded by locals and sailors as the place to eat. Although it’s still closed for off-season, its owner Djino has opened tonight just for us. I feel like a celebrity, dining in an empty restaurant with an off-kilter ratio of staff. We are presented with a feast of smoked tuna with goat’s cheese, cuttlefish and potato salad, seafood risotto and grilled swordfish. The meal is accompanied by two delicious Croatian white wines: a crisp graševina and malvazija.

One morning the bitter, intense bura winds wake us. They churn up the forecast calm sea, foiling the day’s plans. Rather than hide, we decide to use them for a proper sail. The engine is cut, the main sail erected and we set off accompanied by the sound of clanging shackles and frantically cracking sails. It feels more like Bass Strait than the idyllic Adriatic Sea. Facing the icy winds, I pop my headphones in and focus on the horizon. Playing tunes that simulate our yacht’s sway, I’m distracted by my private makeshift rave.

Slightly frozen and windswept, we arrive at Polaˇce on Mljet Island just before midday. It’s called Shanghai during summer due to the congestion, but we face no competition at the dock. We set out on the bikes to explore the vast Mljet National Park. The first stretch of the 20-kilometre route is a punishing uphill slog, before a rewarding downhill run leads to an easy track that loops around two inland lakes that have an emerald colour and clarity to rival the waters of the Caribbean. Maja refers to their effect as natural Xanax. As we circle the sparkling water through the dense pine forest, the only sound comes from my tyres crunching over a blanket of fallen buds. A grand Benedictine monastery is a surprising sight amid the natural beauty. Set atop its own island, the twelfth-century structure appears to float on the lake. Lunch is arranged at a farmstay where we are treated to brodet, the renowned Croatian fish stew. Afterwards, my belly is full and my body reluctant to get moving again. My bike apparently agrees, as its chain snaps just as we conquer the uphill leg of the return. Luckily I can coast back to the dock.

Zeljko moves us into a protected bay, so anyone brave enough can take a dip. The water looks enticingly tropical, yet is deceptively brisk at only 15ºC. Adopting a no-chance-to-bail-out method, I leap in. The shock is instant and the frigid temperature burns as I frantically kick underwater to dull the pain. Thankfully a warm shower is primed to go to defrost my numb body.

Assessing the ever-changing weather each morning becomes a familiar routine. One early walk over cliffs reveals a relatively calm sea towards Koloˇcep Island. The plan is to stand-up paddleboard into the island’s caves, something that requires perfect conditions. Aware that these change rapidly, we race to make our window of opportunity. In less than an hour we round the island only to have our hopes dashed. The crux of the plan entails lying facedown on a paddleboard to squeeze through a low gap, which is now barely distinguishable beyond the swell. Unpredictable waves rebounding from within means there is a good chance of losing the back of your skull on a badly timed entry. Frustrated but unanimous, we abandon that plan and deploy kayaks to circumnavigate the island instead.

The dramatic cliffs plunging straight into pounding waves dwarf us as we paddle alongside them. The bumpy ride churns my stomach, a strong incentive to paddle hard towards more protected waters. Skirting the island we explore archways leading to calm caverns within. A few entrances are only slightly wider than my kayak, requiring a nervous paddling act to avoid being bashed against the rock. The rolling waves that look so gentle from afar are quite the sodden workout in the kayak.

On the final day of the tour, we sail to Zaton Bay for a farewell lunch in the village of Stikovica. With no mooring, we drop anchor in front of a beach restaurant and weigh up our options to get to shore. Paddleboarding wins as the quickest mode, although it’s also the riskiest in dry clothing. Still, it’s a unique way to arrive at lunch.

This has been a private way to see this often-crowded coastline. For days we’ve seen no other yachts or tourists. Visiting on the cusp of summer has required more beanies than bikinis, but we were never here to work on our suntans anyway.

Get there

Qatar Airways flies from Australia to Dubrovnik via Doha and Zagreb. Return flights from Sydney start at about AU$1620. If you’re in the UK, British Airways flies direct from Gatwick to Dubrovnik, with return fares starting at about AU$240.
qatarairways.com
britishairways.com

Stay there

St Joseph’s is a sixteenth-century boutique hotel located in Dubrovnik. Located in the heart of the old town, it is perfect for exploring the maze of alleys straight from the front door. The six beautifully restored rooms start at about AU$270.
stjosephs.hr

Tour There

Huck Finn Adventure Travel is the leading company specialising in active adventure in Croatia. It runs five-day adventure sailing tours from April to October. Rates start at about AU$930.
huckfinncroatia.com

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