See more by boarding a small cruise ship (Picture: Cruise Croatia)
This stunning Adriatic country is actually made up of 1,244 individual islands, so expect to organise a lot of ferry transfers to truly make the most of it.
Or, you could do as I did, and outsource that admin entirely.
Croatia has one of the fastest growing small cruise industries in the world, transporting travellers from port to port alongside 30-40 other guests.
These boats promise a personalised, intimate service for a fraction of the cost of a charter yacht. They’re also less of an eyesore or environmental drain than the giant cruise liners hosting 3,000+ guests.
Our boat, MV Memories, part of the fleet owned by Unforgettable Travel, hosts a maximum of 38 guests, with eight crew members on hand to serve you French toast for breakfast, keep your cabin spick and span, and mix you an Old Fashioned at the bar, just how you like it.
We joined the ship as it made its seven-day voyage along Croatia’s coastline, island hopping between Split and Dubrovnik, stopping off the beaten track at Trogir, Krka National Park, Hvar, Vis, Korcula, Mljet National Park, Ston and Slano.
First impressions were good. The boat was sleek, our balcony cabin was pristine, the staff were welcoming, and the jacuzzi gently bubbled on the sundeck, waiting for its first use.
Lifestyle Editor Rachel Moss en route to the Blue Caves (Picture: Rachel Moss)
WIN the ultimate family day out at Hyde Park Winter Wonderland with Crystal Ski Holidays
Hyde Park Winter Wonderland and Crystal Ski Holidays have partnered up with Metro to give you the chance to win the Ultimate Family Day Out at Hyde Park Winter Wonderland this festive period so you can get that feeling you can’t forget.
Enter to win a day out at Hyde Park Winter Wonderland – including tickets to the ‘Real Ice Slide’ in partnership with Crystal Ski Holidays
You could win entry for six people to Hyde Park Winter Wonderland including tickets for the Real Ice Slide in partnership with Crystal Ski Holidays and Magical Ice Kingdom. You’ll also receive three Ride Tokens per person so you can continue the fun, plus 1 x food voucher and 2 x drink vouchers per person so you can tuck into the delicious alpine snacks and beverages available in the park.
As our fellow guests joined, my enthusiasm waned a little. The team at Unforgettable Travel say they have a larger proportion of ‘younger guests’ than other cruise liners. But at 32 and 33, my husband and I were the youngest on board by at least 20 years, with the majority of guests in their late fifties and sixties.
Boating may have had a millennial pop culture boom thanks to Below Deck, White Lotus and Triangle of Sadness, but it hasn’t translated into bookings just yet.
We endured a few jibes about being the ‘babies of the group’ and listened to discussions about TV shows that stopped airing before we were born, but as the week progressed past awkward small talk, we were pleasantly surprised to find people who were generous, fun, and very much young at heart. This well-travelled bunch of retired CEOs, attorneys, physicians and advertising execs had led fascinating lives with stories to tell. Clearly, I’d been too quick to judge.
Most days on the ship follow the same basic structure: a breakfast buffet and time to utilise the sun deck while you sail for a couple of hours, a swim stop at an idyllic cove (where a jet ski, paddle boards, water floats and snorkels are available), then a three course lunch on the ship before docking in the early afternoon for a group excursion or solo explore.
No crowds, no stress (Picture: Cruise Croatia)
The tiny town of Trogir became an early favourite thanks to its laid back charm and stunning mix of Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. We stumbled across a classical concert in the park and spent the evening perched on a children’s slide, listening to talented musicians perform under moonlight.
Then there was Hvar, a cosmopolitan port made famous by a young Prince Harry, who jumped fully clothed into a swimming pool in one of the island’s clubs.
By day, you’ll want to visit the Fortica Fortress, where a 20-minute uphill walk will reward you with stunning views of the terracotta roofs and crystal clear waters below.
By night, Hvar is both a place to see and be seen, the warm lighting making both it – and its guests – more beautiful. Dig out a dress and heels and join the elegant crowds visiting elegant cocktail bars. Don’t bother trying to sleep before midnight.
A view of Hvar, halfway up the hike (Picture: Rachel Moss)
Korčula is another island where old meets new. Known as ‘Little Dubrovnik,’ there’s signs of mediaeval majesty and its former Venetian rule on every corner, but without the crowds and Game of Thrones gift shops that have taken over its larger counterpart.
The palm-tree lined old town is thought to be the birthplace of adventurer Marco Polo, but today, you’ll find modern restaurants, gelato shops and bars within its cobbled streets. Expect to pay London prices though – and then some. Two drinks at the Sunset Vista bar (one cocktail, one mocktail) cost us €28 (£24).
Korčula’s grand entrance (Picture: Rachel Moss)
With less character than the others, the towns of Slano and Vis were two we could have missed, though we did enjoy a fantastic dinner at the latter (more on that later).
Having visited both Split and Dubrovnik before, a day was plenty of time for us to reacquaint ourselves with the larger arrival and departure ports, though first-time travellers may feel a little rushed.
Be sure not to miss The Peristyle within Diocletian’s Palace, a square in the centre of Split where you can sip wine and listen to live music. History buffs will want to walk the city walls of Dubrovnik, but to avoid the crowds (and the heat), watch the tourists go by with a coffee down one of the many shaded side streets.
Soak up Dubrovnik’s majesty with a drink (or two) in hand (Picture: Rachel Moss)
The cruise package includes an excursion each afternoon, with the flexibility to dip in and out if you fancy splintering away from the group. We chose to skip a couple of the walking tours, realising quickly that we preferred to explore the old towns solo. But there are a few group activities you won’t want to miss.
World-famous Ston is the only place on earth to farm the Ostrea Edulis species of oyster. You’ll join a small boat across the bay to the farm, where a worker will talk you through the netting technique before a tasting session with wine and mussels. The process is fascinating to witness even if you don’t like oysters, and the excursion includes an alternative tasting of cheese and prosciutto for anyone who’d prefer.
We could have spent a week at Mljet National Park (Picture: Rachel Moss)
I’d also recommend joining the Blue Cave tour off the island of Bisevo, which is the only excursion not included in the price of the cruise, at an extra €20 per person. The reason for this is because the cave is only accessible through a tiny hole in the rock, and the tours are sometimes cancelled if weather conditions or tidal changes threaten to seal the entrance. Though a tight squeeze that involved some ducking (!) we were lucky to see the stunning natural phenomenon inside.
Finally, both national parks are must-sees. The first, Krka National Park, is renowned for its awe-inspiring waterfalls. The second, Mljet National Park, hosts pristine lakes with the most majestic reflections I’ve ever seen.
While Krka is all about walking, you can hire bikes, kayak or swim to explore Mljet. For these excursions, stick with your tour guide to pick up your tickets, then head off on your own track to soak up the sweet sounds of nature without the background babble.
Krka’s green-blue waterfalls are a must-see (Picture: Rachel Moss)
Where to eat
Though lunch is provided on the boat, you’ll want to leave room to enjoy dinner out and about. A few recommendations:
Trogir: The courtyard restaurant Franka offers a local seafood pot for two with pasta, white wine and tomato sauce that’s so good, you’ll want to order bread to mop up every last drop.
Hvar: Another beautiful courtyard setting under an orange tree, the smell of Restaurant Palace Paladini alone drew us in. Order the best lamb cutlets you’ve had in your life, cooked on the open grill.
Vis: With its twinkling fairy lights, the stunning Lola Konoba & Bar redeemed our opinion of Vis, which was otherwise the most underwhelming stop. The starters (grilled octopus and cuttlefish ink croquettes) were the highlights here.
Lola Konoba & Bar, aka the prettiest restaurant in Croatia (Picture: Rachel Moss)
Korcula: A 15-minute taxi from the main town, Agroturizam Grubinjac offers the chance to relax surrounded by olive trees, breathtaking views and home-cooked grub. Expect grilled meat and veg dishes with no frills and plenty of flavour.
Dubrovnik: To end your week with a flourish, the Michelin-recommended Restaurant Dubrovnik combines traditional Dalmatian cuisine with high-end dining. I’m not sure you can go wrong with your order, but the lobster with parsnip, asparagus, garlic and raspberry powder was a showstopper.
Travelling by small cruise gives you unrivalled access to Croatia’s hidden gems, allowing you to escape the crowds of the country’s most famous hotspots and access little-known ports with unique personalities. Really, it’s a shame more people our age don’t sign up.
A few simple tweaks may help the ships attract a younger clientele. For us, the three-course sit-down group lunches (featuring dishes like soup, duck breast and apple pie) were far too heavy, formal and time-consuming. Give me a quick salad bar or slice of pizza to go and more time to explore the stunning surroundings any day.
We couldn’t fault the crew, though, who really went above and beyond to offer a luxury experience for each and every guest.
The mix of culture and coast makes Croatia one of the favourite countries I’ve ever visited. Next time I’ll drag some mates along, to recalibrate the average age of our shipmates just a tad.
The cruise package
Operator: Cruise Croatia, part of Unforgettable Travel Company
Departure date: May to October 2024
Duration: Seven nights
Price: from £1540pp
Departure port: Split
Return port: Dubrovnik
Calls at: Split, Trogir, Vis, Hvar, Korcula, Slano/Ston, Dubrovnik (with bus transfers to other excursions including two national parks)
What’s included: private transfers, half board including daily buffet breakfast, three course set lunch, welcome and leaving dinner, daily fresh fruit, guided tours, free Wi-Fi.
Visit Croatia’s hidden gems like a Below Deck guest, without the price tag.