Croatian vacation: Dalmatian Islands cruise

May 2015

This trip took us to Dubrovnik, Croatia (after a 9+ hour flight, transfer, and additional 45-minute flight). We then took a one-week, small-ship cruise of the Dalmatian Islands, ending up back in Dubrovnik. From Dubrovnik, we took a short trip to nearby Lokrum Island.

Map of Croatia
Not our boat’s itinerary, exactly, but does point out some of the places we visited.

Why did we go to Croatia, of all places?

  • Jean had heard good things about it.
  • He’d found a small-ship cruise that fit into one of the few periods this spring where we could fit in a 10-day vacation.

And that’s about it, really. Jean did all the booking of this trip: the cruise, the flights (not that easy to arrange), the hotel in Dubrovnik, where we stayed before and after getting on the ship. I bought a couple Croatia travel guides and flipped through them, but overall, this was one of the trips I’d prepped for the least.

Reading the cruise itinerary, we both had similar thoughts: Wow, that sounds really relaxing.

We weren’t entirely sure this was a good thing.

Normally we keep pretty busy on vacation, packing in museums and hikes up mountains and the constant hunt for the best restaurant within budget.

But generally, the cruise schedule was as follows:

  • Breakfast somewhere between 7–9, during which the boat departs.
  • Travel on the boat til the next stop. Sometimes we had a stop around 11:00, then another in the afternoon. Sometimes it was just the one afternoon stop.
  • Lunch on boat around 1:00.
  • Visit the new place we’d arrived at starting around 2:00 or 3:00. Sometimes we had a city tour. We would have supper in the town in in island, and sleep on the boat. (It never traveled overnight.)

You might notice that’s a lot of time just “being on the boat” each day. We frankly had some concerns we’d get bored.

Fortunately, after a short adjustment period, we managed to get into the rhythm of being leisurely. Ultimately, I found this one of the most relaxing, stress-free vacations I’ve ever been on. A few factors, some of which were just luck, helped contribute to that.

The weather couldn’t have been better

Except for one brief thunderstorm on our last day, we encountered no rain. It was just a mix of partly sunny and fully sunny, every day. The highs were comfortable: maybe a max of 26? And the lows were quite manageable—throw on a sweater and you’re all good.

That, of course, made visiting each town very pleasant.

Korcula Sunset
Korkula: Didn’t suck to be here

The boat also had lovely sundeck.

Sundeck on cruise boat
If I hadn’t been so diligent with the sunscreen, I would have come home with a nice tan.

Croatia is very safe

The rate of theft in Croatia is very low. One tour guide mentioned that people don’t bother to lock their doors. We saw no homeless people, no beggars. That all really reduced the usual paranoia one has, while traveling, about keeping wallets and purses safe.

Drubovnik market
Me not worrying about getting my purse stolen

The Dalmatian towns are beautiful

New day, new charming location. It’s hard not to feel good when surrounded by sea and sand (well, pebbles really, but…), lovely ancient buildings, mountains, greenery, boats…

Boats in Pomena
Pretty Pomena harbour
Cathedral in Hvar
Cathedral in Hvar

We did a lot of walking

Not while on the boat, obviously, but we did have the daily stops. Jean has a little GPS gizmo he uses with his camera that allows you to geo-tag where each photo is taken. It also happens to tell you how much you’ve traveled each day. Early on Jean started remarking on how much we’d actually walked that day (15 K in Dubrovnik!), and then it became a game to try attain at least 10 K every day.

As an added challenge, we also tried to gain some elevation daily by availing ourselves of whatever viewpoints were on offer.

Looking down at Hvar

You might be thinking, that doesn’t sound that relaxing, but walking is really good for you. It helped us sleep well. And it was leisurely walking—we often had no particular goal or destination or deadline. We just wanted to see and get immersed in the place we were in. (For at least 10 K.)

Our rooms were well-designed

Both at our hotel and, to our surprise, on the boat, we had rooms with comfortable beds, good lighting, adequate storage, lots of plugins (for our many e-devices), and enough mirrors. Though not that large, the space was used very well. It’s surprising how often that isn’t the case.

Hotel Lapad in Dubrovnik
Hotel Lapad, our home away from home. Didn’t suck to be here, either.

Good wifi

What can I say. 😊 The boat had a wifi room whose signal was much better than we were expecting. (Our hotel’s wifi signal was also excellent.) And, I bought a Croatian SIM card for my phone that granted me 3 GB of data for $10! That could serve as a wifi hotspot.

We had our usual absurd number of devices—tablets, phones, e-readers, laptop—so if boredom ever did threaten, it was pretty easy to entertain ourselves.

It wasn’t all Facebook and Twitter, though. Jean also did a lot of his photo processing and posting while enroute (which is good, as he hasn’t had much time since he got back), and I got a lot of reading done (not all on devices; I did bring some dead tree editions as well) and kept up with the travel diary.

Nice people

Tourism is very important to this area, and we generally found we got great service. For example, when we mentioned an early checkout at our hotel, they offered us a bag breakfast (no charge). A lot of the waiters were very friendly and enthusiastic about the restaurant’s food offerings. And yes, the food was quite good! And it was almost always patio dining.

Jean dining
Jean enjoying his salmon tacos

Our cruise director was a little lacklustre, but otherwise the ship staff were good. Our shipmates (only 27 of us onboard) were an international bunch—Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, UK, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland… We were the only North Americans. Obviously you hit it off more with some than others, but generally it was a good group—though Jean correctly pointed out that we weren’t the best at mingling. (The wifi might have contributed to that…)

Cruise ship from the sea
Swim stop off the MS Splendid. Jean is in the water. I am not.

Herewith, an overview of each stop.

Dubrovnik

The third-biggest city in Croatia, and where we flew into and out of, and spent the most time—probably more than we needed. Our hotel was in the Lapad port area, but most everything worth visiting was in the Old City, a 40-minute walk away.

The Old City is enclosed in stone walls, with only three entrances, which sometimes get extremely crowded! (And May is still relatively low season. Sounds unbearable in summer.) No cars are allowed inside. The main activity there is to pay to walk the surrounding walls. This can be brutally hot in summer, but was quite tolerable in May. And you do get nice views.

Dubrovnik city walls
Walking the Old City walls in the hat I bought there

To get yet more views, we also paid to take a tram up to (and down from) Mount Srd.

View from Mount Srd
View from Mount Srd

Other than that, we mainly ambled around the streets of the Old City which are, by the way, teeming with cats (perhaps because they never get mooshed by cars).

Old City in Dubrovnik
Street in the Old City—remarkably cat-free, at this point

One day we enjoyed a drink at a neat bar on the side of the mountain, overlooking the sea. You literally had to go through a hole in the wall to get there. I ordered a pear cider, but Jean astonished the bartender by asking for an iced cappuccino. “How would even do that?” he asked. “Make a cappuccino,“ Jean replied, “Put ice in it.” “That’s a first in my bartending career!” he said, when he brought it over.

Cafe in Dubrovnik
Enjoying cider and the first iced cappuccino ever served at this bar

We also had some nice meals in Dubrovnik, including one at a very good vegetarian restaurant, another at an oyster bar and sushi restaurant (rare in these parts), and one at Azure, which brought Asian flavors to Croatian cuisine. Great waiter there (but good service all around).

Shrimp coconut soup
Azure shrimp coconut soup

Mljet National Park

The main activity to do in this park seemed to be to take a boat (yes, yet another boat) to St. Mary Island, a tiny place that didn’t have a lot to it: an old church and monastery, and a couple donkeys. It was a beautiful harbour we were docked at, though.

St. Mary Island harbour
Pomena harbour, Croatia

And we found the little restaurant we ate at quite charming. (Though we had to split our meal into two parts when we realized they didn’t take credit cards, and we didn’t have all our cash with us. [I guess we visited an ATM in between?])

Hvar

Hvar’s claim to fame is being the sunniest island in Croatia. We got a tour there and learned about the island’s history and its current sustaining industries: tourism, olives, and wine—the lavendar market having declined in recent years. After the tour, we visited all the main sites: the fort you can climb up to and explore:

Fort in Hvar
Climbing up to the fort

The museum where Benedictine nuns, who never go outside, spend their days weaving lace made of agave:

Very delicate lace
Exhibit only; not for sale

And the Cathedral, with its three styles of architecture.

We also had a lovely dinner here, at a family-owned restaurant, where the waiter helped us put together an order that allowed us to sample the best on offer. Then we took a sunset walk.

Hvar harbour

Bol on Brach Island

This was a mid-morning stop that featured a longish walk to a beautiful beach. We also did a bit of shopping here.

Bol beach
Beautiful Bol beach

Split

Split is the second-biggest city in Croatia after Zagreb, so this was more of an urban stop than the rest. We also had a tour here, where we learned that the city was built inside the palace of a former Roman emperor, who chose this site as his retirement spot. People to this day still live in some of the palace rooms!

Bell tower, Split
Bell Tower in Dioclesian’s Palace, Split

We then did our usual walking around and up, followed by another good dinner—even if service got slow once it was time to get our bill.

Split, Croatia
View of Split, Dioclesian’s palace, and harbour

Pusisca

Another beach town we stopped at in the morning.

Pusisca
Pusisca beach

Not loads to do after we walked around and back, so we decided to stop for a drink. We ordered fresh lemonade, only to spot our waitress dashing out shortly after we ordered. Seemed a bit strange, until she came back with a bag containing lemons!

I trust that we received truly fresh lemonade.

Markaska

Another beach town stop! It was a bit cold for swimming, so we did more walking. One of the more interesting sites were the many “locks of love” attached to a fence, overseen by a statue of St. Peter to keep them safe.

Locks over harbour, Markaska

Swim stop

I was too wimpy, but Jean and many others did take a dip off the back of the boat. I enjoyed the view. 😊

Swimmers off back of boat

Korcula

Our tour guide had a dry sense of humour as she informed us how cleverly built the city was, aligning buildings to best take advantage of the winds and to ensure privacy (by not lining up the windows). She also said the city corners were paved in to create a “backsplash” for any men inclined to urinate in them. I haven’t Googled to see if that’s true.

Korcula, Croatia
Mountain view of Korcula (which was rivaling Havar for sun, this day)

Lokrum

Lokrum is an uninhabited island a 15-minute ferry ride away from Dubrovnik. It has some interesting ruins and gardens, some regular and some nude beaches (which are pretty private, except for the tour boats regularly sailing by 😊 ), and peacocks everywhere! The peacocks were a surprise, as none of the guidebooks mentioned them. But it must have been close to mating season, as they were squawking and showing their tail feathers.

Peacock
An impressive exemplar among a large flock

Our visit here ended abruptly with the only rainfall of the trip, but fortunately shelter wasn’t far away (and the rain was not long-lasting).

Not reported originally

But I will add: Our flights home started with two short flights before the long one to Canada, and each of those had a very short transit time. I was vaguely worried about this the whole trip.

It went fine. They marked our bags as “short transit” and they made it all the way through.

No flights were delayed, and the airports were small, so we made both connecting flights. (Though for one, I felt compelled to run to make sure.)

Still not something I’d generally recommend (but as stated at the start, not the easiest place to book flights to).

For another type of European cruise: Danube river cruise