EUR-Croatia250Having spent most of my holidays in the Caribbean over the past two decades of holidays, the Adriatic was a distant destination ‘to do someday’. I knew basically nothing about the Adriatic and what it had to offer but the lure was apparent. We – Mango Yacht Charters – decided a to expand our business and add the Mediterranean to our repertoire of destinations.

After some long distance research, we eventually partnered Orvas Yachting, based in Split, Croatia. Although a ten-year-old company, its yachting division was just a small part of its larger corporate entity that specializes in everything from product distribution to wine and olive oil processing to hotels. The 30 yachts in their bareboat fleet are half owned by Orvas; the other half were owned privately.

As any good charter broker should do before selling a destination  -destination, we set off to learn about Croatia and sail the waters ourselves, in order to provide first hand expert knowledge to our customers. We booked our trip for September and arrived a few days prior to get to know our new partners, the base location and the fleet.

From the moment our Croatia Airlines flight from Amsterdam (direct) to Split began to descend, I looked out the window and just said to myself, “Oh my God!” The view looked just like a typical, tropical day, landing in the Caribbean... maybe even better! How could this be? We were met at the airport by members of the Orvas team and whisked off for dinner. I instantly began to fall into place with the mix of friendly people, the historical surroundings and surprisingly great local wine!

Split, with approximately 200,000, is the second largest city next to Zagreb, in Croatia, but is by far the largest on the coast. Situated in a  perfecta perfect spot for charter departures, it allows the client to pick a north, south or central cruising route. One could easily spend several days in this historical city, exploring the Palace area or just sitting on the Plaza and people watching while sipping an espresso. As we soon discovered, going for a coffee in Croatia is a much more relaxing (and longer) venture than grapping a coffee in Canada.

The Government of Croatia has concentrated its tourism efforts on the waterfront – lucky for us – and over the past 15 years has built more than 30 first-class yacht marinas along the entire coastline. ACI Marina Split is the home base for Orvas; it is well-equipped and close to almost anything you need.

In my entire previous chartering experience, the reception from Orvas (Marko, Sandra, Zoran and Ema) was second to none!  First class hospitality and an “as you wish” attitude with no stress or timetable was the mantra of the day. Our five-year-old Bavaria 49 showed in ‘good as new’ condition – a further testament to Orvas’ maintenance program and perhaps also to a much shorter season (less use) than we are used to in the Caribbean.

Charters are from Saturday at 1700 hours through to Saturday 0900 hours here, so a sleep aboard the first night – after the remainder of our crew arrived – was necessary .... necessary. So, too, was another evening of touring the local Konobas (pub’s or restaurants). Our first destination of Milna, on the island of Brac, just 12 miles away also allowed us for a rather late day departure. We provisioned with basics only as we knew finding eateries at our destinations would be easy to find and an experience we wouldn’t want to miss.

Formalities are a little different here, but also friendly and efficient. You are always required to carry an official document created at the base stating the passport information for each person aboard. This, along with a copy of the yacht’s papers must be left with the harbourmaster when checking in and picked up when checking out and paying your bill.

Milna was our first docking experience in 'Med-style' and it was a pleasure. We arrived just ahead of a 60-yacht regatta and were graciously whistled into a lovely spot by the “dock guy”. All bowlines are permanent here, so just a casual backing up to the wall  -wall was needed. We tossed the stern lines to the “dock guy” which he looped through the dock rings and passed back. Meanwhile our designated “bow person” retrieved the permanent bowline, and walked it forward to the bow cleat. No stress, no hassle. We settled our yacht comfortably off the dock, positioned the passerelle (gang plank) and plugged in. Perfect!

Milna, like the rest of our stops, is a 700-800 year old village consisting of mainly Konobas, cafes and a few small shops. Our Konoba of choice was the “Dolphin”, a three-table, mom and pop shop boasting a charcoal fire pit and an exquisite aroma of fresh seafood and lamb.  Needless to say, both were ordered and along with some more fine local wine and a gelato up along the plaza, our first day offshore got two thumbs up.

Our casual three-hour tour to Hvar was typical to Lake Ontario sailing – a 3-hour motor cruise in no wind. Hvar harbour is a busy port with frequent ferries and Gulets (traditionally two-masted wooden ships) loading and unloading passengers. Again we had brilliant luck entering the harbour in late afternoon; a 50’ poweryacht was leaving the wall opening up the perfect spot for our Bavaria 49. There are several hundred people walking the plaza or sipping espresso just waiting for a ‘rookie’ landing or for someone to bump that megayacht beside you. But we disappointed the local crowd, again. Smile and wave boys – smile and wave.

Hvar is definitely more St. Tropez in feel. Higher end shops and a multitude of back alley restaurants served to feed not only the yachties but also the holidaying hotel crowds. A tip from the base: avoid the harbour-side cafes on the plaza; they are twice as expensive and half as good as the back alley local Konobas. Heeding this advice, we ventured back to a local eatery and had a fabulous dinner along with great wine made in the shop next to the kitchen which we graciously accepted a tour of after our meal.

The next morning’s departure was delayed simply because we were having too much fun here. A priceless mooring on the wall, a few hundred restaurants still to explore and a fort (formerly a prison) looming down at us from the top of the hill…so another day in Hvar it is.

As Captain of many charter trips I usually like to stay on schedule and visit as many places as possible, especially on a first-time visit. But something was different here. The crew was so relaxed and life just seemed so simple and easy – laid back but a ‘sophisticated’ laid back. I think we were all a bit surprised at what we had already experienced during these first few days and all of a sudden it hit me. Palm trees and pine trees surrounded us, not a spot of garbage anywhere and some of the best beer and wine we’ve ever had (and never heard of). Top that off with great local cheese from the island of Pag, superb prsut (cured ham), olives and local lamb. Not to mention the local staple of seafood just hours (and sometimes minutes) fresh.

As a local diver popped out from under our yacht untangling some mooring lines, he surfaced with an octopus asking us if we wanted it.? “Makes great salad”, he said. As I had just eaten a delicious octopus salad the night before I said, “Sure!” So, he tore off its brain, popped out its teeth – all in a simple motion, like my crew would crack open a beer – and tossed it into our cockpit…at which point the girls jumped off the boat and ran for the shops and the guys simply smiled and said, “Cool”!

The sail from Hvar to Vis turned out to be the best of the week, a 3-hour, broad reach in gusty, 20-knot wind; the 49 handled the seas confidently and swiftly. Arriving at noon, we were once again whistled in by the “dock guy”, and moored with little circumstance. We tossed him our yacht papers (acting like seasoned veterans).

Vis, once a naval base, has only been open to tourism for about seven years. But it shows little signs of this – unless you’re looking for shops and tourist trinkets and trash. All you’ll find here, besides a perfect, large harbour, are some great restaurants, a few beautiful hotels and a countryside filled with vineyards and lavender! Heaven perhaps? Certainly a haven for retiring Croatians who are settling here. No wonder.

Our last stop before returning to base was a last minute decision. I texted the base and simply asked: Maslinica, Rogac or Supetar? – three choices I thought would make sense for our heading. The little town of Maslinica is a picture perfect vision from some fairy tale book. A couple of Konobas and a small dock accommodating eight yachts all surrounded by what looks to be an up and coming destination for the more wealthy retirement couples. Unfortunately, new plush villas – being constructed close to the town – were the first real signs of development and somehow dismissed the ‘fairy tale’ vision but the small town did not disappoint. A pretty and peaceful walk around the point to the beach (mostly light soft stone) will find you looking at some of the clearest water ever. A long lunch of three large salads, three large pizzas and a multitude of local wine and Karlovachkos (local beer) with a Rachun (bill) for under $100 for six people! Dinner was chosen and ordered ahead of time so we could experience the local tradition of ‘peka’ – a meal concocted in a single dish and baked in the coals in a cast iron pot for two hours.

And so ends our adventure. After a quick return to base and an efficient checkout, we headed back into Split for some last minute souvenirs. It’s easy for me as a broker to recommend and sell something I so strongly believe in. Croatia offers great people, great sailing; it’s clean, well-organized and offers great local food and bevies. English is widely spoken and prices are reasonable. Since its turmoil in the early 90s, their attitude is clear: if you build it, they will come – and they’ve built a fabulous charter industry with great facilities to serve a multitude of venues. It’s time to go!