The Croatian coast runs southeast from the Italian border near Trieste all the way to the walled town of Dubrovnik.
Historically known as the Dalmatian Coast, the area is very popular for cruising thanks to its large numbers of coves and islands. The region is usually split north and south by the appropriately named and ancient city of Split.
Island destinations include the national parks of Brijuni and Kornati, as well as Krk, Cres, and Susak. The Kornati archipelago in the north offers many rocky islands and spectacular reef diving in turquoise waters. Charter option abound out of Pula, Zadar, Split, and Dubrovnik.
The beauty is incredible, and the cruising is made interesting and easy by the many islands that lie close to each other. The islands are largely hospitable, with many coves, harbours, beaches and lagoons that can easily be visited. Navigation is generally easy, with hardly any currents or tides to worry about. Most of the harbours are easily accessible, well sheltered, and have few hidden dangers. One always has a choice of harbours and the distances travelled in one day never needs to exceed 20 nautical miles.
The islands’ diversity is what sets Croatia apart. This is the result of natural phenomena as well as cultural and political influences. To say that the history of the whole region and its sea has been governed by turmoil is an understatement, and this is as true for the last few decades as it is for the last centuries, or even millennia.
In addition to the usual bareboat and crewed charter options, Gulets offer a unique local flavor. For generations these two-masted wooden vessels have been used for transport and fishing. Now designed with comfort in mind, they come fully crewed.
The charter industry started to blossom there more than a decade ago, and even before all the political turmoil of the late twentieth century the region was a popular cruising destination.
The big culturally rich islands of the middle Adriatic such as Hvar, Vis and Korčula all have a vibrant history, from the palaces and forts of Bonaparte to the bizarre underground fortresses of World War II. These islands have relatively big towns and harbours, where one can enjoy the buzz of island summer life or the quiet survival of winter. Even here neighbouring islands can provide a complete contrast, like Mljet and Lastovo. Too isolated to be culturally developed, nature has thrived on them; there are no towns, just small fishing villages erected next to the ruins of some distant civilisation’s forts. If we look even further there are some completely isolated small islands that are fully exposed to the elements and offer only partially sheltered anchorages adequate for short stops during fine weather, such as Palagruža or Svetac. Nobody lives here anymore, but they used to. Nevertheless the beauty of their isolated wilderness impresses the few that visit these islands.
In the northern part of the middle Adriatic the islands are numerous, most of them uninhabited and wild. Much smaller than the southern islands, even the bigger ones can only support village communities. Deserted islands in the Kornati archipelago covered with minimal vegetation are only a few nautical miles from the rich forests of neighbouring islands. The popular story (and source of endless historical debate) is that Venetians stripped those bare islands of their forests to use the quality timber for boatbuilding and houses in Venice.
In the part known as Kvarner, the islands grow in size again. Some of the largest islands are among them and their towns are more significant. A good example is Mali Lošinj, which despite its name of “Small Lošinj” is a very well-developed town providing all the tourist services. But even in this area there are islands that are small and isolated, such as Unije or Susak. The former is unique as its young inhabitants go to primary school on Mali Lošinj by a small airplane. The latter is famous for its unusual costumes.
Further north is Istra, the largest peninsula of the Adriatic. This region is famous for its villages and small towns resembling Tuscany. This is the most developed part of the Adriatic and it is mostly bilingual, as both Croatian and Italian are widely spoken. Agriculturally developed with very fertile soil, excellent wines, olive oil, cheeses and even truffles, the focus of this region has never been exclusively the coast and sea. The coast has fewer islands, and while the sea might not be as stunning as in the south, Istra makes up for that with its beautifully kept coastal towns and gastronomic delights.
The Croatian coast is only one half of the Adriatic sea, the eastern side; the west side has very few islands and the coastline is largely bleak and industrial. There are a few very nice places to visit such as Trieste, Venice, and Porto Garibaldi. These are all short hops from the northern Adriatic.
Coming to Croatia in July and August usually guarantees sunshine and heat, as well as mild sailing conditions. These are not the best months for sailing in Croatia since the regular thermal breeze from the northwest becomes less reliable as heat increases in the mountains. At the times when it does blow, it usually blows hard and in gusts, so there is either no wind or too much wind. The winds can build up very quickly and change direction very suddenly, almost like someone flicking a light switch.
June and September are often very nice and warm. During all summer months serious protection from the sun is necessary.
The most dangerous wind is the “Bura” which blows from the shore, begins suddenly and blows in gusts. It is a cold wind, blowing from the mountains. It is not all bad though, as “Bura brings good weather.” If a light Bura, known as Burin, blows during the night it is a sign that the regular weather pattern is expected the next day.
The “Jugo” blows from the southeast, and it precedes the onset of a low pressure. Jugo builds up slowly over a few days, thus generating large seas, but allowing plenty of time to seek shelter. Before it gets too strong it gives us the best opportunity for champagne sailing. It is rare to have a “real” Jugo during the summer months; it does not blow as strongly and rarely for more than two days in a row. It is often followed by squalls and rain and then the Bura when the weather is about to improve. Squalls cause strong winds from predominantly westerly directions, even though during the squalls the wind often changes direction and is accompanied by driving rain and thunder and lightning. Squalls can make some of the tightly packed anchorages quite lively, and the variable gusts can cause many anchors to drag. Many sailors prefer to lift the anchor and motor outside the cove until the squall passes. The saving grace is that these squalls are relatively short, only occasionally lasting more than 20-30 minutes.
During the day, and especially in the afternoon, an offshore breeze builds up known as “Maestral” which blows along the coast predominantly from the NW. It usually dies down with the setting sun and is replaced by a Burin. Normally it blows moderately (up to 20 knots), except in certain localised areas where it is stronger. After prolonged periods of Bura it can blow strongly the following day, and is then know as “Maeštralun”. During very hot summer months it is often very weak or even absent.
Local weather forecasts are updated three times a day and are very reliable. The Meteorological office broadcasts them via VHF and national radio stations in both Croatian and English three times a day, and also publishes forecasts on the Meteo website.
The sea temperature in the summer months is usually in the high twenties and with minimal currents, swimming and snorkelling are highly recommended. The local people believe that swimming in the sea is very therapeutic and having the boat as a platform allows you to enjoy it without having to endure the crowded beaches. There are no lethal sea creatures and only a few very rare ones can actually sting or cause any displeasure. The most common injuries are from sea urchins and sharp rocks. When swimming in shallow waters or going ashore from a boat we recommend wearing protective shoes or sandals.
Tides and currents are minimal, but there are a few areas in the north Adriatic, like the tip of Istria, where the currents can be locally strong. Navigation is easy but good charts are essential. Croatian charts are of very good quality and are so nicely produced so that we have seen them hanging on walls for decoration.
The people of Croatia are very hospitable and will make sailors feel welcome with their advice and help as well as with food and drink. During the busiest summer months, you will meet and see many more tourists than locals so sometimes the level of service is not always as good. English is increasingly spoken, especially amongst the younger generation, though Italian and even German are more widespread. There are many restaurants along the coast and on the islands, and mostly family-run affairs that rely on fresh fish and seafood and locally grown vegetables to satisfy their customers’ appetites. Many are very good and provide a wonderful setting to finish a day’s sailing, not unlike the many pubs along the English coast. Instead of the cosy fireplace and traditional ale, enjoy the shade of the vines on an open terrace with a glass of local red wine.
The increasing popularity of the Croatian coast means finding a good quality local restaurant that is not overpriced is increasingly difficult. One of the best books for recommending restaurants on the Adriatic coast is The Gourmet Cruise.
The food is mixed European with mostly Italian influence. Fish is considered to be the best but sometimes with prices to match. Wine is ubiquitous and usually of good quality. Olive oil is produced everywhere and is of differing quality to suit all tastes. Local produce, fruit, vegetables, fish and meat is often the best buy but not always the cheapest.
Fishing is allowed but a licence needs to be bought.
Shopping for fresh produce is best done at open markets, where the prices are very reasonable. For other groceries most towns have well-equipped supermarkets. In the smaller villages that do not have a market place during the morning hours one is likely to find a few locals offering produce at a small number of stands. There are plenty of restaurants and coffee shops everywhere, even on the remote islands. Nightlife is better in the bigger towns. The relationship with the locals is almost always easy and pleasant, the only exception being some incidents reported in night clubs after considerable drinking.
Medical help is available by GPs in smaller towns or in well-organised hospitals in bigger towns. Both are accustomed to foreigners. Private dental service is also readily available.
Cash machines are widely available, and credit cards are accepted at most places.
Mobile phones work everywhere, even in the middle of the sea.
Most towns have internet cafés that welcome people with their own laptops.
Local renting of bicycles, scooters and cars is usually easy.
All islands are served by a network of ferries or boats, though small islands may have only one or two services daily.
Buses are inexpensive, the service is good when it exists, but the network is relatively poor. Taxis are available everywhere but can be expensive and it is a good idea to ask for the price in advance (and try to negotiate).
Air traffic connections have improved during recent years, with low cost airlines flying to a number of destinations.
We will start and end our cruise from Pula, a coastal town with an international airport. The main advantage is to get to the boat easily and quickly, but also bigger towns have the best choice of charter boats and good shops for efficient provisioning. Pula is beautiful in its own right and provides a good introduction to the culture of the eastern Mediterranean, with Roman amphitheatres and palaces as well as a variety of traditional and trendy bars and restaurants.
During your cruise keep an eye out for the Bura wind, the only wind that can be dangerous in this area. A strong Bura, rare during summer months, is a cold northeasterly wind that blows from the Velebit mountains, and it starts suddenly and blows in strong gusts. Check the weather forecast before crossing the Kvarner. We do not recommend crossing the Kvarner on the first day of the cruise, or leaving the return across for the last morning of the charter.
You might find settling in and provisioning the boat enough for the first afternoon, in which case you can spend the evening in harbour taking in the sights and getting used to being on holiday whilst enjoying a dinner on shore.
Pula has a large marina called Veruda just outside of town, and a smaller ACI marina immediately under the Roman amphitheatre in the middle of the commercial port. For those who would prefer to get away immediately, there are two nice bays for anchoring just south of the entrance to marina Veruda. The northern part is a very safe anchorage called Uvala Soline (sometimes referred to as Vinkuranska Vala). Just south of the peninsula there is a bay formed by the islands Fraškerić and Frašker, which is one of the best swimming spots in this part of Istria. Beware of the shallow passage between the two bays; always sail around the island of Veruda.
The southern tip of Istria, the Premantura peninsula, is only six miles away and could be reached the first day. For swimming and anchoring there are two lovely bays, Debeljak and Portić, at the entrance to Medulinski Zaljev, which is just the other side of the Premantura peninsula. Beware of the strong currents that flow along the peninsula, as well as the shallows in the wide bay. At the bottom of the bay is ACI Marina Pomer, right next to the lovely village of the same name where there are a few nice restaurants.
Sail across the Kvarner, leaving the Istrian peninsula for the north Adriatic islands. Check the forecast as this crossing can get rough if the Bura is blowing.
Option 1: Unije has a charming but not very protected harbour and lovely beach, as well as a landing strip where planes can be seen transporting children to school on the bigger islands. The best place to moor overnight is a cove called Maračol on the other side of the island. There are many buoys to moor to, and it’s a picturesque walk to the main town from here. There are two good taverns; the one called Unijana specialises in fresh local produce and vegetarian cuisine, but it is wise to call ahead as it is not always open. The other is Palmira where the local lamb is a speciality.
Option 2: The Island of Susak is unique, first because it is entirely made out of sand which is very unusual in the Mediterranean, and second because it has a strong cultural heritage. Unfortunately due to its extreme poverty many of the inhabitants have been forced to emigrate. Only 130 people live on the island year round, whilst more than 3000 Susak islanders live in New Jersey. This has resulted in Susak adding some very strange traditions to its strong local folklore; they play baseball on the island. Many people return and build on their native ground. It is also worth visiting the local graveyard as others return home only to be buried.
The swimming is excellent on Susak in a bay called Bok, just southeast of the entrance to the harbour. It is relatively shallow so take care when anchoring, and the bottom is all sand, which is also what makes such a nice beach. The harbour is well protected with moorings, water and electricity. There are no great restaurants , but a visit to the upper village is still recommended to see the graveyard and winemakers; there is a long tradition of winemaking in this sandy soil.
Sail to the island of Olib, pick up a buoy on the east side of the island and go for a swim on the lovely sandy beach. Olib is shaped like a figure of eight and on the west side of its narrowest part is the port, whilst on the east is the beach. Its highest point is only metres above sea level.
A walk from the beach to the port takes a good twenty minutes, which is quite long in the heat of summer. The port is good and one can moor on either side of the breakwater as well as pick up a buoy. The quay has moorings, water and electricity. There are no cars on Olib as the streets are too narrow, so many of the locals get about on quad bikes. Olib natives have traditionally been farmers and herders, while the nearby island of Silba has become famous for its mariners and merchant captains. Silba is a good alternative spot for spending the night, with a good port to moor in. Dining out on Silba? Our recommendation is Konoba Mul.
Sail through the passage between the island of Škarda and Ist, one of the nicest parts of the Adriatic coastline. Here you will see a rock called Hrid Funestrala that is the shape of a sphinx. Once past the island of Molat you will soon enter one of the widest bays of the Adriatic, on the northwest part of the Dugi Otok. A large part of this bay is completely sheltered, resembling an atoll lagoon. There are many buoys to pick up and a small marina next to the village Veli Rat. Opposite the marina is a very good restaurant called D&M.
A short trip around the point to the southern side will take you to a lovely turquoise bay called Sakarun for a swim. From there sail north to the island of Premuda and pick up a buoy behind the large rock south of the island’s north point, next to the small fishing village called Krijal. This is an ancient shelter for fisherman.
Another option is to continue to the island of Ilovik. The passage between the island of Ilovik and Sveti Petar is very picturesque with many buoys, a quay with moorings, water and electricity, and an old Venetian fort ruin on the island of St Peter. Swimming is great in the bay Paržine on the other side of the island.
Enjoy a short sail to Veli Lošinj, stopping by two small islands called Orjule where there are some very nice swimming spots on the eastern side. Or have a look at the southern point of Cres Island. Punta Križa is also a nice place for swimming and anchoring, especially Meli Cove.
From there go through the passage called Privlaka into Mali Lošinj harbour. The bridge opens every day at 18:00 hrs. If you miss the bridge or do not want to stay in Mali Lošinj you could also spend the night outside in Veli Lošinj or the bay next to it called Rovenska, which is a safe harbour if there is no Bura blowing. In Rovenska there is an excellent restaurant with Italian food called the Bora Bar.
The town of Mali Lošinj is big and well developed, with many bars and restaurants. Our suggestions would be Corrado or Artatore. Artatore Bay is a good alternative to mooring up in the busy port as it is a safe and beautiful anchorage.
Return across the Kvarner. You can make a quick stop at the island of Unije in the port and swim on the point underneath the lighthouse on the island. Once you have crossed the Kvarner you can moor in for the last night in any of the places you did not have time to visit on the way down. We do not recommend leaving the return across for the last morning of the charter.
There is an alternative destination very close to Pula; the island of Veliki Brijun. Only the port can be visited in this tiny but lovely archipelago that is also a national park. Rent out bikes and cycle around the lovely paths, visit the Roman ruins, even play golf or visit the safari park. These islands were the personal resort of Tito the “dictator” of Yugoslavia. It is relatively expensive to moor in the port, but well worth the visit for its unusual history.
Editor's Note: For much more detail about chartering in Croatia or to find a boat, visit the Yachtworldcharters.com Croatia page. For more photos of the area, visit the Croatia Photo Gallery on YachtWorld.com.
Marko Knezevic is a dealer for Hallberg-Rassy in Zagreb, Croatia. He has been sailing since the age of seven on dinghies and a series of family boats. He studied at the University College London’s naval architecture and management school and has since sailed on San Francisco Bay, the Solent, the English Channel, and in France.