Holidays as a young-ish adult for me come with three requirements: can I relax, can I try something new, and can I have some drinks and a good time along the way?
With its well-shaken cocktail of rich history, sun-drenched coastline, options for both adventure and mellow, party-loving people, it doesn’t take long on my first visit to Croatia to realise the Mediterranean paradise ticks all my boxes.
My gallant quest is to decide if all those Sail Croatia television ads are telling it like it is and whether this – a cruise – really is the best way for young holidaymakers to get stuck into Croatian day and night life.
Among five cruise options, my partner and I are booked on Sail Croatia’s Explorer trip, billed as “best suited for couples, young professionals and ‘young at heart’ travellers” – as opposed to their noisier Navigator journey, which is simply dubbed the “ultimate party cruise” for 18-39-year-olds.
We will go on to bump into said ‘noisy Navigators’ on our journey, but in truth our week of tranquil days and raucous evenings on the Explorer proves just the right level of party for this just-turned-30-year-old.
My partner and I are setting off on the Salve Di Mare, a 49-metre, steel-hulled sailboat fit to carry 40 guests along the Dalmatian coast from Split to Dubrovnik and back. With prices starting at £749 per person for seven nights for the 2024 season, it’s by no means cheap, but not totally out of reach for a young professional.
The boat is pleasant, with soft wood furnishings, a wide sun deck of loungers on its roof and even a Jacuzzi sat behind its prow. We are welcomed on board by a Croatian crew who serve a three course lunch in the vessel’s gilded bar and dining area – a daily meal which, along with a buffet breakfast, is included in the price.
There’s a broad range of ages on board, all adults but a mix of young couples, older retirees and many, many Australians. (One of the things you quickly learn in Croatia is half of Australia seem to be there at any one time.)
Complete with a large double bed and warm shower, our room has everything we need and our first stop that evening is Makarska, a port town just a short journey from Split, known for its beaches and nightlife, where we enjoy a pizza and a €4.10/£3.50 Karlovacko Croatian beer or two.
As a country driven by tourism, prices in Croatia are comparatively expensive given the other nations it borders, but rarely get anywhere close to the London prices I’m used to back home. Though, as our boat’s Croatian guide frequently reminds us, cash is king so making sure you have some real Euros available on your journey is a must.
The following morning, it’s time for our first swim stop. Daily dips into the azure waters of the Adriatic sea quickly become the highlight across the journey. Diving off the back of the boat in a series of idyllic coves, the calm, cool Croatian sea could be bottled as the ultimate hangover cure.
The island of Hvar is our next destination, a long narrow island where we first stop in the fortified town of Korcula. Out for dinner, we enjoy some Grk wine, a €7/£6 a glass white local to the region with a hardy but sweet flavour.
On our third day we’re already hooked by this lifestyle, dipping into place after beautiful place and enjoying getting to know fellow sailors from all over the world. But it’s our next stop where perhaps I would like more time to linger in future.
Dubrovnik is a magical city, with an old town of polished marble streets which you could easily get lost in and enjoy for a week or more, but our whistlestop walking tour is still a wonderful toe-dip into what’s on offer.
The history of the 13th century old town is deeply rich, while the castle walls are eminently recognisable as the filming location for King’s Landing from Game Of Thrones. The guide’s lessons that stay with me include that the people of Dubrovnik once used the elbow as a unit of measurement, and there is a bar by the steps where Cersei Lannister walked naked in shame during the city’s famous HBO show, which serves “shamejito” cocktails and “shameburgers”.
And the night life? Well the walking tour ends with one of the most idyllic beers I’ve ever had, sat in a lively bar carved into a cliff beneath the city’s walls as the sun sets over the sea.
That evening, we join a group of Australians of a similar age to go out for cocktails before heading to a club called Dancelectric – a cavernous stone hall within the castle walls. With lights, thumping European music and excited dancers in an historical setting, it’s a bit like having a rave in the Tower of London, and what’s not to like about that?
After another brain-clearing dip in the ocean the next morning, we’re off to to the island of Mljet for a cycle through the national park, one of the boat’s optional excursions, where we dodge sea urchins for a dip in the park’s salt lakes and a beer on a miniature island with some fellow sailors.
The next day we’re in the town of Hvar, where aside from a nice walk to the nearby fortress in the daytime, the night life is superb. We decide against a water taxi to an island club but, after a decadent meal of black risotto with mussels and clams, we enjoy one too many margaritas and rakia shots with a side order of cheesy music in a buzzing bar by the marina.
A sore-headed day in the ancient town of Stari Grad follows, where wine tasting tours are available as a €30/£26 optional excursion. But I opt for a trip to the beach with our new sailing friends, before a few glasses of rose wine watching the sunset over the dock that evening.
Suddenly, it’s our penultimate day and I ensure we make the most of our final swim stop before we arrive back in Split. Today we have our big, adventurous optional excursion – ziplining across Cetina, one of the largest canyons in Croatia.
Flying through gorgeous, leafy scenery at a dizzying height, the €80/£69 add-on is worth it for the views as much as the kick of adrenaline – which you could also seek a dose of from the bungee jumping and river rafting also on offer on the trip.
Back in Split after a week of sailing, hours of swimming and countless alcohol units-worth of socialising, I ask our tall, sun-bleached blond and knowledgeable Croatian sailing guide, Vicko Ledina, what makes his country – and this waterborne way of seeing it – so special.
“Rome or the Amalfi Coast can be overcrowded; often these places look better on Instagram than in reality,” he says.
“In Croatia, wherever you go, you can breathe, you can find intimacy for yourself – you can always find that table for two and enjoy silence. And once you board a boat, everything opens up for you.”
I have to say, I agree.
How to plan your trip
Sail Croatia’s seven-night Explorer cruises, departing weekly from Split and Dubrovnik, start from from £749pp (two sharing), including breakfast, lunch, Wi-Fi plus Captain’s dinner. Departures between April and October (sail-croatia.com; 020 4525 7534). Flights extra.