Holidays Travel

How I changed my view on cruises with a small ship experience in Croatia

Hannah Stephenson swims off the small ship Bellissima (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Hannah Stephenson swims off the small ship Bellissima (Hannah Stephenson/PA) Hannah Stephenson swims off the small ship Bellissima (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

I’d never really been a fan of cruises, having been on two large liners years ago, with not enough time to explore each port, a fight for sun loungers on deck and a daily programme of activities which left me feeling a bit overwhelmed.

So, the only way I would be tempted on to another cruise was on a smaller scale – smaller ship, fewer passengers, slower pace, less formality.

With this in mind, island-hopping on a small ship along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia sounded like a good fix, starting in Split and ending in Dubrovnik. The voyage promised a very different experience – a maximum of 38 passengers, sunbeds and seating areas galore and a feeling of space.

The Bellissima (Cruise Croatia/PA)
The Bellissima (Cruise Croatia/PA) The Bellissima (Cruise Croatia/PA)

“There’s been a big shift since Covid to people wanting to do small ship cruises,” says Graham Carter, chief commercial officer for leading luxury travel specialist Unforgettable Travel. “People love the intimate nature of how it works.”

In the busy harbour at Split, a few minutes from the Diocletian Palace, one of the world’s best preserved monuments of Roman architecture with its maze of streets heaving with tourists, bars, shops and restaurants, we board the Bellissima, which is to be our home for the next week.

It may be pint-size compared with the multi-decked giant liner shadowing ominously nearby, but it offers luxury on a grand scale. It’s how I imagine stepping on to a superyacht would be.

Tourists at the entrance of the Palace of Diocletian, Split, Croatia (Alamy/PA)
Tourists at the entrance of the Palace of Diocletian, Split, Croatia (Alamy/PA) A busy day at the Palace of Diocletian, Split (Alamy/PA) (Alamy Stock Photo)

The Bellissima is a family-run ship with a crew of 11 Croatians. We are greeted by Betty, the matriarch of the family, Lucca, the captain, and his brother, first officer Nikolai. There’s the charismatic maitre’d and sommelier Maté and the efficient, knowledgeable cruise director Marina, fixer of all things, from guided tours to restaurant reservations.

All are Croatian, and it’s clear it’s not just a business, there is passion and pride in everything they do. In no time at all, we know their names, their jobs and how they can help make the holiday one to remember. Maté soon becomes familiar with our favourite tipples and loves a bit of banter with the guests.

The ship itself is pretty new, built in 2020, with spacious air-conditioned cabins, some with balconies. There’s a plethora of luxury sun loungers on the top deck – no need for early morning towel placings here – along with a Jacuzzi, while the intimate bar and dining room houses five tables of eight on the main deck. You can sit where you like and have a chance to get to know each other better.

Sun loungers on the deck of the Bellissima (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Sun loungers on the deck of the Bellissima (Hannah Stephenson/PA) No shortage of loungers on the Bellissima (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

“This ship gives you enforced down time,” says Australian Terry on the empty deck when we set sail on the first morning. “You feel like you’ve got the boat to yourself and there’s no rushing around.”

On board, I’m soon chatting with a party of fun-loving Australians and an extended American family, as well as a Croatian heart surgeon who operated on Betty’s husband.

Unlike larger cruise ships, which on our route are only able to dock at the quayside of the major ports of Split and Dubrovnik, our vessel can dock at islands including Mljet, Vis, Hvar and Korčula, so we can just walk off the boat, while larger ships anchor out to sea and ferry passengers in on smaller boats known as tenders.

Street in Korcula, Croatia (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Street in Korcula, Croatia (Hannah Stephenson/PA) A pretty street in Korčula (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

We sail down the Dalmatian coast by day, the ship weaving its way past rocky outcrops and terracotta-roofed villages and through the Pakleni islands archipelago which is awash with secluded bays.

The voyage lacks the urgency of getting to port to disembark to see the sights and rush around in the heat. Marina is always on hand to give us factual information about the islands and their inhabitants. I feel myself winding down as my FOMO subsides.

Every day we anchor at a different cove, away from all the hustle and bustle, and descend to a wooden platform where we swim off the boat, making use of the inflatables, goggles and snorkels, paddleboards and kayaks which Nikolai and other crew members distribute as desired.

People swimming off the Bellissima small ship in Croatia (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
People swimming off the Bellissima small ship in Croatia (Hannah Stephenson/PA) Swimming off the ship is a highlight (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

This, for me, is a huge highlight – no crowded chlorine pools, just the crystal clear Adriatic Sea, a handful of swimmers and an area far wider than any average lido.

Each day, guests can do an excursion – most are included in the price. We learn about Croatian rulers and UNESCO treasures in guided tours, go wine-tasting in Hvar and oyster-tasting in Ston, visit the giant cascading waterfalls at Krka National Park before the big cruise ship crowds arrive, and swim in one of the peaceful inland salt lakes of Mljet.

Each stop-off has its own charm – the quaint cobbled streets of the medieval town of Trogir, the peaceful haven of Jelsa, away from the bustling main town of party island Hvar, the scent of Aleppo pine in the peaceful forests of Mljet, the mini-Dubrovnik that is Korčula, with its pretty cobbled alleyways, artisan shops and sophisticated dining experiences.

Specialities range from octopus, mussels and clams to Croatian prosciutto, truffles and Italian-influenced dishes enhanced with lovingly pressed olive oil.

On board, unlike the all-inclusive eat-as-much-as-you-can mentality of many cruises, ours offers breakfast, lunch and selected dinners, so for some of the time you are left to find your own restaurant, with the help of a restaurant guide on your arrival, and Marina, who can book whatever you fancy.

This gives passengers a chance to take time out to explore the ancient cobbled streets, nooks and crannies of the islands on their own.

Octopus carpaccio (Hannah Stephenson/PA)
Octopus carpaccio (Hannah Stephenson/PA) Octopus carpaccio at Mediterraneo restaurant in Hvar (Hannah Stephenson/PA)

There are olive oil, wine, cheese and cured meat tastings on board during the week, along with surprise treats of warm, herby flatbread, so no one’s going hungry.

When we do dine on board in the evening, dressing for dinner is thankfully informal. The relaxed environment may all seem a bit tame for the youngsters who want a bit more of a party vibe – ages on our cruise range from early 20s to late 70s – but I discover that younger element have done their homework re nightlife.

On the day we dock at Jelsa, at the quieter end of Hvar, they head for the lively hub of the Hula Hula Beach Club for the afternoon and the night party at the famous Carpe Diem Beach, a club on Marinkovac, one of the Pakleni islands, a 10-minute boat ride from Hvar. Marina only asks that they’re back by 5am, an hour before we set sail.

Bleary-eyed, the youngsters rise late the next day with entertaining tales of their night’s escapades and we’re all familiar enough to want to hear. It’s got to the stage where the Australians now call me ‘H’ and high-five me when they’re at the bar.

But that’s the intimacy of a small ship. Long after disembarking in Dubrovnik, we’re still exchanging pictures and news of our travels through our WhatsApp group, me posting images of the pouring rain in the UK, others posting the glorious skies of southern Europe.

On reflection, I’m now happy to sail away into the sunset – as long as it’s on a small ship.

How to plan your trip

Cruise Croatia (cruisecroatia.com; 020 3950 9613) offers a seven-night Split to Dubrovnik cruise on the MV Bellissima, calling at Split, Trogir, Vis, Hvar, Korcula, Slano/Ston and Dubrovnik, from £1,575pp (two sharing), including private transfers, half board, guided tours and free Wi-Fi. Flights extra. Departures from from May to October 2024.