Louis Bell, who was born and raised in the seaside town of Howth near Dublin and has sailed since he was seven, knows these waters well having cruised there extensively as skipper of the Oyster 125 Twilight and he loves the place.
“It is just spectacular, the water is crystal clear, there are so many options for anchoring, and the locals are extremely helpful. They are very proud of where they are from and what they have to offer you. Sailing from north to south or vice versa offers dramatic changes of scenery. The northern islands are almost lunar in appearance, with barren boulders protruding from the sea in vast quantities, and a multitude of hideouts. The southern islands are lush with green overhangs and sparkling waters.”
WITH OVER 3,000 NAUTICAL MILES OF COASTLINE, CROATIA OFFERS CLEAR WATERS, SCENIC ISLANDS, AND VIBRANT CULTURE. EXPLORE TRAVEL TIPS, ANCHOR SPOTS, AND MUST-SEE LOCATIONS. ENJOY THE RICH COASTAL CULTURE AND CUISINE OF THIS CAPTIVATING DESTINATION.
Approaching from the south, Louis recommends the Albanian port of Surandë as a potential stopover. An absolute must-see though is the extraordinary natural harbour that is the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro which is just shy of the Croatian border. As Louis puts it, “It would be sinful to miss Kotor. It takes about two hours to navigate into the bay and it's phenomenal.”
Currents in the Adriatic are weak and barely noticeablebut, in general, they flow NW on the Croatian side and SE down the coast of Italy.
However, a close eye needs to be kept on the weather, particularly if you are visiting outside of the summer months. The Bora is the cold katabatic wind that blows from the NE and can build very quickly along most parts of the Croatian coastline. Louis has experienced its full force – “I’ve been sitting at anchor with barely a breath of wind and a glassy sea and within four minutes it can be blowing 70 knots. It's not a gradual build.” Anchoring strategies need to be carefully thought through and rather than rely on online weather sources, he recommends obtaining forecasts locally, particularly via VHF.
By Mediterranean standards, the season is quite short with June, July and August being the most likely to deliver settled conditions and plenty of options ashore. By mid-September, it will be getting noticeably cooler and once you get to October the chances of very high winds are substantially increased.
Dubrovnik would be an obvious first port of call, the mediaeval walled city which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A good marina is located a little way to the NW, close to the commercial port. Marina Frapa has all the services you will need for re-provisioning, chandlery and other supplies, with very attentive staff to take your lines and assist with mooring, although like many of the new marinas along the Croatian coast, it is quite pricey.
Just a short distance from Dubrovnik, Kolocĕp offers a good glimpse of what island life has to offer. In the bay of Gornje Čelo, the beach bar has some of the finest food found on the islands. However, unless conditions are very settled Louis wouldn’t recommend spending the night at anchor there, preferring the shelter offered on the north side of the island near Donje Čelo.
“The southerly bay on Lopud is really beautiful for a stern-to the rocks set up. It’s typically quiet, although the beach bar ashore can offer enough activity for those who fancy a mingle. It’s an ideal bay to spend a day in, snorkelling, paddling and water activities and then wrap it up with a drink ashore. However, it’s important to watch your weather as south or south-westerly winds can create an uncomfortable swell.”
If you need to get out and seek shelter, you can head for Luka Slano on the mainland shore. Louis advises that “while the Bora can still get you there, the bay has good holding and sea state remains flat”. Slano itself has a good marina infrastructure and easy access by road back to Dubrovnik and is not a bad spot for a base if you were to leave the boat for a spot of mainland exploration.
The bay of Ston, just along the mainland coast, is another must-see. “Drop the hook in 7-10 m of water and gasp at the quaint beauty around you, adorned by uninterrupted greenery. Hop in the dinghy and head further up the channel, and make sure you experience the local oyster excursion, accompanied by the wine which is aged under the water!” Underwater scuba tours are available to visit this unique arrangement.
Larger than the islands described so far, Mljet has a national park at its western end. Louis recommends that you “anchor in the outer part of Polače bay if you have the scope of chain onboard - inside can be quite crowded. There is spectacular, lush greenery and untouched nature surrounding you. Head ashore and explore the national park. You can hire bikes and e-bikes from several vendors.” It’s important to be aware that accessing the national parks throughout the archipelago usually involves paying a small fee.
This island is further offshore than most of the islands and you are spoiled with anchorage choices. “Spend time exploring the island, the main town is overlooked by a castle and wrapped in traditional stone houses. If you feel a little more adventurous, explore the caves. One of which houses remains from the neolithic age.” The whole island is a nature park and charges apply for anchoring and landing.
Next, Louis recommends Hvar. “A more favoured spot of mine is the often overlooked bay of Stari Grad, a subdued Venetian city romantic from almost every angle.” The main town of Hvar has an array of offerings. Busy bars, clubs, restaurants and shops are found in the ancient city.
Continuing along the coast, and if you decide to skip Split which is the centre of the growing charter and flotilla scene and can be rather frantic, Šibenik offers excellent shelter including a marina and the opportunity to go ashore and visit the Krka National Park including its scenic waterfalls.
The landscape has now become rocky and barren and vegetation is sparse. However, the archipelago, much of which has national park status, offers a wealth of remote anchorages, tiny villages and a remarkable selection of small bars, cafés and restaurants. You could happily spend weeks exploring this part of the Croatian coast alone.
The Croatian mainland coastline is interrupted for a few miles to the northwest of Dubrovnik. This is where Bosnia and Herzegovina extends to its only port, Neum. If travelling by road, this is very much a “hard” border and lengthy queues are common. This was a particular issue if your boat was berthed in, say, Split, but you were flying home from Dubrovnik, the other side of the double border crossing. Happily, a bridge has now been built from Kolmarna across to the Pelješac peninsula, which was opened in 2022 and allows road traffic to remain in Croatia.
Transiting this area by sea presents no problems with officialdom however and the spectacular Pelješac Bridge itself, with an air draught of 55 metres, is worth a look.
Since it joined the Schengen Area in January 2023, Croatia is now subject to the 90 days in any 180 that UK nationals are now having to become all too familiar with. However, its well-developed maritime infrastructure allows owners the opportunity to leave their boats in good hands between visits.
Its extraordinary coastline is an idyllic cruising ground where you could while away the summer months without visiting the same anchorage twice. Innumerable shoreside cafés and restaurants are serving superb locally sourced fish and seafood, and you are assured of a friendly welcome.
Croatia may no longer be a secret, but it still has plenty to explore.
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