Is there a quintessentially more Dalmatian image in our collective minds than that of a sailboat sailing across the wide Adriatic Sea, passing on its way dozens, if not hundreds, of picturesque coves and shores covered in pine trees and Mediterranean shrub. As the old marketing punchline of the Croatian tourist board goes: ‘Croatia. The land of a thousand islands’.
Indeed, with 1244 islands, islets and crags, there are a lot of things to see why sailing the high seas of the Adriatic. This is why in the past decade the small boat cruise industry, particularly adept at providing the best of island hopping experiences, has seen a dramatic rise in popularity.
No other coastal town in the country has as large and diverse fleet of small cruise ships as Split. Most of these ship anchor at the nearby fishing village of Krilo Jesenice, some half a distance between Split and Omiš, whose many boat owners and captains reportedly hold around 75 percent of the cruise fleet in the entire country and almost all of the fleet that services Split specifically.
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Though itineraries may vary, depending on the season as well as the arrangements the tourist agency has made with its passengers, the majority of Croatian cruises sail between Split and Dubrovnik. The most popular types of cruises usually take a full week, mostly from one Saturday to the next.
The most popular route is the so-called ‘Split return route’, a true ‘classic’ in as far the cruising lines go. It involves a round trip from Split to Dubrovnik and back, with daily port of calls at Stari Grad, Hvar, Mljet, Dubrovnik, Korčula, Makarska and a return to the home port of Split, though these can vary.
The ‘Split to Dubrovnik’ (or vice versa) itinerary is the second popular route, particularly of interest to travelers looking to explore the cities of Split and Dubrovnik before and after their cruise. The itinerary on this route is usually similar to the abovementioned ‘classic’ one, though there are usually more variations in the choice of ports of call since the there are no practical constraints of a return trip. Often, one or more stops, especially Makarska, of the ‘classic’ itinerary are replaced with destinations such as the town of Vis, on the idyllic island of the same name, Bol or Milna on the island if Brač, and, sometimes, Vela Luka on the island of Korčula.
What to expect
The crew of the ship varies according to each of the ship’s size and class, consisting of a captain, several deckhands, cook(s), bartender(s) and tourist guides which are provided by the respective travel agencies.
All of the cruises usually have breakfast and lunch provided on board, as well as one dinner during the week for the occasion of ‘the Captain’s dinner. These are prepared onboard by the ship’s cook. The lunch typically consists of three courses, with a starter, main dish and a dessert, usually involving Dalmatian staple foods and specialties like grilled fish, Dalmatian ‘pašticada’, risottos etc.
Like most of the cruising industry, Dalmatian small cruises have rules against bringing food and drinks on board. Hence each ship is equipped with a full bar at which bottled drinks and alcoholic beverages can be purchased, including draft beer, wines, cocktails and spirits.
When visiting a port of call, the cruise ships will dock at its port. However, since all of the Dalmatian ports are small in size and with limited docking capacity, while there is a large fleet of Dalmatian cruises that follow similar itineraries, this usually means that there will be several ships docked at a single docking spot in the port. Usually, this means that the first ship to arrive will dock directly to the port embankment, while the rest will then tie up their vessels to the already docked ships. Hence, at times, there will be several ships tied to the same spot, one adjacent to the other, which might go five to six ship deep. This means that all of the passengers from all of the boats will have to use the decks of the other boats to get to the shore, with the first ship having all the foot traffic of all of the additional ships.
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How to book a small ship cruise: The two major agencies and their offers
Currently, cabins aboard small ship cruises are mostly bookable by specialized travel agencies. The largest two agencies specialized in small boat cruses are Sail Croatia and Katarina Line, which hold almost the entire cruising market in Split-related cruises. They both share similar fleet, services and practices so consider them something like Coca Cola & Pepsi, where one might be more to your taste and likening than the other.
One major thing to consider, is the style or a theme of the cruise you wish to book. These can be generally summarized into three main categories. On one hand there are luxury cruises, which feature newer, higher-class vessels that include better crew-to-guest ratios, more spacious en-suite rooms and larger common areas like dining saloons, sun-decks and usually host smaller groups.
On the other side of the spectrum are to so-called ‘party boats’, which typically cater to a younger audiences. They typically include lots of swimming stops and night time activities, including on-board parties.
Somewhere in between are the so-called ‘hiking’ or ‘cycling’ tours which are a typically hosted on the same class of ships that also act as ‘party boats’, but which cater more to adult audiences interested in onshore excursions and town-exploring activities.
Sail Croatia, for example, brands these three types of cruising as navigator (party boats), elegance (luxury boats), and explorer (the hiking and cycling cruises). Katarina Line brands them as young fun cruises, deluxe cruises and active cruises.
So, don’t miss out and book your wonderful Croatian cruise trip now!
Photo above courtesy of Sail Croatia.