The sun is just beginning to rise as the Freedom of Croatia pulls away from the port and the sleeping town of Split. (Read Top 10 Things to Do in Split)
Standing on the ship’s top deck, I watch the sun’s rays reflect in the clear turquoise waters. Within minutes, we’re cruising along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast.
Explore the Croatian Islands on a Crewed Private Yacht
Croatia has more than 1,200 islands and one of the best ways to see the islands is with a private charter yacht cruise. This week, a group of friends and I are doing just that on the Freedom of Croatia, a 50-meter yacht with 19 cabins.
The yacht is operated by Goolets, a leading agency for crewed charter yachts in Croatia. Goolets offers more than 100 different vessels at all price points, from wooden Gulets with four cabins to mega yachts for 20 to 24 guests.
Goolets is owned by husband-and-wife Alenka and Mitja Mirtič, who launched the company in 2005 after taking their first yachting holiday together and falling in love with cruising – and each other.
Island Hopping in Croatia
I’ve always loved cruising but exploring the Croatian islands on a private yacht charter is something quite different. The main difference is that we are the only passengers on board, and the itinerary, the meals and plans have been made just for us.
In my mind, yachting was always reserved for those with hefty incomes, but you don’t have to be rich to charter a yacht in Croatia.
Many charters cost about the same per person as a luxury consumer cruise. There are vessels of all sizes. Fully crewed yachts include a captain, crew and even a chef so you can sit back and relax.
The Freedom of Croatia holds up to 20 guests and has two onboard chefs, a large dining room and comfortable staterooms. My friends and I plan to visit four Croatian islands on our four-day cruise. On the way, we’ll stop in quiet bays to snorkel, swim and enjoy the water.
Brač is the largest island in central Dalmatia, and it’s our first stop. Home to 1,400 residents, its tidy cobblestone streets are lined with outdoor cafes and small shops. Many of its structures were built with radiant white limestone, the same used to build Diocletian’s Palace in Split.
Zlatni Rat is the island’s top beach. Like most Croatian beaches, it is lined with smooth pebbles and has clear warm waters. During summer, the beach is filled with tourists, but we’re here in October and have the beach to ourselves.
Croatia’s Mediterranean climate is perfect for vineyards, lavender fields and olive groves. We sample local wines at Stina Winery, which has a beautiful tasting room lined with ancient stone walls.
Onboard the Freedom of Croatia
In between ports, I enjoy cruising. The ship feels luxurious and has a gym, spa and plenty of room to relax on the top deck.
Dining on the Freedom of Croatia quickly becomes one of our favorite experiences. Even with a small galley, the chefs whip up tasty dishes. We eat a delicious lunch as we sail to our next island stop of Hvar.
Hvar is the most popular island and it’s easy to see why. Walking through its ancient streets is like stepping back in time. Greeks, Romans and four centuries of Venetian rule have left their mark on its well-preserved architecture.
In summer, Hvar’s narrow streets are filled with visitors, but I’m here in the off-season. As I wander the cobblestone alleys of Old Town, the sound of my footsteps echoes against the 13th-century city walls.
As day turns to dusk, we walk to Fortica, a fortress built by the Venetians in 1278. The illuminated fortress stands grandly on a hill overlooking the town. As its bells ring, I stand still and listen. I can almost imagine what life was like back then.
Dining on Hvar
For dinner, we head to Gariful, a luxury restaurant along the waterfront. Gariful is popular with locals and visitors alike.
Hollywood celebrities have been known to cruise in by speedboat from Dubrovnik just to dine at the waterside restaurant. Croatian cuisine revolves around fresh local ingredients, and our meal at Gariful is a three-course delight.
Even from the water, I find our next stop, the island of Korčula, picturesque. Sailing along its coast, we view its ancient town walls and then pass quiet coves, pebbly beaches and hills covered in olive groves and vineyards. Some of the best Croatian white wines are produced on this tiny island.
Our local guide entertains us with historical tales and her delightful sense of humor. Walking through Korčula is a walk through the 13th to the 16th centuries, she says.
She tells stories of famous residents, including Marco Polo, who some biographers believe was born on the island when it was part of the Venetian Republic.
Part of the fun in cruising in Croatia is enjoying the sea, from snorkeling to standup paddle boating to diving. The water is a warm 70 degrees even in early October, so one morning our captain finds a protected cove and drops anchors. The crew pulls out snorkels, standup paddleboards, and a jet ski. The water is so clear that I can see 20 ft down.
The Blue Cave
Later, we visit the Blue Cave, a geomorphological monument of nature. On a motorboat, we enter the cave through a small opening in the rock.
Light streaming through an underwater opening in the cave gives a luminous blue light to the water. It’s an otherworldly experience that delights all aboard.
The island of Vis is our last stop. As we walk along the harbor, it looks vaguely familiar. Then I learn that the movie, Mama Mia! Here We Go Again, was filmed on this tiny island. I recognize many of the film’s locations and learn that locals appeared as movie extras.
Our local guide takes us in four-wheel drive cars up into the hills overlooking the island. From the peak, I can see the island’s quiet villages and meandering coastline. I stand and soak in one last Croatian sunset, knowing that I’ll be back.
How to Get to the Croatian Islands
One of the most popular ways to explore the islands is by yacht charter, and Croatia has become one of the top yachting destinations in the world.
You don’t have to be rich to charter a yacht in Croatia; many charters cost about the same per person as a luxury consumer cruise.
You can choose the charter options that are right for you, from a basic boat that you operate yourself to a crewed yacht complete with a chef so you can sit back and enjoy the trip.
How to Book a Crewed Private Yacht
Goolets is a well-respected private yacht company in Croatia and offers more than 100 vessels of all price points to choose from, from wooden vessels called Gulets with four cabins up to mega yachts for 20 to 24 guests.
After determining your group’s size, desired itinerary, and level of service, Goolets will customize a cruise that fits your needs. You can choose to add onboard meals and drinks. The most popular option is to include breakfast and lunch on board but then have dinner at a restaurant at each destination.
English is widely spoken throughout Croatia, and there are many excellent hotels, restaurants, and shops.
One final tip: The Croatian Islands is a popular destination in the summer, and some places can be crowded. If you can, visit in spring or fall when prices are lower, there are few crowds, and the weather is pleasant.
Author Bio: Janna Graber is the editor of three travel anthologies and the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine