Croatia, Sailing, City Break
and Everything in Between
Words by Jo Hollingsworth
This summer we were invited by family friends to spend a week sailing with them in Croatia. Never having seen Game of Thrones (shhh !) we had absolutely no preconceived ideas of what Croatia would be like and had never considered it as a holiday destination -the prospect of 4 adults and a gaggle of children ranging from 4-16 years old crammed into a boat for a week evoked mixed feelings (mostly bad !) As a contingency we decided to tag on a week in Split in the event that an extended recovery period was needed!
As it turned out sailing was arguably one of the best ways to explore Croatia. The archipelago is home to over 1000 islands (many of them uninhabited) so you are never far from land which makes sailing with children a breeze as a shore break is never far away, and there are around 50 inhabited islands each with their own unique reasons to visit. Although staying overnight on the many uninhabited islands is not allowed, during the day you can visit if it’s safe to anchor, and channel your own Robinson Crusoe. The sheer number of inhabited islands makes it impossible to do justice to, so like most travellers we picked just a handful to explore.
From the sea the coastline is rocky and smudged dark green with dense pine forests, the air perpetually thick with the sound of crickets. The gentle breeze provides a respite from the heat which averages 25 degrees with 13 hours of sunshine in July, travelling lightly with swimwear, sunscreen and rash vests made for a stress free packing list.
During the day we sailed for a few hours, then by popular demand stopped to drop anchor and swim off the back of the boat to cool off, older children were exhilarated to try halyard swinging at anchor (swinging on a rope from the mast and dropping into the water) and lazy lunches on deck stretched out into the afternoon . Swimming the short distance ashore to the many coves lapped by azure water was easy and the little ones were ferried in the dinghy to enjoy paddling in the shallows (remember that many of the beaches in Croatia are pebbly so take swim shoes) Each day brought new serendipity:- the solitary and unexpected seafood shack on the beach which grilled delicious fresh seafood drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice; dipping in the sea whilst waiting for lunch to be served; an outdoor fresh water shower near the beach which was good to take advantage of when hot water on the boat was running low; an impromptu BBQ on a deserted beach and shoals of fish swimming giddily between the children’s toes- the list was endless.
In the evenings we sometimes headed into shore to eat at one of the many harbourside island restaurants. Our favourite evenings were spent on Solta, a small island with a cluster of pretty buildings hugging the small harbour, restaurants strung with fairy lights and lit by flickering candles, and watching the comings and goings of boats.. but by far the best nights were when we simply dropped anchor at sea for the night, bobbing under an inky sky scattered with a million stars when wine and conversation flowed and card games kept all ages occupied until tired ‘salty hair -don’t care’ children eventually bunked up for the night .
The great thing about sailing in Croatia is that there doesn’t have to be an agenda, days can be lazy, you can wake in the morning and decide to go where the wind or tide takes you.
For families wanting to try sailing, Sunsail do family sailing holidays, you can charter a boat with or without a skipper (for experienced sailors) and families with older children could even choose to do a week’s sailing course with an onboard skipper-learning how to navigate and sail.
But the good news is that Croatia has just as much to offer on land…
The ancient city of Split provided a contrast with our time on the water. Framed by a hilly backdrop and the turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea, Split is dominated by the remains of Diocletian’s palace- its ancient walls encircle a maze of squares and narrow stone- paved alleys teeming with shops and outdoor restaurants- and it was easy to fall in love with. After a morning exploring the palace ruins, it was relaxing to while away an hour people watching in one of the harbourside cafes, In the evening we joined the evening promenade along the harbour, stopping for freshly squeezed juice along the way, and later ate in the candlelit restaurants that jostle for space and custom inside the palace walls.
We had eschewed a hotel in favour of Airbnb and had managed to find an apartment right inside the palace walls with a large roof terrace overlooking the crooked rooftops and palace walls, the outdoor kitchen included a wood fired pizza oven- this proved to be a hit as well as a sound financial decision as eating out every night with children can prove relatively expensive in Split- like most cities.
Split is a great base from which to explore Dalmatia. Nearby Trogir where we picked up the boat- only a short drive from Split- is a UNESCO heritage site, we loved exploring the architecture and narrow lanes and eating lunch at a shady courtyard restaurant strung with fishing nets, shells and lanterns. Try the traditional and delicious crni rizot (black risotto) -it is a delicious squid risotto- the squid ink makes the rice black – with mussels, clams, and other shellfish and is served in lots of places.
Many of the islands are easily accessible as ferries run regularly to and from Split during the summer- one of the most popular is Hvar which has upmarket ports teeming with luxury yachts, and pretty beaches where you can while away the day sunbathing and snorkelling –or escape to the white stone beach in Milna which has an alfresco café serving delicious fresh fish. If you travel further inland the landscape becomes patched with olive groves and lavender fields , and the summit near Grablje offers breath-taking panoramic views. Many itineraries include a visit to The Blue Cave on Bisevo Island which is only accessible by small boat (if you join an excursion try to go early to avoid the queues of boats waiting for their turn to squeeze through the narrow entrance) prepare to be captivated by the extraordinary silvery blue light that floods the cave.
For those staying on land but keen to incorporate some time on the water there are a myriad of other possibilities that are family friendly . One day we went kayaking which proved popular with all ages (even little ones aged 4 upwards can kayak in tandem with parents.) For families with slightly older children, the Cetina River is an easy drive away (or you can join an organised day trip) and offers an introduction to canyoning for adults and children aged 8 upwards- you can hike, slither and slide down the rapids and swim in crystal clear rock pools, and teenagers can try supervised cliff jumping- alternatively the Krka national park which is only one hour from Split has cascading waterfalls which you can swim underneath- there are also river cruises if you want to experience the river at a more relaxed pace..
Closer to home we spent an afternoon on Marjan Hill- it’s shady pine forests and trails are perfect for walking or cycling-remember to pack a picnic . If you are feeling energetic you can climb the stairs to Vidilica- there is a restaurant perched on the hillside which has fantastic views over Split and is a perfect place to stop off for a cold drink before following the track up the hill, but there are less strenuous ways to get there- children will love the land train that runs regularly throughout the day during the summer. It’s also possible to do rock climbing on the hill for all levels including beginners and children aged 8 upwards.
If you need a nearby beach fix during the day , we found it best to avoid the city beach which was very crowded and instead caught the number 12 bus to Bene beach (it’s also walkable from the centre of Split or an easy taxi ride away) Like many of the beaches in Croatia it’s not sandy so take swim shoes for paddling, but you can snorkel and play in the rock pools, the ice-cream stall and shady pine tree fringes offer a respite from the sun, and there is a small playground for young children.
For Game of Thrones fans there are of course lots of tours and excursions ( I have to confess that we still haven’t seen it but it’s on the list for Autumn evenings !)
Travelling with children is relatively easy as people are welcoming, most hotels will happily provide extra beds for children and nappies and formula milk are easy to find. There is still a little way to go , so for example it’s not always easy to find nappy changing facilities or high chairs. Child menus are not as ubiquitous as at home so children tend to share adult portions (but fussy eaters will also find a plethora of places serving pizza and pasta).
We had a range of ages with us and found that Croatia appealed across the board, it’s also an easy short hop from London’s airports (just 2.5 hours).
TLB verdict – Equally perfect for a grown up city break or a longer family holiday for those that love water activities.