It’s long been an open secret among European travelers, and one that more and more savvy Americans are now finally discovering: With its 1,100 miles of stunning mainland coastline and over 1,200 very nearby islands, there’s really no better way to experience the best of Croatia’s glory than by sea. For planning purposes, bear in mind that Croatia’s cruise season generally runs from mid-April to mid-October.
Want to learn more about Croatia’s fascinating history, and put all of those pretty castles and cathedrals into cultural context? A discovery cruise is the perfect way, providing just the sort of deep background info that inquiring minds want to know. History-based cruise expert Voyages to Antiquity explores Croatia on several of its Mediterranean itineraries, including its Venice to Istanbul and Athens to Venice runs.
Travel is aboard the 378-passenger Aegean Odyssey, with lectures from noted scholars to set the historical scene before every docking. Croatian highlights include the ancient city of Zadar (coveted by imperial Romans, Byzantines and Venetians alike), the island of Korcula (claimed by locals as Marco Polo’s birthplace) and the enchanting Split, which grew up around the famous palace of Emperor Diocletian. Another quality Croatian-calling discovery cruiser is Travel Dynamics International, whose smaller ships carry just over a hundred passengers on its informative Adriatic adventures.
If you can afford it, why not travel Croatia in style? Thanks to the 21st-century shift toward relaxed luxury travel, high-end cruising needn’t be a rigid or stuffy affair. Under the motto, “It’s yachting, not cruising,” the fantastic SeaDream explores the Adriatic on several of its Mediterranean outings. The vibe onboard its sleek, twin 110-person vessels is decidedly upmarket, yet unpretentious, free-form and relatively casual.
SeaDream’s Croatia stops usually include the cities of Dubrovnik and Split, and can also feature the atmospheric and photogenic Rovinj, as well as the islands of Korcula, the historic and unbelievably verdant Hvar, and the green and serene Rab. For a more classic luxury cruise experience, the elegant Regent Seven Seas visits Croatia on a number of its European journeys (aboard all-suite, all-balcony 700-passenger ships), but only ever docks at Dubrovnik.
There’s nothing quite like the romance and excitement of gliding along the Adriatic Sea driven only by the wind. And nobody does Croatian sailing cruises (or indeed, any sailing cruises) better than Star Clippers, whose magnificent 5-masted Royal Clipper, the world’s largest full-rigged sailing ship, has room for 227 passengers.
Usually powered only by its striking 42 sails, the majestic vessel makes stops at Dubrovnik, Rovinj and Hvar. On a smaller scale, Variety’s Panorama is a 3-masted ship with room for 49, offering weeklong Adriatic Odyssey cruises with an emphasis on the outdoorsy (think refreshing morning swims), calling at Dubrovnik and Korcula.
Many large cruise liners make stops in Croatia, but these behemoths are just too portly to dock anywhere but Dubrovnik or Split. The upscale Celebrity hits both cities on a number of its Mediterranean itineraries via the 2,886-passenger (and more than 120,000-ton) Celebrity Silhouette, which debuted in 2011 and is one of the nicest super-ships afloat. More modest and relaxed is Royal Caribbean, which calls in Croatia aboard its 1,800-passenger Splendour of the Seas.
Scores of small boats make regular tours of Croatia’s islands and coast, and with their diminished profiles are able to dock at gorgeous little ports that the bigger liners can only dream of. One of the most trusted local cruise operators is Katarina Line, offering weeklong journeys from both Split and Dubrovnik (even including dedicated cruises for specialized groups like cyclists, photographers, gay travelers and even nudists) aboard ships of about 20 to 40 passengers.
Also very popular are Croatia’s gulets, small motorized sailboats holding 8 to 20 people. Gulets are generally chartered by the week for the entire boat (using a booking agent like Luxury Gulets Croatia), making their itineraries highly flexible.
If you’re passing through Croatia by land and don’t have loads of extra time, a day cruise (or perhaps a couple of them back to back) may be the perfect option for you. Available from most of Croatia’s bigger ports (especially Dubrovnik and Split), day tours to local coastal towns or islands (like the quaint Elaphiti trio of Sipan, Lopud and Kolocep) can usually be booked by just showing up at the harbor before 9 a.m., or in advance through a clearinghouse like Viator. Many of these tours include a tasty lunch of just-caught fish, and usually return to port before 6 p.m.