Let’s kick off with the basics: swimming. You can stop off anywhere along the coast and plunge in, but if you want to take things to the next level, you should consider joining a special island-hopping swimming tour with SwimTrek. And where better to do it than the low-lying and closely knit islands of the Šibenik archipelago and Kornati, and the nearby Krka river and waterfalls?
This unique way of exploring Croatia, and having wholesome fun at the same time, involves no more than four kilometres of swimming per day, and encompasses some of the least-known islands in Croatia. The programme is to swim in the moming and relax for most of the afternoon, with plenty of good food at lunch and dinner. The seven day trips, starting from £750, are for a maximum of 14 people, accompanied by two swimming guides, a local boat pilot and two motorised escorts. All speeds of swimmer are welcome (you’ll be split into staggered groups), flippers are available, and the escort boats are there to supply energy drinks, snacks and lunch at the appropriate intervals. They’re also for taking a rest if needed, though the buoyancy of the salt water means you barely have to tread water to take a short break from your stylish front crawl.
Another great way to get out on the ocean is to head out in a sea kayak. These are so easy to use that a complete beginner can tum up, go through a few paddling techniques with their guide and in no time be heading for some idyllic island they could only previously reach on a packed taxi boat or infrequent ferry. Sea kayaks are happily more comfortable than conventional kayaks and their length, with extra cargo capacity, allows for the kayak to move smoothly and easily in a straight line.
A handful of companies offer sea kayaking tours in Croatia, usually either a simple, quick and enjoyable half-day or day trip with lunch thrown in or a week-long trek around a specific island or area, checking out its most spectacular natural features. One such is Adriatic Kayak Tours, founded by American Tamsen Resor in 2005 after several years of exploring the coves, caves and coast of Croatia. ‘When I arrived there was little for the active, independent visitor,’ explains Tamsen. ‘Eco-tourism didn’t really exist. Experiencing the coast and islands by sea kayak seemed a natural fit.’ AKT run basic paddles to the car-free island of Lokrum and sunset paddles with wine and cheese thrown in. Children aged eight to 16 are welcome but must be accompanied by an adult. AKT also run week-long island tours of Vis and Mljet, and combine tours with cycling and hiking.
If swimming or paddling both sound like a little bit too much physical effort, then why not join the laidback boaty set? You don’t have to be an expert seafarer: Croatia is fantastic for a safe, gentle and relaxing introduction to sailing. Its climate normally ensures gentle, warm weather (the Adriatic is often so calm and flat it is likened to a mirror) and there are no major tides or currents to worry about. The sailing boats have motors too so if there is too much or too little wind, you can still reach your destination.
If you choose a skippered yacht, a qualified skipper from your charter company will be on board to show you the ropes, take you to little-known places and ease you through your learning curve. Your skipper can accompany you or not in the evenings when you dock, as you wish – they tend to know great hidden restaurants.
Don’t be afraid to get involved – you can learn how to moor, do the basic knots, unleash and take in the sail, set up the dinghy to get ashore, steer, plan your journey on the charts and check the weather forecasts. It’s very satisfying. And, crucially, you set the pace and the itinerary. You’re the boss. If you want to sail all night you can. If you want a gentle afternoon drift while reading a book, having a beer and basking on deck in the sun you can. It can be a race, a cruise, a floating bar, restaurant and hotel all at the same time.
There are plenty of reputable international charter companies and a number of good, smaller, local ones that can set you up with a tailor-made experience. Charts and guides will be supplied, plus lifejackets, safety equipment and fresh linen and towels. Space is limited, so pack sensibly before you set off. Pack a waterproof jacket, warm jumper and a good book. Don’t forget the sunglasses, sunscreen, hat, deck shoes and long-sleeved shirts to cover up. And take plastic sandals – to protect against sea urchins and for jumping ashore onto pebbly beaches.
Deals on fuel vary but the fuel and water tanks should normally be full when you depart and on return. A tender (small rubber boat) will be provided for safety and to get you from an anchorage to shore, but you may have to pay extra for an outboard engine if you don’t fancy rowing.
Happily, you’re never far from a marina in Croatia. State-owned ACI runs many of the marinas and has its own charter fleets in Vodice and Trogir. A night’s mooring in a marina will cost around €33, with a 10 per cent uplift at most in July and August, and town harbours will cost slightly less. In some anchorages and small bays, berthing is made easy by ‘lazy lines’. This is when marina staff, the harbour master or the restaurant owner will see you coming and run to the quay to pull a rope out of the water for you.
With the practicalities taken care of, all you need to decide is where you want to cruise. lstria has beautiful towns and adventurous cuisine but lacks the variety and abundance of islands in Dalmatia.
Kvarner contains the islands of Krk, Cres, Lošinj and Rab, all with their own marinas. A short sail from the busy marina of Zadar are the lesser-developed islands of Pašman, Ugljan and Dugi Otok, all ideal for finding secluded bays. Meanwhile, just nearby Biograd and the three marinas in Murter offer easy access to the stark natural wilderness of the Kornati national park, comprised of some 140 unspoiled islands.
Croatia is a diver’s paradise. The waters are pristine, with gentle tides and stony seabeds. A wealth of marine life can be observed without the view being obstructed by swirling sand – visibility around southern Dalmatia can reach up to 25 metres. Sharks and other predators are rare.
And the karst underbelly of Dalmatia offers countless crevices, caves, sink holes and channels, with an estimated 1,500 caves still to be undiscovered in Adriatic waters. Diving around a secret world randomly illuminated by sunbeams is a major part of the attraction.
Most coral reefs lie too deep for amateur divers but other marine life is as rich as any you’ll find in the Med: moray eels, conger eels, octopus, sea snails and sponges should all be seen in reasonable numbers. The waters off Vis are particularly rich – for most of the post-war era the island was off-limits as a military base.
Ključ near Vela Luka on Korčula offers red coral at 20 metres deep, red gorgonians at 30 metres, sea walls of colourful plants and a cave that many divers pronounce as Croatia’s most beautiful, with a vast entrance, extending for 100 metres. Meanwhile, clubs on Lošinj take divers out to Premuda, where an underwater cliff falls from six to 33 metres. The entrance at the bottom is called Katedrala, or ‘Cathedral’ . Monumental in size, it is full of optical tricks that sunbeams play with the turquoise water. The blue mist around nature’s altarpiece is unforgettable.
The other major plus point for divers are the sunken relics. The Adriatic linked Ancient Greece to Italy and was central to Venetian trade with the Middle East, and areas laden with remnants are still open to divers under authorised supervision. Cavtat contains the most accessible of Croatia’s ancient attractions on the seabed – within a radius of a few hundred metres are three spots where Greek ships from 2,000 years ago shed their loads of amphorae, jugs containing wine and olive oil. Below this cache of some 600 items is a cargo ship dating from AD 400. Lobsters and other sea life have been squatting the premises for nearly two millennia. Set at 30 metres down, it’s accessible to beginners but only with a registered club – the site is a cultural heritage spot, hence the steel cage around it.
In more recent history, the Baron Guatsch was an Austro-Hungarian passenger ship sunk by torpedo in 1914 just north of the Brijuni islands near Pula. Today it lies on the sandy bottom some 40 metres down. At 85 metres long and 11 metres wide, the Baron Guatsch has four decks but it is only possible to explore the first two. All kind of shellfish and plants have made it their home and shoals of fish scoot around. And an American Air Force Boeing B17G plunged close to the south coast of Vis in 1943: this well preserved wreck is one of the most documented in the Adriatic. Its depth at 75 metres makes it accessible only to highly experienced divers.
Unless you’re bringing your own gear and happy to sort out your own permits, it’s best to organise your diving through a club. There are currently over a hundred of these dotted down the coast. Most are set in fabulous locations and the standard of tuition, safety and supervision is high. The clubs also offer courses including underwater digital photography, night diving, wreck diving, coral reef conservation and, for kids aged eight and above, the ‘Bubblemakers’ programme, an easy, entertaining introduction to the sport.