Watered-down cocktails, red-raw sunburn, sweaty club wristbands: holidaying to party islands like Magaluf, Zante, Ayia Napa and Malia has long been considered a rite of passage for many young Brits. We all know the scenes: foam party promoters haggle you from the minute you step off the plane, and hours later, you’re slinging back cherry-flavoured welcome shots at a neon-lit dive bar and necking off with a stranger. The closest you’ll get to a cultural experience is eating gyros by the pool and sweating out last night’s hangover.
That’s all well and good, but an alternative to the classic lads and gals hol is gaining popularity. More and more young people are ditching the strip for skippered sailing holidays around Croatia – referred to, by many, simply as ‘sail’. These organised trips tick many of the same boxes as party island packages: they’re hassle-free, sun is guaranteed, and they offer plenty of opportunities to meet people and party.
But there’s more: for a generation obsessed with sharing their travels online and getting bang for their buck, these island-hopping expeditions allow punters to see a tick-list of Instagrammable spots in a short space of time. They’re a great choice for solo travellers, of course, but also for the growing number of sober or ‘sober-curious’ travellers. Unlike your classic 18-30 holiday, these sailing expeditions don’t force the party down your throat – unless you want them to, of course. Rotting by the pool is very much out.
But what are these trips really like? I went along to one to see what all the fuss was about.
A Dalmatian dream
Although there are plenty of skippered sail routes across the Mediterranean – island-hopping around the likes of Greece, Türkiye and Italy – there’s one destination that ‘sail’ has become synonymous with. ‘Everyone talks about doing ‘sail’ in reference to Croatia,’ says 24-year-old Lauren Stoddart, based in Leeds. ‘It’s a bit of a fad right now.’
Home to more than 1,200 islands and islets, as well as gorgeous national parks, crystal-clear waters, secluded coves and charming fishing islands dotting 1,100 miles-odd of coastline, it’s not hard to see why. There are at least a dozen sail operators in the region, each offering something slightly different. The company Lauren and I are travelling with, MedSailors, runs skippered sailing holidays for 20 to 30-something-year-olds, many of whom are solo travellers. Our route travels from Dubrovnik to Split, stopping at the islands of Sipan, Mljet, Korčula, Lovište and party island Hvar.
Each yacht sleeps eight guests and travels in a flotilla of up to eight boats. Over the course of a week, you sleep on the boat, eat on the boat and socialise on the boat. Seeing as you’re literally living on top of each other, you don’t really have a choice but to socialise. ‘There’s only so much that you can do on a yacht in terms of comfort,’ says Zar, a 24-year-old recent law graduate. ‘If you’re going to be too princessy about it, then maybe a sail week isn’t for you. There are cramped rooms and no proper showers – but what do you expect?’
When we speak, Zar is partway through a solo Europe trip from Australia. ‘I thought that Sail would be a really good way to experience Croatia,’ he says. ‘A lot of my trip was very history- and culture-focused. I thought it would be nice to have a week that was a bit more social-oriented.’
He’s not the only Aussie on board – there are lots of them. ‘It’s probably because Sail is all over Instagram at the moment,’ says 25-year-old Katie Mackworth-Praed, our skipper. ‘But, also, Aussies haven’t been able to escape Australia for three years, so everyone is doing a Europe summer.’
It felt like being part of a new sun-kissed sailing reality show – in the best way possible
By day, we sunbathed on deck, swam off the boat, snorkelled and paddle-boarded, before docking up at a new place. By night, we dined in quaint fishing villages, met other members of the flotilla at bar crawls and drank wine on the beach. It felt like being part of a new sun-kissed sailing reality show – in the best way possible.
The itinerary never felt rushed, balancing exploring the islands with chiller days on the water. One afternoon we docked up at Mljet, before renting bikes and cycling around the gorgeous translucent salt lakes of the national park, stopping to snorkel the Mediterranean’s largest coral reef. Another day was spent exploring the charming fishing town of Lumbarda on the island of Korčula, where Marco Polo was born.
But the most memorable moments were those spent bobbing about in the middle of nowhere. ‘You’re only able to go to main spots [in Croatia] if you come by day boats or ferries,’ says Katie. ‘Some of my favourite places are the remote bays at lunchtime, with no one else around you.’
The one catch? On this specific route, there was actually very little sailing – something our skipper attributed to low summer winds. This can mean that the sustainability credentials aren’t as good as you’d expect: the catamaran, for example, uses around 100 litres of diesel every week, covering quite long distances with limited wind. (MedSailors do offer a floaty rental service to prevent guests buying and then abandoning rubber rings.)
To party or not to party
MedSailors brands itself as being ‘more chill’ than its competitors. Chill isn’t exactly how I felt when I was handed a cup of fruit punch on the first night, brought out to share with everyone from a large vat, á la Freshers Week. But who knew a mix of red wine, vodka and tropical juice would taste surprisingly alright?
‘Sail is known to be a bit of a party,’ says Lauren. ‘But you can very much make what you want of it. I liked that there was such a variety of days and nights on this trip: it caters towards people that still want to party, but maybe not every single day. It’s not like you wake up and you start drinking, there’s still sightseeing. BYOB was a big attraction.’
Zar agrees: ‘I liked that we had two very big nights, but then every other night, you were at liberty to do whatever you wanted.’
The biggest night of the week was in Hvar, widely known for being a party island. It’s a fifteenth-century fishing town home to sticky-floored bars, plenty of dancefloors – and the notorious super club, Carpe Diem. Only accessible via water taxi (the club is literally its own island), with Ibiza-style stage dancers, house DJs and VIP booths – it might not be one for everyone, but it’s certainly an experience, one that could give Zante’s Cocktails and Dreams a run for its money.
On the final night, we headed to Stari Grad – a cute town with a large harbour and Venetian feel – and had a group dinner at an organic farm and winery as the sun set over the vineyards. (Many photos were taken).
Over locally made olive oil and lofty glasses of red, we reflected on the week with newly made friends. ‘The main attraction for me was getting to see a lot of Croatia in a short period of time, in the least stressful way,’ says Lauren. ‘It’s all planned for you, as soon as you wake up. And I think you’d probably end up spending more money if you tried to do a similar route but on your own, booking travel and AirBnBs in each spot.’
Starting at €937 per person for half board – with that price rising considerably depending on the season you travel and the type of yacht you opt for – it shouldn’t go without saying that these trips are still considerably more expensive than £500 package hols to Malia. But seeing a new place each day while not having to worry about catching ferries, checking into Airbnbs or making sure you catch the right bus or train certainly was a plus. ‘You very much feel like you’re on holiday on this trip,’ says Zar. ‘And just mucking around in the beautiful water with friends you've just made a few days ago – I think that was a real unparalleled joy.’
So, could ‘Sail’ be the next Magaluf? Possibly. For Gen Z travellers, trips like MedSailors make sense. We want to meet new people. We’re increasingly saying no to the booze – but not all the time. We want more bang for our buck and (most of us) want to have a stock of Instagrammable location holiday snaps. And you know what? Yachts might just be my new favourite method of transport.
Med Sailors 2024 is open now for bookings for Croatia, Greece and Turkey.
Time Out travelled as guests of MedSailors. Our reviews and recommendations have been editorially independent since 1968. For more, see our editorial guidelines.
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