Croatia cruise: There are 101 reasons why you'll love visiting the Dalmatian coast
Holidaymakers and celebrities flock there but on Saga’s most intimate ship, you can leave the crowds behind and see the delights of Dalmatia that big cruise ships can’t reach
The Dalmatian coast has been attracting visitors for centuries – even before he had finished putting early Christians to the sword, the Roman emperor Diocletian built a splendid retirement home that still dominates the city of Split.
It’s off the beaten track for most of the large cruise lines and just too far for a day-trip from Dubrovnik, which pulls in today’s mega-ships and their passengers in droves, making the narrow streets of the medieval walled city unbearably crowded.
Its role as King’s Landing in the TV fantasy series Game of Thrones has added to its appeal – and to the number of visitors.
But I found a way to get away from the maddening crowds and visit some of the tantalisingly beautiful islands between the two cities – including the uber-glamorous Hvar which has attracted celebrities including Beyoncé, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Prince Harry in the past couple of years.
It was in an intimate vessel that could almost have been my private yacht for a week.
The MV Emanuel only has 18 cabins and during Saga charters like this one capacity is limited to just 30 passengers.
What’s more there was free beer and wine with lunch and dinner. In fact drinks were complimentary during the 11 hours each day when the ship’s bar was open. Even the excursions don’t cost extra on this all-inclusive voyage. There are no hidden extras.
An upside of travelling on such a small ship, which is exclusively for Saga customers, is the attentive service. Nothing is too much trouble for the friendly staff. And we had the services of Duba, our energetic hostess and guide, to keep us entertained and informed.
Cabins are fairly small, with portholes for windows, but they have en suite shower rooms. The flat screen TV didn’t seem to have any English language channels but who wants to sit inside when there’s an ever-changing panorama on display outside – with no packing and unpacking necessary?
A good place to survey the view is the dining saloon upstairs which offers picture windows and sociable tables for six, or from the open deck aft of the bar. Better still is the sun deck up top, with its loungers, wicker chairs and – on sunny days – a barbecue lunch. Our guide met us at Dubrovnik airport to escort us to the ship, and after settling in we made the short journey to the peaceful island of Sipan for the evening.
The little town of Sipanska Luka, where we berthed for the night, is idyllic. There are a couple of quiet bars – where I relaxed with a local beer – and a lively one by the pier where the crew spent their evening. Go there soon. It looks like a Russian investor could be building a sizeable resort just outside the town.
Next morning took us to Korcula, which claims to have been the birthplace of the explorer Marco Polo, and has a St Mark’s Square rather smaller and less crowded than its namesake in Venice.
The church is just as impressive in its own way, with a Tintoretto over the altar and a fascinating museum next door.
While the other passengers enjoyed their complimentary post-dinner drinks, I went ashore with a couple of friends to a bar high up in one of the remaining towers of the town’s medieval fortifications. To get there we had to climb a steep ladder and squeeze through a hatch. We wrapped in blankets to keep out the cold and drinks were carried up by rope and pulley, but it was worth the effort to gaze at the stars.
The following morning, as on almost every day of the cruise, the captain cast off shortly after breakfast to head for the next port of call, trendy Hvar, where the prices in the bars and restaurants reflect the island’s celebrity status.
Split, with the remains of Diocletian’s palace at its heart, and a bustling market just outside the walls, is in many ways more interesting than overcrowded Dubrovnik. The Riva waterfront is as splendid an esplanade as any in the Mediterranean, filled with cafes and bars, and local women selling lace.
But the surprise of the week was Makarska, which sits between the two cities.
It has hotel and resort complexes by the dozen, nestling beneath the forbidding mountains that rise from the town. But I’ll wager few of them pull in big crowds from the UK. It’s a hidden gem, with wide open beaches for relaxation and mountain treks for the energetic. Why is its presence still a secret?
On another day we toured the stonemasons’ academy on the island of Brac, where young students learn how to make the most of the local limestone – in sculptures and architectural features.
A visit to the tranquil island of Mljet had to be cancelled because the wind was rising, and erring on the side of caution our skipper took MV Emanuel back to the shelter of Korcula before we returned for a final day in Dubrovnik.
Passengers from the giant cruise ships berthed in Gruz port had taken over the gleaming limestone pavements of the Stradun in the Old Town.
For once I was grateful that, thanks to Emanuel, I could give them both a miss.
Saga is chartering the MV Emanuel for 10 one-week cruises this summer in May, June, September and October. Late in the season Dalmatia is still warm and the crowds have evaporated.