An Adriatic Odyssey
Aboard a luxury yacht Lucia van der Post experiences the isolation and beauty of Croatia's Dalmatian Coast.
There are few sights that match the first glimpse of one's very own yacht, even if it is to be one's very own yacht for only a week. The Magdalus Terzo is by anybody's standard a humdinger. She is 116 feet long, and a more graceful and beautiful sight is hard to imagine. And if you like your yachts to come with a little provenance, a touch of romance, well, the Magdalus Terzo has plenty of that, too. She has sailed the oceans. She has been places we've never been—Venezuela, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa—but, serendipitously, she'd never been to Croatia. So here was a journey—an exploration—we could embark on and, in doing so, make our own little history together.
When we first saw her it was already dark. There she was, anchored in Gruz, the larger of Dubrovnik's two busy harbors. The air was silky, on board the candles were flickering, the Champagne was on ice, the crew were smarter than we were (a hazard of yachts), and round the harbor the lights twinkled. The Magdalus Terzo, we soon learned (temporary yacht owners pick up the lingo fast), was a Bermudian ketch—ketches have two masts. There is a beauty, a grace, about a sailing ketch that makes a motor sailer seem a little . . . vulgar. Vulgar the Magdalus Terzo most definitely was not. You'd have to be a saint not to feel a little smug as you sailed into the harbor and saw those aboard the lesser vessels gazing at her with awe. According to the captain, David Purcell, who quite evidently knows his yachts, there are only a limited number of boats of this caliber in the world.
Landlubbers, unused to the privations that some seagoing vessels entail, can easily be a bit blasé about amenities at sea, but even we could tell that for a yacht she was astonishingly comfortable. There were three double cabins, each with en suite bathrooms, and for us, the lucky inhabitants of the master stateroom, a vast bed with crisp white Ralph Lauren sheets, plenty of air conditioning, an abundance of cupboards, and a whole dressing room with ample space to tuck things away. She slept six comfortably but could sleep eight (with pull-down beds) in a pinch.
The Magdalus Terzo was designed some 15 years ago by Fabio Perini (ironically now famous for Perini Navi, the ultimate motor sailers). The technological mastery used in the building of the ship is matched by the incredible attention to detail inside: The basins and the countertops are made of marble, the taps, knobs, and knockers are plated with gold. On the deck level there is a saloon filled with treats—DVDs to watch, CDs to listen to, a big library of books to read, and tables for laptops. There are upholstered chairs and banquettes to lounge in, and there is enough satin-varnished teak to have kept Anna, a crew member, busy with beeswax in those moments when she wasn't making beds, fetching teas, mixing drinks, or asking what we wanted for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Outside, the dining area is canopied (to shield us from all that Dalmatian sun), but open on the sides (to the soft and steady breezes). There are two ample decks—one beside the dining area, the other just in front of the captain's aerie. These, we decided, were for baring limbs, sleeping off lunch, gazing at the stars, or pondering life's great mysteries. All this and a crew of five with nothing to do but look after us, the boat, and all its manifold toys. If we'd ever wondered what "shipshape" meant, we soon found out: It meant a relentless schedule of polishing and dusting, of shining up and hosing down, until you could literally have eaten off the deck.
But we hadn't come just to admire the view. We had work to do—we had Croatia to explore, or as much of its 3,600-mile coastline and its 1,200 islands as we could take in during the five days that we had the boat to ourselves. Croatia, for those who have been paying attention, has become a fashionable destination. Word is getting out that it has all that the western Mediterranean has in terms of weather, sea, islands, and beauty, but it is new, different, and still retains something of the mystery and allure of the little-known. It is blissfully free of crowds (did you know that in summer some 380 million people are milling round the western Med?) and offers tantalizing intimations of what the South of France must have been like before the developers and the Versace-clad set got to it.
Not that Croatia is entirely unused to the attentions of the fashionable. In the summer of 1936, just a few months before he abdicated, King Edward VIII, with Mrs. Simpson and their attendant friends and flunkies, cruised the coastline in the Nahlin. And before World War II, the island of Hvar, the most sophisticated and social of the islands, was the Portofino of its day.
The seas through which we were to sail had tales to tell. Through these legendary waters sailed Odysseus, Jason and the Argonauts, Venetian sailors, Romans, Greeks, pirates, and plunderers—all of which lent to the enterprise something of the romance of history, of dark tales of war, treachery, and derring-do. Croatia is a country with a rich, complicated, and often tragic past, and it pays to do some reading before you go. (Take along, if you can, The Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West; Illyrian Spring, by Ann Bridge; and Through the Embers of Chaos: Balkan Journeys, by Dervla Murphy.)
After a magical first morning exploring Dubrovnik, one of the world's best preserved (and restored) fortified medieval cities filled with architectural treasures, we set sail.
The truly wonderful thing about chartering a yacht is that it is at your command. You say, "Let us stay awhile," and you stay. Or alternatively, "Let's set sail," and you do. You can go ashore when you fancy for precisely as long as it amuses you—you just summon the dinghy to take you back to the boat when you've had enough. If you're in need of some exercise, a present to take back home, or feel like dining out, then you dock and go ashore. If you find a quiet cove—as we often did—you can drop anchor and enjoy the peace, the quiet, the sea, and the sky. Little can beat swimming off a boat in a corner of the Mediterranean that you have entirely to yourselves. The fish dart past in water that is deeper, cooler than anything near shore. There is also the sheer joy of sailing. Every day the captain would cut the engine and hoist the sails, which would balloon out as they caught the wind; the only sound would be the creak of the rigging and the slap of the sea.
As we began our island-hopping journey we found coves to explore, sleepy Croatian towns to wander around, and small seaside restaurants to eat in. We stopped awhile in Polace, a deep, calm harbor on Mljet, the island where, legend has it, Odysseus was seduced by the sultry nymph Calypso and tarried for seven years on his way back to Ithaca from Troy. Quite right, too. We wandered over the hills, down through the pine trees, and found at the western end of the island a vast, clear saltwater lake in which floated another island, a sort of geographical Russian doll, an island within an island, crowned by a 12th-century Benedictine monastery (a little ferry takes visitors back and forth). The more energetic can hire bikes in the harbor and pedal around the island. We stopped for a lobster lunch at Stella Maris, a restaurant in Polace (Manhattan prices, but they were fresh from the Adriatic), and then headed back to the boat, pulled up anchor, and were off again.
If Mljet, with its half-dozen tiny villages, seemed sleepy, Lastovo was almost comatose. Long a military base and open to visitors only since 1989, it is perfectly preserved, an unspoiled island of dense pinewoods and sheltered bays with little to do but climb the hills, admire the views, or swim in the sheltered coves. On Vis, another tranquil island with sweet towns, sunny vineyards, ancient ruins, deserted nooks, and empty beaches, one has a sense that little has changed through the centuries.
The town of Vis is worth a visit for the beauty of its architecture, for the shady, narrow streets, the cool courtyards, the fine baroque houses of creamy limestone, and for the chance to eat in one of the many seaside restaurants. On the southern shore in an almost empty cove—empty, that is, except for a few upturned boats and a couple of houses—we discovered what turned out to be one of Croatia's most romantic restaurants: the Mola Trovna, a single vine-covered terrace beside a simple fisherman's house. Accessible only by boat, you must telephone in advance (mobile: 385-99-525-803), and then its owner will prepare for you a fisherman's feast: Croatian bouillabaisse, smoked fish, goat carpaccio, roasted lamb. He also makes his own semisweet wine and vinegar and grows his own herbs.
We pressed on to the island of Hvar, as "golden as the honey the island is famous for," an island of vineyards and lavender fields, of Venetian coastal towns with honey-colored buildings. Hvar, the most sophisticated and developed of the southern Croatian islands, is where the jet set comes to play. Bernie Ecclestone, Luciano Benetton, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and half of the Almanach de Gotha have been drawn here. Off the gleaming boats in the harbor, the waterborne visitors come to shop in the boutiques, eat in the restaurants that are to be found around the largest square in Dalmatia, and dance the night away in Carpe Diem, Croatia's smartest nightclub.
Riccardo Mazzucchelli, an Italian industrialist and once the husband of Ivana Trump, fell in love with Hvar in the 1980s and has been coming back ever since. He has bought some 1,500 acres of almost pristine land at one end of the island. It has numerous creeks and coves, hills and valleys. There he hopes to create a Croatian Porto Cervo—"only better." Already the smart set are eyeing island property and prices are rising perceptibly. Just outside the town perches the Podstine, one of Croatia's few boutique hotels, created out of a former private villa. On a steepish cliff, with mesmerizing views of rocks and coves, vine-covered courtyards, palm trees, and the sweet smell of pine, it wouldn't take much to make you believe you were in Cap-Ferrat. But don't leave Hvar without taking in St. Stephen's Cathedral (a 16th-century building with a 17th-century facade) or the lacy ruins of the unfinished Venetian Gothic house that once belonged to the Croatian poet Petar Hektorovic, or without climbing up to the Venetian fortress on the top of the hill.
On then to Korcula, or "Black Corfu," as the ancient Greeks called it because of its dense pine-forested hills. The small medieval walled town (dubbed, for obvious reasons, a mini-Dubrovnik) is well worth a visit. It was in Korcula that Marco Polo is said to have been born and that the British adventurer and intelligence officer Fitzroy Maclean lived.
Jan Morris, in her book The Venetian Empire, called Korcula "one of the most Venetian of all [Venice's] seaports," and it's easy to see why. An enchanting town with a small central square, it has a 15th-century cathedral of considerable charm that houses an early work by Tintoretto. Drink some coffee in the square, and if you are lucky enough to be in town on the days when the Moreska sword dancers perform, make sure you stop to watch (9 p.m. on Thursdays and every other Monday in July and August—it lasts only about an hour).
The charm of Croatia is that there is a never-ending supply of islands to explore, both inhabited and virtually uninhabited. In spite of successive waves of invasion and colonization, the age-long tradition of Italian influence and Italian culture is still there, evident in the Italian Romanesque and Venetian Gothic buildings, in the gentle way of life, in the food, and in the small medieval villages, many centered around squares that have churches topped with campaniles.
But the lovely thing about traveling around on our own yacht is that when we'd had our fill of churches and museums we could retire to the peace and cool tranquility on board. Sometimes we called for the toys—the yacht's motorboat for water-skiing or the Hyperlite wakeboard (to water-skiing what snowboarding is to downhill skiing). There was Mark, who honed our water-skiing skills and Tony, a PADI-qualified diving instructor who taught us the rudiments of diving. Had we had children, the crew would have kept them endlessly entertained with a raft of water toys. As it was, the five days went by too fast.
Together the Magdalus Terzo and Croatia make a special partnership. Croatia, while ravishingly beautiful and satisfyingly unspoiled, has little in the way of a developed tourist infrastructure, let alone anything approaching the sort of boutique hotels that are now in vogue. The government hotels have not yet recovered properly from the war years and the dead hand of the Communist regime so standards are not yet what the international set is mostly used to. Cruising by boat allows the lack of sophistication and infrastructure, lack of "development," to be a source of visual pleasure and delight instead of a source of discomfort.
Our captain, David Purcell, not only knows his yachts, he knows his oceans and his seas. For him Croatia was also a new experience. He felt it had something very special to offer. "Ideally one should sail from north to south," (we did it in reverse because of difficulties over air schedules). "Normally there's a good wind, the bora, coming down from the north, which makes for exhilarating sailing. The hundreds of islands, however, break up the chop so that big waves never build up. In the sheltered bays it's a water-skier's paradise—I've scarcely ever seen water as calm. In the summer season the western Mediterranean becomes so crowded that it is almost impossible to find a quiet bay or mooring, but in Croatia you nearly always find somewhere where you can almost be alone. It may not have the beaches of the Virgin Islands, but it has history, old stones, fine architecture, and natural beauty." If you need showy restaurants and something of a scene, then Croatia is not the place for you. But for the rest of us, it is paradise.
In a troubled world there are few places you feel more cocooned from life's worries than on an ocean-going yacht (providing you have a crew and captain you trust). It becomes one's private, treasured universe. When I think back to those days aboard the Magdalus Terzo, what I will remember best are the nights. The quiet, the peace, the sound of the water lapping at the hull, and the stars . . . above all . . . the stars.
Croatia: The Basics
The Magdalus Terzo can be chartered through Camper & Nicholsons International, 450 Royal Palm Way, Palm Beach, Florida; 561-655-2121; www.cnconnect.com/charter/magdalusterzo.
COST The cost is $40,000 per week in low season and $45,000 in high season (July, August, and those times when there are special events, such as the Cannes Film Festival in May). Normally, 25 percent is paid as an Advance Provisioning Allowance (APA) before charter to cover food and drink expenses. Any applicable VAT would also have to be paid then (depending on the itinerary).
TIPPING Tips are discretionary, but 10 to 15 percent is the standard.
CURRENCY The currency used in Croatia is the kuna. $1=6.64 kuna.
GETTING THERE Austrian Airlines flies from New York to Dubrovnik four times a week (through Vienna); Lufthansa, three times a week (through Frankfurt). British Airways flies direct from London to Zagreb; from there Croatia Airlines flies on to Dubrovnik.