By Fiona McIntosh
For years I had looked at glossy posters of picture-perfect little islands floating in a turquoise sea and dreamed of being there. Photographs of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast epitomise the perfect holiday, and friends that had been there all came back raving about the experience. But expectation breeds disappointment, so I admit that when I finally headed to Croatia this year it was with some apprehension. Could it really be as good at it looked? To be honest, it was even better and I had ten glorious days diving, sight-seeing and soaking up the sun. Sure, the diving in Croatia is not that of the Red Sea so you probably wouldn’t choose the Dalmatian Coast for a dedicated dive holiday, but if you want a week or two of diving, paddling, island hopping, culture, good food and friendly people then Croatia is hard to beat.Croatia is a coastal country in southern Europe – if you like maps you’ll find it just across the Adriatic Sea from the eastern coast off the ‘boot’ of Italy. The country gained independence after a bloody conflict following the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Although small, the country is where the Mediterranean and Central Europe meet, so it’s incredibly diverse both in terms of its landscapes and history. Much of the country is mountainous or forested so is rarely visited by tourists, but the natural splendour of the coastal strip has seen Croatia develop into one of Europe’s most intriguing playgrounds – particularly for lovers of sailing, diving and other watersports.
Stretching for 2 000km from the Slovenian border near Trieste in the north to the border with Montenegro just south of Dubrovnik, the Croatian coastline is largely undeveloped and pristine. Some 1 200 islands lie off the coast, little havens where fishermen tend their nets, women toil in the fields and you can escape and swim and sunbathe to your heart’s content. Croatia is the ‘in’ destination of Europe, yet tourist development has been strictly controlled and the country is still unspoilt. As you travel around the villages and quaint harbours you feel like you’re in a time warp – the fortified settlements, striking churches, rambling vineyards and old wooden boats take you back to the days of old.
Croatia has a complex history – Greek, Roman, Ottoman, Slav, Venetian, Hapsburg, Yugoslav, Nazi, Communist – and this is reflected in the architecture and customs so culture-vultures will love the place. But so do all tourists, not least because it feels so safe. The Croatian people are fiercely proud of their new country and eager to put Croatia on the map, so they are incredibly welcoming. It makes for a superb place to visit.
Scuba diving in CroatiaWith its sunny Mediterranean climate, crystal-clear, aquamarine waters and rich marine life, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is one of the best European destinations for divers. And although the coast is unbelievably pretty, it’s still relatively unknown and undeveloped. Most of the major hotels have dive centres and there are some 150 diving clubs along the coast, but you rarely find two boats on one site. Given the miles and miles of beautiful coastline that’s hardly surprising – there are literally hundreds of little bays and easily accessible islands with a variety of wrecks, caves and shallow reefs to suit all levels of experience and interest.
One of the benefits of Dalmatia is that during the European summer and autumn (May to October/November), the water is warm, the weather is settled and the bright sunlight penetrates to illuminate the depths. The clarity of the water is amazing – if you look down from the jetty or boat or stroll out from the beach you’ll inevitably see the limestone pebbles of the seabed so you don’t even need to dive to appreciate the marine life! Visibility varies depending on the wind, but it is typically 20m plus with almost endless visibility in November (but cooler temperatures). I’ve dived quite a bit in Europe and haven’t been over impressed by the Med, but the Adriatic coast seems to have much greater numbers, and a much greater variety of fish, crustaceans and nudibranchs – and even cute little seahorses – than you see in the more established European holiday destinations. And the topography is fabulous. Often you anchor next to a small island or jumble of limestone rocks then dive down to a wonderland of underwater caves or big, steep walls. In the shallow areas, shoals of bream, little crustaceans, numerous sponges and gorgonians provide colour.
The Croatians themselves are a friendly bunch – multilingual, often over-qualified and invariably laid back. We dived out of Biograd-na-moru with Katarina Jelic, the owner of Albamaris Diving Centre. Blonde, bubbly and fun, Katarina trained as a naval architect but has diversified, setting up her own dive school, apartments to rent and a tour agency. With its good beaches and access to the Kornati National Park, Biograd is a popular spot so Albamaris enjoys plenty of passing trade in the summer, while at the end of the season, in late September and October, Katarina takes multi-day liveaboard charters of up to a week or more out to remote islands and little-dived sites. During the season she offers a range of shore dives and Discover Scuba dives from the beach as well as either half-day double dive trips to the inner islands or full-day trips to dive sites within a couple of hours of Biograd. The dive boat is luxurious for day charters; spacious with a large covered deck and big open upper deck for sun-worshippers so your surface interval is happily spent swimming, exploring uninhabited islands or tanning.
Biograd itself is not the most attractive town on the coast, in fact it’s one of the few places we visited where resort development and camping sites somewhat dwarf the pretty old town. But it is one of the most important jumping off points for the Kornati National Park with a regular ferry and two marinas packed with flashy yachts and harbour walls lined with cafes, bars, seafood restaurants and pizzerias. And the Kornati National Park is one of best diving areas in Croatia so it’s a good base.
Our first dive was to Gangaro Island North – a half hour boat trip from Biograd. We could see the seabed as we kitted up and the water looked so inviting that I longed to dive in a rash vest and shorts. But Katarina warned that the sea temperature was 24°C with a thermocline at 20m, so despite the blisteringly hot day I struggled into a 5mm suit.
A big stride from the boat and we were in the water – the sea a millpond teeming with little fish. We followed the anchor chain down then swam over colourful sponges, anemones, gorgonian fans and sea cucumbers on the sloping bank to the wall as Katarina pointed out colourful Squat lobsters hiding under overhangs, little crabs, Scorpion fish and some beautiful nudibranchs eating the sponges. A Cuttlefish shot away as we reached the edge of the wall which was covered by sea fans and shoals of anthias. Branches of red coral sprouted from the cracks and little fish camouflaged themselves on the rocks or swam in big shoals above our heads – Long-striped blennies, Rainbow and Peacock wrasse, Rock gobies, Striped mullet, Lettered perch, gaper, Greater weever, Cardinal fish, damsels, and, I discovered later when I checked out the ID charts, all manner of bream – Two-banded, Annular, White and the unusual Sheephead bream. There were starfish of all colours and hues – Feather stars, Brittle stars, Red starfish – as well as a variety of sea urchins and sea squirts.
One of the attractions of the Croatian coast is the number of wrecks, many of which were sunk during the Second World War. The best around Biograd is the Francisca di Rimini, a bomb carrier with her torpedoes still visible that lies in 38-50m of water. This makes for an exciting dive for advanced divers, particularly since the visibility is so good that the depth does not feel intimidating. Novice divers can dive the wreck of the Misi – a steamship sunk in 1960s which lies at depths of 5-40m with the best viewing around 12m. We didn’t have a chance to explore the caverns and canyons that the park is famous for, and we searched in vain for seahorses, but we were content at the end of each day as we dined al fresco on fresh fruits of the sea washed down with local beer and wine.
In our ten-day sojourn we travelled from Biograd to the historic walled city of Dubrovnik, taking in the islands of Hvar and Korcula and venturing inland to the Krka National Park for some hiking. Some days we dived while others we snorkelled for hours in empty coves, duck-diving through little arches and into submarine caves. There were many dive sites that we hoped to see but didn’t find time for – Losinj Island in the north which apparently boasts some of the most varied and comprehensive dive sites, the island of Vis which having been a military base and never fished commercially has an abundance of fish and marine life as well as the wrecks of the Baron Gautsch near Rovinj in the north, the S57 German torpedo ship off the Peljesac Peninsula and the Taranto off Dubrovnik. But what better excuse to return to Dalmatia? I fancy a liveaboard trip next time.
- Scuba equipment is available for hire at the dive schools.
- Both land-based and liveaboard dive holidays can be organised along the Dalmatian Coast. The calm conditions and good visibility mean that night diving is popular.
- There are decompression chambers in Pula, in the north, and at Split in the centre of the coastline.
- All divers must show a valid C-card then purchase a year-long validation from the Croatian Diving Federation (100 kuna at any of the dive schools).
AccommodationAlbamaris Apartments, Biograd-na-moru
A five minute walk from the beach, 15 minutes from the old town and marina and right above the dive school, Albamaris Apartments are new and extremely convenient for diving or sightseeing in the Kornati Archipelago or for exploring the Krka or Paklencia National Parks.
Hotel Podstine, HvarThis three-star hotel was our favourite accommodation in Croatia. It’s perched on the cliffs of a little cove a short walk from the beautiful old town of Hvar and has its own dive school and rocky ‘beach’ as well as a big outdoor pool, spa/wellness centre and top notch restaurant. A short boatride from the harbour are the pine-covered Pakleni Islands which include the naturist island of Jerolim (naturism is very popular in Croatia), and the beautiful island of Veliki Otok, home to the beautiful and much acclaimed bay of Parmizana. A trip to Parmizana is really worthwhile – either by one of the regular water taxis or in a hired motor boat – not least because of its sandy beaches but also because of its superb cuisine, art gallery and botanical gardens. The gardens are the creation of the botanist Eugen Meneghello who, with his family, now runs the Pansion Meneghello – a rather arty, gastronomic retreat. The main cove gets very crowded but the island is big enough to wander through the sweet smelling forest or shrubs of rosemary and aloes until you find your own private bit of rock to chill out on, while the sheltered bays make for superb snorkelling. Hvar itself is also exquisitely beautiful with lovely old ports and villages, lots of opportunities for wine tasting and a high mountain range forming it’s spine from which plunge steep slopes covered with lavendar, olives and vines.
De Polo Guest House, KorculaThis family-run guesthouse right in the centre of Korcula is right on the water’s edge so you simply cross the road for your early morning swim! Korcula is one of the largest and most popular islands in the Adriatic, and the old fortified town is a wonderful place to explore. There are sandy beaches at nearby Lumbarda while day trips to Mljet and other islands, wine tasting and fresh seafood in the many waterside restaurants are the main topside attractions.
House Deranja, DubrovnikThe fortified walls and monuments of the old town of Dubrovnik are probably the best known of Croatia’s tourist ‘sites’. The magnificent streets and buildings that lie within have been artfully restored following the destruction that took place during the bitter conflict of 1991/92 and Dubrovnik now throngs with tourists again – quite a culture shock if you’ve arrived from the islands! Staying within the city walls is the best way to get a feel for this impressive place – a UNESCO World Heritage Site where every building seems to ooze history and culture. House Deranja consists of newly renovated rooms within the old town – the perfect base for exploring the sites. Apart from the mandatory tour of the walls there are plenty of churches, museums and shops to amuse when you’re not diving. And you can swim and snorkel from the rocks around the walls, take trips to the islands or climb the hill behind the town for a fabulous view of the Dalmatian Coast.
- South African passport holders require visas to visit Croatia. These can be organised through Bergarmo Travel or through the Croatian Consulate (1160 Church Street, 0083 Colbyn, Pretoria/PO Box 11335, 0028, Hatfield, Pretoria or 012-342-1206). A single entry visa costs R358. Allow 15 days for delivery.
- The Adriatic coast enjoys a Mediterranean climate not unlike that of Cape Town. Summers are sun-drenched, warm and dry, while winters are mild and wet. Take light, comfortable clothing and protective gear for the summer sun. During the summer months the coast experiences occasional rain storms so a waterproof jacket is a useful precaution. Warmer clothes are needed for nights and winter in the mountains.
- Electricity is 110 or 220 volts AC. Take two pin plugged products or two pin adapters.
- Croatia is very safe and petty crime is minimal, but take the usual precautions when in cities or busy public places.
- The local currency is the kuna (kn). Euros are readily accepted in hotels, posher restaurants and at other tourist facilities.
- Credit cards are usually accepted in hotels and at dive centres. There are ATMs in most towns along the coast.
- The tap water is safe to drink.
- Travel insurance is essential.
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