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Cruising Croatia's Dalmation Coast

Back in the limelight, this Adriatic archipelago offers serenity, scenery - and sweat potential.

The picturesque harbor village of Bol on the Croatian island of Brac.

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Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city, has intrigued me for years. As I landed I felt the familiar tingle of excitement and trepidation that takes hold whenever I travel to a place for the first time. There was also the unsettling awareness of history—of Croatia’s terrible civil war in the early 1990s. But after more than a decade, I’d been told, reconstruction, healing and even a kind of serenity had prevailed. Croatia seemed ripe for a first-time visit.

Island Escape

Popular with northern Europeans, Croatia has just recently appeared on the radar of North American travelers. Having heard about this gateway to eastern Europe—specifically the famed beauty of the Dalmatian Coast and its brilliant Adriatic waters, rugged mountains and wondrous historic sites—I was eager to see it for myself. So when an opportunity arose to join a weeklong biking-and-boating excursion with a group of Marin friends, I jumped at it.

Meeting up in the Renaissance-era city of Dubrovnik, we took a quick shuttle to Gruz Harbor and boarded the Javorak, a classic wooden-hulled Adriatic cruiser that would be our private boat for the week. I found a spot to relax on top deck as we set sail for Mljet, the legendary isle where Homer’s Odysseus was captured by the sea nymph Calypso. Mljet was the first of four islands we would visit, each with a distinctively beautiful landscape to explore by bike.

Three hours later we disembarked in the tiny fishing village of Prozurska Luka, off-loaded our bikes, donned biking gear and slathered on sunscreen for what promised to be an arduous day of cycling across the island, which is blanketed by dense forests and edged with limestone coves.

After a brief bike fitting and orientation, we set out at our own pace on the 18-mile route. Riding in small groups, we followed printed directions mounted on our handlebar bags, traveling Mljet’s narrow, lightly traveled roads through ruggedly stunning terrain. Pine- and oak-studded hills rose steeply above the sea, harboring ancient stone villages, vineyards and numerous garmas, or collapsed caves.

The hilly route to the seaside hamlet of Pomena took us through green and unspoiled Mljet National Park, whose primary attractions are two 10,000-year-old “lakes” (actually inlets) known for their unusually narrow passages out to the sea. An island in the middle of Veliko Jezero (“Big Lake”) was home to a 12th-century Benedictine monastery that once served as the cultural, religious and political center of Mljet. Our ride ended at the seaside Odisej Hotel, the park’s only accommodation. Later that evening we met for beers and a hearty dinner in the hotel’s taverna.

The next morning it was raining fairly hard during the two-hour boat transfer to Korcula (pronounced Kohr-choo-lah), an island lush with vineyards, olive groves and forests. Its centerpiece is the city of the same name, a walled medieval town reputed (but never verified) to be the birthplace of Marco Polo.

Huddled around St. Mark’s Cathedral, the old quarter is known for its succession of skinny lanes that branch off like ribs from the “spine” of the main street—a clever layout apparently designed to protect the townfolk from the sun and wind. The Venetians came here in the 10th century and ruled on and off for more than 800 years, leaving a distinct mark on the town’s culture and architecture. Today, Korcula is a trove of Gothic and Renaissance palaces, courtyards, churches and graceful arched bridges. The town’s thick walls and imposing towers, once a defense against marauding pirates, date back to the 14th century.

Image 1:  Cruising the Dalmatian Coast on the Javorak, our island-hopping vessel.
Image 2:  Biking through an ancient stone village on Brac.

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