Once it was rebuilt after the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Dubrovnik became one of the most popular destinations around the Mediterranean. No doubt its cobblestone streets, lined with whole neighbourhoods of villas and mansions enclosed behind stone walls, warrant such popularity, but the Croatian coast guards other, lesser known but no less valuable treasures. And the best way to discover them is to set sail on the turquoise waters of the Adriatic. Some of the 1,200 islands and islets are wild and uninhabited, while others are the homes of ancient stone villages where balconies brim with bright flowers.
It's easy to think of a sailing holiday as the prerogative of the rich, but that's no longer the case. Nor is it a particularly dangerous option – the biggest risk of hiring a boat with a group of friends is that you're likely to get hooked. You don't even need to know how to read a nautical chart, far less be a master sailor or have a special licence: it's always possible to hire a skipper who will choose the best route each day depending on winds and sea conditions – and, of course, on what you feel like doing.
A conventional cruise has little in common with hiring a sailboat, catamaran or motor yacht; they may all be sea-going vessels, but whereas a traditional cruise is highly structured and organised down to the last detail, hiring a boat allows you complete freedom to choose when and where you sail. And along the Croatian coast, making up your mind just where to go may be a problem, as you're spoilt for choice. Having to choose a route and skip some of the tempting destinations may well become an excuse to return next year.
All the way along the coast, from Rijeka in the north to Dubrovnik in the south, is a paradise for sailing. Rijeka lies on the Bay of Kvarner, where you'll find such unmissable islands as Krk, Cres, Losinj, Rab and Pag, along with other, smaller and less well known islets.
Farther south, setting sail from the ancient Greek port of Trogir or the beautiful city of Split, you can head towards the islands of the Dalmatian Coast, where you can choose between sailing the barren and isolated Kornati archipelago, with its almost deserted lunar landscapes, or opting for other islands with centuries of history, such as Korcula, the birthplace of Marco Polo, Hvar – the Croatian Ibiza – or Brac, where the delights of secluded stone fishing villages combine with scenery of the calibre of Zlatni Rat, the 'Golden Horn' beach that many consider to be the most beautiful in the whole country. For those who prefer their sands less populated, there are plenty of other beaches where no building or construction spoils the view, hidden coves fringed by pine forests, and rocky platforms where sun worshippers can take advantage of the seclusion to enjoy sun, sea and sand as naked as the day they were born.
Hiring a boat Adriatica is just one of the many companies who offer vessels of all sorts for rent with or without skipper. Prices vary between low and high season and typically do not include harbour fees, as many groups prefer to anchor off shore overnight rather than return to port. Fuel is also charged separately as consumption will depend not only on the route chosen, but on how much the motor is used rather than sail. Travellers can choose to prepare their own meals onboard or eat on land. The presence of a skipper for the vessel is usually charged extra at a daily rate and a ship's cook can also be employed.
Best time to visit From late March to early November offer the best sailing conditions, but bear in mind that July and August is high season. Although even the most popular tourist spots are seldom actually crowded, they certainly get busier – and livelier.
Where to stay Half the fun is actually sleeping in the cabins aboard the boat, but once the voyage is over, if you want to extend your stay, Adriatica also offers a wide choice of hotels around the country, as well as villas, farmhouses, holiday homes and even lighthouses, if you want to continue the nautical theme.
Where to eatYou can hire a chef with the boat, or shop in the local markets and prepare meals in the galley, which is particularly recommended for breakfasts and light lunches. Come the evening, though, you may want to return to port for dinner. On the island of Hvar, in the town of Hvar itself, the Paladini Palace Restaurant is set in the grounds of a beautiful Renaissance palace; a little way away at Milna, is the less formal Konoba Kotin set right on the seashore. Also specialising in seafood – and serving the most amazing grilled mussels – is Konoba Briskula (Setaliste Frane Krsinica bb) on Korcula, or, right by the sea in Bol, on the island of Brac, the Taverna Riva.
Don't missAnchor off shore from Zlatni Rat (the Golden Horn or Cape) just a couple of kilometres west of Bol. This stunning tongue of beach juts out into the sea for almost a mile, changing shape with the tides and winds. Popular with windsurfers, the tourist bustle here will provide a perfect counterpoint to the secluded coves and rocks you have visited on your travels.