I wasn’t a “cruise person”. I knew this instinctively, though I’d never been on a boat larger than a ferry. I understood the appeal on a theoretical level but it simply wasn’t my thing. You can keep your convenient border crossings, fine dining and bourgeois pillow menus, I thought smugly, for I once travelled 17 hours across Central America on the floor of a rusty minivan.
Preconceived ideas about enforced itineraries and mandatory conga lines had rendered me a landlubber until an opportunity to embark on my maiden voyage presented itself. Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Esprit, a 31-suite, 62-guest yacht, would spend seven nights sailing from Venice to Dubrovnik, a distance of about 650 kilometres, docking each day at a different port along Croatia’s picturesque Adriatic coast.
Having spent an idyllic week in the region a decade ago, I was sceptical that any trip could live up to that initial sojourn. Back then, you could get an oceanside cocktail at a single-digit pricepoint, terms such as “New Riviera” hadn’t yet entered the lexicon and King’s Landing existed solely in the imaginations of a sub-group of fantasy-fiction fans. But brochure images of rocky outcrops lapped by eye-wateringly blue sea proved irresistible. I wanted to wander palm-lined promenades and hike down sunny cliffs to secluded beaches. If I had to dance the conga, so be it.
I needn’t have worried. It’s impossible to imagine a place better equipped to sell the romance of water travel than Venice. Stepping out at Venezia Santa Lucia station, visitors are slapped in the face by the beauty of the Grand Canal, where ocean meets Neoclassical façade in a scene that’s both instantly recognisable and deeply surreal. After going through security at the cruise terminal, my companion and I head to our suite, where any fears of nautical claustrophobia are lulled into submission by huge picture windows, elegant décor and a twin bathroom that dwarfs those of most luxury hotels.
We haven’t even had time to pop the complimentary bottle of champagne when there’s a knock at the door. It’s our butler, dropping by to see if we need help unpacking (there’s a sentence most writers don’t type very often). Nathanial runs through the list of indulgences and amenities at our fingertips: spa, sauna, fitness centre, pool, Patio Café, Sunset Bar and Grill, Yacht Club dining room, cocktail lounge, wi-fi, paddleboards, jet skis, kayaks, 24/7 food, beverages and alcohol via room service… but I’d already spied my favourite feature on the way in: a deep-sea submersible. It’s the model Vladimir Putin owns, a staffer tells me proudly. If having the same futuristic ocean bubble as Russia’s billionaire president isn’t the height of extravagance, I don’t know what is.
The following days prove equally opulent. The first shore excursion is to Motovun, a medieval town in the heart of Istrian truffle country. In 1999, just half an hour’s drive from here, Giancarlo Zigante discovered the “Millennium”, at the time the largest white truffle ever unearthed. The Guinness World Records-busting 1.3 kilogram fungus could have fetched a small fortune at auction – a similarly hefty find in Croatia sold for $US330,000 that year – but Zigante instead hosted a lavish feast for 100 of his closest friends. The stunt pushed the region’s truffle industry into overdrive and cemented Zigante’s illustrious place in tuber history. We sample white truffles, black truffles, truffle honey, truffle-infused chocolate, truffle carpaccio, truffle oil and truffle salt – a seasoning said to be so beloved by Oprah Winfrey that she carries a jar of it in her handbag at all times.
Another day, we visit Saints Hills winery on the Pelješac peninsula, where a giant named Anton guides us through the area’s varietals. An opera singer with a tan deeper than his baritone, a white ponytail and an ensemble of head-to-toe linen, he recounts childhood memories of riding his grandfather’s donkey around the neighbouring island of Korčula and dining on blackbird pie – “highly illegal but very delicious”. In the shade of a terrace, we make our way through five different wines and I catch up on cruise gossip with a retired Texan who already knows which crew members are dating, afraid of commitment or teetering on the brink of a break-up. It occurs to me that the itinerary has been so packed with shore options that, apart from breakfasts and the evenings (mercifully conga-free), I’ve barely spent any time on the ship. Tempting as it is to lounge away the days absorbing Aperol Spritzes like sunshine, the week can just as easily serve as a sampler of Croatia’s 1000-plus islands.
I find myself mentally bookmarking places to return to, including Vis, a quiet island of just 90 square kilometres and the furthest-flung of the Croatian archipelago. For more than four decades, it was a military base and off-limits to tourists, lending a sleepy, undeveloped ambiance to the only settlements, Vis Town and Komiža. Though Vis is prized for offering a glimpse of the “unspoiled” Mediterranean, you’ll still find remnants of Croatia’s battle-scarred past scattered among the pebble-strewn coves and idle rowing boats. During World War II, the iron- fisted leader of the Yugoslav Partisans, Josip Broz Tito, built a cave bunker here in the side of Mount Hum – it then served as his military headquarters. British and American forces also used the island as a stronghold from which to attack Nazi-occupied Europe. Today, the watery crash site of a B-17 bomber attracts divers, which speaks to the transformation that Vis has undergone in only a few decades. Industry is now geared almost exclusively towards tourism, wine and agriculture – sample all three at Val, a restaurant that serves traditional anchovy pie at the water’s edge.
On the second-last day, with the end nearing all too quickly, I vow to live life to its cruisiest, opting for a morning sailing trip to the island of Sveti Klement. We dock near a sandy beach at Palmižana, where the only residences – a sprawl of bungalows ensconced in lush gardens – have belonged to the same family for more than 100 years. This is where Beyoncé and Jay-Z spend time, a New Yorker with property on nearby Hvar tells me.
After some pre-lunch swimming, I take to the waves on a jet ski – a process that involves getting on and off three boats. I’m not sure if it’s the wine they gave us on the sailing boat, the thrill of feeling temporarily airborne or the fact that this is the closest I’ll ever get to being Rihanna but speeding across the ocean, I grin and let out a high-pitched “whooo!” I’m embarrassed to discover later that it was audible to the speedboat operators 100 metres away.