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A small ship cruise in Croatia – October 2019

We travel to learn how people lived, and live, so cruising along the Dalmatian Coast offers the ability to gain a perspective of how people have journeyed for centuries. Vistas of the mountains, shorelines and watching passing seafarers all contributed to filling our imaginations. Being topside at the bow of the ship while pulling into a port captured a sense of history.

Small ship cruising is a mode of travel providing an intimacy enabling listening to time.

Consider

The time of the year will influence how much you may gain from the trip. Small ship cruises offer daily opportunities to swim in the crystal-clear waters of the Adriatic Sea. However, if you are cruising in April/May or September/October the water temps will range from cool to downright cold and influence your time in the water. We traveled during the first week of October, on the last cruise of the season for our ship, and it took a hardy soul to jump into the sea which we all did at least once in order to say, “been there, swam that”. However, the enjoyment was lacking compared to folks cruising during the summer months when the water temps encouraged frolicking in the sea.

Cruising during the shoulder season does offer the expected advantages of less crowds, cruise discounts and milder temps to enjoy the destinations. Keep in mind some attractions, restaurants/bars, shops may not yet be open or already have closed.

We selected a cruise based upon value, reviews and the itinerary. Most ships have two decks for accommodations; the upper deck offers a vista of the sea and easier access to the main lounge while the lower deck berths have port holes and far fewer people shuffling about outside the room door. The lower deck does bring you closer to the noise of the engine and means climbing an extra set of stairs.

We chose Sail Croatia on a ship with 20 berths and a maximum of 40 passengers. For value we took a cabin on the lower deck and paid about $1,100 per person for a seven-day journey departing from Split with stops in Makarsha, Korcula, Dubrovnik, Mljet, Hvar and Stari Grad before returning to Split. This was the last booking for the season resulting in only having 28 passengers and a fairly worn out all Croatian crew who were highly anticipating the season end. We captured lighting in a bottle with the composition of guests who ranged from early 70’s to mid 20’s and geographically from OZ, Kiwis, Singapore, USA and UK. Serendipitous is meeting two fellow passengers who are epidemiologists and via their social media being kept up to date on COVID.

We suggest you bring card games, inflatables, a towel and hope someone brings a portable Bluetooth speaker. If you are allergic to bee stings than bring the meds needed to counteract as we encountered bees ashore and while at sea.

Small ship cruising has little in common with large cruise ship experiences as you will need to be more self-sufficient. Small ship cruise vessels tend to look alike and are clustered while in port creating a bit of a hubbub upon seeking your ship on day of embarkation. On the day of departure in Split about 30 small cruise ships were all collecting passengers along a long dock making identification a small challenge. Just keep asking folks for guidance to identify the location of your ship and all will be well. Dock side check in is easy, hoist your luggage onto the deck, turn over your passport to the steward and then grab a drink and start introducing yourself to others coming aboard. We suggest you grab some snacks at a local store (package chips, candy and other small savories) to keep in your cabin to allay any cravings during the journey. My favorite is lifesavers to rely upon throughout the day regardless of where we journey.

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Food and Drinks

Breakfast and lunch are staples of small ship offerings. Breakfast is more European with cold cuts, fruits, pastries and boiled eggs. Coffee service is derived from a small machine offering a selection of powdered offerings ranging from coffee, hot chocolate to cappuccinos. We found the coffee machine really disappointing and too easy a solution for the cruise line. We became quite envious upon discovering other cruise lines did offer expresso-based drinks created with an actual expresso maker. Tea selections were limited, and we found a better selection on other ships (Our research enabled by visiting other ships with the permission of their staff).

Lunch is a served three course meal which was often tasty. We were quite satisfied with this service and quality of food. Linen covered round tables brings eight people together during the meal. People did choose to rotate among tables, so lunch provided a good opportunity for dialogue.

Bringing liquor on board was a big “no no” which I was tempted to violate. All alcohol is to be purchased from the bar making you reliant upon what they have in stock and willing to serve. We are not big drinkers and the bar pricing was in our opinion, high. A frustration was no bourbon stocked at the bar. We learned on the prior cruise bourbon had run out and was not being restocked due to end of season. We chose to spend money on fine Croatian wine during our dinners.

Upon embarkation the cruise director warned us the bar tender was a bit of a grump and to approach with caution. Many thought this was a joke until we encountered her behavior………. a HUGE miss with customer interaction skills. But since her boyfriend was on the staff, we guessed they were a package deal for the ship. It became a running joke as to how much time it would take her to untwine from the boyfriend and come serve a drink (there was a couch next to the bar where the majority of their time was spent cuddling or on their phones). One passenger had the courage to go behind the bar counter to grab his own beer and the ensuing blow up provided some lively entertainment. The cruise director was well aware of the issue, but unwilling/unable to bring resolution to the situation. We did write Sail Croatia about these issues but did not receive a response.
Accommodations

Our lower deck room was more than adequate containing a queen size bed, closet, a desk, two bedside tables and a small round ottoman. We definitely were not bumping into each other. Natural illumination from the port windows was substantial with the lighting plan convenient and ample. The air conditioning worked wonderfully, and the room daily cleaned with large fluffy towels provided. The bathroom………ahh! Large and well designed to allow toiletries to be unpacked and the glass enclosed shower could fit two folks. Water pressure was better than what I find in Italy and amply hot when you desired. Take note if the stairs are not carpeted as I took a bruising tumble down a set of wet stairs leading to our lower deck.
Our room backed to the engine room and when the engines started on the day of departure, I became alarmed with the noise and vibration disturbing our peace! And then realized, we will be anchored each night hence no need for engines. Yes, departure was typically 7 a.m. and definitely woke you up for the first two days till we started sleeping through departure. ALWAYS bring great quality ear plugs on your travels as these eased our sleep transitions.

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Journey

Small cruise ships travel mostly in the form of a flotilla, adding a nice element of describing your trip to friends; “Avast mates, you should have seen the threat we posed to the old port as we massed our ships to assault the docks of Korcula!” There is a lot of truth to that claim.

A typical day commences with your ship departing from port by 7 a.m. and then cruising to the next port with an afternoon arrival. Before arriving at the next port, the ship will stop for a “swim break” at an inlet. Depending upon the weather and water temp all passengers will have the opportunity to dip your toes into the sea. You may enter the water from a variety of deck heights solely dependent upon your level of sanity (just be careful of how slippery the rails and deck can be from the higher decks). You may find the ship has a collection of floaties (AKA inflatable personal watercraft) for the use of guests, but we recommend bringing one of your own. Our cruise commenced with seven shared floaties which started to dwindle at the rate of one a day (which turned out to be the crew’s method of counting down to the end of the season).

After the water break the ship will head into the next port which is a fairly regimented process. Arriving ships are provided a time slot and expectation of which ships they will moor alongside. The ports are small and dock space is a premium so ships will tie up next to each other. It is common to have six ships tied together with land access only available by walking across/through other ships. This is a safe operation while sober and something to be navigated with a friend while under the influence. You are not encouraged to explore other ships, but we did obtain a couple of deck tours when we asked an adjacent ship crew member. The biggest difference we found were in the level of finishes and in the dining area with quality of bar and coffee/tea service.

Typically, you are on your own for daily and evening activities, including dinner arrangements.
There can be some pre-arranged excursions, which I will cover in the port by port review, but largely you are dependent on choosing whom and where you want to hang out or do. This concept worked great for us and with the availability of guidebooks (Thanks Rick!), we enjoyed self-explorations while choosing when we wanted to meet up with other folks.

Probably the most important advice I have to offer on small ship cruises………On average you arrive into port at 3 p.m. and you will depart at 7 a.m. the next day…… making time on land quite valuable in the following ways:

• What time do the museums, walls, attractions, shops, close?
• What time is sunset as your explorations of the area will be impacted?
• What will you do after sunset?

The “miss” for us is the amount of effective touring time we had on the ground. We often had about five hours of day light and then would be back on the ship by 10 p.m. and asleep by midnight. Is this any different than other cruises? Yes, as we enjoyed more time during the day to explore destinations.

Fortunately, our fellow passengers enjoyed gathering in the lounge where we stayed up late, and loudly, playing card games while listening to music using some portable blue tooth speakers. UNO was a popular game and we had a blast changing teams and creating our own karaoke environment. One evening we had the honor of the adjacent ship’s captain registering a noise complaint due to our karaoke/card boisterous party, proudly we still carry this distinction.

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Crew

The sailing season commences in late April/early May and the crew typically stays with the ship for the season. On a small ship your primary contact will be with the entertainment director (Boris), bar tender and a waiter with some contact with a deck hand who handles the lines and monitors the swim stops. So, you may interact with about four to five staff. Sure, you will see the captain, cleaning person and a cook, but interaction is limited.

Destinations

Makarsha – Arriving after 5 p.m., and with a short amount of remaining day light, we dis-embarked and walked right into a port side firework show celebrating a wedding. A fun event to witness and provided a festive mood for our group. We had been warned a substantial number of clubs, restaurants and retail shops were already closed for the season, which we found to be accurate. Restoran Porat was recommended by a couple among our group and we enjoyed a good meal of food and drink. There was a slight chill to the evening and our wanderings continued to confirm much of the port side establishments were closed. The majority chose to return to the ship where our first evening of playing card games commenced and grew rowdier with each following night.

Korcula – Our first swim stop and Shiver Me Timbers! a cold-water shock to the soon to be blue body. Everything shrunk on everybody! Still, the clearness of the water was startling and a scramble for sharing floaties became a great water fight.

We were the first ship in at the dock and quickly spoiled by the ease of access to land. An easy walk around old town and nice exercise wandering up and down the narrow streets. The architecture and narrow streets helped provide a sense of history, but I was grateful to not be there during a crowded season.

Sitting on a walkway while enjoying a bottle of wine we took in the variety of ships/boats/ferries floating past, but no jet skis. Peaceful.

Dinner was an excursion requiring three vans to travel about 30 minutes from old town. I know not the name of where we went but offer the following:

• We typically avoid dinner excursions, but this turned out to be tremendous fun.
• We were greeted by the owner who offered all a shot of fire breathing liquor, excellent stuff.
• We then were given a chance to roll our own tiny piece of pasta which sort-of reminded me of trying to create our own pretzels while visiting Lititz, PA. Equal fun and the liquor was fast acting for diminishing a variety of inhibitions.
• The owner produces his own wine and proudly showed us his large barrels of wine and some of the process. Within our group was a gentleman, Marcus, who listened with interest to the owner and I took several photos of these men engaged in their conversation. The photos turned out great with the open big barrels of wine in the foreground and men with warm worn faces in the background. We enjoyed the good red table wine his labors produced. Stay with me here………… last week Marcus wife shared some images of him receiving the title and honor of, De La Confrerie Des Chevaliers Du Tastevin du Chateau du Clos de Vougeo (essentially becoming a knight of Burgundy due to his knowledge and advocacy of the region). The news reminded me of the benefit of thoughtfully “listening to learn” reaps many rewards.
• Our group shared good food and wine while being entertained by “traditional village singers”, surrounded by other groups of travelers and we enjoyed a marvelous time just being in full tourist mode.
• A couple of quibbles……. hard to believe but Boris failed to realize he had left four passengers behind at the dock. He arranged for a cab and offered to amend their ship bar tab, but still…….
• The return van ride was filled with the fun of singing “Sweet Caroline” until the driver slammed on his brakes and refused to drive further until we all “SHUT UP”! Amazing angry attitude leaving all shaking our heads.

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Dubrovnik – We docked under the bridge creating the need to grab cabs and vans for a 20-minute ride to access the main gate to the walled city. Two options for guided tours were arranged by Boris, the K.O.T. which a dozen passengers chose (what is it about the Walk of Shame stairs?) and a historic walk. Four of us chose the historic walk and the guide was a local who grew up during the conflict of the early 90’s. Amidst his pointing out the history of the city we politely inquired for more information about growing up in a war zone and his response was gracious and informative. In lieu of sharing all the details I shall mention what we learned about how his family met and dealt with the impacts of the conflict were cherished for gaining a perspective of history not to be found in any book. We were lucky to have someone willing to share this portion of their life journey. Sometimes sensing when a politely worded personal request for information can be greatly rewarding.

• We did not tour the wall for it was late in the day, a tad of an expense and we found better things to explore.
• We did sit at a seaside bar outside the wall and watched locals and tourists swim while enjoying wonderful views.
• We stayed just inside the wall and walked through residential areas which make great effective use of tiny plots of gardens. Steps, so many steps, all helping to create good photos and appreciation for how people live within the old town.
• We recommend finding the best well referenced walking tour guide to bring Dubrovnik to life.
• Dusk came early and this is the port where we could have used more day light hours. We chose an itinerary starting and ending in Split, but a do over would see us beginning and ending in Dubrovnik.
• In comparison to other ports Dubrovnik was by far the most expensive.

Mljet – The day was warm and the sun bright even though the water still cold, everyone bailed into the sea at the swim stop. Arriving early at the tiny port of Pomena we left to visit the national park. A couple of thoughts:

• Pomena is tiny and the majority of opened restaurants were only accepting cash.
• The cruise offered a dinner BBQ for an additional fee which we passed on attending.
• The national park is wonderful offering opportunities to stretch the legs, rent bikes and/or take a small ferry to an island with an old monastery.
• The old monastery is “authentic” as few spaces have been renovated which also limits the number of rooms to explore.
• The grounds of the island are easy to walk, offering some exploration of history and wonderful floral.

Hvar – We were content to explore a port with a reputation of hosting the rich, famous and social media “influences” during a time when a few common folks like us were able to wander without bumping shoulders. Hvar is a wonderful place to view and to seek the high ground to enjoy views.

That night our ship was moored adjacent to a ship filled with Germans whose eating lounge was level with ours. Their space was filled with a beer drinking (from steins no less) audience appreciating the big screen TV projecting true football. I stood by the rail of our vessel longing to join them forlorn to be so close yet so far away.

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Stari Grad – Stari Grad, ahh…. Stari Grad my travel spirit misses you. I am forcing my fingers to type as I want NO ONE ELSE to visit our favorite port. Go away!

• This night was the “Captain’s dinner” so we ate on board. The event started with Boris announcing the Captain is a shy soul who speaks little English so on behalf of the captain thanks was given for filling his pockets with our gold ….and then the captain walked out. Interaction = Zilch! Hmmmm……. Except I had overheard the captain earlier in the week speaking good English to a captain on an adjacent ship.
• Stari Grad is just around the corner from Hvar so we arrived early for an excursion to a small family owned winery. Taking a bus, all passengers accounted for, we drove for 30 minutes to their vineyard and enjoyed a wonderful experience. Well organized, quaint, friendly family servers who shared their knowledge of wine and olive oil with our group and the food quite fresh (a light lunch). Afterwards we wandered the grounds, met an insolent donkey and enjoyed taking many photos of our now new friends. There are plenty of times when you can encounter a stone fence described as being thousands of years old dating back to “Roman times”, but on this occasion I could feel and smell the touch of history. Wine, olive oil and some cheese are a shared experience connecting centuries of folks and this vineyard emoted visions of the past.
• Back at the old town, with no one left behind at the vineyard, Boris took us to his favorite wine shop located right on the harbor. If only I could show you the photo. Literally a hole in the wall with no counter and large plastic containers from which a very old man wearing even older clothes would open the spigot to fill any container you possessed. No container? No problem! Just grab an empty plastic water bottle from the bin and find a cap from the adjoining basket. One Euro per pour and a red liquid of some concoction would be spilled into your container. Our designated “wild young Aussie” was offered as the sacrificial taster and he even spit out the liquid. We joked that Boris investment as a wine shop owner needs significant improvement. If only they offered bourbon………….
• Stari Grad is a place where you stroll. You explore without caring for what you find. Yes, there is an old church, and small shops with tiny restaurants and a variety of doorways to explore. There is even an old pay phone stand which still works! This port is sparsely filled with the non-social media influencers and the vessels are old and barely appearing sea-worthy.
• Night. Dark and moonless. Streetlights sparse throughout the village. Cats seeking a meal. Some reflections on the narrow stone paths between the buildings away from the port. Quiet. Holding my wife’s hand at midnight as we peacefully romantically strolled.
A memory to last a lifetime.

Split – Our final day was a slow pace traveling back to Split. I enjoyed standing in the bow with a breeze while watching the Old City appear. All forms of water transport were heading in and out of Split and my love of history enjoyed trying to imagine the experiences of centuries of travelers as they moved towards docking at the steps of the Palace. We spent the afternoon back in Split, prior to the cruise we stayed and explored Split, and helping our friends navigate the area. The evening was spent sharing drinks and dinner with a wonderful group of people.

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Overall

The small ship industry is already of a significant size in terms of tour operators, number of ships and quantity of tourist. We traveled on the edge of the season and were told peak season is akin to a waterway traffic jam by day and slow pub crawl by night.

Tour operators are doing the following in order to be competitive and gain more profits:

  1. Adding more ships to their fleets. Of course, there exists the need to update, but new ships are being added to enlarge the ability to capture more customers which means more tourists.
  2. Attempting to expand the Spring season with earlier offerings of sailings. Research shows the “season” used to begin in late April and end by the second week of October. Now you may find bookings offering late March (Easter) sailing opportunities.
  3. You can find cruises specifically targeted for a vast range of tastes including age, drinking, lifestyle, bicycles’, adventures, luxury/not and travel itinerary.

Throughout this report I noted “quibbles” about staff performance, but justice requires self-examination. We rarely undertake group tours and our own ventures never are without self-inflicted quibbles. We did write Sail Croatia about our quibbles, but did not receive a response.

This organized trip served as a reminder of how our independent travels create a “miss” for meeting and having the time to explore other people. Our group contained doctors, a professional MMA style fighter, an Australian naval officer, a leader in the YELP corporation, a wine expert who has since opened a small craft beer brewery in France, honeymooners and a couple on a year-long travel journey (interrupted by COVID and marooned in Perth). We are grateful for the wonderful people helping bring spice to our travels and whom social media enables staying in contact.

The following is a link to a travel blog defining a variety of the operators offering small ship cruises in Croatia.

https://www.adventuresnsunsets.com/croatia-sailing-tours-choose-best-island-sail-week-croatia/

We were delighted with our journey, what we learned, whom we met and most of all the experience of sailing on a small ship on a historic waterway.

I wish Rick would create his own small ship cruise tour.

Safe Travels!

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My husband and I loved your trip report. We were laughing hysterically. It sounds like the cruise from hell. We have now read a number of reviews of this company and they were less than stellar. One reviewer said he wrote a really bad review and the company paid him to revise it more generously. Those who wrote good reviews must have never traveled before. I guess you get what you pay for. We have taken a few small ship cruises (Cambodia/Vietnam, Egypt, Galapagos and Belize/Guatemala) in recent years and our experiences were vastly different from yours. We were treated royally on all of them and had zero complaints with the exception of one bartender on the Galapagos cruise who did not know how to make a pisco sour and did not add simple syrup or sugar of any kind. Pucker up. And any company we have ever traveled with were very customer service oriented and took any customer complaints/issues seriously. We enjoy the camaraderie of small group tours and cruises as well. Anyway, thanks for the heads up on this cruise company.

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Ah! I must be just in portraying the total experience as being fun and fellow travelers have said they would book again with Sail Croatia. I envy your travel experiences and would add we obtained our monies worth from this journey. My wife, whom is a valid critical reviewer of my writing, observes swimming in the sea means swallowing a bit of salt water (akin to imperfect travel glitches). We do have a return to Croatia as a priority travel target for there is much to experience north of Split via ship, inland travel and the Croatians are wonderful people. Thanks for your comment.

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Thanks for the write up. It was entertaining and eye opening . I particularly appreciated the blog link with the demographics of many of the companies. No party boats or flotillas for me.

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Having never been on a very small ship cruise, I read your review with great interest. While it sounded like a lovely trip, I was not impressed with the short times spent in port, especially Split and Dubrovnik, both of which merit at least a full day. However, sailing the coast must be lovely, and I think it would be worth doing if one can identify a company that is the best fit. Your review is wonderful, clear, very thorough, and fascinating review -- thanks for posting it.

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We sailed around the Dalmatian Coast on a small ship too, a wonderful experience. I can’t remember the name of the ship but it was an easy way to access all the islands. We also visit Mali Losenj and Pula.
We do not usually go on cruises but this experience was excellent.

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Thanks for the report, you have me intrigued about this style of travel for Croatia. You mention the card playing at night, but what about from 7am until 3pm while you're sailing; what was there to do?

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Thanks, Marbleskies. What fun to read your report.

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I appreciate everyone's comments.
Upon the daily early morning port departure most folks appeared for breakfast between 7 and 9 a.m., which was open seating and informal. After breakfast folks gravitated to the upper deck to sunbath, converse, read books and enjoy the coastline. Most ships offer a hot tub where you could find some of our passengers diving in to avoid bees (true story). BTW: WIFI was quite good in port and at sea. Pre-port afternoon activities were more of the same, naps and some games. One passenger used the at sea time to order the materials needed for creating a micro-brewery. Overall, a sedate experience.

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Great job on a very detailed report, Marbleskies. I'm happy that the adventure worked for you, and I enjoyed the read!

As some of the others have mentioned, so little time in the port would be a big enough negative for us to stick with (for now) our independent style. Trading valuable sightseeing time for hot tubbing, swimming, cards, sunbathing and naps also doesn't appeal but to each his own, right? I'm sure there are others for which the small-ship style of travel, as described, would fit to a T... aside from that cranky, amorous bartender, that is. 😠