Mediterranean Sunrise: Kayaking Comes to Croatia

It’s been a long time since western visitors last wandered the Croatian coast—before the decades of Marshal Tito’s communism and the Croatian war years from 1991 to 1995. But now Croatia has opened up again to tourism. The old Gorgon Mediterranean has shed her grim politics to reveal another one of her faces, this one notable for its beauty and untapped potential for kayak touring. 

Croatia is a long, maritime country, across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. Starting at the northern border near the Italian town of Trieste, it stretches along the seacoast as far as Dubrovnik in the south, adorned by 1,000 arid, rocky islands. That Zagreb, the capital city, hides in the inland region of Slavonia is the only characteristic that denies the country’s pas- sionate affair with sea. The rugged coast is lined with villages. Every village has its little harbour, and every family once had a fishing boat. Fishing has now been replaced largely with tourism, but this is still a land best experienced via the sea.

Many areas of the island-studded Croatian coast are ideal for kayaking trips. I chose to visit the coastal province of Dalmatia, at the south end of the country, because of its cultural interest, harbour towns and easy paddling. The palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian in the city of Split as well as the old city of Dubrovnik are both UNESCO World Heritage sites. And Dalmatia’s three elongated islands—Brac, Hvar and Korcula— allow for sheltered paddling even when the infamous Mediterranean winds pick up.

Dalmatia has names for all of its winds, of which the notori- ous bora is the most powerful. Named for Bureaus, the God of the North Winds, the bora comes from the north and inland, blowing down with gale or storm force through gaps in the Dinaric Alps, the half-desert limestone mountains that form the steep rim of the Adriatic bathtub. The bora can last for days and ruin any plans you have of paddling windward. But the bora occurs rarely in the summer months. The southerly wind, the jugo or scirocco, is also weak during this hot, humid time of year. In summer, the welcome, cooling breeze of the northwesterly maestral prevails. 

Sea kayaking was not yet popular the last time Croatia was a tourism destination, and today, kayak renting is only just beginning. We brought our own folding touring kayaks, flying into the international airport of the harbour city of Split, Croatia. The boats were to be our camels, carrying water to sustain us between infrequent refills on days reaching 40 degrees C. The Hypalon hull material would cope well with the hard stone beach landings that we would find everywhere. The boats’ lack of speed was only a minor sacrifice.

Split is the largest settlement in the north of Dalmatia and a good place to fly to because you can almost jump from the plane to the water. Thanks to the ferry service, we saved our strength crossing the 19 kilometres to the island of Brac. Our muscles were better used paddling out in the islands, far from the motorboat traffic.

Brac has the steepest shores of the Dalmatian islands, formed by a singular white stone. For centuries, the stone of Brac has been highly valued by masons. The Berlin Parliament, monuments in Vienna and even parts of the White House are made from the bricks of Brac.

You can easily get into wild areas along these islands, spared from crowded shoreline housing by the absence of roads. Camping is permitted along the shore, even on private beaches as far as three yards above sea level.

A day of leisurely paddling passed and a tiny inlet welcomed us for a quiet, mosquito-free night—no tent required, although the stony ground is a bit harsh. We ended the day with an evening bath in the sea, which often reaches 27 degrees C.

The crossing from Brac to the neighbouring island of Hvar only takes an hour by kayak. But we had some novice kayakers along and rode the ferry instead. The ferries among these islands are as common as bus service and a tempting option for lazy paddlers. We saved face by claiming our friends’ inexperience as an excuse.

Hvar is the longest island on the Adriatic Sea, and it’s not very developed. You’re even likely to find deserted houses, which our guide, Tome, told us were probably Serb summer homes. “They don’t dare come back,” he said. His statement could only come from a Croatian, for we cannot imagine having war on the mind in these paradisiacal surroundings.

Where the ferry stops in the town of Stari Grad, we left our kayaks with no worries of theft and hopped on rented mopeds to visit Hvar’s eponymous capital. Although it’s less than an hour by scooter, the town is on the opposite, southern coast and would have been more than a day by kayak, around the distant promontory of Cape Pelegrin. We motored over the middle of the island past fields of lavender protected by stone walls, with views of open sea to the horizon.

In the town of Hvar, we found a fine spot with a plaza looking like a small version of Venice’s Piazza San Marco—a sign of Croatia’s history as a colony of the Venetian Republic. A newer attraction of the town is its clubbing, which is renowned all over Europe. 

Clubbing is something that you certainly won’t find on the third island, Korcula. Like Hvar, Korcula is the name of both an island and a town. The bora started blowing the same day the ferry dropped us at Korcula’s quays. The 35-knot wind kept us from paddling for two days, so the town kept no secrets from us. We had time to learn that the locals are proud of the town’s claim as the birthplace and early home of Marco Polo, though history often records his provenance as Venice. Meanwhile, our kayaks, left at the foot of the town’s ramparts, provided housing for a cat and its brood that were not so happy when the time came for us to leave.

Our trip of 15 days gave us plenty of time to tour the sights as we paddled the rugged, arid-looking coast down to Dubrovnik. We would sometimes stop at seaside restaurants where the owners were happy to fill our jerry cans with water and give us a break from our usual fare by serving local cheese, a type of ham called prsut, and fruits and vegetables fresh from the market. And we once saw two dolphins, a rare occurrence along this coast where colonies of German naturists are the more common mammalian life form.

The “pearl of the Adriatic,” Dubrovnik is a bigger town than Split and Hvar and is a gem indeed. Attacked by Vikings, Turks, and more recently Serbs, it is now the tourists that overrun its streets, churches and ramparts. You’re best to get an early start to explore, taking to the gleaming white streets at 6 a.m. You walk along the tiny, deserted lanes of the old town, pass matronly ladies tak- ing sea baths in the harbour, and reach the ramparts where you look out at the Adriatic in the rising sun.

This is the old face of the Dalmatian Med, made over as a kayaker’s paradise.

Guillaume Fatras is a freelance writer, photographer and former whitewater slalom kayaker based in Lyon, France. 

akv3i4cover.jpgThis article first appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Adventure Kayak Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Adventure Kayak’s print and digital editions here.


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