Small ship sailing allows Celia Paul to enjoy the picturesque coastlines and peaceful coves.
Like Bambi taking his first tentative steps, I push myself up off the paddleboard, first to my knees and then cautiously – and with more than one false start – to my feet. In the faint distance, I can hear applause, but I’m too focused on gripping hold of my paddle to pay much attention.
Around me, the waters of the Adriatic are clear and – thankfully for my precarious balance – tranquil. Apart from a single yacht and my new home from home, a gleaming white catamaran, the bay is undisturbed by water traffic.
ABOVE: Adventure sailing with Whereabouts Holidays | PA Photo/Whereabouts Holidays
TOP OF PAGE: Lopud and Elaphiti | PA Photo/Whereabouts Holidays
My shipmates and new-found friends are dotted around me, some kayaking, others snorkelling, while a couple provide vocal and enthusiastic support from the deck of the catamaran. I skirt my wobbly way around them, gradually becoming more stable, only to watch in awe as one companion takes to SUP yoga on the open sea.
Taking that as my cue, I clamber back aboard ship, hunt down a cold drink and sit down in the sun to take my turn as cheerleader and observer.
If this is sailing life, how has it taken me so long to embrace it?
ABOVE: Dubrovnik | PA Photo/thinkstockphotos
We’re less than 25 miles from Dubrovnik, but a world away from the hustle and bustle of urban existence.
Ask anyone who’s visited the ancient Croatian city for their first impressions, and I’d wager good money they all mention the words ‘cruise ship’. Each day, huge vessels disgorge thousands of passengers into the World Heritage site for a few intense hours of sightseeing.
The sea around Dubrovnik teems with these fully equipped floating palaces, as well as with comfortable but utilitarian passenger ferries darting between the many Croatian islands and the mainland.
But there is another way for the more independent-minded traveller to take to the seas – without being an experienced sailor or a yacht-owning billionaire.
Whereabouts Holidays offers a choice of sailing and activity trips, to suit everyone from outdoor fanatics to chilled-out explorers. I’m taking advantage of the adventure sailing and activity tour, which sets out from a base just outside Dubrovnik for a four-day foray into the Adriatic.
A small fleet of catamarans – nearly all of which were brand new in 2018 – each sleeps passengers in four cleverly appointed cabins. Mine is an exercise in ingenious storage, with a comfy double bed and tiny but very functional en-suite toilet and shared shower, while up on deck, there’s generous lounging and sunbathing space, and comfortable communal seating.
With an on-board guide, and an experienced skipper to do all the heavy lifting, it’s the perfect way to get a taste of nautical living, and experience Croatia without the crowds. The stunning coastline of Croatia is home to more than 1,000 islands, but we start off gently with some of those closest to our departure port, the Elaphiti archipelago.
The three main islands, Sipan, Kolocep and Lopud, have a total population of less than 1,000 people, and are mostly car-free, forested and surrounded by tranquil seas. I can already feel the hustle and bustle of city life slipping away.
ABOVE: SUP and swimming at the Kolocep Blue Cave | PA Photo/Whereabouts Holidays
After a quick stop at Kolocep for a lunch of grilled octopus, cooked on an open flame, and a brisk 10-minute hike up to a stunning viewpoint, we sail around the island, moor up and take our first swim.
I hold my breath, grab hold of my snorkel and leap feet-first into the blue brilliance of the Adriatic.
Just beneath the surface, shoals of tiny fish dart around me, and below my feet an eel lurks in the shadow of a rock. When I finally emerge into the sunshine again, after a leisurely exploration of the deep, it’s to climb back aboard my home for the next three nights and take up residence on deck with the breeze in my hair.
It’s just a short jaunt over to Lopud, home to a monastery overlooking the island’s only village (which also has an excellent patisserie and a selection of boutiques stocked with locally made jewellery and trinkets). Loaded up with gifts and pastries, we jump back aboard for our final sail of the day.
And it’s a special one. Gathered on the bow of the catamaran, my shipmates and I get to experience a sunset cruise unlike any I’ve known before, watching the sun disappear over the horizon as the waves gently lap around us, and we exclaim over the stunning forested scenery we pass, complete with occasional mountain goat.
ABOVE: Kayaking on Kolocep | PA Photo/Whereabouts Holidays
As the skies darken, we moor at the largest of the islands, Sipan, our home until morning, and after a dinner of freshly-caught seafood, settle in for our first night, lulled to sleep by the water splashing against our gently rocking temporary home.
I’m woken the next day by the sound of feet overhead, as my fellow passengers head for some morning sunshine on deck, and the smell of coffee wafts its way down to my cabin. After a breakfast of fresh fruit and yoghurt, cheeses and meats, we set sail for our next destination, the island of Mljet.
ABOVE: Mljet’s Benedictine monastery | PA Photo/Celia Paul
Famous for its inland lakes and a former Benedictine monastery first constructed in the 12th century, the western side of the heavily forested island is protected by national park status, helping it remain an unspoilt and tranquil home for all kinds of wildlife – and plenty of outdoor pursuits enthusiasts.
We stop for a quick dip, interspersed with water sports, before loading the boards and kayaks back on board and docking in the shadow of Roman ruins in the village of Polace.
A stash of electric bikes are stored for us at a local home, ready for our adventure into the hilly national park. And for someone who spent their childhood routinely dragged out on reluctant cycling trips, they’re a revelation. We do just enough work to feel as though we’ve earned our picnic, while whizzing down steep hills and easily pedalling up them.
It’s an easy ride around the two saltwater lakes, with a stop to catch the ferry to the monastery, and a tranquil late-afternoon drink in the hamlet of Soline, where kids splash in the water beside us.
That evening our skipper, Patrick, escorts us by dinghy to a dockside restaurant, where we experience one of the staples of Dalmatian cookery, Peka. The local speciality of beef, lamb, potatoes and vegetables is baked in an open fire, under a bell-shaped lid with embers piled on top. The resulting stew is tender and flavourful, and perfectly washed down with a digestif of rakija, a fruit brandy flavoured with pear, quince, apricot or plum.
While both Mljet and the Elaphati Islands are accessible from Dubrovnik by public ferry, the real privilege of these sailing trips lies in the balance between adventure and ease. With on-board experts to answer all of our queries, I feel myself effortlessly adapting to the pace of life at sea, absorbing the stunning scenery, learning about Dalmatian culture and even working on my paddle-boarding skills. I can’t think of a better way to experience the beauty of Croatia and escape the crowds.
ABOVE: Catamaran | PA Photo/Whereabouts Holidays
How to get there
Whereabouts Holidays (whereaboutsholidays.com; 0800 755 5425) offers the four-day Adventure Sailing and Activity holiday in Croatia from £579 per person (two sharing a double cabin). Departures on select dates between April and October. Flights extra.
Words by Celia Paul, Press Association