All at sea on Croatia's coast

Unspoilt beauty, historic sites – and some surprisingly wild weather. Lucy Gillmore gets more than she bargains for on a luxury sailing holiday
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The Independent Travel

Jugo was causing chaos. We were supposed to be catching our supper with a local spear fisherman and then cooking it, sizzling in a coating of gritty sea-salt over a driftwood fire on the shore. But a strong wind was buffeting us from the south-east ("Jugo" is a south-easterly, our skipper told us) and the weather was forecast to get even wilder. So, instead of anchoring off one of the deserted islands that make up Croatia's Kornati archipelago for the night, we had to sail back to the mainland and a sheltered marina.

Croatia's craggy, indented coastline stretches (or rather wiggles drunkenly), for 5,835km, if you include its islands. And with 1,185 islands, rocks and reefs, it's no wonder that the Dalmatian coast is considered one of the most interesting and varied sailing grounds in the Mediterranean. Croatia's beaches, however, apart from the much photographed golden arrowhead of Zlatni Rat ("Golden Cape") on the island of Brac, are more pebbly patches than wide expanses of powdered sand. Which is another reason why messing about in boats is so popular here.

It is, however, still possible to leave the crowds behind and head off the beaten track, chartering a yacht with a skipper (or "bare boating" without a skipper if you have the necessary RYA qualifications), for an island-hopping adventure. We had flown into the down-to-earth port of Split and planned to explore two national parks in Central Dalmatia: the freshwater Krka river national park with its dramatic waterfall and the wild Kornati archipelago.

Our yacht was beautiful, with eight berths, wood-panelled cabins and leather seating. I had visions of jumping off the boat into the vivid green Adriatic, drying off on deck as we set sail for another hidden cove; of standing at the helm as the spray cooled our sun-scorched skin; of cracking open a chilled beer as the sun sank exhausted into the horizon. The weather, however, had other ideas.

"There hasn't been a cloud in the sky for the past three weeks." Our skipper scratched his chin. "Really?" We feigned interest as another crash of thunder exploded overhead.

It could have been worse. On our journey up the Krka river we had moored for the night in the pretty Roman town of Skradin. The winding track up to the tiny village of Bicine was more river than road after a torrential downpour; we'd slipped our shoes off and paddled to the restaurant, called Konoba Kud Jokota. A bottle of local brandy slammed down on the table helped thaw us out as we took in our surroundings – rough-hewn floor, stone walls hung with old pistols and football shirts. The owner's welcome helped too: a bottle of surprisingly velvety Croatian red wine, and aromatic lamb that had been slow-cooking in a pot in the floor of the old cookhouse all day and that now slipped off the bone. As the lightning ripped through the sky and the sodden ground choked on the storm waters, belching back the rain, we cranked up the traditional music and finished our meal with freshly roasted almonds.

The next morning, a forget-me-not blue sky and a weak sun greeted us apologetically as we opened the hatch. After coffee in a waterfront café we drove cross-country through hills patched with tangled vines, scraggy olive and fig trees to visit the tiny 14th-century island monastery of Visovac.

Arriving at a simple wooden jetty we honked our horn and waited for one of the park rangers to motor across the millpond-flat water to fetch us. The Franciscan monastery, surrounded by cypresses, by towering horse-chestnuts and weeping willows that trailed in the water, dates back to 1385.

Today, only 10 monks remain in residence, including seven novices. The novices stay here for a year before continuing their training at theology college. The gardens, tended by long, brown-robed monks, and lorded over by resident peacocks and feral cats, were brimming with flowers. A guide joined us as we wandered round the small museum, taking a delight in pointing out the more unusual objects: a 15th-century Renaissance painting of the Virgin breast-feeding a baby Jesus; an illustrated copy of Aesop's Fables, one of only three in the world dating back to the 15th century and one of the first printed books; and tiny glass vessels made from the ashes of cremated bodies and mixed with the tears of loved ones. A separate room is dedicated to photographs of all the Catholic churches destroyed by the Serbs during the war. "Forgiven but not forgotten" a notice reads.

After a simple lunch of bread, cheese and fresh olives we left our mooring and returned to the sea. Mackerel clouds streamed overhead as we motored towards the mouth of the river. Once out in the open water, we unfurled the sails and scudded across the waves. The waters were peppered with yachts, dolphins leaping beside them as the sun glinted on the water.

The previous night's storm seemed far away as, wind-blown and exhilarated, we manoeuvred the yacht into the marina at Tribunj, where a little wooded hill is topped by a church. We walked around the tiny fishing village, had a coffee on the waterfront, then aperitifs on deck before strolling to a local fish restaurant.

Later, curled up in our cabins, the sound of rain pattering, then pounding on the hatches signified another front rolling in. Sheeting rain, cracks of thunder and storm clouds accompanied a dash for morning coffee. Then: a break in the clouds, a patch of blue, and we were pulling in the fenders and making a break for the Kornati archipelago as fast as you could say "pass the sunscreen".

The Kornati archipelago was declared a national park in 1980 and is made up of 140 islands scattered across an area 35km by 14km. This strange sprinkling of barren, treeless outcrops mystified George Bernard Shaw: "On the last day of Creation, God desired to crown His work, and thus created the Kornati islands out of tears, stars and breath."

Negotiating the channel between Kornat, the largest island which faces the mainland, and Smokvica (Fig island) the first of the chain of isles on its other side, we found ourselves in a more sheltered stretch of water. A handful of bays provide safe haven here, generally protected from the open sea, where yachts can drop anchor. No ferries serve the archipelago, but if you do not happen to have access to a private yacht you can sign up for one of the tours offered by fishermen based in Murter.

Largely uninhabited, this raw, untouched world offers a stark contrast to the gentler landscapes of Croatia's other islands. The only wildlife here are snakes, lizards and birds; the only signs of human habitation are crumbling dry-stone walls, the odd low-slung house, and a few donkeys and sheep. The sheep graze the thorny ground; their cheese, Paski Sir, is a local delicacy flavoured by the salt-laced grass. On the seaward side the water is rougher. Waves rocked the yacht, crashing against the sheer 100m cliffs of the island of Mana. Our skipper told us tales of jumping from the rocks into the open sea and the vivid marine life you can spot snorkelling in calmer conditions.

We were supposed to be anchoring off Mana and scrabbling up its rocky slopes to explore the Neolithic ruins of a village once occupied by the Illyrians, but the weather was turning again and Jugo was getting stronger.

After a hasty lunch we turned tail and left the ravaged beauty of the archipelago for a safe anchor in the marina at Vodice.

The weather might have changed our plans but it didn't spoil the trip. That night, as we wandered around the little town, a brass band was playing in the square. Instead of the gentle lapping of waves and the lonely bleat of the islands' sheep to lull us to sleep, we had a Grease medley – and the theme tune from Titanic. A sheltered marina has its advantages.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

Dalmatia's coast can be accessed from Split airport, which is served from Gatwick by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) and Thomsonfly (0870 190 0737; www.thomsonfly.com). Flybe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com) flies from Birmingham, while Croatia Airlines (0870 4100 310; www.croatiaairlines.com) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow.

Alternatively, Dubrovnik is served by British Airways and Croatia Airlines from Gatwick; by Flybe from Birmingham; and by Thomsonfly from Gatwick, Luton and Manchester.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk) or Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk).

SAILING THERE

Sail Croatia (0871 733 8686; www.sailcroatia.net) offers a week's sailing charter on the Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 45 (sleeping six) from £3,140 or on the Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 54 (sleeping eight) from £4,560. The price includes skipper, cleaning charges, airport transfers, route planning and local guides. Flights, fuel, mooring fees and meals are extra.

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Konoba Kod Jokota restaurant, Bicine (00 385 22 77 1162).

M ORE INFORMATION

Croatian National Tourist Office: 020 8563 7979; www.croatia.hr

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