Croatia at a crawl

Island-hopping in the Adriatic conjures up images of luxury yachts and plenty of relaxation. But for Christine Rush, it was a lot more strenuous...
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The Independent Travel

As I sign up for SwimTrek, Simon Murie, the group leader, asks, "Hey, are you related to Phil Rush?" I wish. The Kiwi swimmer smashed several records when he completed a triple Channel crossing in 1987; the last serious training I did was for a life-saving badge, aged 14. Instead of the suggested 11 weeks of training for a week's island-paddling in Croatia, my practice has consisted of some idle frolicking in a pool in France and, er, a marathon. I fear that the other swimmers will be greased-up seal types who will leave me trailing in their wake like a particularly puny form of phosphorescence.

As I sign up for SwimTrek, Simon Murie, the group leader, asks, "Hey, are you related to Phil Rush?" I wish. The Kiwi swimmer smashed several records when he completed a triple Channel crossing in 1987; the last serious training I did was for a life-saving badge, aged 14. Instead of the suggested 11 weeks of training for a week's island-paddling in Croatia, my practice has consisted of some idle frolicking in a pool in France and, er, a marathon. I fear that the other swimmers will be greased-up seal types who will leave me trailing in their wake like a particularly puny form of phosphorescence.

The long-distance swimming bug bites everyone differently. For Jerry, our burly guide, it started as a macho, or perhaps masochistic, desire to keep up with his mate in a hotel pool in Mallorca. On the flight back over the Channel, he looked down and experienced a kind of lurch. "I'm going to swim that," he decided. Two years later, he did.

Simon grew up in Australia and taught swimming for years, but it wasn't until his 30th birthday that the open seas beckoned. As a child he'd read of Leander's nightly swim across the Turkish Hellespont to see his lover Hero. So to mark the occasion, he chartered a boatman to follow him on this same route swum by Lord Byron in 1810. A few years later, Simon set up SwimTrek, Europe's only open-water swimming adventure company, which now runs trips to the Greek Cyclades, the Isles of Scilly, the Lake District, the inner Hebrides and the Hellespont, as well as winter trips in New Zealand's Bay of Islands and the Whitsundays in Australia. And I'm here to be initiated.

On the plane, fellow "trekkie" Chris psyches me out with a detailed description of the "total immersion" method of swimming. I practically drown just thinking about it. The flight down the Adriatic coast is spectacular, the islands from Rijecka to Split looking like misshapen green wax blobs spilt by some candle-bearing giant. Few of the islands have roads, and most are enticingly deserted. Every few minutes I spy another marina attached to a medieval Venetian port, testament to Croatia's post-war rebirth as a major sailing and diving destination. Its waters' renowned clarity is a result of the Adriatic current, which picks up detritus from the Croatian side and dumps it on the Italian coast.

The pretty seaside towns' palm-lined promenades are perfect for a passegiata. As we wait in Sibenik for the ferry to Zlarin, our island base for the week, we observe two wedding parties processing behind a Croatian flag, accompanied by a mournful accordion and honking car horns. The Croatian football team's 2-2 draw with the French at Euro 2004 may account in part for the high spirits, and the tie with England is still two days away.

The next morning we meet before breakfast for a 600m swim, the purpose of which is to assess our technique and ability, or lack thereof. My roommate Nicole, a former Canadian swimming rep, mishears. "We're doing six miles?" she asks, between puffs on a cigarette. "No, the assessment," says Sally, a SwimTrek veteran, "which probably means we're doing six miles there. And six miles back." Chuckles from those who've been on a SwimTrek trip before - about half the group. I can muster only a nervous titter.

Once in, the water is surprisingly warm but my steering is terrible. I wash up with the breast-strokers towards the back. At breakfast my arms are trembling from the exertion. It transpires that we're to swim 3km to the next island, Prvic. "Um, is there going to be a little break between breakfast and getting in the water?" I whimper. "Yeah," says Simon. "Bottom line is, it's a holiday." Hmmm.

The swimmers are divided into two or three groups, with boats putting alongside for safety, encouragement and a lift should the going get too tough. I'm with the "scenic swimmers" and soon establish a rhythm of sorts with my schoolgirl crawl. At first it's a straightforward proposition: aim for the next island and swim like mad. But sighting is a real problem - several times I have to stop and scour the increasingly choppy waters for the coloured rubber caps, bobbing like waterlogged M&Ms. Thanks to a force-5 wind, the warm-up has turned into a 4km slog. After two hours and several drink stops - an odd sensation to take on high-carb drinks in the water, but essential, and a relief from the ever-present salt water - we finally arrive, one by one, at the pier. I pass around my favourite salty liquorice fish; there are few takers.

Lunch is large hunks of bread with ham and cheese, as well as lashings of chocolate wafer biscuits, fruit and tea. It's not so much Five Go to the Seaside as 11 Get Stuffed Like Pigs Then Fed to the Jellyfish. (OK, not true - unlike in my native New Zealand, one of the perks of swimming in the Med is the lack of marine beasties.) The high winds mean our afternoon swim has been called off, and after an hour of drills, we motor back to Zlarin. I'm tired but exhilarated, having swum in one burst three times further than ever before. The sun is shining, the blue-green sea is my friend, and the bronzed teenage boatmen, both of whom are named Tony, are shirtless.

There's plenty of downtime on the trip, and the island is mercifully free of tourist attractions. This leaves time for working our way through the hotel's ice-cream trolley (40p a scoop), sunbathing, strolling around the harbour and over the scrubby hills, playing volleyball and water polo, night-time dips, and spotting the ways locals get around the ban on cars, namely a ride-on lawnmower, man-sized tricycles, a cart with motor attached, scooters and a single pre-Fifties lorry. Weeds are everywhere - and birds, and insects. Hooray for "underdevelopment". In the bedroom before dinner, my arms are aching ominously. I feel somewhat less sorry for myself, however, when Nicole, 38, tells me that she has muscular dystrophy. She only found out seven years ago when her body broke down after a 52km crossing of Lake Ontario. Few of those afflicted with this muscle-wasting disease reach 30. "I'm more at home in the water than on land," she says, massaging her limbs. "There's no gravity."

For supper the group bonds over platters of grilled octopus, Zlarin style, during which there is a spectacular electrical storm. It's the only rain we are to see all week - while Goran Ivanisevic's supporters are shivering in SW19, we're tucking into another gelato as dazzling days are followed by balmy, starry evenings.

The next morning, the sea is as flat as a pancake. Tony junior is starting up the boat, resplendent in a red-and-white Croatia T-shirt. England needs only to draw tonight to reach the play offs. Not being English, however, I want music, laughter and dancing with the local beefcakes, not dark mutterings and death threats. We motor back to Prvic. The "trek" part of the firm's name refers to the walks from one side of the island to the next swim, so we're soon sauntering through a deserted village. An elderly woman with a gummy smile has set up a makeshift stall: strings of dried figs, shells and coral, plus what looks like rosemary in olive oil, but is in fact a homemade herb schnapps.

The "2km" swim starts as a jolly affair, as I glide above tendrils of swaying algae. It's thrilling to see the light reflected underwater - or refracted, depending on which scientist in the group you ask. But I soon learn the meaning of the notoriously fluid "Murie metre". Halfway across, we're told that instead of making for the nearest land, we are to round the point and enter a lagoon on the other side. Like startled foals, my swimming buddy Sam and I instantly veer off in opposite directions. I choose to hug the shore but my arms begin to dangle uselessly. Simon, just ahead in the dinghy, shouts, "Come on, only 200m to go." "Two hundred metres my arse," I curse. Two of my scenic swimming comrades have already been picked up, and I am the last to slither inelegantly into the dinghy by the pier. After a post-lunch scramble around the island, I admit defeat and hop on the boat for the day's final 1.5km stretch. Admiring the silky-smooth strokes of the swimmers has a soporific effect, and I wake up as the boat glides into a secluded pine-clad bay, where concrete terraces slope down to a salt-water pool. I slip on some flippers and work on my stroke with the help of the mildly obsessive Chris: "Your follow-through is extremely melodramatic. You're vogueing all over the place." Simon says my Busby Berkeley-esque stroke is "quaint" but OK. I wear the fins for the 3km swim the next day and the added buoyancy and stability somehow turn me into a flying fish. I lead the group into shore.

Wednesday is a day trip to Krka National Park, a lovely valley of waterfalls on the mainland. We think it's national Independence Day, but even the bespectacled young hotel waiter is unsure. "They keep changing it every year. Anyway, I don't care, I'm a socialist..."

After four days of fantastic island-hopping, the group is ready to take on the highlight of the trip: a 6km swim from a freshwater channel near Sibenik back to Zlarin. (The nearby Kornati Islands were on the itinerary, but the first day's high winds threw the schedule off-course.) We start by silently stroking through a darkened Second World War tunnel, where Axis power subs would lie in wait for Allied vessels en route to Sibenik. It's a treat to have freshwater washing through one's gaping maw, but you have to kick harder to make up for the loss in buoyancy. Again, we scenic swimmers are "cheating" a little by wearing flippers. Do I feel guilty? Do I heck. The lunchtime stopover at a 16th-century fort is another bonus, but everyone wants to get back in the water for the final leg.

Back in London, my running shoes have been abandoned. I've been seeking out pools all over the metropolis, wearing my bright red SwimTrek cap with pride, and pondering how to fit in a weekend sampling the waterfalls of Wales.

In just one week in the pristine waters of Croatia, I've become a born-again swimmer. Bring on the Hellespont...

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Christine Rush flew to Split with Hidden Croatia (020-7736 6066; www.hiddencroatia.com). Air Adriatic flies every Saturday from London Stansted to Split and Dubrovnik; return flights to Split start from £184, but specials are often available. SwimTrek (020-8696 0764; www.swimtrek.com) runs several island-hopping trips every year to the Dalmatian coast; there is still availability this year for departures in September and October. A six-day holiday costs £625, including accommodation, breakfast and lunch, swim escorts, luggage transfers, local transport, sightseeing and permits.

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