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(E) Through the Croatian Looking Glass
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  02/25/2002 | Tourism | Unrated
(E) Through the Croatian Looking Glass
Cruising World magazine 
February 4, 2002 
Through the Croatian Looking Glass 
By Jon Eisberg 
The magical commingling of opposites at the heart of this Balkan state 
highlights the advantages of a crewed charter in the Dalmatian 
"Meester Jon-would you like some try my cake of cheese?" I was sipping 
an afternoon coffee when Antonela's delightful, lilting voice sang out 
from the galley. I'd been gazing across the water at Carmelengo Tower 
and the Romanesque town walls of the medieval island city of Trogir. 
Antonela completed the picture by setting down her delicious offering, 
still steaming from the oven, on the cockpit table. 
I was reeling from an early summer flu further enhanced by the long 
overnight flight from the States. Clearly, Antonela was a woman on a 
mission to nurse me back to health, if not to fatten me up a bit. "It 
surprises me no you are sick," she lectured. "Forgive me, but you are 
too skinny much." Though her English syntax was charmingly convoluted, 
her understanding of how to win the affection of one forever wishing 
to shed 10 pounds couldn't have been clearer. 
I'd found my way to this enchanting setting courtesy of an invitation 
from Stardust Platinum Yacht Charters. I was asked to join an 
international crew for a week aboard one of the Lagoon 47 catamarans 
that operate from Stardust Platinum's base near Split, in the center 
of Croatia's Dalmatian coast. Most Americans wouldn't associate this 
stretch of the Adriatic with a luxury crewed-charter destination, but 
it's a place that'll quickly shatter preconceived notions and readily 
charm the wariest traveler. With the exception of the damage done by 
shelling to the coastal city of Dubrovnik 10 years ago, no physical 
evidence whatsoever remains that the hostilities with Bosnia and 
Herzegovina ever visited Dalmatia's coast or islands. 
The Accidental Tourist 
I was an unlikely candidate to be charmed by the pampering offered by 
Stardust. I'll never be an airport-limousine kind of guy-I'll forever 
stubbornly schlepp my own bags from long-term parking, thank you-so 
the notion of a crewed-charter vacation has never held much appeal. I 
suppose I'd assumed it would be an 
if-it's-Tuesday-this-must-be-Belgium kind of experience. 
That misconception was dispelled by our captain, Leo Lesvic, 
immediately after clearing customs in Split. Before I could protest, 
Leo hoisted my huge duffel from my shoulder as if it were filled with 
down. Using a phrase I was to hear repeatedly over the next week, he 
said, "Nema problema-we are from steel." With a wolfish grin splitting 
his handsome, sharply featured face, it was impossible not to like 
Leo-immediately and immensely. It was obvious that we were in 
extremely capable hands on this trip. 
Sailing among the hundreds of islands in the Dalmatian archipelago 
appears deceptively straightforward-the sort of place where anyone 
could bareboat with confidence. With predominantly steep-to shorelines 
and few off-lying hazards, a tidal range between six inches and a 
foot, a wealth of potential anchorages, and a network of modern, 
state-sponsored marinas, you could quickly discount the value of local 
knowledge. That notion will be quickly dispelled, however, when you 
learn that Croatia is a place where the winds have been given 
mysterious names with few apparent references to the points of the 
compass. Watching Leo furrow his brow as the forecast spoke of an 
expected jugo, bura, tremontana, or siroko, we began to get the hint 
that these winds would possess characteristics above and beyond the 
mere direction of their source. Despite being a devout believer in the 
sort of self-reliance fostered by the long-term-parking option, I was 
beginning to feel relieved that Leo would be our "limo driver." 
Wind Like Waterfalls 
The winds with which I'm most familiar blow horizontally. The fearsome 
bura, however, possesses a significant vertical component that poses 
real challenges for anyone cruising Croatia's waters. This is a cold, 
katabatic wind that cascades like a waterfall from the high karst 
valleys of the Dinaric Alps, spilling out along the coastline and 
Dalmatia's rugged islands. 
A local bura can often blow with storm-force ferocity and, like its 
williwaw cousin in the Chilean channels, can instantly turn a 
seemingly protected anchorage into a death trap. One is ill-advised to 
seek shelter overnight where trees lean toward the south, and I pity 
the bareboat skipper who ventures into these waters unarmed with this 
sort of information. 
However, the most daunting challenge for the first-time, unassisted 
cruiser is effecting the dreaded Mediterranean moor in Croatia's 
tightly packed harbors. Lying stern to the quay in the center of town 
presents even the most competent skipper with the fabulous opportunity 
to be humbled in a spectacularly public fashion. And, of course, it 
also affords the local populace its afternoon amusement. Amid the 
confusion about whether to lower the anchor or pick up mooring lines 
beneath the surface-when commands and advice from shore are being 
shouted in three or four different languages-most sailors quickly find 
contentment in the knowledge that the charter is crewed and the boss 
can give as good as he gets in Croatian, German, Italian, English, and 
even French, should the need arise. 
For me, however, the most startling crewed-chartering revelation was 
the extent to which a dedicated crew can make things happen. Without 
Leo's presence and direction, we wouldn't have experienced a fraction 
of what we were able to that week. When not moonlighting as a skipper 
for Stardust Platinum, he commands the largest vessel in Croatia's 
maritime-police force. He's a greatly revered figure along the 
Dalmatian coast and islands, and wherever we went, everyone knew Leo, 
and he knew everyone as well. Within minutes of our arrival in a 
harbor, a vehicle would materialize, and we'd be off on a tour of the 
countryside. Restaurants graciously extended their hours to 
accommodate our schedule, and everyone we encountered was infected by 
Leo's vitality. The force of his personality, coupled with Antonela's 
delicate charm, guaranteed serendipity. 
Last Unspoiled Grounds 
In Trogir, I met David Gregory, a British ex-pat cruiser who'd spent 
the last 30 years skippering large yachts based in southern Europe. He 
reckoned that Croatia is the last unspoiled cruising ground-with far 
and away the most beautiful water-in the Mediterranean. And he was 
impressed with this young nation's determination to keep it that way. 
There seems to be an awareness that the days of mass tourism are 
numbered, that travelers are searching for more intimate experiences. 
Croatia appears determined not to repeat "the Spanish Mistake," for 
example, where unfettered high-rise development overwhelms local 
infrastructures, tour buses clog the roads, and so many of their 
sun-kissed costas have been cast into shadow. 
There's something special about seeking refuge in a harbor that's been 
used for similar purposes since 385 B.C. That's when the town of 
Starigrad was founded by Greek colonists and first given the name of 
Pharos. Well protected at the head of a four-mile-long bay on the 
north shore of the island of Hvar, Starigrad has remained an important 
center of the Adriatic as one civilization has succeeded another. Leo 
thought it would be the best spot for riding out an anticipated jugo 
two days into our cruise. The jugo is a warm, humid wind from the 
south that usually portends wet and stormy weather for a couple of 
After a beautiful first day reaching to the outermost island of 
Vis-courtesy of a temperate maestral, or sea breeze-we retreated north 
towards Starigrad. The jugo is typically slow to build, but by the time 
we tacked into the bay of Starigrad, we were experiencing gusts near 40 
knots and boatspeeds nudging the teens. While the Croats have names for 
their winds from every quarter, "reefing" apparently doesn't exist in 
their vocabulary. Leo is a sailor par excellence, and he gave us one 
hell of a ride, but had our skipper been born in the American West, he'd 
have been a rodeo cowboy, for sure. 
Hvar is perhaps the best known of all the islands of Dalmatia. Condé 
Nast Traveller named it one of the 10 most beautiful islands in the 
world, but in truth, it's no more splendid than any of a dozen or so 
of its neighbors. The magical port of Hvar represents the best of the 
Mediterranean blend of antiquity and the modern sophistication that 
pervades Croatia's more fashionable destinations. Strolling along the 
quay at this time of year, one is reminded of Saint-Tropez, minus the 
hordes of poseurs. 
Since antiquity, the Adriatic Sea has been the crossroads of much of 
Western history, and being there imparts a sense of perspective too 
often missing from a week in the tropics. When viewed in the harbor in 
St. Barts or Antigua, a Perini Navi superyacht can dominate the scene 
to an extent that distorts one's sense of the place. Moor that same 
vessel adjacent to the centuries-old fortress in Trogir, however, and 
it begins to seem less significant. The enduring, hand-chiseled labor 
of Dalmatian stonemasons speaks a universal language in praise of 
permanence and communal achievement, while the flashy megayacht seems 
more like a testament to the transience of fashion and to the obscene 
disparity between the haves and the have-nots. 
Cruising throughout Croatia is also remarkably free of the plantation 
society that caters to charter guests in so many popular 
tropical-chartering grounds. We were but a tiny piece of the touristic 
puzzle being assembled there in the aftermath of the war with Bosnia 
in the last decade, and no hint of subservience or pretense was in the 
warmth we were shown wherever we went. The intense pride Croatians 
feel for their country is obvious and unmistakable, and the benevolent 
treatment we received from total strangers was almost overwhelming in 
its generosity and good faith. A favorite saying along the Dalmatian 
coast is, "You don't have to live, but you have to eat." Thus, 
inevitably, any display of hospitality involved massive quantities of 
the delicious local fare. 
St. Anton's Feast 
One afternoon, we anchored in a small bay on one of the islands off 
the southern coast of Vis. While preparing for lunch and a swim in 
water that appeared to be freshly imported from the Exumas, some local 
fishermen came alongside in their skiff-Leo knew them, of course, as 
he seems to know every single human residing along the Dalmatian 
coast-and we were immediately invited to join them for a feast called 
St. Anton's Day. I never did get the straight scoop on exactly who St. 
Anton was, but he certainly provided sufficient excuse to party. 
The gathering of these fishermen and their families was under a small 
grove of trees next to an abandoned stone building. An entire lamb was 
skewered on a long spit, and the men took turns slowly rotating the 
glazed carcass over the fire. The air was filled with smoke, two or 
three spoken (and occasionally understood) languages, animated and 
wonderfully descriptive hand gestures, and incessant laughter. 
Our banquet was laid out on a crude table, the settings were a mélange 
of paper, plastic, and Styrofoam, and the deliciously potent local 
wine was dispensed from an old plastic kerosene-storage container. I 
wasn't aware of any flammable aftertaste, and the food and the company 
couldn't have been finer. Perhaps this was a departure from the 
typical afternoon aboard a luxury charter in some more Disneyesque 
destination, but much of the privilege of this cruise involved the 
rare and unhindered opportunity to interact with and befriend the 
Eight hours later, we found ourselves in a place as trendy and 
fashionable as our afternoon had been rustic. Along the Hvar 
waterfront, the bar, Carpe Diem, is clearly the place to see-and to be 
seen. The creation of a couple of entrepreneurs from Munich, this 
place has an atmosphere second to none, matching anything New York, 
Miami, or Paris might have to offer. We lounged amid the decor 
imported from Bali, soaking it all up while we could. Two months 
hence, in high season, we'd be lucky to get past the velvet rope at 
the entrance, and our table would likely be occupied by a rock star or 
supermodel. Such is the curious blend that is modern Croatia. 
In Eastern-Bloc Times 
I'd traveled along this coast almost two decades earlier, shortly 
after the death of Marshall Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia from 1943 
to 1980. Then, one couldn't help but be struck by the dourness of the 
people, the lack of goods, and the overall resignation. It was clearly 
a population frightfully aware of the risks inherent in stepping out 
of line. Along the major roads, gas stations were always placed in 
pairs, on opposite sides of the road. Often I'd see a long line of 
vehicles waiting on one side, while the opposite station remained 
devoid of cars. While not technically illegal to do so, the notion of 
making a U-turn to pull into the empty station seemed beyond anyone's 
capability to imagine. 
In present-day Croatia, however, all that has changed. One of the 
great pleasures of visiting the country today is witnessing the myriad 
ways in which its people make the best of the modest resources they 
possess. Croatia, as a nation with newfound independence, is very much 
a work in progress. As confusing as things often appear to be, somehow 
everything seems to work out in the end, and people often wear many 
different hats-or uniforms-to ensure this outcome. 
The morning of our departure from the harbor of Komiza on Vis, we 
dawdled too long for Leo's liking, jeopardizing a visit to the Blue 
Cave on the nearby islet of Bisevo. This undersea cave is best visited 
before noon to allow the morning sun to flood it with reflected light 
from below. When it became apparent we wouldn't arrive in time, Leo 
convinced a few of his fellow policemen to run us out in one of their 
patrol boats. 
A handful of seasonal inhabitants operate the low-freeboard launches 
required for passage through the cave's entrance, but none were found 
so early in the season. Nema problema. One of the officers went below, 
changed from his uniform into his civilian togs-from law enforcer to 
tour guide. He jumped into the launch, fired up the one-lung engine 
with an alacrity indicating he'd done it before, and we were off to 
see the grotto. 
Time and again during our charter we witnessed such cheerful 
creativity in dealing with minor obstacles, without a trace of "Hey, 
it's not my job" or without any hesitation to act because of liability 
or propriety. Never once did I witness any currency change hands 
during one of these occurrences, yet it was obvious that bartering was 
at work here, a tradition of favors and loyalties passed down through 
the generations that allowed our transit through this new territory to 
pass without a hitch. With the passage of every day, the list of 
marvelous encounters grew longer-happenings we'd never have had on a 
bareboat charter. 
The Quality of the Light 
As a photographer, my perception of a place is largely dependent on the 
quality of the light that exists there. With the rugged Dinaric Alps 
rising so precipitously from the Adriatic, the Dalmatian seaboard is one 
of the most beautiful coastlines in all of Europe. This spectacular 
geography seems to create its own weather, and the region is cast in a 
luminescence that's a protean blend of continental and maritime, alpine 
and oceanic. 
This commingling of opposites is at the heart of Croatia's nature. The 
Balkans have forever been at the crossroads of East and West, 
antiquity and modernity, Christianity and Islam, tyranny and freedom. 
This blend of cultures and ethnicities pervades every aspect of a 
traveler's experience and provides unexpected delight and surprise at 
almost every turn. If anything, time spent along the coast and among 
the islands of Croatia compels one to reassess his definition of a 
sailing vacation. Spend some time in this wondrous place that is 
Croatia, and you'll learn many lessons about the struggle to achieve 
My favorite spot during our charter was the harbor town of Komiza on 
Vis, the most far-flung of the islands of the Dalmatian archipelago. 
Vis was Tito's stronghold during World War II, and it remained closed 
to foreigners until 1968. A 17th-century Benedictine monastery, set 
amid vineyards and lavender fields, overlooks the town and its harbor. 
As I drifted off to sleep that night in Komiza, an instrumental 
quartet played traditional Croatian music in a casual, elegant 
fashion, careful not to overpower any conversation. The happy, 
animated medley of Croatian, German, Italian, French, English, and who 
knows what else rose into the fragrant air, mixing like the smoke from 
so many hand-rolled cigarettes. 
Then this admixture of sound was picked up by the nighttime land 
breeze-the burin-and blended a bit more before wafting through the 
hatch above my berth. The music was as mellifluous and exotic as any 
I've ever heard, and it remains an enchanting memory of this place and 
all its intricacy. 
A photographer specializing in shooting auto racing, Jon Eisberg lives 
near Barnegat Bay, New Jersey, where he's sailed since childhood. A 
delivery captain for a quarter of a century, he sails his own boat, 
Chancy, a Chance 30-30, at every opportunity. 
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