What could be better than a timeless mahogany villa in the Med? One with an anchor — and a captain — says Linda Cookson, who sets sail with friends to Croatia’s quieter shores
Wild mulberry trees offered sweet, shady relief as we sat in the courtyard of Konoba Roki’s, high in the hills, contemplating the harbour waters of Vis Town, down below (which the eagle-eyed will note as a setting for big-screen smash Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again). Pitchers were brought, brimming with a little something deep red, robust and naughtily moreish. Dished from traditional pots on the ancient range at Roki’s, meat-and-veg stews (peka) appeared for our leisurely delectation. Rolled together it was a rare magical affair: a laid-back lunch with a lovely local flavour of Croatia beyond the crowded path.
Somehow I don’t think we’d have found this Eden by ourselves. We owed the unique and beautiful encounter to the captain who’d welcomed us aboard Sedna, our classic vessel for the week, a few days earlier in the ancient city of Split. One of the least developed islands of the Dalmatian archipelago, Vis was retro, it was remote, it was romantic and it was exactly what we were after – me, my husband and our three friends, as we threaded our way among the islands of coastal Croatia last summer. Not that it was completely undeveloped…
Soon after disembarking, we found ourselves gazing upon a lovingly tended cricket pitch that might have been exported from a village in England. It belonged to Vis CC, the oldest cricket club in Europe (outside the UK). There was something wonderfully nostalgic about it – and I’m sure we’d never have seen it if we hadn’t lunched at Konoba Roki’s. It’s Roki’s proprietor, Oliver – restaurateur and new best friend to us – who keeps this obscure slice of Vis sporting history alive, down to its scoreboard, teetering on a couple of old wine barrels.
We had the pleasure of ever-changing panoramas we’d never see from the land. Glimpsed shimmering from the deck of a boat, even metropolises have a silent, spiritual aura
We were sorely tempted to stay on Vis, basking in its atmosphere, so gently aloof, so unspoilt by time and tourism. Well into the 20th century, men from the fishing village of Komiža were still relying on triangular-sailed wooden falkuša boats, built to a 1,000-year-old design. Then, between World War II and 1989, Vis was a military training base, closed to foreigners.
Yet the longing to linger soon faded as Sedna set sail and our view of Vis receded, the hump of its tallest mountain wrapped in mist, like a mythical sea creature. It was the same feeling we’d get in the other ports we visited; after all, our gulet was the dream holiday home-from-home, delivering the comfy trappings of a beautiful villa, with a new setting each day, and spared us the headaches of inter-island ferry timetables.
There was enough space (private and shared) to keep the five of us from falling over each other: three compact double cabins, a smart mahogany-lined saloon with gleaming brass trim, and a teak deck area furnished with comfortable sunbeds. There were buoyancy aids and snorkelling kits, which we leapt upon, of course – we had our own personal swimming pool for miles around us in the form of the sun-warmed Adriatic.
We had, too, the pleasure of ever-changing panoramas we’d never see from the land. Glimpsed shimmering from the deck of a boat, even metropolises have a silent, spiritual aura. And so, as our holiday began, Sedna setting off across the lagoon from Split, Croatia’s second city, we were mesmerised by the sun as it started to dip seawards. The cafés on the palm-lined Riva promenade popped and fizzed with yellow lights, and the waterfront parade of historic buildings blurred into a long rosy frieze. The sea-facing walls of Diocletian’s Palace – the Old Town’s crumbly Roman city-within-a-city – glowed red-gold, and the belfry of Saint Domnius Cathedral stood proud. From our private balcony, it looked like a giant crown on the shrinking horizon.
Streets fell away from the waterfront, shining in the moonlight, a parade of leafy limestone arcades and balconied buildings
That first night was spent on a nearby island, Solta (pronounced ‘Shollta’). We awoke from an uninterrupted, dreamless sleep to eat breakfast underneath the pines: crusty bread, jams and bacon pancakes served by Sedna’s obliging team. Being spoiled rotten is another benefit of a gulet holiday. Out with the painful rotas for supermarket shopping or washing-up that comes with self-catering. In with a week of disgraceful decadence, as the chef, Dario, conjured up grilled lunches and rainbow salads in the tiny galley. We appeared to be sailing through our own movie, the world around our boat a screen of images streaming seamlessly from one into the next. I recall how, leaving Solta harbour, we passed an elderly straw-hatted fisherman, ambling down to a makeshift pontoon with his Golden Labrador to board a little blue boat. The dog settled into the prow on lookout duty, one ear cocked, one down. His master took the tiller and smiled, doffing his hat – a moment it would have been rude to photograph, so one I will retain in my head.
Along Solta’s rocky seaboard, we saw seabirds chasing their own shadows across the speckled stone face of the cliffs. Seen from the water, the coastal scenery, ever-shifting in tone and texture, became hypnotic. Time, like the gulet itself, moved slowly, the pace of life winding down, and we found ourselves noticing things more (and noticing more things). Crossing a narrow channel from Solta, we headed for Brač, (‘Bratch’ if you’re saying it out loud), our next port of call and the third largest of Croatia’s islands. As we hugged its steep coast, swathes of pine forest gave way to near-vertical vineyards and olive groves spilling to pebble coves. Then came Blaca bay, overhung by an astonishing 16th-century hermitage that seemed to rise organically from the rock.
Captain Zoran reeled off the credentials held by Brač, and its most photographed beach, Zlatni Rat (the Golden Horn), a great tongue of pale shingle backed by pines, sticking out to sea, made famous by many a brochure. Brač’s other claim to fame is its fine white marble, which was incorporated in places into the construction of the White House, in Washington, DC.
Sedna’s anchorage on Brač that evening was Bol Town, right next to the creamy lick of Zlatni Rat and the first of many chic little resorts to seduce us on our odyssey. As evening fell, we staked our claim on a table at Pumparela, an upbeat restaurant on a quayside of palms festooned with fairy lights. Streets fell away from the waterfront, shining in the moonlight, a parade of leafy limestone arcades and balconied buildings. We raised a toast to a perfect day over tuna steaks served sizzling from volcanic stones. ‘Zivjeli!’ prompted our waiter. ‘Zivjeli!’ we responded, clinking glasses.
The week unfolded and the days took on patterns: swimming, sightseeing, deck-lounging and (since for some reason we’d developed enormous appetites) lots of eating. Evening meals we took ashore, following tips from Zoran, whose local knowledge came into its own towards the halfway point. One afternoon, after we’d called in at photogenic-but-busy Hvar island, Sedna went off-grid for Sveti Klement (Saint Clement), a pinprick close by. It is one of the Pakleni islands, named after paklina, a local resin or pitch extracted from pine and once used for sealing ships and boats.
A noticeboard translated the island chain as ‘Hell’s Islands’, but nothing could be further from the truth. On Sveti Klement we stepped into a fairy-tale family estate blessed with exuberant gardens and a sandy beach: Palmižana, home to the arty Meneghello family, which acquired it in the late 18th century. In 1906, Eugen Meneghello, a botanist, planted exotic tropical species among Mediterranean trees and shrubs. The gardens have matured into a butterfly-tickled Eden of rock samphire and sea lavender in lemon and lilac explosions, entangled by an otherworldly forest of giant cactus trees, ferns and pines. Guest summerhouses complete the picture, along with peacocks and brightly coloured sculptures and artwork.
Time, like the gulet itself, moved slowly, the pace of life winding down, and we found ourselves noticing things more
We tiptoed through Jurassic cycad fronds and shoals of psychedelic ceramic mermaids to emerge at a garden restaurant. After we’d dined, Romina Meneghello, daughter of the current matriarch, showed us the estate’s contemporary art gallery.
‘I thought you’d rather like it,’ said Zoran, modestly, when we stepped back on board, moonstruck, as night fell over Palmižana and Sedna. Beyond the harbour headland, in darkness, more unexplored forested islands waited to receive us – tomorrow promised to unfurl again for us like a treasure map.
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Credit: Linda Cookson / Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing