The Dalmatian Coast of Croatia is possibly the most stunning coastline I’ve ever seen. The mainland meets the sea with rugged mountains, and the coast is scattered with dozens of pretty islands. There’s reason sailing holidays in Croatia are so popular!
I spent a week island-hopping in the southern Dalmatian coast between Split and Dubrovnik – and here are some of the highlights from the route I took.
Why sail in the Dalmatian Coast?
The Mediterranean is full of beautiful sailing spots, so why pick Croatia?
One reason is the stunning water. The Adriatic is a beautiful stretch of sea and the water at the Dalmatian coast is warm, crystal clear and clean – wonderful for sailing on and also for swimming in. The dramatic coastline also provides a picturesque backdrop – rather than a featureless open sea, you get views of the water framed by dramatic headlands and craggy island silhouettes. In fact, the Dalmatian Coast is one of the beautiful open spaces I was longing for during the Covid lockdown!
Another reason to visit the Dalmatian coast is the stunning islands and charming coastal towns dotted around the region. There’s such variety in the area, from serene national parks to glamourous celebrity hot spots. Some of my favourites are the quieter spots: small red-roofed towns and quiet fishing communities where you can appreciate the still beauty of Croatia.
A third reason is the wonderful food. For me, the seafood in Croatia was the star. Nothing beats pulling into a quiet harbour and having a fish supper fresh from the sea!
Split is a jumping-off point for sailing holidays in Croatia. There’s an international airport and a lot of small ship tours and sailing flotillas depart from here.
If you’re there a few hours before departure, there are harbour-side bars where you relax before embarkment and watch the many boats assemble.
But it is more than just a departure point. Split is the second-largest city in Croatia and one which has been prized by ancient civilisations. Founded by the Greeks in the 2nd or 3rd Century BC, it was here in AD 305 that the Roman Emperor Diocletian built a palace for himself to retire in. Now an Unesco World Heritage Site, the impressive white stone complex of Diocletian’s Palace is worth a visit before or after you set sail.
Hvar island is the epitome of Croatian glamour. In particular, the glitzy Hvar Town is where the rich come to play. In this picturesque harbour town, with a hilltop fortress and views of the pretty Palinksi islands, you’ll find superyachts and quite possibly a celebrity or two (when I was there, the rumour was Roman Abramovich was in town, having arrived in his huge mega yacht).
As such, you’ll find more luxurious hotels and restaurants in Hvar – and overall, prices are higher.
But despite all this, to me, Hvar didn’t feel elitist or inaccessible to normal people. The town is lovely to wander around, and there are several quiet, rocky coves surrounding the town, where you can enjoy the beautiful water.
There is a variety of things to do there. You can take the walk up to Hvar Fortress which gives amazing views across the harbour. It is also very popular to take a boat ride out to one of the nearby Palinski islands. Or, you can simply relax in one of the many bars and restaurants in and around St Stephen’s Square, absorbing the vibe of the place.
Elsewhere on Hvar Island, there’s more beauty with slightly less glamour.
The main town of Stari Grad is also gorgeous, but lower-key than Hvar Town. It sits in a sheltered natural bay and there’s another fortress here, as well as a Dominican Monastery.
My favourite bit of the island is best seen from the water (to be fair, this can be true for a lot of places, and it is one of the reasons I love sailing). At the eastern end of Hvar island is the town of Sućuraj – and on the easternmost top is Sućuraj lighthouse. It seems so small against the imposing mountains of the mainland – it made for a perfect photo.
Makarska is a vibrant coastal town, approximately 90km south of Split.
It has a busy marina and a colourful central square and market, where you can easily find somewhere with a terrace for outdoor dining and ice cream stalls. It seems popular, but not overwhelmed by tourism.
The highlight, though, is the pebbled beach, lined with trees. It faces west, so it’s a perfect place to from which to watch the sun set.
I stopped in Makarska for one night, and after dinner we sat in the beach watching children play ball. The setting sun bathed the whole area in a warm peach glow – it was so gorgeous.
Korčula island features one of Croatia’s famous fortified towns, a walled citadel, jutting into the sea proudly. It is one of those places that you wish you had a drone to photograph it from the air, like so many photos on Instagram (but I didn’t, and I want to keep this blog real by only using photos I have taken, that capture the experience of being there).
Korčula Town is a car-free town that dates from the 15th Century. It is a wonderful place to wander the marble streets and arched alleyways, imagining you have gone back in time several centuries.
There’s a museum to Marco Polo, who was allegedly born in Korčula. Twice a week in the summer there are traditional sword dance performances, although I didn’t manage to catch one on my visit. You can explore the city walls and towers. One of the towers has an open-air bar in it, accessible by ladder: it is small, but certainly, a unique place to have a cocktail!
You can also witness amazing sunsets over the channel of water between the island and the mainland – either from the walls or the small dock area just outside the walls.
Trstenik is a sleepy little fishing village on the coast of the Pelješac peninsular. There’s not much there other than a shingle beach, a small harbour and a restaurant.
Despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of spectacular sights, I remember my one night here vividly. It gave a moment of quiet and calm in an otherwise jam-packed week of sights. Perhaps because I’m an introvert, I really appreciated that.
It is also where I had some of the best seafood I’ve ever eaten. In the harbour-side restaurant, we sat on the dockside and I ordered calamari, expecting the rings you get in most restaurants around the world. My husband ordered scampi, expected breaded pieces of fish. What arrived on my plate was several whole little squids, succulent and delicious, and my husband received a huge pile of mini lobsters. We were surprised, but delighted! They were incredibly fresh – I think they literally went from the sea to the kitchen because we saw restaurant workers pulling up the catch that had stored in little cages in the sea as people ordered.
Mljet island is a long, thin island famous for its natural beauty and national park. The National Park contains two saltwater lakes in the west of the island, easily reached from the harbour town of Pomena.
The tree-lined lakes have bright turquoise water, especially the smaller one, Malo Jezero. There’s a footpath around the smaller lake, and you can take a boat across the bigger lake, Veliko Jezero. The boat will take you to a tiny little islet (so, technically it’s an island within an island!), on which there is a Benedictine Monastery dating back to the 12th Century.
There’s now a restaurant on the island, but if you don’t want to shell out for that, it’s also just a lovely tranquil spot to just relax by the calm water.
Dubrovnik should play a starring role in any trip to the Dalmatian Coast. It is not the only fortified town in Croatia, but it is the biggest and the most spectacular. The old town is a maze of red-roofed buildings, domed baroque churches and is ringed by imposing city walls and towers. The streets are paved with shiny marble that glistens in the evening light – so you can see how it earned its nickname, the Pearl of the Adriatic.
It is also the filming location for King’s Landing in Game of Thrones (though I confess, I haven’t seen that).
Whilst there was a fortified settlement here in the 9th century, the current walls date from the 13th Century. You can walk the full circumference of the walls, which is a great thing to do because of the many different viewpoints you’ll enjoy – of the sea, the surrounding islands, the harbour and the city itself. If you like walking, check out this post on walking tours in Dubrovnik (and elsewhere in Croatia).
During the day, there is plenty to see within the walled city, including the spectacular main street, called Stradun. This wide marble promenade is grand and glorious. Dubrovnik took some hits during the Yugoslavian war in the 1990s, and there is a photography exhibit in the old town where you can learn more about that war.
If you fancy something more active, you can hire kayaks from near the Pile Gate. We did this and kayaked around the nearby Lokrum island. It was a little scary crossing the channel where the ferries come in and out of Dubrovnik harbour in our little kayaks, but it was really peaceful and lovely once we got to the island.
In the evenings, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from, some with views of the water. As it gets dark, wander the narrow streets of the old town. It is so romantic in the evening, and is pretty safe.
However, my top tip is to watch the sunset from the top of the city walls – up near the Minceta tower. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve watched the sunset: from this vantage point, you’ll see the red rooves of the city catch the warm light of the setting sun and they just glow. It is magic.
When is the best time to sail in Croatia
The Dalmatian Coast is lovely and warm from May to September, with June, July and August having the least rain and the most sun.
However, I recommend September, which is the month I visited. It was still very warm everywhere we went, and there was only one day of rain. But it was generally quieter and a little cheaper due to it being term time for most children, so families tend not to travel in September.
How to get to the Dalmatian Coast
You can fly to either Split or Dubrovnik, and there are sailing adventures that depart from both.
What kind of sailing holiday can you take?
If you know how to sail, then you might want to charter your own boat, and can reduce the cost by sharing it with friends.
If you don’t know how to sail, you could charter your own private boat and hire a skipper to sail for you – but this will, of course, add to the costs.
For a lot of people, joining a small ship sailing tour give them the benefits of sailing at an affordable price.
My Dalmatian sailing trip was an organised small ship tour with Sail Croatia. I don’t have any kind of commission deal with them, but I had a great time so I’m happy to recommend them. They no longer offer the exact same itinerary I had, but they still offer small ship tours that island-hop in between Split and Dubrovnik.
My tour involved a small ship, which had around 15 cabins, sleeping 30 guests altogether.There are some downsides to travelling this way, but also a lot of positives.
- Cramped accommodation: It’s a boat, so of course there isn’t a lot of space. I opted for a cheaper below deck cabin, which was actually in the front of the hull of the boat. As well as only having a porthole for a window, it was an irregular shape, with very little space other than the bed and tiny en suite bathroom. But, you don’t spend much time in the cabin other than sleeping when there is such beautiful scenery above board, so this didn’t really bother me
- Forced proximity: the biggest downside for me, was the group setting. As an introvert who travels to recharge my batteries, I normally avoid groups holidays with strangers in close quarters. It was awkward at times when other guests wanted to do things as a group when I wanted to be alone. In fact, I wrote about the coping strategies I used to deal with this situation in this article about travel as an extreme introvert.
- You see a lot: Sailing on a tour like this is a brilliant way to explore a coastal region like Dalmatia. You don’t spend long in any one place, so you don’t get a depth of experience anywhere, but you do see a lot of different places and get a great taste of the variety of an area.
- Cost: It is cheaper than chartering a private boat and of course, easier than sailing yourself. I think sailing in Croatia is also cheaper than island-hopping in Greece, for example.
- Swimming opportunities: as the boats are small, they can pull into small coves or secluded spots and you can swim in crystal clear water. We swam in the sea every day on the Dalmatian Coast!
I hope this inspires you!
Have you ever been sailing or island-hopping before? Where did you go and did you love it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.