Sailing the coast of Croatia

Mogens JohansenThe West Australian
Spellbound anchored near Hvar.
Camera IconSpellbound anchored near Hvar. Credit: Sail Croatia/Supplied

From my aircraft window the Dalmatian archipelago unfolds below me. Clusters of picturesque islands and islets surrounded by a calm crystal-clear sea. It’s a magnificent view and it makes me even more excited for our upcoming sailing adventure with Sail Croatia along parts of the spectacular Croatian coast.

We, my wife Sue and I, plus my brother and sister-in-law Robert and Michelle, have two weeks to explore Croatia as part of a long-planned European holiday — but one of the adventures I’m looking forward to the most is exploring the islands near Split aboard one of Sail Croatia’s catamarans.

I’ve always been very attracted to the idea of a sailing adventure on a yacht or catamaran. Privately skippered yachts and catamarans have none of the limitations of a large cruise ship. You have access to small, secluded bays and towns that large ships can’t access, and you avoid the hassle of big crowds of people. You collaborate with the skipper to create a bespoke and flexible itinerary. Want to spend an extra day at a place? Speak to the skipper and he’ll do his utmost to make it happen. There are no fixed departure times, no hassles getting on and off the boat … all you have to do is focus on having a good time.

The only people aboard the vessel are you and a small group of family or friends plus the skipper and a hostess.

It sounds so good, and I can’t wait to try it out!

Let’s Split

Before the sailing adventure, we have a couple of days to explore Split.

We have booked an apartment near the Old Town so most of the things we want to see and do are within easy walking distance.

The Riva, Split.
Camera IconThe Riva, Split. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian

The Riva, the promenade along the Split waterfront, is the place to be. It is buzzing with life when we arrive in search of a place to enjoy breakfast and a much needed caffeine hit after our long flight from Australia.

The fortified walls of the Diocletian’s Palace, built by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 295 and 305 AD, dominates most of the promenade but there is a mishmash of more recently added sub-structures in front of the walls which now serve as bars and restaurants.

We are spoilt for choice because it is literally wall-to-wall cafes and restaurants, and all of them have attractive alfresco dining tables where we can sit and enjoy the views across the harbour towards the islands of Brac and Solta a short distance away.

Diocletian’s Palace in Split.
Camera IconDiocletian’s Palace in Split. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian

After a leisurely breakfast we set off to explore the Old Town and the Diocletian’s Palace. It is almost like stepping back in time when we enter through the Golden Gate along the Riva.

The palace is considered one of the best-preserved examples of Roman architecture in the world. It was built as a summer residence for Diocletian, but it also served as a military camp. The rectangular walls have four large towers at the corners and entrances on each side. The palace which includes Saint Domnius Cathedral with Diocletian’s mausoleum makes up about half of the Old Town which has an eclectic mix of shops, cafes and restaurants.

It’s a lovely place to explore and we spend several hours doing just that during the following days.

Spellbound by the Adriatic

After a couple of pleasant days exploring Split, we are eager to commence our private yacht tour of the nearby islands with Sail Croatia.

We meet our skipper Toni Skomrlj and hostess Matea Ajdukovic at ACI Marina in Split. “Welcome to Spellbound,” says Toni proudly as he gestures towards a beautiful white catamaran moored alongside.

Toni and Matea on Spellbound near Brac Island.
Camera IconToni and Matea on Spellbound near Brac Island. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian

It’s a magnificent-looking vessel. The 48.5ft catamaran can accommodate up to 10 guests plus the crew so there will be ample room for our travelling party of four — and the catamaran is only one year old, so it is in tip-top condition.

Toni tells us Spellbound is a French-built Lagoon 50 catamaran as he and Matea show us around the vessel.

Both the rear deck and the main cabin are spacious with plenty of comfortable seating. The main cabin has great views all around the vessel. It has a fully equipped kitchen with all the creature comforts of home, including an automatic coffee machine.

Out on the front deck there’s more space where guests can chill out and catch some sun. You can lie back on two nets between the hulls or on sun lounges in front of the main cabin windows. Upstairs, guests can enjoy panoramic views from sun lounges in the cockpit.

Downstairs there are five guest cabins — four with ensuites. They are compact but the space has been used cleverly to make the most of it. In the four main cabins there’s enough space to get into the bed from either side and there’s plenty of storage space. The ensuites include a good sized vanity, full size shower cabin and a toilet.

Spellbound features all the must-have amenities including air conditioning, wi-fi, plus indoor and outdoor speakers that can pair to your phone’s music via Bluetooth.

Once we have ourselves installed in our cabins, Toni gives us a few itinerary options.

Spellbound at ACI Marina in Split.
Camera IconSpellbound at ACI Marina in Split. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian

Even though today is a perfect day with almost no wind, there is, according to Toni, a bit of dodgy weather coming.

But around this part of the world you are never short of options regardless of what the weather brings.

On Toni’s recommendation, we settle on a plan that will have us overnighting on Hvar Island in the ancient city of Stari Grad on the first night — and in a fishing village called Milna on Brac Island on the second night.

While Toni steers Spellbound out of the busy marina, Matea has prepared a magnificent platter of fine locally-produced wine and cheeses we purchased at the fresh fruit markets in Split on our way to the marina.

We feel like Lotto winners as we sit comfortably on the rear deck of Spellbound heading out into the calm Adriatic Sea. We raise our Prosecco-filled glasses to toast our good fortune and tuck into the fine meats and cheeses.

One of Matea’s delicious platters.
Camera IconOne of Matea’s delicious platters. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian

We have effortlessly slotted into the yachting lifestyle and about four hours later the ancient city of Stari Grad comes into view at the end of a narrow inlet.

It is one of the oldest towns in Europe. The area around the town was settled by neolithic tribes who occupied the island between 3500 and 2500BC and the town was formally founded by ancient Greeks from the island of Paros in 384 BC. Today, the town looks picture perfect with charming stone houses and small fishing boats and flashy yachts all around the harbour.

Toni expertly nudges Spellbound in-between two other expensive-looking catamarans and we step onto the wharf and into town. The whole process has taken less than 10 minutes — and that is the beauty of this kind of cruising. Here we are, walking around one of the oldest towns in Europe, without the big crowds associated with big cruise ships. We spend a hassle-free afternoon exploring the immaculate and well-maintained town.

On Toni and Matea’s recommendation we enjoy a unique dining experience at a vineyard called Hora on the Stari Grad Plain behind town. The agricultural area is largely unchanged since it was colonised by Ionian Greeks from Paros in the 4th century BC. The fertile landscape has a mosaic of ancient stone walls, and the main agricultural activity is still centred mainly around growing grapes and olives.

We are treated to a delicious three-course meal paired with wines grown from organic grapes unique to the Stari Grad Plain.

The main course is a popular Croatian meat and vegetable dish called peka which is slow-cooked for several hours over embers in a pan with a terracotta or iron lid. Peka can be made with octopus, lamb, veal or chicken but ours is a delicious combination of veal, lamb and vegetables.

Main cabin on Spellbound.
Camera IconMain cabin on Spellbound. Credit: Sail Croatia/Supplied

The following morning we’re driving across the island to the town of Hvar. The fashionable town is a preferred hang-out for suave travellers and now that we are travelling in style aboard Spellbound, we consider ourselves part of the in-crowd.

The original plan was to sail to Hvar but due to the inclement weather and our short time on Spellbound, we don’t have time to sail there and get back in time to reach Mina.

As it turns out, it is an amazing drive, and it gives us a different perspective of the island.

During our drive from Stari Grad to Hvar, our charismatic taxi driver Dario, regales us with all kinds of entertaining stories about the area and the celebrities such as Beyonce, Jay Z, Demi Moore, Ellen DeGeneres and many others who regularly visit Hvar to enjoy the island’s hedonistic buzz. He takes particular pleasure in telling us about some of Prince Harry’s more salacious adventures on the island prior to his marriage to Meghan.

As we approach Hvar, Dario suggests we begin our visit at the Fortica Fortress overlooking the town because of the amazing view you get from there.

Hvar town seen from a drone above the Fortica Fortress.
Camera IconHvar town seen from a drone above the Fortica Fortress. Credit: Sail Croatia./Supplied

Hvar has a long history as a centre for trade and culture in the Adriatic. Construction of the fortress began in 1278 when Hvar was under Venetian rule, but archaeological finds suggest that constructions may have existed earlier.

The current fort, which was built in 1812 during the rule of Napoleon, is an impressive structure but it is the view of Hvar town and the string of 14 small islands known as the Pakleni Islands that takes our breath away.

Out on the islands I can see secluded bays, pebbly beaches and turquoise water and 230m below us, the picturesque town beckons.

Dario, who is still hanging around telling stories, tells us the Pakleni Islands are also known as Hell’s Islands — but not because of any link to hell. Apparently, the name is derived from the tar of the pine trees that flourish on the islands. It was used to waterproof and protect the hulls of ships and the tar was described as being “black as hell” — and that is how the islands got their unique nickname.

The picturesque boat harbour at Stari Grad on Hvar Island.
Camera IconThe picturesque boat harbour at Stari Grad on Hvar Island. Credit: Mogens Johansen/The West Australian

As we walk down into town it becomes even more apparent why this place is so popular. The town is beautiful, with chic bars and high-end restaurants amongst the Gothic palaces and chapels that line the narrow streets.

It has a charming and sophisticated feel but it’s quite a contrast to Stari Grad and other parts of the island which are much more laid-back and quiet.

The following morning we set sail for our last port of call, the town of Milna on Brac Island. The island is Dalmatia’s largest, and it is best known for a uniquely V-shaped spit called Zlatni Rat near the town of Bol. The south-facing spit has beaches on either side that change shape depending on the wind and sea. It is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe.

Like our arrival to Stari Grad, sailing into the natural harbour at Milna is something akin to sailing into a different time in history. The Venetians called it “the bay of a thousand ships”, and that saying still rings true, because there are hundreds of shiny white yachts moored around the picturesque harbour.

Toni once again manages to squeeze Spellbound into another tight mooring spot at the marina and minutes later we step ashore to explore the small fishing village.

It is not hard to see why this is one of the favourite ports for sailors exploring the Dalmatian archipelago. Its location on the north-west side of the island, is one of the safest harbours on Brac, but it is surely also one of the prettiest.

We enjoy a coffee at a harbourside cafe while marvelling at some of the million-dollar super yachts in the harbour. One just outside the cafe called Black Mamba is particularly impressive. It literally sparkles in the afternoon light thanks to the work by the crew who busily polish the chrome trim and wash down the black hull while the owners sunbake on the front deck.

Sadly our brief journey on Spellbound with Toni and Matea is coming to an end, but before our last night aboard, we share a pleasant dinner with them at a harbourside restaurant. The pair have not only been excellent company, they have made our stay on Spellbound a memorable one that has opened our eyes to what this magnificent part of the world has to offer.

The Croatian archipelago has 1244 islands, islets, cliffs and reefs but only 49 of the islands are permanently inhabited so there’s an almost inexhaustible number of places to explore — and I can think of no better way of doing it than on a private yacht charter like this.

Spellbound anchored near Hvar.
Camera IconSpellbound anchored near Hvar. Credit: Sail Croatia/Supplied

About Sail Croatia

Sail Croatia is one of the most popular small ship cruising companies in Croatia. The company was founded in 2005 by Grant and Helle Seuren.

Since then, Sail Croatia has grown into one of the leading tourism businesses in Croatia. They have a fleet of 30 ships ranging from small cruise ships to high quality yachts and catamarans.

A seven-day private yacht charter cruise with a skipper and hostess starts from around $5900.

Seven days on Spellbound starts from around $25,000 in 2025. Spellbound sleeps 10 people in 5 cabins and the tour includes a professional skipper, hostess, damage waiver insurance, local tax, wi-fi and fuel.


+ Mogens Johansen was a guest of Sail Croatia. They have not seen or influenced this story.

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