Sailing Croatia: Dubrovnik to Split

Prior to sailing the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia I had visions of wild nights dancing on a yacht with drink in hand while lounging in the Adriatic by day, the warm sun on my face and my feet overhanging a round floaty staring out at ancient ruins. The challenge of fulfilling this prophecy, or so I thought, was that I had a hard timeline of pre-35 years old.

I envisioned sunbathing, day drinking, dance parties and rambunctious nights with friendly strangers. But somehow venturing to Croatia got pushed back on my bucket list each year due to Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, America and others. I wasn’t getting any younger but I’m not complaining because this year was going to be my year.

But I also had fears. I read review after review in preparation about Sail CroatiaKatarina Line and group bookings on Busabout and Contiki. It wasn’t just the age cut-off that made me nervous but realistically the demographic for the party boats are 18-year-old gap year students and immature Aussies their first time abroad.  There were rumors of theft, 24-hour raves and claustrophobic, stifling hot cabins below deck with a mere porthole. My dream vacation and what was on offer were seriously disconnected.

But when it came time to prepare, my agenda slowly evolved from dance party to luxury yacht. Traveling with my sister made it easy to compromise as well. At first we said that a private bathroom was a must, of course. Then the cabin must be on the deck, not below. Oh yes, and air-conditioning was a requirement as it will be about 104°F (40°C). So, we unintentionally priced ourselves out of the backpacker options and found ourselves in an A+ cabin on a 5-night Dubrovnik to Split cruise with Katarina Line unknowingly upgraded to the brand new deluxe yacht M.V. Admiral. I didn’t complain.

I then fell in love with Croatia. It’s medieval architecture and passionate culture. The friendliness of the people, their excellent English and hospitality thrive on tourism, which meant that service was exquisite and opportunities to engage endless. “We’re not yelling we’re just Croatian,” explained Miho, our complimentary tour guide who navigated us through the walled city of Dubrovnik, stopping every few minutes to explain the culture, architecture and history, including the horror of the very recent Croatian War of Independence in the early 90’s.

The food and wine was simple but memorable. Each day was an indulgence, getting lost in the local community within the narrow cobblestone streets and stopping every few hours to try another wine and nosh on some bread, cheese or pasta. Italy’s influence was never forgotten. Also was the presence of its other neighbors like Bosnia and Serbia and one of our favorite meals was at Bosnian restaurant Taj Mahal. It was tucked away on a quiet stone street in Old Town, Dubrovnik yet the only sound was the queue to get a table to try the traditional bamija (veal stew simmered with okra, tomatoes and garlic) and the Cheerful Bosnian (veal stuffed with vegetables and cheese.)

Dubrovnik old town steps

Dubrovnik old town steps

The sun-faded terracotta roofs of Dubrovnik overlay the old city within a fortress created by century aged city walls. Everything is stone, the houses, the streets, the walls, the shops. It has seen many battles and yet looks effortlessly rebuilt to maintain its native charm, keeping tradition with every new burnt orange tile replacing a bombed out rooftop. At night the squares come alive with traditional music, as both tourists and locals sip Ožujsko beers and wait for the sun to set late in the evening to escape the scorching summer heat.

We found refuge in D’vino Wine Bar our first night. It’s here that we first learned about Croatian wines, the forefront of every meal. Our tasting flight of reds included the local grape plavac mali, and the 3 variations of plavac, postup, and dingac – each named and uniquely produced based on the position their vines grow, changing from light and fruity to full bodied and sweet as the sun reflects off the rocky coastline and Adriatic sea. After walking the city walls we thankfully relaxed in Buza Bar, a cliffside bar of tourists and locals sipping cocktails amongst the rocky coastal boulders and taking refuge in the accompanying sea.

Buza Bar, Dubrovnik

Buza Bar, Dubrovnik

We stopped off our second night in what is jokingly termed the New York of Croatia. Trstenik is a small fishing village of approximate 56 people, and that’s during the high season. Sadly a local had set fire to the vineyards in the surrounding hillsides and tragically this village will be devastated for tourism for the next 15 or so years. Nik and I stopped in its small, family owned wine store šunj vina to taste their famed plavac mali and purchased a few mementos to contribute to the economic disaster.

The piping hot sun would slowly roast our bodies while relaxing on the boat’s top deck, my skin darkening a new shade as each new day passed. After lunch we would pull into a new quiet alcove, the turquoise water so crystal clear you could see the dead coral and black sea urchins on the bottom while taking a welcome relief from the fiery heat. When it came time to dock in a new port midafternoon the Captain would park his shiny toy, carefully maneuvering next to the last ship to arrive, creating a massive obstacle course. Guests were expected to, what I termed “walk the plank,” or scarily step over the massive gap from ship to ship to reach the port. There were stories confirmed that people from time to time have missed the gap (likely due to being heavily intoxicated) but regardless, it was always a bit nerve racking and frankly not disabled friendly.

In the small, fishbone-shaped town of Korčula, the much disputed birth place of Marco Polo, we were introduced to the island’s native white wine varieties pošip and grk, in which the latter’s vines are so unique being all female it can’t replicate itself. We climbed the narrow, wooden ladder to the top of an ancient tower to sip cocktails at Massimo, attended an unimpressive (due to the lack of wine education involved) sit down wine tasting at an upmarket hotel, and then attempted to party with the backpackers at a disco leaving disappointed with a Croatian pita kebab in hand. I uncovered then that my favorite pastime from this trip so far was just aimlessly wondering and getting lost amongst the antiquated streets by day.

Beyonce put Hvar on the map with her visit in 2011 making this small seaside town the “it” holiday destination for jetsetters. Private luxury yachts, world class cuisine and nightlife and a view from the top of the Spanish Fortica would make any friend ooze with jealousy. We found haven in Wine Bar Pršuta 3 to the sound of rock music and free wifi while dabbling in their best pošip and later nibbling on Dalmatian prosciutto, olives and fresh seafood.

Our journey ended in Split, the second largest city in Croatia where we were told by a stout 9-year-old boy that we could not pass through while navigating the ancient rubble of Diocletian’s Palace as a casual game of soccer amongst the local boys was being held. We devoured cone after cone of gelato, tasted variations of olive oil at Uje Oil Bar, had the best pistachio gnocchi of my life at modern bistro Bokeria and then mingled amongst the ivy and graffiti with regulars at the funky bar Academia Club Ghetto. The service, cheese selection and wine list at Paradox Wine & Cheese Bar was unparalleled.

Cute puppies, Split, Croatia

Cute puppies, Split, Croatia

Our boutique accommodation, a 25-minute stroll from the port, at Divota Apartment Hotel was the quiet serenity we needed to close out the trip. We rented eco bikes for the day, and squealed with glee as we peddled a few rounds then zoomed off on our motorized cycle, speeding up hills as we wove through the thick trees of Marjan Forest Park and passed renaissance hermitage caves built into the seaside cliffs. Far from modest sunbathers were scattered along the rocky coast, resting on any flat surface to embrace the warm summer sun and refreshing pools along the bay.

Departing from Split airport, the carnage of the party boats was present in every corner of the small international terminal, as hungover bodies were strewn across the terminal gate floors and the line to purchase a simple bottle of water was a 25 minute wait. It was then that I reflected back on the M.V. Admiral and smiled with no regrets.

Top 5 New Wine Learning’s From the WSET Level 1 Course

In my effort to become a professional wine drinker I’ve decided I’ll need to step up my game. I’ve been to nearly every major wine region in Australia and New Zealand, have visited vineyards in the US and South Africa, and next month I’ll tackle the ever famous Bordeaux and often overlooked vineyards of coastal Croatia.

But recently I accepted, with increased encouragement (i.e. nagging) from my mother, that a wine qualification outside of the many wine festivals and events I attend throughout the year, in addition to my far too regular consumption within my own apartment, would really provide the deeper understanding that I need – both as an enthusiast and one with interest in working with the industry.

Last weekend I completed the internationally recognized Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 1 Award in Wines (QCF). I walked away reassured of my pre-existing knowledge of wine varietals, tasting, pouring, storing and food pairing. However, there were definitely a few new things I learned as well. And while I’m pretty confident that I passed the exam, I’m still eagerly waiting for my old-school pencil-filled-in-scantron test to be sent to the UK, then the results mailed back to Australia, so that I can receive an email notifying me that I have passed and then I will go to the Wine House to pick up my certificate and lapel pin.

WSET: Level 1 Course

WSET: Level 1 Course @ The Wine House: Melbourne

Top 5 new wine learning’s from the WSET Level 1 Course:

  1. A Champagne bottle should be tilted at a 30-degree angle and you should twist the bottle, not the cork when opening.
  1. Rinse my wine glasses thoroughly before pouring wine. I’ve never previously considered the affects of detergent on the wine flavors.
  1. I don’t quite have the whole food/wine-pairing thing down as well as I thought and should practice more on how acid, sweetness, spiciness, salt and bitterness affect the taste of wine.
  1. Confusion between Burgundy (pinot noir) and Bordeaux (cabernet sauvignon and merlot) is now clarified. Great timing since I had already booked my trip to Bordeaux.
  1. Sauternes is a sweet white wine I’ve never heard of but will likely try while in Bordeaux very soon.

Next up on my list is completing WSET® Level 2 Award Wines and Spirits (QCF) to learn more in depth knowledge on wine making, wine regions, varietals and food pairing. The challenge here is the astronomical cost associated with it so you could say I’m open to sponsorship. Wink wink. If you’re interested in where classes are offered in your region, visit the WSET website. And if you’re ever looking to share a great vintage, you know who to turn to!

Twelve Apostles

Adventuring the Great Ocean Road

“Iconic Australia,” they say. “Car stopping scenery,” they’ve boasted. “Breathtaking natural wonders,” I read.

And it’s all true. The 243-kilometer stretch of road along Victoria’s Southeast coast is certainly to be admired. Even better, as a first timer I learned that what I like to lazily refer to as the GOR (Great Ocean Road) is the world’s longest war memorial; built from 1919 to 1932 in remembrance of those who died in WWI by it’s own returning soldiers.

Just like them we had a plan. Luckily though we averaged more than 3 kilometers a month. Leaving early on a Saturday morning we took the highway coupled with some back roads and traveled inland for about 4 hours directly to Warrnambool, the largest city along the Road just near its start. From there, we slowly made our way along the coast back toward Melbourne while seeing what was on offer.

Great Ocean Roadtrip

Great Ocean Roadtrip

And as far as Warrnambool is concerned I’ll tell you what’s on offer. Kermond’s Hamburgers is its biggest claim to fame and rightfully so! This old-school joint, still serving thick malted milkshakes in white aprons, was packed to the rafters. They keep the menu simple: burger, fried onions and bun. Customize it with normal stuff: tomatoes, lettuce, cheese or Aussie add-ons i.e. fried egg, beetroot, mayo. “Every bite of that vinegar jalapeno was like heaven in my mouth,” my Aussie travel companion slash foodie Nidya, slurred with her last bite.

We left excited to officially start our GOR journey but were quickly disappointed once we entered Allansford Cheese World. With a name such as Cheese World they set pretty high expectations. I mean, we practically did a 180 to get there as one would assume according to their advertising that there would be a monumental amount of cheese coupled with delicate wine tasting. What we experienced though was a service station, fast-food restaurant, Yellowtail retailer and tourist shop rolled into one. In the back, in the small room labeled Cheese, we were resurrected by delectable aged cheddars and somehow walked away with a varietal of 5 hefty wedges to consume over the weekend.

Cheese World

Cheese World

We traveled on and just as we began to smell the salty sea air and the coast came into view the sky turned overcast and it began to drizzle. We pulled off at the first few scenic lookouts to get some early snaps in a foggy view of the cerulean ocean contrasted against amazing limestone formations. I was starting to panic that my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to snap the much anticipated – the whole reason we drove for hours and hours – this is not really happening I’m sure it will clear up any second – no really, is it seriously raining – iconic rock formations would be ruined by fowl weather.

Finally we reached the holy grail of Port Campbell, home to the famed Twelve Apostles (now actually ten) and “heart of the Great Ocean Road”. The tourist buses lined the parking lot and the selfie sticks were endless. I was thankful that I canceled the tour I booked six months ago and was here on my terms, or at least in a small group of intimate friends thanks to Wes’ amazing patience and driving skills.

But we were fast about it while still taking it all in. My head unknowingly blocked endless selfies and my hair whipped against my face causing a uni-brow in nearly every picture. Just as we were about to depart and began walking away the clouds cleared and the sun shimmered causing the right light on the striking water. It was stunning. Camera out, I finally got my shots. We could conclusively rest for the evening.

In Apollo Bay, our 4-bed lofted studio at Coastal Motel offered the right mix of comfort and location just across from the beach and walking distance to all of the charming restaurants and shops in town. Even better, we had a heap of cheese to consume along with boutique wine and beers we brought with us. In fact, the week prior I had just won a case of 14% (ABV) Jumping the Shark (Hungarian oak barrel-aged saffron’d imperial red ale aka intense) from Melbourne craft brewers Moon Dog and needed a team to consume them with. The Fonz couldn’t have done it alone either.

Sunday morning we were back on the road heading inland to explore Great Otway National Park and the Otway Fly Treetop Adventures. Word to the wise, the winding, twisting, I-was-near-vomiting curves of the road to get there are to be cautioned about. But for real, my window was rolled down and my head was hanging out like a fatigued dog. $25 is a steep fare to walk on steel structures at the top of some trees and better value if you opted for their zip lining tours albeit for a much heftier price. We proudly boasted that between four of us we had zip lined in South Africa, Peru, and Laos so gave that a pass. But at 25 meters above the ground, the lush rainforest and distinct natural fauna made for a unique walk and we had no regrets for the experience, despite us nauseatingly needing to snake back the way we came once in the car.

Further along the coast sat the most amazing pub in the small town of Wye River. Wye Beach Hotel is more than just a charismatic beachfront bar and restaurant. Its exquisite food, coupled with an unexpected local beer selection and epicurean wine list was remarkable. For a true quiet holiday off the grid I’d recommend staying at one of the small hillside lodges. We closed our evening off with a curry back at local yet upmarket Apollo Bay Hotel before our final stretch home the following day.

Some of the best and curviest parts of the drive are around the quintessential beach town of Lorne. Shopping, restaurants, bars and beach – this popular spot with Melbournians was very busy on the sunny Monday. Luckily we were able to snag a table for breakfast at Lorne Beach Pavilion overlooking the beautiful sea to the sweet sound of children running and crying everywhere. Full on avocado smash, we parked ourselves at the edge of the sand and took in a few rays before continuing on and passing under the famed Great Ocean Road sign.

Now here’s the best part of coming home. We missed out, or actually intentionally avoided the popular seaside towns of Anglesea, Torquay, Jan Juc and others on our way back to the city in order to side track to the Bellarine Peninsula just outside of Geelong.

Terindah Estate and Jack Rabbit Vineyard share both a driveway and the coastline offering picturesque backdrops of vine against sea to sip against yet are two separate wineries. Applause to Will at Terindah for an exquisite presentation of their wines and scoring us a seat in the fully booked out restaurant to taste beautiful kangaroo, dory and lamb. Terindah was an all around standout! Their Chardonnay soft and buttery, Pinot Gris and Sauv Blanc surprisingly untraditional and their Shiraz/Viognier and Pinot Noir no brainers. I bought them all and want to come back again and again and again. So I will…

Terindah Estate Group Shot

Terindah Estate Group Shot