And now,” said the old man with the moustache and the guitar, “Rod Stewart, Sailing. Together, please!”
The welcoming committee was waiting on the quayside as our ship drew in. Behind the musicians – at this point battling bravely through John Denver’s Take me home, country roads on the accordion – a small crowd had started to gather. Kids stopped their bicycles to stare and a group of old ladies made themselves comfortable on a bench to watch us disembark. It’s not every day that tourists come to Opuzen.
What a difference 50 miles makes. This small, sleepy town, famous only as the centre of Croatia’s tangerine industry, is just an hour and a half up the coast from Dubrovnik. In the Pearl of the Adriatic, the time for greeting visitors with handshakes, shots of rakia and 1970s cover versions is long gone. Last year, 529 cruise ships docked in Dubrovnik, funnelling up to 10,000 visitors a day into the narrow streets of the medieval old town during the summer season. Overcrowding has become such a problem that the mayor has announced plans to limit tourist numbers within its ancient walls, cutting the number of cruise ships and group day trips into the city.
So it might come as a surprise that the Intrepid Travel Group, champion of sustainable and ethical tourism, has launched a cruise in Croatia – but they argue that cruising can be sustainable if ships are small and take visitors to less well-trodden sights. I joined one of the first trips, a week hopping from Split to Dubrovnik in the 31-passenger Royal Eleganza, visiting a mix of tourist highlights and hidden gems.
“It’s about offering a more sustainable alternative that creates opportunities and wealth for locals, and a better experience for tourists,” says Intrepid Group co-founder Darrell Wade.
After testing the water by chartering small ships in Croatia this year, Intrepid will next year add Greece, Iceland, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Thailand and Vietnam to its cruise programme. Long-term plans are to build bespoke ships that use alternative fuels and renewable technology, including solar power. In the meantime, every cruise is carbon offset, single-use plastic is banned and 90% of food is purchased locally.
Our guides are local too. Milan shepherds us through Split’s busy streets, adding an extra layer to the standard commentary by pointing out where, as a child, he used to play football inside Diocletian’s Palace, and describing his experiences of growing up during the Balkan war. We have the chance to explore the city by night, when passengers from larger cruise ships are already back on board and hitting the buffet.
In the morning, I wake to the sound of the engine and dash to the top deck to watch Split recede on the horizon. With just three decks and 16 simple but comfortable cabins, it’s a short walk. There are no vast ballrooms, second dining rooms, casinos or surf simulators, but it’s spacious enough; there’s always a quiet spot in the sun – or shade – to while away a lazy afternoon.
It feels a world away from mainstream cruising – it would take 60 ships the size of Royal Eleganza to carry the passengers of even one of the more modest classic cruisers. With our small, nippy ship, we can anchor in any bay we please, leaping directly from the deck into the sea. One morning, we sight a pod of dolphins and spend the next half hour pressed against the deck rail, thrilling each time a fin curves up from the water. Most of the other guests are empty-nesters, a friendly mix of Brits, Americans, Australians and Kiwis, most cruising for the first time.
Meals on the ship are fresh, simple, and tasty, usually including a Croatian dish to try, even if it’s just a batch of still warm štrukli – cheese-filled pastries – as part of a salad buffet. But most of the time we head to local restaurants for freshly caught fish, homemade pasta and peka, Dalmatia’s signature hearty meat stew. We see more, taste more, and spend more on shore than average cruise ship passengers, dubbed ice-cream tourists by the locals because they buy so little.
The Royal Eleganza can berth in small harbours, so we moor on the pretty island of Hvar, climbing up to the hillside fortress overlooking the party town below, before heading inland to visit an organic lavender farm, where the only traffic blocking our way is a stubborn donkey.
On the Pelješac peninsula, we visit a small winery, brought painstakingly back to life by the family owners after it fell into disrepair during the communist period. Under the impossibly pretty, vine-draped pergola we taste small-batch wines, including the almost purple dingač, made from grapes worth seven times more than their closest varieties, thanks to the specific growing conditions found on the area’s steep slopes.
Our itinerary doesn’t skip the highlights (does anyone come to the Dalmatian Coast not to see Dubrovnik and Split?) but our visits to these cities are timed to avoid the worst of the melee, putting less pressure on the destination, and making it an altogether more pleasant experience for us too. And in the Krka national park, we hit the waterfalls early on a weekday morning, which gives us the privilege of swimming and walking in this natural beauty spot with just a handful of other people.
I’d initially assumed our stop in Opuzen was based purely on proximity to Mostar – the Bosnian city famous for its medieval arched bridge. Our ship is able to sail a few miles upstream and we get there before the crowds, and are back by lunchtime. But upon our return, we discover there’s more to recommend Opuzen and its surroundings. Boarding small wooden boats, we explore the nearby wetlands, where all is peace and quiet among the reed-lined channels.
That evening, we follow the sound of music to the town square and join locals listening to a band playing outside a bar. A group of local kids uses our ship as a diving board, and we follow suit, plunging into the river as they giggle and splash. Try doing that from a 10-storey cruise liner.
Read more at theguardian.com