Did you know that many scenes in "Game of Thrones" were filmed in Dubrovnik? Me neither! In fact, since I've never watched the show and didn't know a whole lot about Croatia in general, I was surprised at how insistent my sister — who recently accompanied me on a 19-day tour of Europe — was to visit the country.
Ultimately, I'm so glad she pushed us in that direction.
The country wound up being the highlight of our European adventure. It led me to enjoying the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen, swimming in a string bikini in a salt lake off of a monastery on St. Mary's Island, and enjoying the beauty of the Adriatic Sea. After leaving budget-friendly Lisbon, the prices for an Uber in Dubrovnik were a bit of a shock, but the view on the way to our hotel, or anywhere else for that matter, made it feel like we were on a private tour of one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. Don't forget to pack your sunscreen, you'll certainly need it in Croatia!
The view from the author's Sail Croatia cruise (Photo courtesy of Soreh Milchtein)
Where to stay:
Sun Gardens Dubrovnik Hotel — For a comfortable hotel with excellent service and a jaw-droppingly beautiful view, you'll want to stay at the Sun Gardens Hotel, about a 30 minutes drive from the airport. Our room was bright and airy, with a balcony overlooking the Adriatic sea. The wall of the shower facing the room was made of glass which allows you to have a view and can be quite sexy if you're traveling with a partner. If you'd rather have some privacy, you can draw the curtain. The hotel boasts three pools, including one that's for adults only, a pebble beach and its own marina. You can even get a massage on the beach! Be sure to get breakfast on the rooftop terrace while you're there, it was top-notch. Sun Gardens also has an onsite travel agency that, while pricey, can make you last-minute reservations for excursions, water transfers, and tours.
Where to eat:
Gradska Kavana Arsenal — The Gradska Kavana Arsenal restaurant boasts a large open-air covered terrace overlooking the old marina, the perfect setting for exquisite and fresh Mediterranean cuisine. And boy, was the food good. Hands down the best meal we enjoyed in Croatia. Seafood is king in Croatia, and this restaurant is no exception. We started with mussels and a seafood trio, both delicious. Our main course was a whole fish, carved tableside, and served with grilled vegetables. It was a simple dish that was just magical. Save room for coffee and dessert, you'll want to soak up every second and enjoy the crisp air and the view.
The whole fish at Gradska Kavana Arsenal (Photo courtesy of Soreh Milchtein)
Bowa Restaurant — The popular Bowa Restaurant is only accessible by boat. You can book a ticket on the water taxi, or book a private boat tour that stops there for lunch. We did the latter and made it just in time for our reservations. Riding up to the restaurant provides a spectacular view, as it looks like it was built right into the natural landscape. Only open for lunch, your reservation allows you to make a day of it, enjoy a meal, and visit the private pebble beach with bar service. The menu is full of fish and seafood. We really enjoyed the freshly-made bread with Croatian olive oil and swordfish sashimi. But it's not the food that would bring me back. It's the view, the peaceful sound of the waves and the resident cat.
Squish factor: The chairs all had arms on them and were uncomfortably small. However, the cabanas have bench seating, though they need to be booked by the day with a minimum spend.
Swordfish sashimi at Bowa restaurant (Photo courtesy of Soreh Milchtein)
What to do:
Snooky Tours — Dubrovnik is beautiful, but you won't have the full experience if you don't experience the joy of speeding through the Adriatic Sea with the wind in your hair and sun on your skin. To do that, Snooky Tours is the boat company for you. Not only did they arrange a last-minute private boat tour the night before I needed it, but our driver picked us up from the hotel's marina. He carefully showed me how to get on the boat comfortably, which I appreciated. We had an hour before our lunch, which was well spent enjoying the sea and exploring a nearby island before speeding our way to lunch. After lunch, we were off to the caves. My sister jumped off the boat and swam, getting to look into one of the caves. It was such a good day, and worth every single penny.
Squish factor: I was able to get on the boat by sitting on the edge of the pier, but I wasn't able to swim in the sea. At least not without taking a significant risk of not being able to climb back into the boat on the tiny ladder.
Soreh and Chaya Milchtein (Photo courtesy of Soreh Milchtein)
When you think of a cruise ship, you probably think of a massive ship with a casino and thousands of people on board. Sail Croatia is nothing like that — it's like the polar opposite of it. With a capacity of just 38 people and the crew, the vibe is intimate, perfect for a solo traveler or a multiple-generational family without young kids. Sail Croatia offers different styles of cruises, catering to different age groups and travel styles from hikers to partiers, and everything in between.
My sister and I joined an explorer cruise for two nights which was headed from Dubrovnik to Split, but also offers a route from Split back to Dubrovnik. The route is seven nights long, with stops at islands like Mljet and Korcula. Breakfast and lunch are served on the ship, and the boat docks and remains docked all night, so you can enjoy dinner at a local restaurant at each stop. This is quite different from the large cruise ships, which tend to dock during the day and then sail away from the port. You can leave the boat, explore the island, eat, drink and enjoy the beautiful beaches and sunsets.
Don't skip the lunches on board, as they were simply superb! Freshly-made, featuring local dishes made of local ingredients.
Sleeping quarters on board are small, but they feel a little more spacious than they should given they're on a boat. The beds are twin size but some cabins can be combined for a couple. Since the sleeping quarters are located on the bottom floor, you'll need to climb the stairs to get to the floor where meals are served and where the patio is. The top floor of the boat has a sun deck, lounge area, and hot tub. We had a great time getting to know our shipmates and enjoying the views as we sailed.
At each port, the cruise offers a number of excursions. In Mijet, most folks went biking in the national park, but my sister and I instead took a ferry to St Mary's Island, changed into our swimsuits, and jumped into the salty lake. In Korcula, I was very excited for the buggy tour and wine tasting excursion — but after getting to the buggies, I discovered that the seatbelt was way too small, forcing me to return to the ship alone. If I would take the cruise again, I'd take the time to research each stop and put together a list of things to do on each island.
Squish factor: As mentioned, the buggies that I was so excited to enjoy were far too small for me, with no seatbelt extender available. I skipped the bike tour figuring that it wouldn't be accessible. There are three levels on the boat, and you'll need to climb the stairs to access almost everything. The bathroom was small but spacious enough to be comfortably used. The ports we stopped at required some walking to get to restaurants, parks, etc, with minimal transportation available.
Travel tip: If you want to leave Dubrovnik and explore some of the islands off the coast of Croatia, but you don't have seven days to take a cruise, the ferry system is excellent!