A Windstar Cruise in Croatia & Italy
By Brian E. Clark
Near the end of an eight-day cruise in the Adriatic, Ioanian and Tyrrhenian seas last month, I relaxed in a jet tub at the stern of the 600-foot-long, five-masted Wind Surf sailing ship (windstar.com) and watched the Amalfi Coast slide by as the sun sank below the western horizon.
I could get used to this, I thought. And not just because of the hot tub.
No, it was the casual elegance of the ship, its friendly service, spa, excellent food in several restaurants plus the enjoyable and educational shore excursions that I predict will draw me and my partner back for another sailing trip.
And I do mean sailing because the seven huge sails on the yacht really do help power the vessel, one of the officers told me at the start of our voyage.
When the winds are strong enough and coming from the correct direction – a beam reach in nautical lingo – the captain can actually turn off the engines and sail under wind power, he said.
Our adventure began in Venice – La Serenissima is one of its nicknames – where we arrived a few days early to explore the narrow, winding streets, get lost a few times, tread some of its 400 bridges and visit the famed Piazza San Marco, home to St, Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and several museums.
We also found a pleasant bistro, the Al Parlamento, near our digs on an offshoot of the Grand Canal in the Cannaregio neighborhood for dinner. We sipped wine and watched boats of all shapes, sizes and purposes – not just shiny black gondolas – ply the waters on two balmy evenings before we boarded the Wind Surf and set sail for Croatia.
When we departed that night, the crew raised the sails to the tune of “Conquest of Paradise” by Vangelis. Then we explored our relatively small vessel – at least compared to monster cruise ships that can carry as many as 6,000 passengers, 2,000 crew members and be up to 18 decks tall.
By contrast, the Wind Surf had but 150 staterooms for up to 360 guests, 200 crew members and six decks. When we docked in Rome at the end of our trip, our vessel looked like a small sailboat compared to the humongous cruise ship docked nearby. (I’ve sailed on both kinds and will gladly take the smaller boat, hands down.)
We were berthed on the second deck of the Wind Surf and were greeted with a bottle of champagne, flowers and strawberries dipped in chocolate when we found our 188-square-foot stateroom, which was more than adequate for our needs. Especially since we used our cabin mostly for sleeping because we were out and about in the ship and on shore excursions most of the time.
We sailed the first night from Venice to the fishing port of Rovinj on the Istrian Peninsula in the northwest corner of Croatia. Shore options included truffle and wine tours, but I chose a bike ride on the Parenzana Bicycle Trail, a former narrow gauge railroad line that once connected the Croatian city of Porec with Trieste in Italy.
The outing started after a shuttle to the walled village of Motuvan, an artists’ colony with narrow streets and a Medieval ambience thanks to its Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance buildings. Then we hopped on our bikes and rode on a path that overlooked vineyards and orchards in the Mirna Valley.
The trail also led us through tunnels and over bridges to the town of Livade for a fun and mostly downhill ride of 20 miles. In the distance, we saw 1,300-foot tall Mount Ucka, once known as the “Istrian Lookout.”
That evening, after dinner in the Stella Bistro, we sailed on to Split, the largest city on the Dalmation coast. At bedtime, a thunderstorm lashed our ship and lightning crackled in the sky while I read Hemingway’s “Across The River and Into The Trees,” which was set in Venice at the end of World War II.
The sun was bright the second day and we had a tasty breakfast under an outdoor awning in the Veranda Restaurant. During our shore excursion, our Croatian guide led us through Split’s Old Town, a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) site and the walled palace built by Diocletion, who became head of the Roman Empire at age 40.
He retired to Split at age 60 – in part because Rome had a history of emperors getting assassinated by members of their own courts – and lived for another eight years, tending his gardens. We also spent a few hours in Trogir, another UNESCO site built on a small island connected to the mainland by a bridge and had lunch in a former mill.
We sailed on to Dubrovnik, known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic” for its beauty. Before climbing narrow steps to its ramparts of the city – also a UNESCO site – we walked along the main promenade and stopped in at the Church of St. Blaise, Dubrovnik’s patron Saint.
But the highlight was walking along the Old City’s high walls, which were completed in the 13th Century. The drizzle falling on us didn’t diminish our enjoyment of the stroll, which offered views of crashing waves far below, the Minceta Tower and other fortresses protecting the town.
At best, travel is enlightening and this trip was no exception.
Though I’d visited Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia on other writing assignments, I’d never been to Montenegro, Croatia’s neighbor to the south. Our destination on the fourth day was Kotor, the capital city of this tiny nation with a population of less than 650,000.
The entrance to the walled city was via a 17-mile-long, fjord-like inlet that was bordered by rugged mountains and pinched to several hundred yards wide at one point. The walking tour of the old town was a treat, especially the maritime museum, which showcased the city’s rich nautical heritage.
I also got the chance to chat with some Hungarians who had chartered a 42-foot Beneteau sailboat for a week-long cruise and were sipping wine in the vessel’s cockpit. Now that would be a fun way to experience the Dalmation Coast as well, I mused.
We had dinner that evening in the Amphora dining room. My partner was escorted to her seat by Hubert, the maitre d’, who took her elbow, looked deeply into her eyes and said, with his French accent, “You are amazing.” She loved it.
We sailed through the night and the entire next day before we reached the Sicilian village of Giardini Naxos, nestled in what is often described as one of the world’s most beautiful bays. Twenty miles to the west, 11,000-foot-tall Mount Etna rose over the Ionian Sea, spewing steam and sulphur gasses.
Because I am a fan of “The Godfather” book and the trilogy of movies it spawned, I chose that shore excursion for our outing. We motored up hairpin turns in a bus our guide dubbed the “Cyclops” to the village of Savoca in the hills above Messina.
There, we walked along a narrow, cobblestone street past 15th century homes with cascading bougainvilleas on thier walls to the church where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and his Sicilian bride, Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli) were married.
We also visited the bar on the town’s main square where Michael and his bodyguards met and offended his future father-in-law. In another village, we walked up a long set of steps to the church where a young Vito Corleone, who became the Godfather (Marlin Brando), was hidden in a wicker basket on a donkey to escape Sicily.
Our final stop on the trip was Sorrento on the Amalfi coast above the Tyrrhenian Sea. I thought I might be growing tired of shore excursions, but I was wrong.
We picked a culinary outing for our last excursion and it was a winner. First we walked the narrow, vehicle-free streets of this 2,000 year old city past shops selling leather goods and lemons to a plaza with stunning views of the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupted in AD79 and the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Oplontis.
We drove to a small farm near Sorrento where we walked through vineyards and past several dairy cows and calves. Then we learned about winemaking and olive pressing from Rosa and got a lesson on how to make mozzarella cheese from her sister Maria before we moved on to their restaurant and sampled Caprese salad, eggplant, bruschetta, lemon pastries, a local red wine and limoncello.
We toasted Italy, Croatia, Montenegro and the Wind Surf that evening. And made plans to return.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.