Cruise control in Croatia
WORDS: Phil Hawkes PHOTOGRAPHY Supplied
Are you the cruisy type? Phil Hawkes didn’t think he was until he joined a magical cruise along the Croatian coast.
I HAVE cousins in Melbourne who (pre-pandemic) spent six months a year cruising the world. They’ve been literally everywhere, with Antarctica next on the agenda. Except for a river excursion down the Danube, or navigating a tinny around the Gold Coast’s canals, I’d never tried it.
So when the opportunity came up, I joined a Mediterranean cruise, this one an ‘immersive’ voyage from Ravenna, in Italy, across the Adriatic and down along the Croatian coast as far as Montenegro. Seven days and nights of pure pleasure, stopping at a different port each day for optional excursions (more of that later), or just relaxing on the ship, enjoying Cocktail O’Clock or taking a dip in the pool or spa.
First, the floating hotel
What a ship! Azamara Onward is one of four in their fleet of ‘small ships’, equivalent to floating boutique hotels, which can accommodate about 600 guests. There were less than 400 on this trip early in the season, which is in stark contrast to some of the monsters you see in the Med – several storeys high, with thousands of passengers jostling to get on and off. A bit like Las Vegas-On-The-Water, they usually have casinos and big entertainment lounges. Not for me, thanks! The smaller ships can often dock right at the town wharf instead of taking the tenders from ship to shore.
Onward’s cabins have everything you’d expect in a luxury boutique hotel including a bed you’d like to take home with you and a modern bathroom that actually works. You can even turn around in the shower. Most popular are the cabins with balconies and a private veranda where you can order room service if you’re not feeling sociable. Breakfast is particularly pleasant, served as you contemplate the rising sun and the calm ocean glistening; a few dolphins gambolling if you’re lucky. Sure beats the gambling on bigger ships!
During the week, we enjoyed genuine gourmet cuisine with wines to match in four different locations, all complimentary except for two ‘specialty restaurants’ which offer a more intimate setting – a Grill Room and an Italian ristorante. You’ll find food, drinks and good coffee somewhere on the ship at all hours if you want to gain a little extra poundage. My favourite dining spot was the Sunset Deck at the stern, with a decadent buffet lunch and a full a la carte menu at dinner. Lean cuisine? Forget it.
In the evenings, there are various entertainment options including a resident band, a professional dance troupe with amazing acrobatic skills and an emcee/vocalist with a killer voice and a good line of patter. I’m told that different cruises have similar shows and all are top-notch. One evening, we were treated to an AZA-mazing musical programme featuring Croatian virtuoso Ana Rucner, who plays electric cello like someone possessed. She’s so good I’m now a YouTube fan. Check her out.
Another night, we enjoyed an Azamara signature event, White Nights. Out came our freshly laundered whites, ranging from faux wedding gowns to the cricket-gear look. An American surgeon honoured the occasion in white scrubs. All very jolly, with the ship’s crew from 37 countries joining in the fun. The Captain (‘call me Captain G’), a most engaging Italian master mariner, presided over the whole scene with amusing anecdotes. “Our aim is to make the small ship experience more personal, with a family feeling,” he says.
Apart from pampering the passengers, Azamara looks after its people well. For example, a big party was held below decks one (late) night to celebrate Philippine National Day, as many of the crew are from the Philippines. Monica, a dedicated cruiser from the US, said “this is a company that has a heart”, which was nice to hear.
That sentiment naturally flows through to cabin attendants including Alec, who looked after me like a son even though I’m twice his age. He saw me heading to the on-board laundry (a wonderful facility) with a pile of washing, took it from me and returned it the next day, laundered and ironed. That’s service, big time.
Each night before dinner, there’s a preview of the next day’s on-shore itinerary that details the history and culture of the region and the various events that played out before and after Yugoslavia broke up. Some of it is quite disturbing but I think it’s important for us to learn more about the Balkans and the Slavic peoples. These lectures were given by a noted expert on the Mediterranean, Professor Marty Novak, who added another dimension to the meaning of immersive with his slide presentations.
This itinerary means the ship travels at night; the next morning you awaken (or are just arriving) in a new port which is yours for the day. You have the option of staying on board to sunbathe around the pool, keep eating and drinking, play board games in the Living Room, or get buffed and polished in the spa with a facial, too.
Where are we today? Have an atlas handy
The optional on-shore excursions are quite varied, from guided walks around the historic old towns to inland village visits and hiking in spectacular national parks. The one you shouldn’t miss is the 2km walk around the walls of Dubrovnik, exhausting on a 32-degree day, but then there are the gelati shops and pizzeria waiting below. And lots of hip cafes, bars and a pebble beach close by if you want to strip off and display what the Onward chefs have done to your burgeoning physique.
First port of call is Opatija, quite different to the other places you’ll visit. It’s a 19th Century health resort with a Monaco feel to it, oiled and tanned tourists in skimpies and budgie smugglers taking a dip in the clear blue Adriatic, sunning like lazy red lobsters or sporting designer shades on their terraced rooms-with-a-view. If you were looking for a bolthole to park in for a few days in early summer, this would be it. There are also several on-shore excursions including a spectacular canyon hike and an Istrian truffle experience.
Next day is Zadar, different again. Our ship cosies right up to the wharf, so we walk past the famous ‘sea organ’ into a busy market town with remnants of its 3000-year-old settlement and Roman history on display. If you wander around the town, there’s lots of history to explore. Some cruisers highly recommended the optional day tour to Krka National Park for the fittest specimens. There’s also a three-hour bicycle tour. Bring the lycra.
Onward we go to the pretty island of Korcula and the Old Town history walk, with some beautiful architecture and limestone buildings; a beach buggy tour; and the Lycra mob again catered for. My choice? An ice-cold frothy beer overlooking the azure Adriatic.
Montenegro beckons next, with an early morning arrival in Kotor after the trickiest of maritime manoeuvres through the narrow harbour entrance (thanks Captain G.) – great fun to watch. This is a different country to Croatia and the difference is palpable. But don’t ask me to explain it. It’s something you feel in the vibe of the place as you step off the ship and onto the wharf. Perhaps it’s the influence of the Orthodox Church and medieval history, making Kotor a UNESCO World Heritage site. There’s a mouth-watering choice of 11 tours here, hard to choose. But it’s a beautiful place – and the gelato is cheaper here too!
The penultimate stop is the star attraction: Dubrovnik. So much has been written about this city and its importance (it’s also a World Heritage site); the Walls are the dominant feature, as mentioned above, and there’s a choice of 12 tours you can take on shore. Or find time to take the cable car to the mountaintop overlooking the town – spectacular. The ship departs at 9 pm, so time to enjoy a bit of on-shore bar-hopping. Tip: Try Mirakul for the best pizzas outside Italy.
Our last stop is Sibenik, a small, pretty medieval town to walk around but it’s your last chance to take a tour to Krka National Park if you have enough stamina left. I enjoyed a shorter visit to a winery and tasting hosted by a retired priest. Need I say more?
So, am I the cruisy type?
Well, yes I appear to be. This type of cruise was made to order for a solo looking for a good rest as well as some healthy adventures and beautiful food/wine – and the bonus of meeting such a lovely group of cruiseaholics. Count me in!
Departing and arriving in Italy
Disembarkation on day seven is at Ravenna, our starting point. The port of Ravenna is well worth a day or two to explore. Be sure to see the astounding mosaics at the Basilica of San Vitale and many other beautiful buildings and sites dating back to the Roman Empire. The airport is located 75km away in the buzzy inland city of Bologna and two or three days here is a great counterpoint to an Adriatic cruise. Note: Don’t ask for spaghetti bolognaise. The local speciality is tagliatelle al ragu washed down with the local Sangiovese!
If you are staying, the Mercure Bologna Hotel is a good choice as it’s right opposite the train station – no need for a taxi or Uber – and it has a restful garden park at the rear, unusual for a city hotel. For sightseeing, the hop-on bus will take you all around town with an audio guide but it’s a terrific town for walkies, even without a dog.
Find out more about Azamara’s fleet, including the Onward, and its small cruise destinations at www.azamara.com
For local bookings call Zeppelin Travel 1300 786 888 or visit www.zt.com.au