Dalmatian Odyssey: Sailing, Sea Kayaking and Standup Paddling Croatia

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Your berth, should you so desire: the 46-foot Huck Finn.Eugene Buchanan

The fortress walls take us by surprise.

It’s sunset outside the village of Ston on Croatia’s Peljesac Peninsula, and a giant stone barrier rises above our sea kayaks as if we’re starring in Games of Thrones — which, by no coincidence, was filmed nearby.

It’s not every day you get to kayak up to a castle, but it’s par for the course paddling in Croatia.

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A view from the harbor on Croatia’s Peljesac Peninsula. Eugene Buchanan

Built in the 13th century by the Dubrovnik Republic, the walls defended both the peninsula and a salt plantation which, at its peak, provided a third of the republic’s entire revenue. Lining my bow up with its northernmost turret, I use it for an important bearing: It steers us to an ice-cold Ožujsko beer in the town center (my wife opts for a margarita rimmed with the plantation’s Adriatic sea salt). Later, we kayak back to our own floating fortress, a 46-foot catamaran dubbed the “Huck Finn.”

Huckleberry himself once said “Thar ain’t no home like a raft.” For our host Zeljko Kelemen, there ain’t no home like a catamaran — filled with sea kayaks, SUPs and snorkeling gear — for exploring Croatia’s Elafiti Islands at the southern tip of the Dalmatian archipelago. We’re on his personal Insider’s Tour of Croatia — which isn’t quite as Orthodox as one of the country’s religions.

His office is on an inlet outside Dubrovnik at the mouth of the Ombla, “the world’s shortest river,” running just 200 meters from a giant cliff into the sea. At 6-foot-2, Zeljko, 65, is an ex-Croatian slalom kayaker and hockey player, whose limestone gray beard and matching hair make him part Santa Claus and oversized Smurf. Like the tides he sails, his hair has receded to expose a tanned, urchin shell of a forehead. Wearing a black Bosnian national hockey team T-shirt depicting a dragon carrying a hockey stick, he’d be just as home at the Harley rally in Sturgis as sailing the Seven Seas. As per his Kris Kringle caricature, his gift for adventurers is five such catamarans in his fleet, an amicable personality and a lifetime of local knowledge to show off his coastline-riddled country.

A raft and kayak guide before he became a sailor, Zeljko started with one catamaran, named Huck Finn, before adding the Tom sawyer and Huck Finns 1, 2 and 3. It’s the name he gave the first canoe he ever built in the early ‘80s. “I didn’t have enough tape to spell-out Huckleberry on it,” he admits. Sleeping eight guests each, with more room for captain and crew, they’re perfect, he says, for shuttling around the islands, sea kayaking and SUP-ing as you go. All the rooms in each hull are the same, meaning no quibbling over master suites; the interior and outdoor living space maximize hang time, and they carry kayaks and SUPs easily across the stern. A large Allen wrench for the sail’s wenches is affixed to the end of a hockey stick.

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Your berth, should you so desire: the 46-foot Huck Finn. Eugene Buchanan

Soon we’re motoring out of the orange-tiled village of Komoloc to Kolocep Island and the similarly orange-tiled village of Gornie Celo. Fresh catch of the day later, a red snapper that feeds our table of seven, and a borrowed guitar from the restaurant owner (that we’ll return in a week), we hike across the tiny island to a cliff band, which exposes the expansive Adriatic Sea leading to Italy somewhere beyond.

Back on the Huck Finn, we head to a sea cave on the leeward side of Lopud Island, where we drop anchor and squish a SUP through a tight passage. The tunnel opens up into a cathedral that we can actually paddle in. Back to the sailboat, we Margaritaville our way through a sunset matching the village’s rooftops to the island of Sipan, where we’ll drop anchor. Putting the wheel on auto-drive, Zeljko joins us on the bow and regales us over Karlovačko beers with his early tales of river running.

While guiding for Atlas Adventures throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, he started a nonprofit called River Free to protect rivers from Communist-supported dams. They won some and lost some, he says, lamenting the damming of his cherished Dobra River, “a world-class commercial run.” He bought out the company’s kayak inventory in 1999 after the civil war, once even taking Bradley Cooper paddling when he was an adventure TV show host. A slalom kayaker turned sea kayaker turned sailor, Zeljko now combines all of those all over Croatia, with a dose of sailing and SUP-ing to boot. The biggest outfitter in Croatia, he has over 400 sea kayaks, SUPs, canoes, rafts and duckies stashed in hotspots all over the country. “It’s like Uber, except for paddling,” he says, adding 70 percent of his business comes form river trips and the rest sea kayaking and standup paddling via sailboats. “Our gear is in all the best areas.” He also just bought 15 tipis, which he’s setting up as campsites across the coast. His wheels, we learn, are always turning, even if the sailboat’s isn’t.

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The rigors of sailboat-assisted sea kayaking in Croatia. Eugene Buchanan

We’re also learning that our itineraries are as fluid as the sea — due both to Zeljko’s whims and the winds. The Adriatic has three prevailing winds — bura, maestrale and jugo — and Zeljko is constantly adjusting his plans around them. But you can always find a side of an island that’s protected, he says.

I like our plan this morning. After a wakeup cannonball into the water, we feast on assorted breads, butter, jams, cheese, prosciutto, pickles, muesli, fruit and yogurt. Later, we SUP to shore for a cappuccino. Caffeinated Croatia-style, we explore the local church and read a sign touting the island’s nine different types of olives. The island of 300 set the Guinness record in 1999 for producing 120 tons of them.

Sea kayaking out of the harbor, my daughter Brooke has a “Croatia” moment when she paddles up to a small sailboat whose occupant is a naked man. Following a jagged, limestone coastline covered with Aleppo pine, cypress, holm oak and evergreen trees, we explore nooks and crannies, and swim and snorkel, while Zeljko trails behind on the Huck Finn.

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A sunset sup near Broce. Eugene Buchanan

A few hours later, we hoist the kayaks back on board and head off to Broce on the Peljesac Peninsula, which juts out from the mainland north of Dubrovnik. A late lunch (something we’d get accustomed to) of mussels, oysters and octopus salad sees us back in our kayaks for a tour along the mainland coast. Like clockwork, with the day’s heat comes the maestrale winds, but we’re protected by the ridge of the peninsula. Nearing sunset, we chillax on the boat until dropping anchor and SUP-ing to shore for dinner.

After another Adriatic plunge, we SUP over after breakfast to a house where Zeljko has a fleet of e-bikes stashed. We traverse a ridge for five miles, ogling the Adriatic Sea, before descending to lunch at Kobas, yet another quaint, orange-tiled village. Overly amorous innkeeper Nico pecks the girls on the cheeks, and those of our Brazilian-born deckhand Andrea — turning their faces the colors of the roof tiles — while we wash down the day’s catch with a bottle of local wine. We cap the afternoon paddling over to a beach near Broce, where locals in Speedos play water polo in a roped-off swimming area.

 

Mljet National Park

 

Taking advantage of calm seas, the next evening we sail from Sipan under a rising moon, singing star songs know on guitar. They’re the same stars ancient Greeks and Romans used when sailing these waters, without someone crooning the Eagles’ “Seven Bridges Road.” Zeljko knows the perfect protected cove to hit, and at 1 a.m. we drop anchor and retire to our berths as the stars blaze on overhead.

In the morning, we motor to Mljet National Park, docking the village of Polače — where ancient Greeks stopped for water en route to other Adriatic settlements. Grabbing e-bikes from a kiosk near a Roman-built palace, we ride over the island to an ancient Benedictine monastery on Lake Veliko Jezero. While most tourists are content to view it from shore, or visit it via a park service boat, Zeljko has another plan. After a dockside lunch of fish and potatoes, washed down with local wine, he pulls out two sea kayaks he has stashed with the proprietor. Pushing our chairs away, a yard away from our table we hop in and paddle over to the abbey. It’s as unique a view of a 12th century edifice as you’ll ever get. After a day of biking, kayaking and sailing, we stare back at a bay whose wakes have belonged to everyone from Odysseus and the nymph Calypso to Roman Emperor Augustus, poet Opian and Napoleon. We’re in good company, I think, cracking open a Karlovačko.

We overnight in a cove off the village of Žuljana after a dinner of lamb-stuffed peppers and homemade brandy at a local’s home. Despite Zeljko’s long night — sleeping in the stern’s hammock, he had to move the boat after the bura winds dragged our anchor — in the morning he drops us off to kayak the cave-lined coast. Counting naked Croatians in beach nooks, we find a particularly beautiful one (a beach, not a Croatian) and basecamp there for hours of snorkeling, paddling and jacuzzi-ing inside a wave-aerated alcove.

On the way back to Sipan, we drag behind the sailboat on a rope, the entirety of the Adriatic and its history beneath us. We’ve gone from paddlers to plankton. Later, we tie on a SUP and take turns surfing before stopping at another sea cave on Lopud Island. Zeljko has never explored this one, and we snorkel through its tight opening. Inside, an expansive cavern reflects sunbeams off the turquoise water into dancing poltergeists along its pockmarked walls.

Afterwards, we sea kayak and SUP along shore, exploring coves, waterfalls and another rock-walled monastery, this one actually used to film GOT. It’s owned, says Zeljko, by a relative of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination launched World War I. We overnight in Sipan, where a nighttime SUP through harbor boats leads to a dock by the village’s only nightclub. “Now that’s a great way to arrive,” says a woman drinking a cocktail outside. The next day we sail back to Kolocep and a sunset tour of Dubrovnik’s Old City — walking its castle walls that protected the empire from land and sea.

“Euchene, Euchene,” Zeljko enthuses that evening on the boat. “I was thinking maybe the girls would like a long bike ride tomorrow. Is new trail, but we have to go into Bosnia. Is new border crossing, so no one has ever done it.”

That audible at the line of scrimmage sees us heading off on a rails-to-trails ride following the old Austro-Hungarian Ciro Railroad. We ride 40 kilometers on a 5 percent grade to the village of Slano, where Zeljko meets us with the Huck Finn. We ditch the bikes and start sailing, eventually landing back in Broce, primed to adjust course to sample the region’s rivers.

 

 

A Sampler of Inland Waterways

 

Transferring our kayaks and SUPs onto a van rack, we drive north into Croatia’s prime river district. The rivers here are unspoiled, Zeljko says, traversing topography of karst, travertine and limestone, forming waterfalls, cascades and clear, deep pools. And the country never really developed an industry to pollute them, he adds — except for hydropower.

A battalion of windmills high on a ridge spin to the ever-prevalent bura winds coming off the land. “I think they maybe should have put them in sooner,” Zeljko says. “It probably would have saved a few rivers.”

One of the country’s best whitewater rivers, the Dobra (meaning “good”), was dammed eight years ago for a hydropower plant that still isn’t profitable, he adds. “We don’t want that to happen again,” says Zeljko, adding that about seven rivers are run commercially. Soon we pass the turnoff to Split, home to the Cetina River, which sees upwards of 40,000 rafters per year — many during prime season between April and June.

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A typical lunch to replenish your energy. Eugene Buchanan

Road signs in both Cyrillic and Latin-based Croatian greet us, but once we cross into Bosnia the Cyrillic is spray-painted off. We’re in a melting pot of countries and religions, including Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox, all packed in as tightly as our gear bags. We’re only in Bosnia for 10 kilometers — their lone beach access spoils from the war — before we’re back in Croatia. Zeljko pulls over along the Neretva River to point out an elderly lady standup canoeing (yes, the acronym is SUC) while working the fruit orchards. She’s paddling a homemade drupica canoe, endemic to the region. “It started here first,” he says, proudly.

Soon we turn northeast through an arid mainland to Krka National Park, where Zeljko lets loose his feelings about how the park in managed. “They don’t know what recreational paddling is,” he laments. “They think the best way to preserve things is to ban everything. They don’t even know what canoeing and kayaking are.”

Before the war, Zeljko guided paddling trips on a flatwater section of the Krka through a deep limestone gorge. But the park service has banned such outings, in favor of expensive motorboat trips to landmarks like the Visovac Christian monastery and 44-meter Skradinski Falls. Before the war, he says, family-run businesses let tourists paddle across the lake. Now the park service has the concession, keeping all the money, and no one can paddle it.

At breakfast, Zeljko’s wheels are already turning like the water mills just downstream of our rooms at Hotel Ruski Slap (meaning waterfall). “I’m thinking of…” he begins, before trailing off.

“Oh no,” my daughters gasp. “Here we go again.”

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Carrying boats by the 13th century Krka monastery to paddle the gorge. Eugene Buchanan

His plan: drop us off at the 13th century Krka monastery at the park’s upper end and then have us paddle back five miles to our hotel. No one has paddled it, he says, in the nearly 30 years since the war. “It’s illegal now,” he says. “The government is more interested in money. But don’t worry, I think you can do. Tell them a man who looks like Santa Claus said it was OK.” ”

Bastardizing Mark Twain quotes on the drive — “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble” — Zeljko reads a sign at the upper monastery with icons forbidding nearly everything: no hiking, fishing or swimming. “See…I don’t see paddling,” he says.

Armed with this permission, we smuggle two kayaks and SUPs through a massive stone-arched gate and past giant stone walls, as monk hymns wisp out of windows above. “Just so you know, you’re not my usual type of wingman for this sort of thing,” I whisper to my wife mid-carry.

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Which side’s up? Enjoying reflections from a sup on the Krka. Eugene Buchanan

Soon we’re putting on a river that hasn’t been paddled in three decades, at sunset in one of Croatia’s most beautiful national parks — as a family from a monastery through a mountainous gorge. “I pick you up at bottom,” Zeljko says as we shove off.

Tranquil waters reflect a towering limestone gorge and sunset such that it’s hard to tell what’s up and what’s down. It all causes me to reflect on if I’ve ever paddled anywhere so beautiful. An hour in, Casey asks when we’re going to be there. “I have no idea,” I answer. “Let’s just keep paddling.”

At one point, a wild boar crashes through the timber to our left, snapping trees. A couple hours later, we arrive at the trailhead. Zeljko is waiting, as promised. Below, the current quickens, before plunging over the first of many travertine waterfalls. While everyone else hikes down to our hotel, I help Zeljko car-top the boats. As soon as I’m inside, he quips, “Let’s go break some more laws.” Our new plan: paddle to the base of the waterfall to take some photos.

“There’s so much potential here to develop sustainable tourism,” Zeljko says. “But they just don’t get it. Some day, if I live long enough, they will say, ‘That man was right about these things.’”

 

 

The Zrmanja

 

The next morning, we head to the Zrmanja River, one of the most popular rivers that Zeljko runs. If there’s one word to describe the kiwi-colored waterway, it’s travertine. The formation creates waterfalls and cascades of all sizes, in a 14-mile, pool-drop run that’s fun for all ages and crafts. I’ll be in a whitewater kayak to run some of the bigger drops, and our flotilla will also include a sea kayak, SUP and IK.

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An inner gorge on the Zrmanja. Eugene Buchanan

At the put-in, Bobo, a former guide of Zeljko’s, shaves thin slices of prosciutto off a freshly salted pork haunch and lays it aside an assortment of breads and cheeses. Over a beer, he plays his harmonica while his bare-chested toddler fidgets in his lap.

The river is low, maybe 500 cfs, and as clear last night’s shots of fruit-brandy rakia, a Croatian, liver-wrecking tradition. We snake through a tight channel of bushes, watching fish and snakes dart and brilliant blue butterflies flutter among moss-covered walls. We’re on the river for an hour before the ledges come — small waterfalls that everyone can either bypass or run safely.

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Exploring the Krupa. Courtesy Eugene Buchanan
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Sea kayaking up to the 12th century Benedictine monastery on Lake Veliko Jezero in Mljet National Park. Eugene Buchanan

Soon we hit the Krupa River, where a short paddle and several portages upstream leads to a cascading waterfall plunging into a deep, emerald cauldron. We take turns paddling into its wash before running the drops we had just portaged to get here.

Back at the confluence, Zeljko “advises” us to catch the eddy on the left at the next waterfall. A stronger imperative might have been more appropriate. A 40-foot-high, aquamarine horseshoe of water cascades off a river-wide shelf, arched by an oasis-lined rainbow. The Croatian technique for getting around it? While we hike down to its bottom, Zeljko hucks our kayaks and SUPs over the falls, for us to fish out below. The tactic works — albeit with several pins — and soon we’re on our way again. Below the big falls, I run a 10-footer to join the group below.

The ledges now pick up in earnest, coming in a combination of flumes, slides and sheer drops. For the most part, they’re all runnable in our IKs, sea kayaks and SUPs (if you don’t mind the occasional, refreshing swim), save for a 15-footer I run solo, splashing down next to my daughter on her sup below. Below, the river flattens for a final 45-minute paddle through the gorge.

Our takeout is marked by a riverside bar and restaurant, complete with a rope swing that we launch off into the turquoise water and a makeshift wooden “diving board” — a plank levered off a rudimentary sawhorse. Throw in sausages, beer and local wine, augmenting our earlier prosciutto, and our indoctrination into Croatian sailing, sea kayaking, SUP-ing and river running is complete — all with a side of Zeljko.

— Find out more at huckfinncroatia.com

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