Dalmatian Coast Sail and Cycle

Getting There

The grey clouds were still hanging around as we wandered down to the bus stop to wait for the bus to Split. Not long after we arrived two things happened - the rain started and a taxi-van pulled up to offer us a much faster, though slightly more expensive trip to the Dalmatian Coast. Thus we found ourselves in the company of our Bosnian-Croat driver, Andreas, two South Africans and four Australians, heading through the wet green Croatian countryside as the windscreen wipers beat a steady rhythm.

By the time we reached Knin, former capital of the defunct Republic of Serbian Krajina, which existed briefly during the 1991-95 war, the rain had stopped and the countryside itself was beginning to dry out to a more typical Mediterranean landscape. We continued on through the highways and byways to finally reach Split, the 1700-year old centre of the Dalmatian Coast.

View over Split from the belltower of St Duje

After farewelling our travelling companions, we checked in to our little studio just outside the stone walls of Old Split and headed out to explore our surrounds. The fast trip by taxi-van had given us a few extra hours to do this - visiting the ruins of the Palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, built in 305AD, climbing the 11th century bell-tower of St Duje Cathedral for the grand view over the harbour and red terracotta roof tops of the old city, wandering up to the hillside parklands of Mangan and watching the world go by, as we sat and sipped a beer on the promenade between sea and city wall.

The belltower of St Duje

The walls of Old Split

Inside the belltower

Split by night

The belltower from our window

It was a very pleasant way to finish a day that had started with little promise, especially wandering through the narrow streets and little squares of the old city at night, softly lit by the glow of yellow street lamps as a gentle warm breeze blew in from the sea and people wined and dined at outdoor cafes and restaurants. To cap it off, we were treated to the hauntingly beautiful sound of an impromptu classical a capella in the acoustic perfection of an old stone courtyard. AMBIENCE in capitals!.

Day 1 - Split to Rogoznica

The day dawned blue and sunny - as it should on the first day of a 7-day boat cruise. The fair Nello and I headed down to the harbour and hunted out our boat, the "Novi Dan", a 36m wooden sailing vessel built in the 1930s. We boarded at 11.30am, settled in to our cabin and began to get to know our 23 fellow passengers, an eclectic bunch of Brits, North Americans and Antipodeans, and 6 crew, all Croatian. When we booked this trip, we were afraid that we might find ourselves with a bunch of young, big-thighed lycra-clad cycling fanatics, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that most of the passengers were the same vintage as us. At 1pm, lunch was served and the "Novi Dan" slipped quietly out of Split Harbour - we were on our way for the 4-hour sail to our destination, the village of Rogoznica to the north.

Sailing the Dalmatian coast

Lunch over, we settled in to the hard life of relaxing in a deck chair in the warm Adriatic sunshine, watching the mountains that back Split growing smaller as we passed the limestone cliffs of Ciovo Island and headed out through the Drveniki Channel between the mainland and off-shore islands. The low scrubby vegetation of the coastal hills passed by, criss-crossed with the old stone walls of past civilisations and the occasional cluster of white-walled and red-roofed beachhouses of modern ones. After a while, the captain turned the boat into a small cove and weighed anchor - it was time for a dip in the clear deeply blue waters of the Adriatic. Now 18°C is not the warmest temperature, but, once in, it was extremely refreshing. This could become a daily routine on this trip.

Heading out from Split

Rogoznica in red and white

The harbour at Rogoznica

Swim over, we headed off again, passing numerous smaller yachts, their sails full as they ploughed through the blue, blue sea, past a scattering of smaller islets. Turning towards shore, we entered a long inlet that brought us to the pretty village of Rogoznica, on a small isle connected by bridge to the mainland. Here we berthed opposite a large marina filled with sailing boats and pleasure craft, before heading ashore to explore our surrounds. We wandered through the village and around the pine-clad hill-top at its southern end, followed by sea bass for dinner at a portside restaurant. It had been an easy introduction to the sail part of our trip. Tomorrow, we would be introduced to the cycling.

Evening falls on the Adriatic

Day 2 - Rogoznica to Primosten and on to Vodice by boat (15 km cycling)

After breakfast the bikes were lowered over the side ready for the ride - we were in luck as they were brand new good quality mountain bikes with front-fork suspension. Our cycle guide, Damir, gave the signal and we headed out across the bridge from Rogoznica Island to the mainland and slowly wound our way up through the village streets to reach the rural surrounds.

All ready to ride

From here a long thin peleton headed northwards out across the scrubby Mediterranean landscape, the wind at our backs, following stone lined dirt tracks and narrow country roads through the olive groves. Reaching a more major road, we commenced our first (and only) big climb for the day, which split the peleton and rewarded us with panoramic views out over the coast to the hazy Adriatic beyond. Ahead lay our destination, the old town of Primosten with its church tower dominating the distant horizon.

Old stone walls on the coastal hills

View over the Dalmatian coast

A fairly strong southerly had by now sprung up, which helped our climb - but from this point it was all downhill to the town. The views of Primosten unfolded as we descended, now looking out over the bay to the old stone buildings on a round-topped peninsula. We had a coffee in the main square, before heading on to rejoin the "Novi Dan", which had sailed around from Rogoznica. The waters of the bay were now whipped with whitecaps, but across the bay, the fair Nello and I spied a sheltered little cove set amongst the coastal pines. It was too tempting - we grabbed our bathers, hopped on our bikes and headed around for a refreshing swim in the cool Adriatic waters .... the best way to finish a bike ride and we celebrated with a glass of chilled Krk white, produced from grapes grown on one of the nearby islands.

The "Novi Dan" moored at Primosten

Time for a swim in the Adriatic

The gateway to old Primosten

By 3pm, our boat was ready to sail on. Bikes were loaded quickly and we were under way, heading out into the choppy open waters and continuing our northward push for another two hours. A cloud band began moving in from the south-west and under a grey sky, the Adriatic took on a more menacing leaden hue.

A coastal resort

Seaward side of Primosten

Our route took us up the Zlarinski Channel, with islands on both sides, to eventually reach Vodice, our port for the night - time for a stroll around town, a beer in the square and back to the boat for dinner. The pattern of our trip was developing. It had only been a short 15km ride today, but again it was an introduction to the rhythm of the trip. From now on, our adventures were going to get a little more serious.

Day 3 - Vodice to Betina by bike and on to Sali by boat (23 km cycling)

Today, grey skies and strong southerly winds were replaced by a blue sky with fluffy white clouds and a gentle breeze - perfect for our ride to the island of Murter. The peleton assembled on the quayside and Damir lead us off around the foreshore and up through the old houses of Vodice. Skirting past the modern fringe around the town of Tribunj, we once again found ourselves cycling along a country road through olive groves, vineyards and stone-walled fields set in the scrubby Mediterranean landscape.

Getting ready for the next bike ride

Vodice across the water

The "beach" at Vodice

The road, itself, was mostly flat as it took us northwards between two lines of rugged limestone hills. An assortment of wildflowers in red, blue, white and yellow lined the road, along with the occasional dead snake. It was easy cycling and we soon found ourselves at the headwaters of a long inlet, looking across to the village of Pirovac. This was not our destination, however, and we veered westwards, to cross a low hill and coast down into the coastal village of Tisno - gateway to the island of Murter.

Inlet near Pirovac

A pine-lined road on Murter

A short opening bridge connected island and mainland, so we headed across to follow the island shoreline around, passing a couple of caravan park / camping grounds set in peaceful coves and crossing pine-covered headlands in between. It was very pleasant with the rich resinous waft of the pines in the warm sunshine.

A final coast down to the sea saw us cycling along a long rocky beach, dotted with concrete bathing platforms (to give people a spot for sun-baking and comfortable access to the clear blue Adriatic waters). Ahead lay the silhouette of the old town of Betina in red and white on its promontory. It seems that along the Dalmatian Coast, wherever the ancients saw a raised promontory they built a town. We rode into Betina's pleasant little square for a cup of coffee and then headed on to the marina, where the "Novi Dan" was waiting at the end of a wharf lined with some very large and luxurious looking yachts.

Betina on the island of Murter

The pattern of the trip was now clear - ride in the morning, lunch and swim in the early afternoon and sail on to the next port in the late afternoon. It was now lunchtime, so the fair Nello and I bought ourselves a slab of local cheese and ham and some fresh bread and headed back down to a swimming spot for our now-customary dip in the invigoratingly cold clear water of the Adriatic.

Leaving Murter

The long spine of Kornat Island

View back to the coastal ranges of the mainland

Then it was back to the boat to weigh anchor and set off again - out of the port and across the flat blue sea, dotted with islands and the sails of yachts enjoying the perfect light-wind conditions. Ahead lay the long silhouette of Kornat Island, part of the outer fringe of the Dalmatian Archipelago.

The big and the small of ocean craft

Reflections in the harbour at Sali

We followed the undulating treeless green spine of the Kornat northwards, passing the point where it sank beneath the sea and re-emerged as the equally long and narrow island of Dugi Otok.

By now the sun was disappearing behind a veil of grey cloud and the mood of the sea and sky became distinctly darker. The little port of Sali on Dugi Otok was our destination for the night and soon we saw its pastel coloured houses in the distance. Our arrival had been a bit later than on previous days, so we swapped a pre-dinner explore for a post-dinner stroll around the tip of the harbour - looking out over the sea to the inner islands, mainland and mountains beyond - idyllic!

Evening falls over the Adriatic

Day 4 - Sali to Brbinj by bike and on to Zadar by boat (29 km cycling)

To date the riding had been pleasant but very easy, but at the dinner briefing last night Damir warned us that today might offer a bit more of a challenge. It was certainly time to start working off the big on-board meals, though a few of our fellow passengers decided to forego the cycling today.

The high cloud had begun to move in as we set out from the port of Sali, and a short sharp climb took us out of town and into the green scrubby countryside of Dugi Otok. The triangular tops of the island's spine stood out, stark limestone rising from scrubby green slopes - apparently on the far side they plunge directly into the sea above 100m cliffs, but that is for another time. Our route was the main asphalt road that runs along the length of the island - taking us past the inland village of Zman and the coastal village of Luka, their red terracotta rooves contrasting with the dull green foliage of shrubbery and the dark green needles of pines.

The landscape of Dugi Otok

Passing the village of Zman

Highest point of Dugi Otok

Looking down on Luka

The bed-rock of Dugi Otok

Soon after, we reached the hard climb of the day, which quickly spread the peleton out along the road. The high point offered a spectacular view over Luka and its cove, while ahead lay an even steeper climb up to a radar station and the high point of the island. Fortunately, we veered away from the summit road to follow the main road high above the eastern coastline of Dugi Otok. Out to sea lay numerous islands and islets, while below the circular nets of a fish-farm formed a strange pattern on the sea surface.

View from Dugi Otok of the neighbouring islets

The setting of Brbinj village
For most of this long undulating route we stayed on the eastern side of the island, crossing the barren grassy ridge to the western side, with the open and empty Adriatic beyond, briefly once before returning to the island-speckled eastern side. A long downhill and turn off brought us to the spread-out village of Brbinj, where the "Novi Dan" was waiting for us in a pretty little pine-fringed cove. We had covered the day's route more quickly than expected, and it was definitely time for our daily swim. Unexpectedly, the water here was even cooler than elsewhere - bracing but still great after a long sweaty ride.

The "Novi Dan"

Leaving Brbinj
Our boat pulled anchor at 1pm and we sailed off towards Zadar, threading our way through the inner islands, before heading southwards down the broad channel to reach this tourist hub and ancient walled city on the Dalmatian Coast. It was time to explore, but we would be doing this in the rain as the grey cloud that had been building up finally delivered on its threat.

The streets of old Zadar

St Chrysogonus church (12th century)

Roman forum (3rd century) and St Donatus church (9th century)

St Mary's Church

Looking up at the dome of St Donatus

Interior of St Donatus

Despite the rain, it was a pleasant time, wandering the wet white paving stones of the streets of Zadar, steeped in over a thousand years of history. And was that a sunset we saw, that thin gold band on the western horizon? Hopefully, it was an omen that fine weather might return for the morning.

Day 5 - Zadar to Preko by boat, Preko to Tkon by bike and Tkon to Vodice by boat (28 km cycling)

After a night of light rain, the weather did clear somewhat to a day where sun and cloud disputed the sky - a pleasant if cooler day for cycling nonetheless. The "Novi Dan" took us quickly across the Zadarski Channel as we ate our breakfast to the long inner island of Ugljan. Here, at the port of Preko, we would start our ride southwards along its length. Damir led the peleton around the pretty foreshore to Preko village, where a short steep climb up through its streets brought us to the main island road and our route for the day.

The road undulated its way behind a string of villages below us on the coast, through olive groves, fruit orchards and gardens. Above us lay the wilder scrub and pine covered spine of the island and ahead lay a long strip of asphalt with the occasional small climb and small descent, but essentially flat.

Riding towards Preko on Ugljan Island

The bridge between Ugljan and Pasman Islands

It was a pleasant ride as we passed the villages of Kali and Kukljica, looking out to the east over the channel to a mainland lined with the red-roofed white stone houses of village and holiday home. The Dalmatian Coast of today is certainly a well-developed strip.

Soon we reached the end of the island, which fortunately for us was connected to the neighbouring island of Pasman by an impressive arch bridge. We stopped to watch a couple of boats pass beneath as they navigated the narrow channel and then set off again.

On the bridge
A further string of villages passed by - Zdrelac, Banj, Dobropoljana, Nevidane, Pasman, Kraj and finally Tkon. Here the "Novi Dan" was waiting, but it was time for a delicious Croatian ice-cream and cup of coffee before boarding for the trip to Vodice. It had been a pleasant enough ride, but a number of us were beginning to wonder what the purpose of the nice new grippy mountain bike tyres was - it would be nice to do a bit of cycling off the bitumen.

The harbour at Tkon

A favourite riding pass-time
We boarded the boat and set off southwards once again and soon found ourselves "racing" the "Romantica" down the coastline. "Romantica" was the boat of a rival sail-cycle company and we had been following the same itinerary to date, often docking alongside one another in port. This time she sailed on by and away. Our itinerary had said that we would anchor in a cove on the uninhabited island of Zlarin tonight, but apparently the weather forecast of strong winds made this an unsafe option. So it was back to Vodice and a feeling of deja vu. True to the forecast, a very dark band of cloud rolled in from the south west bringing a return of the rain. Time for a nap before the shipboard barbecue being organised by the crew.

The "Romantica" racing us down the coast

A change in weather near Vodice

Calm before the storm
Afterwards, we headed into town for a coffee beneath the patter of rain on canvas, as inside the cafe the locals cheered on Hajduk Split to victory in the Croatian Football Cup final. Hmmmm! I wonder if the crew were watching!

Day 6 - Vodice to Skradin by bike and a visit to Krka National Park (38 km cycling)

I looked out the cabin to see the wind gusts scudding across the slaty sea surface. The forecast was correct - it would have been very rough moored off Zlarin and I felt bad suspecting that the crew had come to Vodice to watch the Croatian Football Cup. I had been wanting a harder day in the saddle and this would be it - the 50-60 kph winds were blowing offshore and we were heading inland. It was not a good combination, but at least the rain had finished falling.

After breakfast, Damir once again led the peleton (somewhat reduced due to the windy conditions) through the streets of Vodice and out of town. This time however, we turned eastwards through the industrial area streets of Vodice onto a country road and into the face of the wind. The terrain here was largely flat and featureless, apart from the Gospa od Karmela on its isolated hilltop, but the strong and cold headwind added 5% to any slope - it was a hard push.

Heading out into the wind

Gospa od Karmela - the only hill for kilometres

Houses destroyed during the 1991-95 war
A short section of main road and it was back into the wind on country roads across a flat and featureless plain, past a battle-scarred village, through the old stone houses of Cista Mala and beneath a dual carriage freeway. Here we started heading southward and the crosswind gusts were almost knocking the bikes off the road. A short descent and climb took us through the hamlets of Piramatovci and Krkovic to the hardest climb of the day. The peleton was becoming very spread out by the time we reached the road junction that headed south west to Skradin.

The flatlands inland from Vodice

Stome wall and farm houses near Cista Mala

We were at an elevation of 300m and Skradin was at sea-level. Between us lay an 8km stretch of road that was 80% downhill - it was time to duck the head, lift the tail and go for it. Thus began an exhilarating descent at full bore that didn't stop until we reached the marina at Skradin, where we were greeted by the resident population of white swans.


It made all the pushing into the strong headwind worthwhile and was a great way to finish the cycling component of this trip.

Krka National Park - a watery wonderland


A welcoming committee of swans

The "Novi Dan" had just berthed as we arrived and, after a shipboard lunch, we all headed up river on a little ferry to the Krka National Park. At the end of the reed-lined estuary, in its steep-sided gorge covered with pine and cypress lay a series of travertine waterfalls, where the Krka and Cikola Rivers met and flowed into this inlet of the Adriatic.

Travertine barrier on the Krka River

Waterfalls on the Krka River

The landscape of Krka National Park

A tranquil reach of the Krka

It was superb to wander the pathways and boardwalks and admire the complex of falls, cascades, fast-flowing channels and lush vegetation protected by this park, even if we did so in the company of a multitude of fellow tourists.

The old mill at Krka

Heading back to Skradin from Krka

Krka National Park is rightfully a very popular place and Skradin was a pleasant, and sheltered, little village in which to spend the night. No wonder people have been living here since the Neolithic Period, over 5000 years ago.

Day 7 - Skradin to Split by boat

It was good to see a bit of sunshine when we woke this morning. Today was to be a long haul by boat, back along the coast to Split with a brief stopover in the old walled city of Sibenik and a slightly longer one in the town of Trogir. Consequently, we were up earlier and sailed out of Skradin marina at 7am for the relatively quick trip down the narrow inlet, lined with limestone cliffs, to Sibenik.

Sailing down the inlet towards Sibenik

View of Skradin from the castle

An impressive road bridge over the inlet to Skradin

The streets of old Sibenik

Here we had an hour to wander the paved streets of the old town and visit some of the monuments, such as the 15th century Cathedral, its metal doors still pocked by bullet-holes from the recent war. An interesting place, but it was only a fleeting visit before we again boarded the "Novi Dan" to head through the narrow channel and out into the Adriatic for a slightly rocking trip down the coast.

St James Cathedral (15th century)

The 15th century Church of St John

The seas were still running a big swell because of the strong winds which generated a bit of pitch and yaw for our 80-year old wooden vessel. The easing of the swell indicated our arrival at Trogir, a medieval town set on a small island separated form the mainland by a narrow canal.

Venetian watchtower at Trogir

Canal setting at Trogir

Big clouds over the mainland

Arriving at the old Venetian city of Trogir

We berthed next to the old stone pier where the water was lapping the edges - apparently not an unusual occurrence, given that Trogir is gradually sinking, like Venice. Not surprisingly, it was a Venetian town in days gone by, guarded by a fortress built by the Venetians in 1420 and showing many aspects of Venetian architecture in its narrow paved streets. We had time for a quick explore before once again boarding the boat and heading out into the Adriatic swells on our way to Split.

Trogir fortress (15th century)

The square in old Trogir

Diocletian's palace and St Duge cathedral in Split

The gateway to old Split by night

Croatian wedding celebrations

The silence of engines no longer running woke us from our nap - we had berthed in Split and our trip was over, somewhat anticlimactically. Sadly, there was no last dinner together on the boat to celebrate the end of this adventure and people drifted off into town to do their own things. We enjoyed the company of our new, if brief, friends from Britain, North America and the Antipodes and our Croatian crew - it is a bittersweet part of travel that groups of people come together from disparate parts of the globe, form short friendships and then disperse once again. Thank you one and all - it was a very enjoyable cruise. But now, our thoughts are gradually turning away from boats and cycles to hiking and mountain huts - the wilds of the Croatian mountains await us.