calling it the New Riviera and the New Capri. But after launching
a full-blown, 400-mile (644-kilometer) sea kayaking expedition
down Croatia's island-flecked coast, Jon Bowermaster finds
ancient haunts and real salt-of-the-sea excitement.
comes early off the coast of Croatia. In the slight shade
of a 14th-century church and a pair of olive trees, we wake
on a remote island in the heart of Kornati National Park.
Above our camp, on the simple wooden door of the church, is
painted the dedication, "Kraljice Mora Moli Za Nas—Queen
Mother of the Sea, Pray for Us."
on a stone bench, rubbing sleep from my eyes, I wait for coffee
water to boil and look out over Kornati. Comprising 89 islands
in a 21-by-4-mile (34-by-6-kilometer) rectangle miles off
the mainland, the park is isolated and one-of-a-kind. Each
island is brown and barren, stripped of trees by 2,000 years
of continuous sheep herding. The exposed land is crisscrossed
by long stone walls divvying the rock and thorn scrub into
neat geographic parcels. The beauty out here on the islands
is ragged and rough, cultivated but untamed.
This is a borderland, after all. Croatia lies on the geographic
margin between central Europe and the Balkans, between the
Adriatic and the Continent. The country's very shape speaks
of the divide. There is nothing compact, square, or secure.
Instead it curves around Bosnia and Herzegovina in a narrow
arc, like a crescent moon or a boomerang. At no point is Croatia
more than a few hundred miles wide; in most places it is much
the fringe of this fringe, there are islands, 1,246 of them
by one count, scattered like marbles atop what astronauts
claim is the bluest sea on the planet, the Adriatic. Of those,
a spare 67 are inhabited and many are smaller than three acres.
All told, the Croatian coast is home to one of the largest
archipelagos in the Mediterranean and looks like a barer,
wonderfully shattered, more sun-drenched Maine. In Kornati,
an island (or two, or three) is always in sight. This makes
for some spectacular vistas and quite possibly the best sea
kayaking in Europe. Which is why I'm here, on a stone bench
at dawn, making peace with the Queen Mother of the Sea.
It is late
May, and we pushed off from the big city of Zadar in central
Croatia five days ago. Along with my two longtime running
mates—Colorado-based photographer Pete McBride and British-born
white-water kayaking champ and videographer Alex Nicks—I've
planned to kayak nearly 400 miles (644 kilometers), from Zadar
on the central coast to Dubrovnik in the south, staying almost
entirely in the islands. Along the way, we'll be joined by
a rotating cast of local paddlers, from a law student to a
historian to a marine biologist. This adventure is another
expedition in my ongoing Oceans 8 project, an attempt to sea
kayak around the world, one continent at a time, to examine
the health of the seas and the lives of the people who depend
since departing Zadar have been long and hot on nearly windless
seas, the kind where the only sounds are the drip of water
off the end of your paddle, the crick crick crick of the rudder,
the ping of sweat droplets hitting your PFD, and the occasional
curse aimed at the relentless sun. Yesterday we passed the
southern tip of the 27-mile-long (43-kilometer-long) Dugi
Otok (Long Island), known for its sheer oceanside cliffs,
as well as a dozen small, unpopulated islands of short hills
covered with tangled brush and sharp rocks. Today after breakfast
we will continue past Levrnaka, Borovnik, and Balun, cutting
from protected bays out onto the open sea. Beyond stretches
island after island, as far as the eye can see.
kayaking adventure did not start on the sea but on a river,
a wide, clear river, the Zrmanja, which is known throughout
Croatia for its white water. From the hills above the central
coast, it carried us down to Zadar and eventually the Adriatic.
For the expedition's inaugural paddle, I invited along Zeljko
Keleman. He is the father of adventure travel in Croatia,
and his Huck Finn Adventure Travel company is the country's
leader in white-water rafting and sea kayaking trips.
and I met in 1997 and spent a cold New Year's Day exploring
the country's frozen rivers. At the time, the war that had
gripped Croatia in the early nineties had been over for only
two years. The conflict had started in 1991 as a series of
independence movements within the disintegrating former Yugoslavia
but then devolved into a frenzy of ethnic cleansing between
the Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians. Before ending in 1995 (and
before starting anew in Kosovo), the war claimed tens of thousands
of lives, most of whom were civilians, and left the nascent
Croatia in a state of desperate shock. Promoting tourism,
obviously, was not at the top of many priority lists. But
like Keleman—a man who watched the transition from communism
to democracy, endured war (during which his rafts were seized
by the army to shuttle the wounded across the rivers), and
emerged with a fast-growing business—Croatia could only
lie dormant for so long.
is booming. Europeans, who long flocked to the former Yugoslavia's
walled cities and pebbled beaches, are back in force and have
dragged the rest of the world with them. Last summer some
five million tourists visited Croatia's coast. Ultrahip, centuries-old
towns like Hvar, Korc?ula, and Dubrovnik are packed with the
young, restless, and rich, encouraging nicknames like the
New Riviera. Tom Cruise caused a stir last year when he showed
up in a big black yacht off the shores of Dubrovnik, and residents
don't bat an eye in the company of regulars like Prince William
or John Malkovich.
back on the tourism map, a whole new range of travel options
has sprung up, from cultural and culinary tours among the
walled cities of the coast to climbing adventures on limestone
sea cliffs, to specialized, clothing-free "naturist"
excursions (some eastern European traditions die hard). White-water
rafting is particularly popular, especially on the big rivers
like the Zrmanja, Krka, and Krupa, and is the mainstay of
Keleman's business. As we readied our boats by the Zrmanja,
a river that was almost untouched five years ago, a dozen
sit-atop kayaks floated by. It was clear that with the war
behind, Keleman has to fight something new: competition. "For
a long, long time I was the only one promoting rafting and
kayaking here; now it seems everyone with a van is an outfitter,"
off base. A half dozen kayak outfitters have sprung up in
the past year or two, and the explosion means there are plenty
of shorter, less committing sea kayaking options available
to tourists. In the summer it's commonplace to paddle out
solo or with a guide around the islands of the southern archipelago,
especially among the tightly clustered Elafitis north of Dubrovnik.
Probably the cushiest way to go is on one of the new boat-assisted
paddle trips where passengers on a live-aboard are shuttled
between prime kayaking spots. Still, even with all this development,
there's not yet the infrastructure to handle a long expedition
like ours. For all 400 miles (644 kilometers) of our expedition
we'll be on our own, bedding down on deserted beaches, under
unused fishing boats, in vacant marinas, or, when we need
a break, in a hotel in town.
Zrmanja, the paddling was marked by shallow rapids and one
big drop. It had certainly never hosted big sea kayaks like
ours, for reasons made obvious as we lined them with some
difficulty over a 40-foot (12-meter) horseshoe waterfall.
Keleman knows the river impossibly well, and as we wrestled
to get our boats safely down the falls, I saw him fish out
his cell phone mid-stroke and take a new booking. Fine, but
it was a little disconcerting to see someone back-paddling
casually above certain death.
base of the falls, we loaded back up and paddled out into
the froth, getting a good dousing in the spray. The rest of
the day, we ran Class II and III rapids and pushed the boats
around smaller falls, until taking them out for good above
a metal bridge. A sign that hung nearby was initially confusing:
A hatchet with a slash through it. As in "No Hatchets."
Keleman explained that the Croatian word for worry sounds
a lot like the word for ax. Thus, the Zrmanja, 40-foot (12-meter)
falls or not, is a worry-free zone.
A few days
after bidding adieu to the Queen Mother of the Sea, we are
continuing our journey southward, paddling glassy waters on
the exposed ocean side of the unpopulated Ras?ip Island, still
in Kornati National Park. The day is a scorcher, and by mid-afternoon
we are hungry for even a hint of shade. Spying a slight overhang
at the base of a 200-foot-high (61-meter-high) wall, I head
for a slash of darkness and spot something floating nearby.
At first I think it's a pole from a sailboat, used to hook
buoys, but closer inspection reveals it's a shiny and sophisticated
speargun, highly illegal inside park boundaries.
as hard as we can, trying to free it without tipping over,
its spear is firmly stuck below the surface. Cutting the line,
the young Croatian paddler traveling with us, Domagoj Papac,
a law student and kayaking guide, sticks the gun into his
cockpit, snugging his spray skirt tight. "It would be
a drag to be caught with it," he says, but it seems too
valuable a find to leave behind.
wonder what it was stuck to?" Pete says as we paddle
to this article on the National Geographic website, along
with video and more photographs of the above story:
Geographic: Destination of the Year - Exploring the New Croatia