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National Geographic: Croatia Destination of the Year
They're 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.

Morning 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."

Sitting 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 less.

On 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 on them.

The days 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.

Our sea 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.

Keleman 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.

Today tourism 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.

With Croatia 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," he joked.

He's not 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.

On the 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.

At the 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.

Tugging 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.

"I wonder what it was stuck to?" Pete says as we paddle away.

Link to this article on the National Geographic website, along with video and more photographs of the above story:

National Geographic: Destination of the Year - Exploring the New Croatia

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About Croatia
General Information | Culture & Heritage | Croatian Cuisine | National Geographic: Croatia #1 Destination in 2006 | Lonely Planet: Croatia #1 Destination in 2005 | Croatia ranked among the safest destinations in the Mediterranean | Brochures, Links & Other Goodies

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