Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Island-hopping along the Dalmatian Coast

Sun, seafood and sailing in one of the hottest destinations of the year

SPLIT, Croatia - Up and down the stone piers of Split's raucous port we walked, past a melange of ferries, yachts, tugboats and fishing vessels. Up and down.

Past double-decker sailing yachts with racks of bikes onboard. Past fishermen on low-slung dinghies, squinting at the clouds. Past hobbyists racing 4-foot-long remote sailboats like it was Croatia's own America's Cup.

But nowhere, nowhere was the catamaran that was supposed to whisk us out to Croatia's sun-drenched coastal islands.

"I think it's called the 'Navratilova,'" my husband said.

Thirty minutes later, when we did find the Novalja, we had to laugh. It was a catamaran ferry, not a sailboat. A speedy, muscular workhorse that links Split, the main port along Croatia's upper Dalmatian coast, to the islands of Brac, Hvar, Solta and beyond.

Our Croatian adventure had begun.

Spanish beaches too overbuilt for you? Italy and Greece too crowded? French Riviera sound too expensive? Maybe it's time to go island-hopping in Croatia.

Located east of Italy across the Adriatic Sea, Croatia expects over 200,000 American visitors this year — nearly double the number that arrived in 2005. It also tied for the No. 2 hot destination this year in a survey by the U.S. Tour Operators.

And no wonder. The water is clean and clear, the sun constant, the crowds easy to ditch (except in Dubrovnik), the Croatian kuna a mere 5.33 to the dollar. I usually snort at tourist-advertising slogans, but Croatia's new one — "The Mediterranean as it once was" — is right on the money.

It's been quite the turnaround from the four-year war that engulfed the country in the mid-1990s as Yugoslavia disintegrated. Croatia emerged with a 1,100-mile coast coast; the crown jewel, the walled city of Dubrovnik — a UNESCO heritage site — and enough islands (1,185) to make Greek tourism officials sweat.

Plus, unlike other European destinations (anyone been to London lately?) Americans can afford the trip.

Read the Full story by Sheila Norman-Culp: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20163363/from/ET/

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