Why Luxury Small Ship Cruises are the Big New Way to Explore Croatia

Many years ago, I visited seven islands in the southern Caribbean on a massive cruise ship with oh, just a few thousand of my fellow passengers. Most of our time was spent on the boat, we did little to impact the respective local economies, and I left with very few memories of actually experiencing the individual personalities of those beautiful islands.

I decided I’d never set foot on a ship of that size again; it just didn’t complement my desire for soaking up those priceless bits of local culture while traveling.

And here we are – recently, I’ve been hearing more and more about the rising star within Croatia’s booming travel industry: the luxury small ship cruise. There are several purveyors who are offering this type of experience but it was Unforgettable Croatia that captured my attention due to their social responsibility to sustainable tourism and marine conversation work with the Blue World Institute, along with their dedication to working with Croatian locals (both on and off the ship) to guarantee a hyperlocal experience while delivering best-in-class amenities. At this point in my life, I’m no longer interested in “roughing it” during my hard-earned holiday – I need to know that my palate will be satiated, my appetite for authentic experiences will be met, and that I’ll leave feeling like the trip was worth both my time and money. I lie somewhere between the Sail Week or The Yacht Week type of adventure (mostly 20-somethings who are content to DIY their own meals in more of a party setting) and the decadent bling of a multi-million yacht type-of-experience (anyone willing to adopt me?). But I digress. The deluxe small ship cruise experience on the Katarina Line sounded just right.

The Ave Maria small cruise ship.

Aboard the Ave Maria ship: built by and owned by local Croatians.

Though I had swooned over many photos of the gorgeous Ave Maria ship (built in 2018) leading up to my cruise departure, I wasn’t prepared for just how dazzled I’d be once I laid eyes on her. My cabin was done up in a palette of deep mauve, crisp white and soft gray hues, creating a modern yet tasteful aesthetic. I was also surprised by how large my bathroom was – there was plenty of room to unpack my toiletries and take a very comfortable shower without any fancy maneuvers. And the wardrobe! I quickly unpacked and hung up all my clothing that I’d be wearing for the next seven days before heading out to greet the old town of Dubrovnik. Later that evening on the boat, we were welcomed with a special cocktail, a lovely 4-course dinner, and easy conversation with some of the other 38 passengers. From a foreign service diplomat and Latin language professor to brilliant entrepreneurs and beaming retirees, our group was comprised of some of the best conversationalists and storytellers I’ve ever met.

Cabin on the Ave Maria ship

Cabin on the Ave Maria ship.

En-suite bathroom on the Ave Maria.

En-suite bathroom on the Ave Maria.

Wardrobe on the Ave Maria small luxury cruise ship.

Plenty of room in the wardrobe on the Ave Maria ship.

Gelato in Dubrovnik.

Gelato on the famed Stradun in old town, Dubrovnik.

The next morning, we sailed to our first port of Slano. Though heavy rain was acutely promised by the weather gods, we all maintained a positive attitude as we knew it would only add to the authenticity of the experience. And our first excursion was to Ston, land of one of my favorite epicurean delights: Adriatic oysters! A short bus ride and hurried walk in our rain ponchos later and we were all cozily settled in on a small boat. There, we watched as our local hosts expertly shucked oysters right before our eyes. Between the pelting rain, the freshest oysters we had ever tasted, shots of domestic herbal liqueur and an accompanying dish of traditional mussels “buzara”, we passengers quickly turned into friends after warmly bonding during our authentic and memorable experience.

Freshly-shucked oysters in Mali Ston.

Freshly-shucked oysters in Mali Ston.

Later that evening, we all met in the decadent dining room for the week’s most anticipated event onboard the ship: the Captain’s Dinner! I was fortunate enough to get seated next to the captain himself. Did you know that small cruise ships in Croatia are actually owned by the captain? It’s very typical that members of his family also work as part of the ship’s crew. And because the captain is literally so invested, they’ll work that much smarter to ensure you’ll enjoy the adventure on his or her vessel and you can feel good knowing the ship is built solely by Croatian locals with a 100% local Croatian crew working onboard.

Captain's Dinner on the Ave Maria.

Enjoying the Captain’s Dinner on the Ave Maria.

Our dinner exceeded all of my ambitious epicurean expectations and even went beyond. We were treated to local delicacies such as cuttlefish risotto, grouper topped with škampi, and a flourless chocolate lava cake (that the talented chefs were able to modify to meet the restrictions of my gluten-free diet!). As one would expect of an experience of this caliber, there was plenty of sparkling wine to go around while we listened to a traditional Croatian band perform Dalmatian classics. We spent the rest of the night dancing on the forward deck and witnessing some of our new friends’ best Michel Jackson-inspired moves! What a way to break the proverbial ice.

Grouper with škampi on the Ave Maria.

Grouper with škampi on the Ave Maria.

Chocolate lava cake on the Ave Maria.

Chocolate lava cake for dessert.

Not surprisingly, I think we all slept in a bit the following morning. A few hours later, we greeted the pristine nature on the island of Mljet. I had been greatly looking forward to visiting Mljet National Park and a park pass was included as part of our planned excursion. Following a short hike, we took a boat over to the centuries-old Benadictine Monastery of St. Mary and then had time for additional exploration. On board that evening, we enjoyed what was yet another epic dinner.

Small lake in Mljet National Park

Shades of blue and green in Mljet National Park.

Leaning trees in Mljet National Park

Pine trees overlooking the small lake in Mljet National Park.

I typically refer to myself as someone who’s not a “breakfast person”, but I discovered an early morning appetite that I hadn’t realized even existed. Our daily breakfast buffets consisted of a beautiful spread of fresh fruit, pastries, Croatian cakes, eggs done several ways, bacon, sausage, and several varieties of meats and cheeses. When I do breakfast, it’s savory all the way and my tastes were covered (and then some)!

Breakfast on board the Ave Maria ship.

Our daily breakfast spread!

En route to our next port of Korčula, we sunbathed on the Ave Maria’s upper deck and the captain anchored for a swim stop in the crystalline waters surrounding the island. We then disembarked and followed our local guide on a walking tour of incomparably stunning Korčula Town.

Sundeck on the Ave Maria ship.

Sundeck on the Ave Maria.

Korčula Town

Korčula Town promenade.

Gradient shades of Blue in Korčula Town.

Gradient shades of Blue in Korčula Town.

Views from Korčula bell tower

Bell tower views in Korčula Town.

Later that evening, the time had come for our next bespoke excursion: a traditional peka dinner at Agroturizam Grubinjac, a 5-minute drive from Korčula Town. Peka is a rustic Dalmatian style of cooking resulting in the most perfectly-roasted meats and veggies. This delicious dish comes to life when it’s slowly cooked under a cast-iron dome which is covered by hot embers. We arrived at the property right before sunset, where we were afforded panoramic views of the Korčula archipelago in the distance. I think we were even more enamored by our proximity to an olive tree grove on the property’s grounds and the grape vine-wrapped terrace. Truly, this simple yet charming collection of rustic beauty is the real Dalmatia at her very best.

Outdoor space at Agroturizam Grubinjac.

Outdoor space at Agroturizam Grubinjac.

Before the peka was ready, we indulged in housemade herbal and carob liqueurs along with grilled zucchini, eggplant, and a cheese and pršut (smoked ham) platter. But of course, the peka stood out as the pièce de résistance! I may have whispered to the chef that his masterful take on the lamb and veal peka is even better than my father’s excellent version. Sorry, dad! Our peka outing was an optional excursion and I highly recommend it as the experience was truly remarkable.

Domestic Croatian liqueurs.

Travarica and rogač liqueurs, made from herbs and carob.

Rustic dinner party in Korčula.

Rustic table setting at Agroturizam Grubinjac.

Grilled zucchini.

Grilled zucchini appetizer at Agroturizam Grubinjac.

Lamb and veal peka at Agroturizam Grubinjac.

Group photo at Agroturizam Grubinjac.

Our group enjoying our excursion to the fullest!

Due to forecasted port congestion in Hvar on Thursday, our clever captain pulled an audible and instead, we sailed to Hvar instead of Vis on Wednesday. Following a dip in the clear blue waters, we made our way to Hvar Town and embarked on a walking tour. I opted to walk up to the Spanish Fortress, which delivers the most celebrated view of Hvar and the surrounding archipelago. Wow!

Spanish Fortress views on Hvar.

A view of the Hvar archipelago from the Spanish Fortress.

At the Spanish Fortress on Hvar.

So Hvar, so good.

I had decided to participate in an optional excursion later that afternoon, which consisted of an intimate driving tour of Hvar island by vintage buggy. One of our stops included a guided tasting at Vina Tomić in the town of Jelsa. Our tasting in the gorgeous cellar included an exquisite food pairing alongside the four wine selections. I fell in love with the rosé – a dry Provence style – and naturally had to take a bottle home with me!

Cellar room at Tomić winery.

Cellar room at Tomić winery.

Food pairing at Tomić winery.

Food pairing at Tomić winery.

Glass of Tomić rosé.

Tomić Opolo Nobile rosé.

Buggy tour of Hvar island.

Buggy tour of Hvar island.

The next day, we set sail in the direction of Vis island. But first: a stop at the famous Blue Cave on the island of Biševo! Though the queue was understandably long as it was the height of high season, the time passed fairly quickly as we enjoyed cocktails and swam in the vivid jewel-toned waters near the outskirts of the cave. I wasn’t prepared for the haunting beauty of the cave – make sure to bring your DSLR camera for photos that capture the intensity of the blue hues!

Swimming cove in Biševo.

Jewel-tones on Biševo island.

On our way to the Blue Cave.

On our way to the Blue Cave!

Inside the Blue Cave.

Touring the interior of the Blue Cave.

Following our excursion at the Blue Cave, we were dropped off at our ship via speedboat (so convenient) and enjoyed yet another fabulous daily 4-course lunch. Today, our chefs had expertly prepared delicate Adriatic sea bream baked in parchment. I became so obsessed with the salad dressing made fresh every day onboard that our server Ina graciously offered to handwrite the recipe for me! I had told myself that I wouldn’t be that person who puts on five pounds during a one-week cruise, but alas – I think I was that person. Every course was just too delectable to pass up!

Sea bream baked in parchment.

Sea bream baked in parchment.

I had chosen to more extensively explore Vis island via a custom excursion, which consisted of our local guide picking us up in a vintage Land Rover Defender. I couldn’t hide my excitement as I’ve enjoyed a bit of a love affair with this vehicle since my teenage years. Our knowledgeable guide drove us clear across the island, showing us the remains of military fortresses, tunnels and bunkers accompanying his insights on Vis’ former role as a major Yugoslav military base. We were also exposed to the austere beauty of the island, stopping to pick wild blackberries while taking in the wild oregano and sage-scented air. Heaven, truly! Though I live in Croatia part-time and have explored many of the islands, this served as my inaugural visit to Vis. I quite madly fell in love with the island and am already planning a return trip. It’s true, Vis is my new favorite.

Land Rover Defender on Vis island.

Vintage jeep tour of Vis island.

Exploring Vis island.

Exploring rural Vis island.

Views from Vis

Tiny uninhabited island off of Vis.

Vis Island coastline.

Saturated blue hues of the Vis coastline.

Hearty vegetation on Vis island.

Hearty vegetation on Vis island.

Wild blackberries on Vis island.

Wild blackberries on Vis island.

Vintage jeep tour of Vis island.

Enjoying our excellent excursion!

Our cruise was coming close to an end, but we still had some ground to cover. First up on our Friday afternoon: a stop in Bol on the island of Brač. The famous Zlatni Rat beach is aptly named so, as its distinctive shape resembles a horn and changes according to the wind patterns. Bol is known for its gorgeous slices of Adriatic sea stacked in varying gradient blue shades. After returning to the ship, we disembarked for a walking tour of the old town of Split. The best views of stunning Split, in my opinion, can be enjoyed from the Saint Domnius bell tower for a nominal entrance fee.

Coffee on the Ave Maria.

My morning coffee on the Ave Maria ship.

Parfait of blues in Bol.

Parfait of blues in Bol, Brač.

Views from Split bell tower

Views from the Saint Domnius bell tower in Split.

Panoramic views of Split

Panoramic views over Split.

And far too soon, our cruise had come to an end but I’m left with memories I’ll cherish for a lifetime. I have so much gratitude for our truly wonderful crew: captain Ante; bartenders/servers Josip and Ina; chefs Dominik and Jelena; sailors Jure and Roko; and housekeeper Antonela. Often I saw members of the crew pitching in and helping their fellow crewmates whether it was clearing glassware or tidying up a cabin. And last but not least: hats off to our truly outstanding cruise director Vjeko! You made our experience seamlessly fabulous, from start to finish. I would unequivocally recommend this Unforgettable Croatia deluxe cruise to someone seeing Croatia for the first time or to the enthusiast who has visited many times! Honeymooners, families with children, retirees and singles all seemed equally comfortable. Even as a part-time local, I can say that I discovered so much on this trip and it’s all thanks to Unforgettable Croatia’s team of travel experts’ dedication to delivering only the most high-quality, authentic experiences. Honestly, I would love to go on another Unforgettable brand cruise to explore other Croatian islands in the grandest of style.

If you’re interested in learning more about Unforgettable Croatia’s cruises and tailor-made tours, please visit their website.

Champagne on the Ave Maria.

One last glass of champagne aboard the Ave Maria.

Our crew on the Ave Maria.

Our amazing crew on our beautiful ship!