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Route: SPLIT - KORČULA ISLAND - MLJET ISLAND - DUBROVNIK - PELJEŠAC - HVAR ISLAND - BRAČ ISLAND - SPLIT
For a cruise you’ll never forget, start by forgetting those giant liners crammed with casinos, arcades and cinemas. This is seafaring the old-fashioned way, Dalmatian-island-hopping with the wind in your face on a small 20-cabin motor or motor sailing ship, anchoring in small harbours and sunlit bays, swimming and snorkelling in turquoise waters and exploring Roman and Renaissance landmarks. All cruises include flights and transfers, half board, en-suite cabin and Croatian magic as standard.
What's immediately striking about Split, apart from being the home town of Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanišević, is that the town centre is built up inside and around an enormous Roman palace. This was the ultimate retirement home built for the Emperor Diocletian in 305 AD, a fortress- sized mini-city of 9 ½ acres which would have had a small army of staff and opulence beyond imaginings.
A walk round the well-preserved Palace walls is a good place to start, but Split has acquired many exotic influences since Roman times, ranging through Byzantine, Venetian, Napoleonic, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian. It's a fun place just to mooch around, with shops and boutiques built into the palace walls, street traders, and random a capella choirs popping up on street corners. If you want some peace and quiet in cool, pine-scented air, Marjan Hill to the west is a wooded promontory that gives great views of the peninsula.
Dubrovnik (Turkish Dobro-Venedik - 'Good Venice') has been a tourist magnet since jet travel first discovered the former Yugoslavia. But if you're expecting some '70s era high-rise holiday hell, you'll be pleasantly surprised, because Dubrovnik is a superbly-preserved medieval town. There are intact fortifications, walls, battlements, round towers and arrow slits, all built into the karst cliffs like a fine set of teeth. The city is rated as one of the 10 best medieval walled towns in the world, now also a film location in the HBO series Game of Thrones. A short sightseeing tour of the city is included.
Things to see include: a fine Natural History museum; Mount Srđ with fine views from the top and a cable car to take you there; a Cathedral that contains numerous holy relics including, they claim, one of Christ's nappies; a Dominican monastery with beautiful Gothic cloisters; a Franciscan monastery with Europe's oldest still-working pharmacy; the 16th century arcaded customs house of Sponza Palace, which is Europe's second oldest synagogue, and the house of Marin Držić, Croatia's most famous playwright.
Mljet Island & National Park
This is a lush National Park with deep forests, gorgeous beaches, vineyards, olive groves, sea caves and coves and even a Roman Palace, second only in size to Diocletian's palace at Split. Mljet was called Melita (land of honey) in Roman times, which causes historians some confusion as Malta has the same derivation. Today it's a National Park, but in the 12th century it was dominated by a Benedictine monastery, built on an island in the Big Lake (Veliko Jezero). In a spectacular failure of forward-thinking, the monks tried to solve their transport problems by digging a huge canal from their lake to the south coast. The result was that both of the island's freshwater lakes turned into seawater lakes. The island was also infested with snakes, a problem which the locals addressed by releasing a shipload of mongooses. The mongooses got rid of the snakes alright - then ate all the birds. You can hire bicycles to explore the area, or else kayaks, scooters and even cars, and today Mljet is a paradise for exotic wildlife - if they can keep out of the way of the mongooses...
Around the time that Scotland's hero William Wallace was giving the English a very bad time, across the Mediterranean the swaggering regional superpower was Venice, and Korčula was one of its island territories. In 1298 the Venetians picked a fight with the Genoese and were defeated at the Battle of Korčula. Prisoners were rounded up, and one Venetian galley commander found himself in a Genoese gaol, where he passed the time by telling a lot of tall tales about going to China and meeting Kublai Khan. Posterity might easily have forgotten these tales, but they were published, and 'the world's first tourist' became a celebrity. Whether Korčula was really Marco Polo's birthplace is hotly disputed, but there's no denying the island's rich historical treasures. It's a green island, with gardens full of oranges and lemons, lovely seashores, charming and picturesque villages, old seamen's houses and little votive churches. The town of Korčula itself has one of the best-preserved medieval quarters in the Mediterranean, with narrow streets threading between medieval houses, Venetian palaces and Gothic cloisters. If Marco Polo really came from here, one wonders why he ever left.
This is a heavenly island with pine-forested hills, vineyards, olive groves, orchards and lavender fields, Hvar describes itself as 'the sunniest spot in Europe' and is regularly listed in the top 10 islands by Condé Nast Traveler Magazine. Hvar town is set in a bay at the south-western edge of the island and was a Venetian stronghold and naval base, and still features city walls and many public buildings from the period. Today it's an upmarket and jet-set yachting destination with art galleries, museums and exhibitions, and it also boasts one of the oldest surviving theatres in Europe.
This picturesque village sits in a bay on the south side of the Pelješac peninsula and is well known for its outstanding local wines. The water here is crystal clear and full of exotic fish. There are also ancient sunken vessels scattered about and wreck diving is a favourite activity.
This is the largest of the Elafiti Islands (elaphos - Greek for deer, not elephant!), and olives, figs, vines, carob-trees, almond-trees, oranges and citrus fruit are cultivated here. The island has some lovely beaches and is also famed for its numerous palm tree species.
Bol on Brač Island
A fisherman's village turned tourist town, Bol is on the south side of Brač Island and is home to Ziatni Rat, a sand spit that juts out into the sea and is the most famous beach on the Dalmatian coast.
This tour is organised and operated by Omega Holidays plc ABTA V4782 ATOL 6081