Wine excursions play a key role as Croatian ports attract increasing numbers of cruise ships. Guests can also sample culinary treats as they bicycle around, or otherwise explore, each town and the country’s many (10 at last count) UNESCO World Heritage sites. In addition, a cruise to Croatia may fuel your clients’ desire for a return visit with a stay at some of the many luxury boutique hotels there. Either way, they’ll discover for themselves the reasons why Croatia is rapidly gaining popularity as a leisure travel destination.
Vines and Wines From Port to Port
A land dotted with vineyards, both on its mainland and islands, Croatia has more than 300 geographically defined wine districts in an area the size of West Virginia. Vineyards extend from the Dalmatian Coast to the Danube River’s floodplains. In fact, Kastela is where Zinfandel’s ancestor, Crljenak Kaštelanski, was ultimately discovered. Increasingly, cruisers are finding Croatian ports and options for wine tasting on cruise line schedules.
In a blog post this summer, small-ship luxury line Windstar Cruises cited the growing popularity of Croatia’s destinations. Its Wind Surf calls at Hvar and Dubrovnik on a “South Italy and Croatia” itinerary from Rome to Venice, departing May 25, 2018. Guests can choose one shore excursion that heads for Komaji so they taste wines of the renowned Crvik family of vintners.
“There are many facets to Croatia that make it an ideal destination for American travelers,” says Daniel Hauptfeld of Croatia’s Katarina Line, which operates guaranteed weekly departures from late April through mid-October on more than 50 small ships. Sailing from Opatija, Split and Dubrovnik, Katarina Line books 95 percent of its voyages via travel agents and plans to meet many more U.S. agents during the Professional Travel Agents of North America (PTANA) East Coast shows in late September.
Another small-ship option is Ponant’s “Best of Croatia” itinerary on Le Lyrial that sails on May 10, August 23 and September 13, 2018 roundtrip from Venice to the Croatian ports of Hvar, Dubrovnik, Split, Korcula, Zadar and Rovinj, and the Montenegro port of Kotor. In Dubrovnik, active cruisers who love wine can book the line’s “Konavle Biking Tour,” a five-mile journey on a 21-speed mountain bike. Starting in Zastolje village, a stop is made at the 15th-century mill Divanovi for sampling dry figs, cheese, Dalmatian prosciutto, natural juice, coffee and cake; the mill’s host will explain traditional olive oil production. Then the tour will continue to Snjeznica mountain, the medieval fortress Soko and the Martinovic facility in Zastolje for wine tasting. Tauck also uses Le Lyrial for its 10-day Venice & Dalmatian Coast itineraries.
But it’s not just small ships that deliver wine experiences. Guests sailing on Royal Caribbean International’s ships visiting Dubrovnik can opt for a six-hour “Dalmatian Coastline and Wine Tasting” tour. In Orasac, cruisers will learn how olive oil is produced at a horse-drawn mill and see Croatia’s oyster farms and salt pans at Ston. The highlight is a light seafood lunch at Mali Ston and wine tasting of the Peljesac Peninsula’s white and red varietals at a Ponikve wine cellar.
Carnival Horizon, Carnival Cruise Line’s newest vessel, will operate a 10-day roundtrip cruise from Barcelona on April 29. During a port day at Dubrovnik, a good option is the five-hour “Country Home in Konavle” tour. Cruisers visit the small village of Poljica, where the Glavic family will welcome them into a historic, rural family home set amid vineyards. Today, the Glavics produce grape brandy, olive oil and wine. Clients will be served a traditional Croatian lunch and home-made wine.
Combining wine tasting with an active adventure? During Dubrovnik port calls, MSC Cruises offers a half-day “Croatian Countryside, Wine Tasting and Bike Ride” excursion. It explores the Konavle Region’s countryside with cypress trees, vineyards, olive groves and traditional villages. In Zastolje, at the Brajkovic venue — surrounded by cypress and vineyards — guests will be treated to a wine tasting session with cheese and Dalmatian dry-cured ham.
It’s not only cruise lines that offer tours with wine tasting. ShoreTrips.com, owned and run by former travel agents, offers an appealing tour, “Guided Biking and Wine Tasting” at Dubrovnik; this shore excursion includes a pedaling excursion via bicycle through Gruda, quite scenic with the river, vineyards and olive groves. A stop will be made at a 600-year-old Franciscan monastery, a cool swimming spot and a local winery. ShoreTrips.com works with travel agents.
Split’s Old Town provides more opportunities for sampling Croatia’s wines and cuisine.
Another good option for those who love wine is to book a private car and driver, to take in a full range of viniculture interests and tastings. For example, Oceania Cruises’ Riviera offers a 12-day “Mediterranean Flair” voyage from Barcelona to Venice on August 1, 2018, with a port call at Dubrovnik. Guests might opt to arrange an “Executive Collection Full Day Car” program with the ship’s shore desk. Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Serenity also sails a seven-day cruise roundtrip from Venice on September 14, 2019, with visits to Dubrovnik and Split, and private luxury car/driver arrangements will allow guests to explore wine-focused sites in comfort.
Agents whose clients like to explore independently might look for itineraries with late nights in port or overnights. Celebrity Cruises’ “Adriatic & Italy” voyage on August 30, 2018, also calls at Dubrovnik, arriving at noon and staying until 10 p.m. Guests can head ashore independently in the early evening for dinner and wine tasting. One highly rated Old Town wine bar is the cozy D’Vino Wine Bar Dubrovnik with 60 wines by the glass (global and local vintages) and free Wi-Fi.
Less trafficked Croatian cruise ports include Hvar, Korcula and Rovinj, to name a few. On May 11, 2018, a 22-day “Mediterranean Spring” cruise of Seabourn Encore sails from Piraeus (Athens) to Venice, Italy with a Hvar call. Seabourn’s guests might choose the half-day “Hvar Highlights: UNESCO Partner Tour,” with a journey to Starigrad to tour the Dominican Monastery, home to priceless books and paintings, and to Vrisnik village for brandy-and-fig tastings, a wine tasting and Hvar specialties tasting.
Calling at Rovinj is Silversea Cruises’ Silver Whisper, sailing roundtrip from Venice on July 3, 2018. If clients book this voyage by September 30, they’ll receive free roundtrip economy air or a business-class upgrade from just $599 each way. Why not opt for the “Seaside Resort of Porec and Wine Tasting” excursion? Guests will take a walking tour of the old stone town of Porec (Parentium in Roman times) and visit the 6th-century Episcopal complex of the Euphrasian Basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After viewing Roman temple ruins and the Istrian Parliament Building, it’s on to Kruncici and the vineyards of the Matosevic family, often credited with reviving Istria’s commercial wine industry. Cruisers will tour the production facilities and taste vintages in the wine cellar.
Also calling at Rovinj is Star Clippers, during its three-night Star Flyer cruise roundtrip from Venice on September 12, 2018. Another longer voyage, the 11-night “Greece, Montenegro and Croatia” itinerary, calls instead at Dubrovnik, Korcula and Hvar.
On a Korcula island port call, Cunard Line’s guests might choose the “Croatian Vines & Wines” excursion, which involves a short boat ride to Orebic where a motorcoach will pass country villages and vineyards en route to Trstenik. The tour’s highlight? It’s wine tasting at the Grgich Winery’s cellars, followed by a visit to the Bartulovic family’s home for a Croatian lunch with such specialties as goat and sheep’s cheese, salted sardines and salad.
For clients seeking a wine-themed cruise, on June 16, 2018, SeaDream Yacht Club offers a 10-day, wine-themed “Civitavecchia (Rome) to Venice” voyage on the 112-passenger SeaDream I. It includes an onboard “Winemaker’s Dinner” with a special menu complemented by top cuvees from the visiting winemaker. SeaDream I can maneuver into secluded coves and smaller destinations that many big ships can’t, plus it still calls at big port destinations like Dubrovnik. On this voyage, clients can select wine focused excursions in Italy, Montenegro and Croatia.
On a Korcula port call, SeaDream’s guests who are oenophiles can opt for the “Peljesac Wines and Vineyards” land adventure. It starts with a boat ride and then a visit to the new Karta Katarina cellar; its winery and vineyards are perched along the Adriatic with dramatic Dalmatian Coast views. The excursion then will continue to Potomje village for a tasting at the Matusko family winery and to Prizdrina for another tasting at the Bartulovic family winery. Also sailing to Korcula in 2018 is Scenic Eclipse, Scenic’s new oceangoing yacht.
Split: Croatia’s Largest Port City
Another bigger port of call is Split, where Costa Cruises offers an “Omis and Split Riviera” shore excursion. It begins with a coastal drive and then heads to Omis at the mouth of the Cetina River. There, clients will sail via a river boat to Radman’s Mills for ham, cheese and homemade bread to accompany a wine tasting with live music. Then it’s back to Split for a walking tour.
During Norwegian Cruise Line’s 2018 Split port calls, one option is the “Scenic Dalmatia, Village & Tasting” tour. Guests will tour Trogir, a UNESCO World Heritage Site brimming with stone houses, palaces, churches, monasteries, towers and walls, and Burni village with visits to local homes and tasting of home-made wine and culinary specialties. Norwegian also calls at Dubrovnik.
A call at Dubrovnik on Carnival Horizon’s April 29 cruise from Barcelona includes an optional excursion to Poljica for lunch and homemade wine at the Glavic family’s farmhouse.
Also calling at Split is Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Voyager, which will operate a September 6, 2018, voyage between Venice and Civitavecchia (Rome). It typically may offer “A Taste of Split,” which includes a visit to the Mestrovic Gallery, guided Split walking tour and a drive to Vidjakovi tavern, a restored wine cellar in a 100-year-old house near Bacvice Beach. The tavern stocks a wide selection of Croatian wines with an emphasis on Dalmatian vintages and RSSC guests will taste smoked ham, cheese and domestic desserts, accompanied by those local wines.
For independent cruisers, one valuable resource is Split Wine Tasting. It offers one-hour wine tastings with cheese, olives and home-made bread at the 1,700-year-old Diocletian Palace; a sommelier is available to suggest the best Dalmatian vintages. It also offers a three-hour combination walking tour and wine tasting.
Some voyages that include Croatian ports are longer itineraries. New for 2018, Pacific Princess will sail 12- to 28-day voyages for Princess Cruises throughout the Mediterranean, including Croatia, Greece, Malta and Monte Carlo. Voyages to Antiquity’s Aegean Odyssey operates a 22-day “Grand Aegean Experience, Dalmatia & Venice” itinerary, departing April 27 from Athens to Venice. Among the calls are Split and Dubrovnik (overnight).
Another longer voyage is Holland America Line’s 24-day “Mediterranean Tapestry and Adriatic Dream” on Oosterdam, departing June 5, from Barcelona. One wine-savory option is the premium line’s “Taste and Panoramas of Dubrovnik” excursion, which includes a scenic drive, visits to Komaji and the Crvik family vineyards, and a chance to meet the producer himself, Andro Crvik. Also included are an olive oil experience at Oracas and a Dubrovnik Old Town walking tour.
Fifty-five miles north of Split is Sibenik, nestled in a major wine-producing region. Azamara Club Cruises calls both there and at Dubrovnik during its nine-night “Redentore Festival Voyage” from Rome to Venice, departing July 7. During a Sibenik call, cruisers can explore the town’s narrow alleys, dine on fresh Adriatic seafood and sip a glass of local red “babic.”
On multiple 2018 eight-day “Italian Sojourn” sailings between Rome and Venice, Viking Ocean Cruises also calls at Sibenik. Oenophiles who choose a “Bibich Winery & Scenic Skradin” excursion will enjoy a gourmet wine pairing at a family winery, visit Skradin and continue to Plastovo village for a six-to-eight-course Croatian lunch; each course is paired with Bibich wines.
Croatia’s Growing Popularity
Travel to Croatia, the Eastern European nation with more than 1,000 miles of Adriatic coastline, has been steadily increasing over the last few years. Tourism companies, according to the Ministry of Tourism, plan to invest at least $571 million this year on travel to the region, up $151 million in 2016. Tourism to vacation facilities and resorts alone increased 3.3 percent between 2015 and 2016, with the majority of visitors coming from the UK.
The scenic island of Hvar is one of several destinations in Croatia that are gaining favor with independent American travelers.
On this side of the Atlantic, Croatia is gaining popularity among travelers interested in visiting Europe during the next two years — up from 7 percent in 2016 to 9 percent this year. So says MMGY Global’s 2017 Portrait of American Travelers, which also notes that among Millennials considering a European vacation that number jumps to 14 percent.
Tom Armstrong, corporate communications manager of Tauck, tells Travel Agent that “Croatia is increasingly popular with Tauck guests, as evidenced by the fact that we’ve gone from a single itinerary featuring Croatia in 2016 to three trips that include the country this year.”
Avanti Destinations reported seeing a 200 percent increase in bookings to the region, doubling the number of bookings in 2016.
“Many destinations in Croatia are relatively small, have limited space, and close at the end of October, so travel agents are advised to book early to reserve space for 2018,” says Tami Cortez, Avanti’s product manager for Southern Europe. “Among the most popular areas for independent American travelers to visit are the stunning Dalmatian coast, scenic islands of Hvar and Kor˘cula, and the walled medieval town of Dubrovnik.”
Leigh Barnes, regional director for North America at Intrepid Travel, tells us: “Croatia’s cities, coastlines, UNESCO World Heritage sites and thriving food and wine scene have made it increasingly popular with our travelers and we expect this to continue.”
Croatia Hotel Update
For clients who want more time to explore Croatia, perhaps those whose appetite for the country was whetted on a cruise, there are luxury and boutique hotels in the major tourism cities that can accommodate them. Here are some of the newest ones.
On the Istria peninsula, Hotel Spirito Santo Palazzo Storico, a new luxury pied-à-terre, opened in August in the fishing port of Rovinj. Housed in a historic building (circa 1920s) that once belonged to a noble Italian family, it is the result of a meticulous restoration project that incorporates three adjacent buildings.
Hotel Spirito Santo Palazzo Storico, which opened in August in the port of Rovinj, has seven guestrooms housed in a historic building.
The hotel has just seven guestrooms, some of which have fireplaces and / or terraces with views over the old town’s rooftops and the Adriatic Sea beyond. All have free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs and other contemporary conveniences. One of the most spacious is the Trevisol Room, which comes with a fireplace, restored fresco, and Chopard amenities in the bathrooms.
The Spirito Santo lounge bar serves a variety of local Istrian specialties (prosciutto, carpaccio, truffles, asparagus and fresh seafood) paired with a variety of wines. In the colder months, a fireplace creates a cozy ambiance.
In April, the Royal Blue Hotel opened on the waterfront in Dubrovnik, less than three miles from the Old City. The 81 guestrooms come in two categories: Deluxe Rooms with Balcony and Deluxe Sea View Rooms with Balcony. Facilities include a wellness zone, two outdoor pools, a virtual golf simulator and the only rooftop swimming pool in Dubrovnik. The beach club, certified with the “Blue Flag” for the cleanliness of the sea, provides free beach towels, sun loungers and parasols for guests.
Also new in Dubrovnik is the Excelsior Hotel, in the city’s Ploce neighborhood. Originally dating to 1913, it reopened earlier this year after undergoing a massive renovation. Excelsior’s 139 rooms and 19 suites offer views of both the Adriatic and the city’s historic old town. Updated amenities include several gardens, a private beach, three restaurants, an indoor swimming pool, a spa and a fitness center.
In Trogir, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, the Brown Beach House Croatia has unveiled several new additions. Among these are all new spa offerings, a revamped Cartina restaurant menu, a private beach club and 16 additional luxury suites, bringing the room total to 41. The suites overlook the private pool deck with views of the Croatian coast and the town. The rooms occupy a restored 20th-century edifice that once housed a landmark tobacco storage facility. The newly updated menu at Cartina Restaurant highlights Mediterranean-inspired delicacies with a Croatian twist, such as charcoal-grilled calamari, sea bass sashimi, local artisan prosciutto, fresh burrata, grilled shrimp, “40 Yolks” fettucine with truffle, charcoal-grilled langoustines, dry-aged beef fillet and an aged prime rib burger.
The recently renovated Little Green Bay Hotel in Hvar is set in a cove with a beach. It has 15 rooms, of which six are suites. The hotel’s restaurant serves French and Croatian fusion cuisine. Its outdoor marine spa facials are personalized to skin type and body treatments, include slimming, firming, detox and relaxation.
On the island of Korcula, just off the Dalmatian Coast, Tara’s Lodge recently opened with 14 guestrooms and three family suites. Each suite has two bedrooms, a living room with a kitchen, a terrace and Wi-Fi.
The Executive Suite is one of 41 luxury accommodations at the newly expanded Brown Beach House Croatia in Trogir.
The family-owned Rivalmare Boutique Hotel opened in Novugrad last summer. It has 12 double rooms and a Grand Luxury Suite with a large terrace, a spa bath and sauna. It also has its own beach. In town, travelers can visit the medieval walls, the Lapidarium archeological museum and the Austro-Hungarian Navy Museum.
The Park Boutique Hotel, known for its baroque architecture, music, food, medieval buildings and museums, opened in Varaždin at the end of 2015. It’s surrounded by the Vatroslav Jagic Park and sits next to the city’s National Theatre. The hotel has 15 guestrooms and four Gallery Suites, which are suitable for families. (The hotel also has additional connecting rooms.) The restaurant has a garden terrace overlooking the park and hotel staff will create a gastronomic tour of Northwest Croatia’s restaurants, wineries and family-owned farms.