Exploring the Adriatic Coast by land and sea

This article appears on page 22 of the November 2013 issue.
View of Vela Luka, Croatia, the home port of the Adriatic Pearl.

Last year, my wife, Zelda, and I decided to do back-to-back trips to the Adriatic and Ukraine. Corinna Vargas of Value World Tours (Fountain Valley, CA; phone 800/795-1633) lined it up for a good price. However, the plan was disrupted by the arrival of a grandson, so we decided to visit the Adriatic only. We booked our prearranged Value World cruise-tour through Denise Fritz at Pavlus Travel (Albuquerque, NM; 800/704-0385), a discount travel agency, to get a bit of an additional price reduction. 

Getting there

The tour entailed a week-long bus trip through Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro followed by an Adriatic cruise aboard the Adriatic Pearl. Zelda’s three sisters and their husbands decided to join us, so Corinna lined up air for six of us from Washington Dulles Airport on SAS and for the other two from Houston on British Airways. Several weeks before departure we got detailed trip instructions and air tickets by email.

We departed in the late afternoon of Sept. 28, 2012, changing to a Croatian Airlines flight in Copenhagen and continuing on to Zagreb. Service was good on both flights. 

After an early afternoon arrival we were met by an agent of Kompas (Value World’s partner for Eastern Europe) and taken to the Westin Zagreb Hotel


Zagreb is a beautiful, tourist-friendly city. We walked to many of the parks and museums in the afternoon before returning to the hotel, where we found that there were 53 travelers in the group, 14 of whom were going on the following cruise with us. 

Our family was assigned to a smaller bus, which was quite nice, but the leather seats were not especially comfortable. The tour director for this portion of the trip, Jasminia, was very knowledgeable. 

There was an ATM in the hotel, so we were able to obtain kuna to use during the Croatian portion of our trip. We were told we would need Bosnian marks as well as euros for the bus trip, and ATMs were the best source for those. 

The Adriatic Pearl docked at Pučišća, Croatia.

We were also told that bottled water could be purchased from our driver for a nominal fee. His water cooler also served as a beer cooler for one of the brothers-in-law. 

After a wonderful buffet breakfast and an introduction to our local guide, we were off. We were told briefly about the war damage in Zagreb, then taken to a very large cemetery with Christian, Muslim and Jewish graves. Many of the tombstones were wonderful works of art, and some had historical significance. 

Proceeding to the Upper Town, the group visited Saint Mark’s Church, the Parliament building and the Government Palace, ending at the cathedral, before being given time to shop, explore and have lunch. 

Later in the afternoon we went on a walking tour, then took the bus to the Staro Selo Museum in Kumrovec to visit the birthplace of Marshal Tito. This outdoor cultural heritage park contains a collection of 40-something restored farm houses and buildings from the late 19th century. 

That evening we had a traditional Croatian dinner while enjoying views of a 15th-century castle.


After an early start the next morning, the group crossed into Bosnia. We were detained at the border, as the Bosnians had trouble running all of our passports through their computers. 

Upon crossing the border, damage from the war became much more obvious. Many properties had been abandoned. Twice, all traffic was stopped for land mine removal.

Jasminia was well versed in Bosnia’s history. In fact, the entire week was a good educational experience, with information about the history of the area and the 1990s war in the Balkans — a semester’s worth of knowledge crammed into a week. As a former dean, I believe this trip could be offered for college credit. The narrative along the way made the bus ride seem much shorter. 

At noon we stopped at a local truck stop and tasted some specialties of the region before continuing to Sarajevo. 

The terrain became quite mountainous as we neared Sarajevo. We had a great view of the city from the ridge as we began our descent into the valley.

We stayed at the big, yellow Holiday Inn that was home to journalists during the 1992-1996 siege of the city. It has not been upgraded much since then. 

We toured Sarajevo by bus in the late afternoon, passing many damaged buildings not yet repaired as well as the bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated, the incident that sparked WWI.

To Dubrovnik

From Sarajevo we continued along the Neretva River Gorge to Mostar. Parking at a large church visited by many pilgrims, we walked across the city’s famous bridge and back, passing a lot of interesting craft shops with reasonable prices.

I was able to get into the church between services and photograph its beautiful stained-glass windows. Then the buses were off again, heading toward Dubrovnik.

The gorge opened up and the river became quite wide. As we neared the coast, we saw many mussel farms and oyster beds that were taking advantage of the fresh river water flowing into the Adriatic. 

St. Mark’s Parish Church in Zagreb.

Leaving Bosnia, we crossed back into Croatia and drove along the coast. The scenery was spectacular — mountains to the left, the Adriatic to the right. 

Arriving in Dubrovnik, we had to traverse quite a bit of city traffic to reach Hotel Lapad, where we were to stay for four nights. Our room was very nice, and that night our group had a banquet in the hotel garden. 

The next morning, after a great buffet, we had a guided city tour, visiting the Rector’s Palace, the Bell Tower, Orlando’s Column, the Dominican monastery and the Franciscan monastery with its still-operating pharmacy. The entry fees were covered in our tour package. 

Entry to the Old City was free, but after that it became a bit of a tourist trap, with charges for everything. The cost to walk the city wall was 12 ($16)! At my age, they should pay me to do it! The charge to take the cable car to the top of the mountain overlooking the city was another 12. 

That evening we took an optional excursion, which included dinner (50). A boat ride took us past the Old Town to St. Jakov Beach, where we enjoyed dinner, wine and live music. However, the boat trip was a bit rough and occasionally damp, and the walk from the pier to the restaurant was a bit treacherous, with water washing over the narrow walkway. 


A bigger, more comfortable bus and a different driver awaited our tour group the following day for our trip to Montenegro. As we drove out, Jasminia continued our educational experience. 

Crossing the border, we could see a valley to our left shrouded in fog. When the fog lifted, the revealed valley was full of beautiful farmland and fields. 

We followed the coast through several small communities, eventually winding around to Kotor, passing both ends of the ferry route we would later use to cut off a great distance from our return trip. 

Kotor was very developed, with large vacation homes and hotels everywhere. Jasminia finished her history lesson just as we stopped at the gate to the Old Town. We had to park some distance away because of the traffic and the crowds from the large cruise ships tied up in front of the city gate. 

The fortifications were amazing, reaching all the way up to the mountaintops above the bay. 

Outside the gate, we walked through an outdoor market where everything imaginable was for sale. Then we drove through side streets and up 25 switchbacks on a less-than-one-lane road. Luckily, the driver was up to the task. Several times the driver had to back the bus up to let a car pass in the other direction. 

Arrangements had been made for a lunch featuring local ham and wine when we reached the summit at Restaron Santa Montagne. We were told that the mountaintop, where the northwest winds meet the currents coming up from the Adriatic, is an ideal location to make the world’s best naturally cured ham (at least, the locals think so). Hams are shipped in from all over Europe, and every home has meat drying on the upper story. 

Returning to our hotel in Dubrovnik, we said our good-byes to Jasminia and the others in the group not going on the Adriatic cruise with us.

To the ship

After two more nights at the wonderful Hotel Lapad, we arrived at our boat and were met by our cruise/tour director, Antonia. A remarkable young lady, Antonia was 24 and fluent in five languages. Between jobs, she did volunteer work all over the Balkans.

Our cabin was quite nice, albeit a bit snug. The bathroom was more than adequate, though a rubberized nonslip bathmat would have been nice. 

Dancers in Zagreb’s Ban Jelačić Square.

Water from the taps on the ship was not drinkable, as they could not be sure what was pumped on board at each stop, so water was provided in the cabins each day… at a cost of 30 per cabin for the week. Water could also be purchased at the bar. 

Drinks were not to be taken onto the boat from shore. Since almost everyone in our group had brought wine along, the result of using up our Bosnian marks, this did not go over well. 

As we departed, we cruised past Old Town Dubrovnik and out into the Adriatic. Our next adventure was beginning!

Life on board

It was only a short cruise to Korčula, our first island stop. Arriving around dusk, we docked at Korčula for the night. Coming into the harbor at sundown was wonderful. 

We walked around the city walls and then up to the old city gate. The fortress was well preserved, and a local guide took us through the town. We visited several very old churches and the Cathedral of St. Mark, located in the center of town and towering over nearby buildings, and saw the ruins of the house where Marco Polo is believed, by some, to have been born.

Early in the morning the ship cast off for Pučišća on the island of Brač. We were never out of sight of land, and the scenery was just wonderful. 

A swim stop had been scheduled, but it was canceled due to the weather. 

Our first view of the town was just beautiful — bright white buildings with red-tile roofs.

Our scheduled visit was to Pučišća stonemasonry school, where the preparation and dressing of stone in the old Roman way is still taught to students from all over Europe. Sculptures from the school decorated the city. 

After the group returned to the ship, it was announced that a storm was on the way and so we were heading for the mainland and would arrive in Omiš early. The seas did, indeed, become rough. 

Since Omiš was the hometown of our tour director, Antonia, she led us on a guided tour that evening. Several of her relatives, friends and neighbors greeted her along the way. The town was very interesting, with monasteries, historic buildings and two forts. 

Split, our next stop, was just a beautiful city. We walked around the castle and into a beautiful square reminiscent of St. Mark’s Square in Venice, then went up to the second floor of the palace. We toured the Ethnographic Museum with the curator and later took a guided walking tour of the residential portion of Diocletian’s palace. 

Our local guide in Split was outstanding. He started our tour in the basement of the palace, giving us some Roman history from the days of Christ and leading us up to and around the second floor. 

The next day we explored Hvar, walking the waterfront in the drizzling rain, before sailing on to Vela Luka, the home port for the Adriatic Pearl. Before lunch we visited the Vela Luka Town Museum, which had a collection of relics from the prehistoric Vela Spila (Big Cave) and scale models of ships used in the Adriatic over the centuries. 

The standard excursion and several extra-cost options were scheduled for that afternoon. We all went to an olive oil factory, which was interesting, then Zelda and I chose a trip to a home with gardens where traditional food preparation methods and equipment were demonstrated. 

On this cruise there were two levels of shore tours: standard and premium. Not all tours in our itinerary were in the standard package. 

If we wanted the additional shore excursions, we had to pay for them — a surprise to us. 

Saying farewell

For the captain’s farewell dinner, the menu offered more than the usual choices, including a special cake for dessert. (In general, the food on board was very good, and special dietary requests could be accommodated.)

The highlight of the evening was a long program of traditional a cappella klapa singing performed by six men — wonderful! Members of the crew and our tour director even joined in.

Walkway at Zagreb’s 70-acre cemetery, which contains Jewish, Christian and Muslim graves.

We had great expectations for the next day. It was to feature a visit to Mljet Island National Park, with the 12th-century monastery and Church of St. Mary, built on Islet Melita, a small island in the middle of Veliko Jezero (Big Lake), but it was not to be; another storm was blowing in.

The captain chose to dock at Slano, perhaps an hour’s sail from Dubrovnik. Antonia was on her cell phone trying to line up an afternoon activity in the area. She was able to arrange a bus and tickets to the Trsteno Arboretum, which we’d been curious about since hearing about it from Jasminia on the pre-cruise portion of our trip. 

We got off the bus and it was quite a walk to the gate. The arboretum is operated by the Croatia Academy of Sciences & Arts and covers over 60 acres of a steep hillside overlooking the Adriatic. 

We started our tour at the base of the gardens. The on-site 17th-century villa was built after the original villa, dating to the 1400s, was destroyed by an earthquake. There is also an aqueduct with 14 arches that ends in a Roman fountain designed to water the gardens. 

The gardens were beautiful and filled with plants from all over the world. We found a small café beyond the gate and enjoyed a glass of wine under the orange trees. 

Coming to a close

That night it was time to settle up. I owed about $20 for the extra excursion we took and about $60 for the bar bill, mostly for water.

On day 15 we cruised into Dubrovnik, arriving just before noon. Our Value World group of 14 all had the same early flight out the next morning, so we were on the same bus to the airport. We were given boxed lunches, which we took on the short flight to Zagreb, as there was no food service. At Zagreb, we bade two sets of relatives good-bye.

The tour cost for Zelda and myself was $7,624, including airfare and minus the Pavlus rebate of $308. We spent an additional $500 for tips, drinks, meals and gifts. I consider this to be a bargain, especially after hearing from some of the passengers that they’d paid about twice as much for their cruise. 

If you want to tour the Adriatic and can’t decide whether to travel by land or sea, do this tour and have it both ways. We have memories to last the rest of our lives and about 2,000 great digital photos, just in case we forget.