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Step aside Dubrovnik: we try island hopping, whitewater rafting and dining with pirates in Croatian Dalmatia.

Forward, go forward through the labyrinth!” shouts Damir, the exuberant skipper aboard our raft hurtling over the rapids of River Cetina, on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. As the longest river in the country, it’s an exhilarating setting for whitewater rafting, rushing past forests and steep gorges galore. We departed from the town of Slime – far more picturesque and charming than it sounds – to embark on this three-hour odyssey along what feels like Croatia’s answer to the Amazon River, thanks to its narrow, winding nature and the drooping trees overhead.

“Look out, there’s a crocodile,” jokes Damir, as we watch a floating log drift by. The adventure includes hard paddling and jumping into rock pools from the cliffs above – the petrified look on one rafter’s face as he takes the plunge is captured on camera, much to our hilarity. During the quiet times, Damir serenades us with lively Croatian folk songs, accompanied by a backing track on his iPhone.

Croatia’s Dalmatian coast on the Adriatic Sea provides an intrepid alternative to the overpopulated tourist hub that is Dubrovnik, and is characterised by influences of Mediterranean culture in its slow tempo of life, humid climate and delicious seafood. It’s also peppered with ancient remains of the Roman era and early Middle Ages, with monuments including the grand Diocletian Palace in Split.

Before the rafting trip, I indulged in a spot of island hopping between pristine pebbled beaches and the scintillating azure waters of the Adriatic. I started at the oldest coastline settlement, Bol, on the island of Brac, before moving on to the Unesco World Heritage town of Trogir, and finishing up at the palm-tree-lined promenades of the Makarska Riviera.
While Makarska has the buzz of a lively town – perfect for hanging out with likeminded travellers during the evenings – there is a certain tranquility throughout Trogir and Bol that allows you to soak up the beauty of the place in peace and quiet. Perhaps it harks back to a time when they were the subdued locality of fishermen and sailors.

Also on Brac, I visit a stonemason school famous for quarrying the pristine white rocks used to build the White House in Washington DC. Here, I watch a stonemason painstakingly chip away and shape a white-stone fountain which will later be placed in Split.

Back to the rafting trip, and we wash up in the picturesque Dalmatian town of Omiš, which has a far more raucous history. Up until the 15th century, it was the stronghold of a band of pirates, the Omiški gusari or Corsairs of Omiš, who patrolled the waters in speed boats called sagittas. Now the Omiš Riviera is full of luxury yachts leisurely cruising. I can only imagine how different Omiš appeared during the time of the pirates, the town curling under a fortress at the mouth of the River Cetina, set against dramatic craggy rock faces, which afforded them protection from attackers.

I’m unsurprised this was the most feared pirate town on the Adriatic coast, given the evidence of the mighty that is the Mirabella (or Peovica) fortress. This imposing stone structure lies in the heart of the historical part of town, reminding those who visit of the power of the Omiš pirates. Moreover, you can follow in these sea-bound rogues’ footsteps by joining a pirate night held in the canyons of River Cetina. Departing during the evening, you sail up the river – tranquilly enough at first, until the gunshots of the Omis pirates begin ringing out, giving a sense of what it must have been like to come under attack. Aboard the boat, I listen to the tales and legends of the Omiš pirates, retold by actors dressed to the nines, followed by dancing the night away aboard the ship.

Lord Byron might have proclaimed Dubrovnik “the pearl of the Adriatic”, but I can’t help wondering whether he ever strayed any further into Dalmatia. No wonder pirates took to this place: forget pearls, this is the real treasure chest, overflowing with riches.

Words JASLEEN KANDHARI

Eat

Budget
Enjoy the rustic charm of traditional family-run restaurants such as Konoba Sperum in Split. Dalmatian smoked ham goes down well with the Croatian red wine. (Sperun 3, tel. 021 346999)

Midrange
Savour the fare once favoured by Croatian pirates at Radmanove in Omiš. Soparnik is the Omiš specialty,  a vegetable pie baked under iron lids and ashes. (radmanove-mlinice.hr/)

Luxury
Dine under stars that glimmer over the sea at Vagabundo restaurant in Bol. Serving everything from tasty seafood to traditional Croatian meat dishes, including stewed beef. (dalmatinocatering.com)

Drink

Budget
The nightlife hub on the island of Bracčhas to be Bol, with reams of cafés, cocktail bars and nightclubs. Aquarius is a favourite among the surf crowd. (Riva Frane Radica 1, tel. 385 21635996)

Midrange
Riviera lifestyle includes a thriving nightlife. In Makarska, party the night away at the popular cocktail bar the Pink Panther (Jagerova 5), followed by the Petar Pan Club.  (petarpan-makarska.com)

Luxury
Split arguably offers the best nightlife in Croatia along its beach front, which is peppered with bars. Deep within the Diocletian Palace’s labyrinth lies the swanky Ghetto Bar, offering stiff drinks and house music. (Dosud 10, tel. 21 346879)


Sleep

Budget
Venture further from the historical centre of town in Split to find value for money at Villa Marjela. You can explore the city’s untouristed parts in the surrounding area.
(villamarjela.hr)

Midrange
To experience the town of the Croatian pirates, stay at Hotel Villa Dvor on top of a cliff above Omiš. Enjoy a refreshing drink on the terrace rooftop with stunning panoramic views of the riviera below. (hotel-villadvor.hr)

Luxury
Luxury abounds at the Bluesun Hotel Elaphusa in Bol, one of the largest wellness centres on the Adriatic coast. Walk along the promenade to the Zlatni Rat beach with its unbelievably blue waters. (bluesunhotels.com/eu)




GETTING THERE

- Return flights from London to Split, via Zagreb, start at around £158 with Croatia Airlines. (croatiaairlines.com/en)

- Jasleen went rafting with the Slap Travel Agency in Slime, which also offers trekking, canyoning, rock climing, mountain biking and more  hrslap.hr




Exploring Croatia: island hopping on the Dalmation coast
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