When I agreed to a sailing and cycling trip in Croatia, ‘a good level of fitness’ was required.
I didn’t think that meant a couple of Tour de France stages under my belt. I was soon accustomed to bringing up the rear of the group (with a sore rear of my own) as we cycled Dalmatia’s beautiful islands sprinkled on a translucent aquamarine sea, but I only had myself to blame when my training consisted of one bike ride to work.
Our trip entailed cruising to five of Croatia’s 1185 islands, reefs and crags on a luxurious 30m motor sailer, and cycling across each island. Our guide Julio’s lean, suntanned physique belied his past as a triathlete, deep sea diver and Croatian soldier, but we knew we were in good hands, especially when he reassured us: “Don’t worry, you won’t get lost, I have my talkie walkie.”
After settling into our cabins we saddled up for our debut cycle on Solta. Wafts of lavender and rosemary from nearby fields soon woke me from my early flight stupor, and the worries of London life drifted away as we cycled across the flat island, passing olive groves and old churches.
Anchoring in Brac’s harbour town of Milna, we dined alfresco in the balmy night air, devouring plates of fresh fish, seafood and pasta, washed down with light Croatian wine. This was just the beginning of seven days of sun, seafood, spectacular sights and, of course, sensational wine.
Island hopping in Croatia is nothing new, but cycling is an alternative way to explore the inner islands. In old rustic villages brightly coloured roses spill down from balconies and locals work in the vineyards. Splashes of wild flowers line the roads, with red poppies dancing in the breeze alongside flowers of yellow, white, pink and blue.
Each island has its own unique character. Brac is wild and windy, with its peak Vidova Gora at 778m. Lured by the smell of a barbecue, we broke our uphill slog for a feast of mixed grill and Dalmatian fried cheese. From our vantage point we could see the famous stone quarried to build the White House in Washington DC.
The sedate fishing town of Jelsa on upmarket Hvar is drenched in seafaring history. Like many such coastal towns, it was left deserted in the 1600s because of marauding pirates. From there we cycled to Hvar Town — where Roman Abramovich, no less, moors his yacht — with its grand marble streets and Gothic palaces.
On the fourth day, a few of us decided to opt out of cycling and top up our tans by sailing to the Venetian town of Korcula. While some of the boat crossings can be rough, the gleaming Adriatic sea is usually tranquil.
The last island we visited was majestic Mljet, dominated by a pine-forested national park and a lake with a Benedictine monastery where 50 monks once lived.
Spookily one monk died in May each year until 1940.
The uphill cycling wasn’t over yet as we pedalled near-vertical ascents on the Peljesac peninsula. Julio trundled behind us slow coaches, dangling false promises of ‘not far to go’ with a contented smile of someone who no longer lived the hard life. That night he told us of his time as a scout in the 1991 Serb-Croat war, when he carried a fellow injured soldier 17km on his back and saved Serbian POWs from getting killed by his own Croat army. Some of his tales were humorous, others not so, but each highlighted the idiosyncrasies of war.
As we finally cycled into bustling Split, I commiserated over leaving paradise behind. And while I was happy to say goodbye to the uphill struggles, there’s nothing like the reward of pelting down winding coastal roads with honey-coloured towns below and panoramic views of the sparkling blue sea stretching out before me.
» Jo Cackett travelled with Sail Croatia Adventures (0845-257 8289; www.sail-croatia.com). A seven-day Cycle and Sail trip, with breakfast and dinner, starts at £469.
Visit TNT’s Croatia Travel Guide.