30 Perfect Strangers | FAM Cruising the Croatian Coast & Islands

I learned everyone’s name the first day, surprising the hell out of myself. I’m awful at remembering names but something about this group triggered a switch in my brain for the first time in my life. All of a sudden, I’d feel a touch on my elbow and a whisper in my ear asking me this one or that one’s name, and out of my mouth it would slide, as smooth as lavender gelato. I anointed myself the keeper of the names those first few days, until we were all in the same boat. Soon, as we glided through the sun-soaked Adriatic aboard the luxurious Lastavica from one magnificent port to another, these people and their stories would become familiar to everyone. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This group of travel advisors, almost exclusively and excessively estrogenic (is that a word?), was assembled by IWorld of Travel to be introduced to Croatia. Let me just pause here and say this flat out: in this post-pandemic (mid-pandemic?) new world, do not consult your bucket lust (not a typo) or anything/one else from the before era. Just book Croatia, full stop. You can bet your bottom kuna you won’t be disappointed. This country is easy and wonderful.

We met at the exquisite Esplanade Hotel in Zagreb, hometown to IWorld’s Anita Skoric and Alida Paljevic and where IWorld’s new office, Gelber’s Way, is based. This is the city of museums (including the Museum of Broken Relationships), with more per capita than anywhere in Europe. During our tour, I imagine myself ice skating along the wide paths in the grand parks, hockey stopping at brightly lit Christmas market stalls…

In winter, park paths are frozen over for ice skating. Zagreb is known for best Christmas markets in Europe.
In winter, park paths are frozen over for ice skating. Zagreb is known for best Christmas markets in Europe.

Next, we ogled the waterfalls and emerald aqua lakes at Plitvice Lakes National Park and some of us dragged our bodies out of bed (jet lagged Kat Gelber included) to a stunning morning hike with Marco, our smart and interesting local guide.

Abundant waterfalls cascade into 16 lakes at Plitvice Lakes National Park
Calcium carbonate from limestone rocks and the sun’s angle turn the Plitvice lakes colors ranging from emerald green to turquoise

Afterward, our coach transported us to Linden Tree Retreat, a luxury guest ranch where, over a scrumptious homegrown lunch, we were at turns mesmerized and incredulous at our tree-sized charismatic host. The key takeaway—to always nurture a fertile pipeline that will bear fruit—would become our first, all-inclusive inside joke, growing more hilarious and speculative with each telling and amusing us for days afterward, the mere mention of the word pipeline producing howls of laughter.

Standing 5’4” with our host at Linden Tree Retreat

On the way to Zadar, the port city where our ship was docked, we toured the birthplace of futurist and inventor Nikola Tesla and learned about his many accomplishments, obsessions, and peculiarities.

Once in Zadar we followed our tour guide through ancient Roman ruins to the water’s edge and listened to the haunting ‘organ’ music floating up from pipes in the sea, a permanent soundtrack that drives waterfront dwellers crazy. Listen below.

At lunch we enjoyed Michael’s impassioned talk giving us all food for thought and a renewed excitement for our industry. His father, Adi Gelber, left behind a legacy that included not only his company but also precious wisdom from a lifetime in the business. That night the captain’s dinner was capped by a boatload of fully clothed bodies leaping into the sea!

The next morning rewarded the few early risers with otherworldly views as we passed through the archipelago of Kornati National Park spotting vineyards, orchards, and olive groves along with uninhabited islands that appeared painted on the horizon.

Another pause here to recognize the fabulous local farm- and sea-to-table cuisine we enjoyed at every meal. The crew was exceptional—professional, lighthearted, and warm, setting a convivial atmosphere throughout our open-air arena. From our witty cruise director to our amiable captain, from our incredibly talented chef to the entirely friendly crew, we were always in good hands.

A grateful Theresa Williams admiring our amazing chef
The most delicious fresh fish was wrapped inside
Cruise Director Stjepan Jelacic writing/drawing the day’s activities

Our next stop was an excursion to Krka National Park for an enchanted hike through waterfalls and lush vegetation, a now familiar Croatian landscape.

Stopping for a group shot (and rest) during a hike at Krka National Park
Waterfalls at Krka National Park
More water falling at Krka

By nightfall we were in the charming coastal city of Šibenik downing mugs of beer and wandering the cobblestone streets in the moonlight.

Light projection in Šibenik
Our neighbors at dock in Šibenik

A Croatian highlight awaited the next day in Trogir, named by my colleagues at National Geographic the world’s best city island. No exaggeration. This medieval Venetian city, a UNESCO World Heritage site (one of ten in the country), is truly a sight to behold, from the 13th century cathedral and majestic clock tower to the fortressed castle and winding walkways of Old Town.

Trogir castle and fortress
Cathedral tower towers over the town
Entry to Old Town
Always time for gelato
Hidden alleyways
Liora Cohen and Michael Gelber on the ship

Our swim stops were dreamy so I’m not exactly sure where or when they occurred but jumping into the shimmering Adriatic, by sunlight or moonlight, was a thrill (and a chill!). We could paddle around the ship to explore aqua coves and peek into the shore’s limestone caves. The extra-salty water made us delightfully buoyant, and no effort was required to keep afloat. 

Back onboard Lastavica, Alida took over the mic (her favorite possession) and gave a presentation about IWorld’s line of Luxury Small Group Departures she designed for travelers who like an intimate atmosphere, centrally located boutique-style hotels (we would later inspect four such hotels in Split, Hvar, and Dubrovnik), cultural immersion through insider access with locals, and plenty of free time to discover destinations on their own.

In the afternoon we docked in Split and met our sister ships for tours and toasts. Everyone has a favorite but really, they’re all outstanding—the Adriatic King, Adriatic Queen, the Bella, and our very own Lastavica. Distinctive vibes for distinctive travelers accommodating between 31 and 41 guests sailing set weeks and routes or as custom charters, and all with an elegant air, top notch service, and divine cuisine.

We disembarked in Split for a lively city tour delivered by a dramatic and engaging guide through the Diocletian Palace built for the Roman emperor 17 centuries ago. After two boutique hotel inspections we were free to explore Split on our own. I enjoyed a fine meal with new friends, and afterward we wandered onto a large square with live music and dancing…a perfect end to another perfect day. Did I mention the weather? Sunny and 70s every day.

In case you don’t know where you are
Rapt attention during guided tour of Diocletian Palace
Stone on stone
Merchant at the palace
Likely modeled after the Pantheon’s oculus in Rome, this late 3rd century structure is finely preserved

We split Split (I know…eye roll, but who could resist?) and sailed to the island of Brac and town of Bol where we put toes in the sand on Golden Cape beach and explored the quaint and picturesque town.

Serenity at Golden Cape Beach
Worth the climb!
The town of Bol on the island of Brac

Next up is Hvar, proud Alida’s home island and one of the most popular in Croatia, endowed with a lively harbor, blue lagoons, and hillsides of lavender, olive trees, and vineyards. Our guide revealed the history and highlights of this fascinating port, from its 13th century walls to its hilltop fortress and large main square built around a Renaissance era cathedral. We inspected the gorgeous Palace Elisabeth, a Hvar Heritage Hotel and preferred partner for IWorld’s Luxury Small Group Departures.

Approaching Hvar harbor in a water taxi from Lastavica
Restaurants line the alleyways off the main square
Signature Croatian stone streets and walls
The main square anchored by Hvar Cathedral
Guided tour through Hvar
Hvar at night

The next morning as we sailed toward Korcula, we heard a nuts-and-bolts presentation on creative ways to sell whole ship charters or partner to book a ship together. Jasper Fanfalone provided a compelling case for low-risk charter bookings and break-even calculations that allow for entertainment credits for guests and cabins for travel advisors. Jasper’s excitement, exuberance, and enthusiasm was palpable, just as when he flung himself fearlessly off the upper deck into the deep blue below.

The Jasper jump

Our guide in Korcula was in character as Marco Polo’s mistress in the 1270s, making the tour a theatrical performance of sorts.

Marco Polo’s mistress
Public art in Korcula
Photographing the photographer

We depart from Korcula and sail toward the verdant (and unpronounceable) island of Mljet where some opted for bicycles to explore the national park and others chose to go on foot, but all got lost! The scenery was exquisite, from the monastery in the middle of the lake to the hidden coves for (mostly naked!) swimmers.

Benedictine monastery on St. Mary Island in the middle of Jezero Lake
Stunning views from the 5-mile path around the lake
Beauty shot

That evening we feasted on a delicious grilled dinner onboard hosted by Michael and Kat Gelber while mesmerized by a stunning sunset.

#Nofilter!

Our last full day was like the grand finale of a fireworks display, reaching a crescendo in Dubrovnik.

We entered Dubrovnik’s famed Old Town, founded in the 7th century, and caught the cable car up the cliffside for epic views.

The gondola rising above Dubrovnik’s Old Town
The walls of Dubrovnik are considered among the best-preserved medieval fortifications in Europe
One of several spectacular views from above

After descending, we followed our guide wide-eyed through the photogenic streets of Dubrovnik.

Lantern lit steps to the sea
Gathering for the tour
Oslynn Foy finds something interesting
Art for sale
Mad dash shopping for red coral
Shiny limestone streets
High fashion on the square
Wedding sighting!
Everyone took this shot but I’m positive I’m the only one who cut off the edges

Following our city tour, we saw a traditional Croatian folkdance performance and had a lovely surprise tasting of local wines in a nearby club where, over large glasses of reds and whites, we swapped stories, traded numbers, and cemented friendships.

Our evening begins with an inspection of another IWorld preferred partner—Hotel Grand Villa Argentina, part of the family of Adriatic Luxury Hotels, where we had a fabulous final meal. I was lucky to sit across from Zrinka Marinovic, the hotel’s public relations manager, who was a great conversationalist and informative host. To remember the evening, we were each given a signed lithograph by a local artist. I had mine framed and it hangs in a high-traffic hallway, giving me daily reminders of that night. On a nearby table sits the meaningful marble elephant from Michael. And yes, I was able to take the fragile wine glasses on the plane, so they too produce instant smiles (especially when filled!) reminding me of the entire trip.

Jennifer Wayland and Jasper Fanfalone smile for a photo
The last supper
Goodbye Anita!

The morning of our final day in Croatia we scurried around getting our bags on the street for the airport transfer. Some got Covid tests in town nearby while I and others opted to be tested at the airport. It was very fast and easy, and thankfully, all negative! Our goodbyes were hurried and wistful as we made our way to various gates and destinations, waving and calling out “until the next time!”