Croatia: 7 Ways to Spend a Day in Port

Harbor view of ships in Dubrovnik. Heidi Sarna
By Heidi Sarna

Croatia's rocky coastline stretches for more than 1,000 miles along the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea, from just south of Venice to Montenegro. Hundreds of craggy limestone islands are scattered along the jagged coast, creating one of world's most scenic places to cruise (it's right up there with Norway's fjords, Alaska's glaciers, and French Polynesia's atolls).

The natural beauty is second only to the country's rich history. Many once-powerful empires, from the Greeks to the Romans, Slavs, Venetians, Ottomans, and Austro-Hungarians, have all left their mark on Croatia. To this day, well-preserved relics are plentiful, including medieval palaces, cathedrals, bell towers, and turreted city walls.

With Croatia poised to join the European Union next year, the country is on the upswing. And though increasingly popular with tourists and cruise ships, the country of just over four million people is fortunately not yet overcrowded or overdeveloped.

With the exception of bustling Dubrovnik, which can see more than six or seven large cruise ships per day in the summer, the rest of Croatia's low-key cruise ports attract small-ship cruise lines, such as Compagnie du Ponant with its 264-passenger L'Austral (www.ponant.com) and SeaDream Yacht Club, with its 110-passenger Sea Dream ships (www.seadreamyachtclub.com). Azamara Club Cruises, (www.azamaraclubcruises.com), Swan Hellenic (www.swanhellenic.com) and Travel Dynamics International (www.traveldynamicsinternational.com) also have a handful of itineraries with several stops in Croatia.

If your cruise calls on Croatia, don't miss these unforgettable experiences or authentic souvenirs in Dubrovnik, Hvar, Split, and other great destinations.

Photo Caption: Harbor view of ships in Dubrovnik.
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Hvar Beach, Croatia. Heidi Sarna
Hvar is Croatia's answer to the French Riviera. This resort town's little harbor is a parking lot for private yachts, and it's a stop for the big passenger ferries filled with young hipsters and backpackers.

Spend an hour or two strolling through the cobblestone streets, then walk around the harbor to the public beaches. There's no white sand here, just pebbles and stones. But no one seems to mind -- the beach area is full of tanned bodies on towels laid atop the rocks.

What to Buy: Keep an eye out for the delicate lace made by nuns living at the town's Benedictine Convent with the thread-like white fiber of agave plants.

Photo Caption: Hvar Beach, Croatia
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Biking in the countryside of Dubrovnik. Heidi Sarna
In the old walled town of Dubrovnik, expect to find Renaissance-era stone palaces, monasteries, churches, and buildings covered in red-tile roofs. Spend an hour or two walking along the top of the 2-km-long turreted medieval wall that surrounds the 13th-century Old Town and offers views of the city and harbor below.

Combine a city stroll with a family-friendly half-day biking excursion (€75/$105 for adults) in the nearby Konavle Valley. Compagnie du Ponant's tour, for instance, starts with a scenic drive to points high above Dubrovnik's harbor and into the countryside, where you then hop on bicycles for a guided ride through small villages and past vineyards and olive groves dotted with pine, cypress, and fruit trees.

Photo Caption: Biking in the countryside of Dubrovnik
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Kayaking in Korcula, Croatia. Heidi Sarna
Korcula Island is another picture-perfect cluster of red-tile roofs, bell towers, and churches, only this one also claims to be the birthplace of explorer Marco Polo. The port is a great jumping-off point for kayaking and snorkeling trips. Compagnie du Ponant's cruises, for example, offer an excursion that begins with a scenic 30-minute speed boat ride to Lumbarda Island. There, you hop out to board two-person kayaks for a paddle to two secluded islets for snorkeling.

If you're lucky, your guide from Korcula Adventures (the local vendor that Ponant uses for the tour) may pluck spiny black sea urchins from the sea, offering you a taste. On the boat ride back to the ship, refuel with a snack -- such as plates of parma ham, cheese, and bread -- and wash it all down with locally-made white wine.

Photo Caption: Kayaking in Korcula, Croatia
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Split, Croatia. Photo by <a href="http://www.frommers.com/community/user_gallery_detail.html?plckPhotoID=e5c704c4-dd16-4adf-89a0-f22f68e11daa&plckGalleryID=c0482941-0d2d-4cca-b8c4-809ee9e20c72" target="_blank">PatThomas/Frommers.com Community</a>. Frommers.com Community
Sign up for your cruise ship's guided walking tour (from €25/$35 for adults) in Split, Croatia's second largest city. The main attraction is Roman Emperor Diocletian's 4th-century Palace, around which the old walled town was built. See the city's ancient cathedrals, temples, gates, and cobblestone alleys -- and learn about Split's many layers of history (it was an important place for the Roman Empire, and a Greek colony before that).

What to Buy: Croatia is believed to be the birthplace of the elegant neck scarves called cravats, which were worn by Croatian soldiers in the 17th and soon adopted by the French who still covet wearing them; there's a cravat shop in Split's town square.

Photo Caption: Split, Croatia. Photo by PatThomas/Frommers.com Community
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Steep trek up to the hilltop Fortress of St. Ivan in Kotor, Montenegro. Heidi Sarna
Kotor is often included on Croatia cruises as Montenegro is just over the southern border. After exploring the medieval town contained within the old city wall -- check out the 8th-century Cathedral of St. Triphon and other medieval- and Renaissance-era churches, watch towers and palaces -- definitely make the vigorous trek up the zigzagging stone and dirt path to the hilltop Fortress of St. Ivan. Savor views of the Bay of Kotor, the town below, and the limestone mountains all around you.

Photo Caption: Steep trek up to the hilltop Fortress of St. Ivan in Kotor, Montenegro
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Town stroll in Rab, Croatia. Heidi Sarna
The small medieval town of Rab occupies a narrow spit of land that overlooks the sea and is covered with pine trees and ringed by sandy beaches. As you stroll along the cobblestone streets, look up to see the medieval church bell towers and the clumps of bright purple bougainvillea that spill over roofs and terraces.

You'll see ruins that reflect the town's Roman, Byzantine, and Gothic-influenced past.

What to Buy: The region is known for its fields of lavender. The fragrant plant is dried and sold in sachets and pillows as well as added to oils and soaps.

Photo Caption: Town stroll in Rab, Croatia
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The sea organ in Zaadar, Croatia. Heidi Sarna
Though much of ancient Zadar was destroyed in the Yugoslav war, you can still see ruins of an ancient Roman forum and numerous churches and cathedrals dating as far back as 1,000 years. There are a handful of cobblestone streets lined with cafés and vendors selling hand-made lace, but the most interesting part of the tranquil town is its Sea Organ. Built into a 70-meter-long white stone wharf adjacent to the cruise ship pier, steps lead into the crisp blue sea for anyone who wants to take a dip against the backdrop of nearby islands. Underneath the pier are 35 musically tuned tubes with small openings on the sidewalk. The movement of the sea and wind push air through the tubes creating random harmonic sounds (some organ-like, some more like whistles or ship horns).

What to Buy: Handmade lace and embroidered linen make authentic souvenirs. Check out the street vendors in the city center, near Siroka street.

Photo Caption: The sea organ in Zaadar, Croatia
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