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May 27, 2004 -- Who doesn't grow giddy at the thought of a trip to Europe? History, culture, fashion, food -- all these things keep us coming back year after year. Love affair aside, who wouldn't appreciate a new twist thrown into the standard Italy and Greece cruise mix. Just how many times do you want to take the three-hour bus ride to Florence from the port of Livorno? Can you really face the crowds at Lindos (the impressive ruins of an Acropolis in Rhodes) one more time? Maybe you're just plain itching to one-up your know-it-all neighbor with tales of the hottest new European destination since the wall came down...

Well, hot, it certainly is, but new? Hardly. Croatia is as old as the hills. It's just that it was off limits for most of the 90s due to the Balkans war (pre-1991, Croatia was part of Yugoslavia). The fighting ended a few years ago, and it's safe to say that the Dalmatian Coast is now firmly back on the tourist map. It's hopping like it was for years before the war, drawing Europeans who appreciate its beauty, beaches, history, culture and affordability.

"I've haven't been as excited about a destination in 20 years," says David Vass, Director of Land Programs & Hotel Development for Seadream Yacht Club. He should know, during his career Vass has traveled to more than 170 countries to check out potential ports of call, combing countless towns, villages and cities for interesting things to see and do.

A place like Croatia makes that job easy. Roman ruins and medieval villages are as common here as heather in the Lake District. The country's long rugged island-dotted coastline covers practically the entire eastern seaboard of the Adriatic, and there's no shortage of ancient towns encircled by picturesque crumbling walls. Vineyards, olive groves and beaches complete a montage of landscapes right out of central casting.

Itineraries may include calls on Korcula, the birthplace of Marco Polo; Pula, known for its Roman amphitheater; Losinj, for its long 18-mile beach; Rovinj, a medieval fishing village; Hvar, supremely picturesque with its vineyards and rolling hills; and Dubrovnik, the ancient walled city that sits high above a beautiful harbor. An ideal cruising destination, there's no doubt.

Not the least of Croatia's appealing virtues is its affordability. Among the best bargains in Europe, the dollar and Euro still go a long way here. Unlike most of the continent, Croatia isn't yet part of the European Union. That means, Vass points out, that shore excursions can be dramatically cheaper than in other European ports, like Italy.

With all it has going for it, it's no surprise that nearly every line worth its weight in bingo chips and Baked Alaska is including calls to Croatia this summer on Mediterranean itineraries, often embarking from and/or ending up in Venice. Not a bad deal.

Small-ship lines focus itineraries on typically four to five Croatian ports, and are the best way to skirt the crowds and slip into harbors and small villages. They'll show you more of Croatia than the megas could ever hope to. The best include SeaDream Yacht Club (www.seadreamyachtclub.com), whose 110-passenger ultra-luxe yachts are heaven on earth with free-flowing champagne and fun diversions like ski jets and mountain bikes (carried aboard and complimentary). Star Clippers' (www.starclippers.com) 227-passenger Royal Clipper is a lovely fully-rigged square-sail clipper, while Windstar's (www.windstarcruises.com) fleet includes the 308-passenger five-masted Wind Surf, a modern-style yacht with electronically operated sails. Slightly larger, ultra-luxe lines hitting Croatia this summer include all-inclusive Silversea (www.silverseacruises.com) and Seabourn (www.seabourn.com), plus Radisson (www.rssc.com) and Crystal (www.crystal.com), who offer a similarly elegant onboard vibe on their somewhat larger ships. The biggest, mostly 2,000-plus mega-ship lines visiting the Croatian coast this year -- typically just Dubrovnik -- include Royal Caribbean (www.royalcaribbean.com), Celebrity (www.celebritycruises.com), Holland America (www.hollandamerica.com), Princess (www.princesscruises.com), and Cunard (www.cunard.com).

Have you cruise into Croatia? We would love to read your Trip Report. Just click over to our Croatia Message Boards and tell us all about it.