Europe's new king of cool

Michael Gebicki finds sun, sand and sweat for half the price on a cycling cruise in Croatia.

I am sitting at a cafe under the shade of an umbrella, slurping the last of my lemon gelato before it melts and dribbles down my fingers.

In front of me is a horseshoe-shaped quay where million-euro yachts, fishing skiffs and everything in between are rocking in a see-saw jig. At my back rises a town of bleached limestone walls and red-tiled roofs. Shadows are stretching across the cobblestones and there's an air of leisure in the sauntering crowd. Children are kicking a football around the edge of the quay.

This could easily be a page from Italy's dolce vita handbook – the sweet life incarnate – but it's not. The town is called Jelsa and is on the island of Hvar – Sun Island – one of the thousand-plus Dalmatian islands scattered off the Croatian coast; islands that are just now appearing on the radars of savvy Australian travellers.

The Dalmatian coast, which runs for 400 kilometres from the Istrian Peninsula in the north-west to the border with Montenegro in the south-east, is a new kind of cool. Dalmatia includes Split, Croatia's second-largest metropolis, as well as World Heritage-listed Dubrovnik, but it's in the islands that the siren song is heard loudest. The names of these islands – Vis, Korcula, Hvar, Brac and Pag – might not glide off the tongue with the same sugar-coated sibilance as Positano or St Tropez, yet this slice of sea-washed heaven is already being subtitled the Riviera of the Adriatic.

It's not there yet. Croatia is still recovering from 50 years of communism, with a fierce and brutal civil war as a chaser, but the raw ingredients – sunshine, warmth, weathered stone villages, beaches, olive groves, vineyards and a taste for leisure – are all in place, with a price tag that puts the Aussie dollar on steroids.

I'm on an island-hopping cruise; a week exploring the Dalmatian islands, taking in the sights, swimming, lapping up the sunshine, drinking rakia ( the local firewater) late at night in village squares and trying to get my tongue around a language that is as hard to understands as it sounds.

My journey begins in the town of Trogir, about an hour's drive west of Split. Cross the little bridge over the canal that makes Trogir an island and I'm in a huddled labyrinth, where stone facades with arched doorways form unbroken walls. It's everything you could ask of the Mediterranean world – a castle on the waterfront, seafood restaurants tucked away in courtyards, a quay lined with cafes and a piazza with a Venetian church. At one time or another, Trogir has been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Franks, Hapsburgs and Venetians, most of whom have left their own imprint on the town's architecture. Back across the canal is a market where elderly women sell olive oil flavoured with thyme and fruit-flavoured brandies that spell trouble.

Trogir is so flagrantly gorgeous I don't want to leave but, on a Saturday morning, I am standing with my bags, preparing to board the Kapetan Jure. About six other vessels are awaiting passengers but the Kapetan Jure is one of the few with bicycles lined up at the stern. This is a cycling cruise. Every morning, we will wake in a different port and, after a leisurely breakfast, pedal off across hills to rendezvous with the boat a few hours later.

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After lunch, we get a chance to test our legs with a 20-kilometre ride from Split up through pine forests to the heights of the Marjan Peninsula for a view over the city. We spiral back to Earth for coffee and cakes in the shadow of Diocletian's Palace and agree, if you're a Roman emperor, you get to pick the primo spot for your retirement villa.

Born on the Dalmatian coast, Diocletian rose through the ranks of Rome's military machine to become emperor at the end of the third century AD. He abdicated in 305 and spent his last years at this walled compound on the Bay of Aspalathos.

Once a formidable piece of military engineering, today it's a town within the city, a maze of cobbled alleys and marble-paved piazzas, where jewellers, art galleries and cafes ply their trade behind facades that were carved out 1700 years ago.

Built in 2000 by her captain, the ever-smiling Anton, the Kapetan Jure is a handsome, two-masted cruiser with a forest of well-varnished woodwork and a sunny top deck upholstered with day beds.

The cabins are simple, functional and neat. Each has its own bathroom and air-conditioning but most of the 15 double cabins also catch the sea breezes, which is the preferred option.

There's a multicultural group on board.

Most are Germans, for whom the combination of warmth, fresh seafood, bargain-basement prices and amiable locals who tolerate nude bathing makes this an earthly paradise. There's also a Canadian couple with kids aged 10 and 12 in tow, a pair of hardcore women cyclists from the US and Alfred, a 78-year-old Viennese charmer, travelling with wife number four.

Over the next few days, the Kapetan Jure conjures up a string of islands from the blue waters of the Adriatic. On Mljet, where the Greek mythological hero Odysseus was supposedly shipwrecked for seven years, we spend an afternoon lazing on the shores of a lake surrounded by forest and with the 12th-century island monastery of St Mary as a focal point.

At Hvar, one of the superstars of this part of the world, we tie up amid a showcase of gleaming nautical hardware.

Korcula, on day three, is my favourite, a mini-fortress encased in honey-coloured walls. Korcula claims Marco Polo as one of its native sons. At the heart of the old city, we spend a long night listening to a willowy singer in black boots belting out folk and blues.

Pretty as the beaches are, they lack one vital component that any Aussie takes for granted: sand. Grey pebbles are not made for comfort, although there is much to be said for a beach where a cafe is never far away.

The water, on the other hand, is crystal clear. Somehow you don't expect any part of the crowded Mediterranean shoreline to sparkle, but the sea around these islands is vodka clear and warm enough for shiver-free swimming.

Most of all, we pedal. About half of each day is spent in the saddle, cycling between 30 and 40 kilometres. It's tough going. The Dalmatian islands might be long and narrow, but they're also lumpy. Just about any journey involves a stiff climb, sometimes to a height of more than 400 metres. One day, we cycle almost the full length of Korcula, a 67-kilometre leg-burner that takes most of a hot day to complete.

Our bikes hoist us high into searing hills of tumbled white stone and prickly pear, where every house comes with its own fig and lemon trees – and sometimes even a vineyard. It's hard and hot work but there are moments that are real gems, such as the sight of Alfred doing a nimble two-step to a Queen number that our guide, Mario, plays on his mobile phone, and a schuss at the end of each day's ride.

Cycling brings a sense of purpose to what would otherwise be a week of pure indulgence. There's only so much cafe loitering and beach sunning the human body can take.

Despite the energetic pedal-pushing, we've also absorbed something of the slow and lazy rhythm of these islands. The Croatians have a word for this, "fjaka". Fjaka tells you not to do anything that is not necessary, savour momentary pleasures and absorb the beauty that is life.

And so, having finished my lemon gelato at the cafe where this all started, I shall now pedal back to Kapetan Jure – but slowly, and with a swim along the way, in the true spirit of fjaka.

The writer was a guest of Utracks and Emirates.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Emirates has daily flights from Sydney to Frankfurt, where there are frequent connections to Split. Phone 1300 303 777 or see emirates.com.

PACKAGES

Sydney adventure travel specialist, Utracks, has a Croatia Bike & Sail package that includes accommodation on a cruise boat, all meals, bike hire and daily guided tours, starting from $2190. Phone (02) 8270 8488 or see utracks.com.au.

MORE INFORMATION

See dalmatia.info.

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