Croatia: Shore Dining a Big Plus on a Small Ship
Not your typical Croatian cruise: Dining on shore instead of aboard
By Terri Colby
My truffle epiphany came on a rainy night in Croatia.
We were a little more than halfway through a seven-day cruise along the Dalmatian coast. A few hours earlier our ship, the MV Futura, had put in at the island of Zadar.
A whirlwind tour ensued: A walk past Roman ruins and a Byzantine-era church. A muted performance of the island’s renowned “sea organ,” an underground water-front contraption that uses the motion of waves to make musical notes.
A tasting of the distinctive local cherry liqueur. A visit to a local museum of glassware from Roman times, elegantly simple and remarkably intact after 1,800 years or more.
After all of that, we were getting hungry. A fellow passenger born in Croatia had suggested Restaurant Bruschetta, a block or so off the main boulevard and within sight of the Adriatic, and we talked our way into one of the few remaining tables just as raindrops began to pelt the wide canopy covering the restaurant’s bustling terrace.
Handmade pasta with a pistachio pesto was interesting, but then there arrived the main course:
A few planks of sautéed chicken breast over beige pillows of gnocchi, with a small heap of julienned summer vegetables at the side. And a pool of light wine sauce full of dark brown flakes.
I’m sure I had tasted truffles before, but in this moment the flavor was a revelation. Savory like bacon or ham, earthy like mushrooms. I carefully parceled out a fleck of truffle to go with every forkful of food, and finally, reluctantly surrendered the plate.
With the rain abating to a few sprinkles, my husband and I settled our bill – 360 kuna, or a little less than $60 – then made our way over the quiet glistening cobbled streets of Zadar to the quay where our ship, and our bed, awaited.
All ashore that’s dining ashore
At this point, veterans of cruise ships might have a practical question: Why were we eating dinner on shore? After all, on most cruises the day’s excursions end with a hustle back on board for dinner, keeping the ship’s kitchen and crew busy and saving passengers the trouble of finding their own meals.
But this cruise was different. On most days we sailed at daybreak and reached port in early to mid afternoon. There followed a walking tour of an hour or two (adequate to cover most of our island-hopping destinations) or a coach excursion, and then we were on our own for exploring and dinner.
This routine scratched an itch I’ve often felt while cruising: To try the local food and drink. It’s one big reason we chose this cruise. After all, there’s no substitute for flavors and aromas of food as a way to experience the culture of the place you’re visiting.
It’s another way to engage with the local people as well, particularly if you can find a restaurant that’s not primarily a tourist haunt, or one with outdoor café-style seating that lets you watch the world go by as you dine.
We were on a 38-passenger cruise ship where we were on our own for many of our dinners, meaning we got the chance to try out local restaurants at each port. These cruises are relatively inexpensive, often less than $2,000 per person, in part because dinners aren’t included.
Of course, you spend more when you’re buying meals on shore. We tended to go high-end with wine and appetizers as well as the main course and spent several hundred dollars on meals for the two of us. But others in our group were happy grabbing a slice of pizza or a sandwich, and spent much less, in the $10 to $15 range for one person’s meal. Having the option worked for both types of passengers.
The chance to experience local restaurants, often called konobas, in a country we knew little about, was a truly welcome break from the usual cruise routine. And without all the included dinners, the cruise pricing is considerably less than you might expect.
Dubrovnik’s walled city
Our cruise began in Dubrovnik, a marvelously preserved walled city with parts more than 600 years old, newly renowned as a filming location for the TV series “Game of Thrones.”
Think of the old city of Dubrovnik as a compact Venice without canals, devoid of motor vehicles during daylight hours, a maze of narrow pedestrian-only cobblestone streets and steep staircases, worn slick by centuries of footsteps and shadowed by towering 500-year-old apartment blocks, monasteries and churches, all built of the local limestone.
It seemed almost every restaurant in the old city has tables set up along these narrow alleyways, though most offered indoor seating as well.
Even before the cruise, we took the opportunity to visit one of Croatia’s islands, Lokrum Island, a short ferry ride from Dubrovnik, where we walked through botanic gardens along with roaming peacocks and soaked in a salt lake. A perfect day trip.
Our entire journey was on the water or within a stone’s throw of it, and the cuisine we sampled was clearly shaped by proximity to the sea, and to Italy on the other side of the Adriatic.
Our first meal in Croatia was pizza at Dubravka 1836, a waterside restaurant with a roomy terrace almost in the shadow of the city walls. The pizza makers knew what they were doing: The crust struck a nice balance between crunchy and chewy, and the toppings were not laid on too thick.
The next night, at our Dubrovnik innkeeper’s suggestion, we dined at the oddly named Moby Dick, in a brightly lit outdoor seating area along one of the narrow pedestrian streets. Our young server suggested an entrée of two whole grilled fish, which she expertly dismembered and served alongside a bland mixture of potatoes and greens. The entrée and side alone were about $70, a bit of sticker shock for us.
We did not find dining in Croatia, particularly Dubrovnik, to be a bargain. In a typical restaurant in Old Town Dubrovnik it would be easy to drop the equivalent of $100 for a three-course dinner for two with a decent bottle of wine.
NY or London Prices
The prices seem set so as to appear reasonable to someone from New York or London. We saved a bit by sticking to house wines, which were consistently good, and sometimes sharing first courses or desserts, which was not frowned upon.
Another night we were drawn by a restaurant promising Bosnian cuisine, because … who knows what Bosnian cuisine tastes like?
Taj Mahal made the most of its location in a slightly off the beaten path alleyway, lined by a couple of rows of wooden tables painted bright green and served by a busy staff in festive folk costumes.
My husband and I both ordered the “specialty of the house” because .. what else do you order when you haven’t a clue what anything is?
It turned out to be a sort of giant egg roll of crisp pastry, filled with mushrooms, chunks of veal and turkey and a cream sauce.
Enough to make us wish that a Bosnian restaurant would open down the street back home. Each entrée was 130 kuna, or about $20 at 6.5 kuna to a dollar.
A highlight of this cruise was a chance to visit some of the historic towns among Croatia’s coastal archipelago of more than 1,000 islands. First stop was Korcula, which like many of its sister settlements was built by the Venetians from the 14th century on, when they controlled both sides of the Adriatic.
It was a time of armed conflict, and so Korcula’s old town was built as a fortified city atop a hill at the tip of the island. An hour’s walking tour took us through narrow passageway-streets, arranged in a herringbone pattern to protect inhabitants from winter winds, and past what is said to be the birthplace of Marco Polo.
Walking tours are hungry work, and ours had taken us past a few enticing restaurant locales in the center of the old town, each with a few tables along narrow alleyways or fronting tiny plazas.
But we couldn’t pass up a chance to dine along the water. Restaurants along Korcula’s waterfront promenade each had a few tables under trees at the water’s edge, overlooking the harbor and the wide coastal channel.
We spotted two older couples who looked like locals dining at Konoba Morski Konjic, and decided to follow their lead. It turned out they were a family from Genoa, Italy, who had a summer home in Korcula, but they definitely knew how to pick a restaurant.
My husband and I each ordered a starter course of macaroni (here a longer tube than the elbows seen in the US) in a light cream sauce spiked with rosemary, and shared an entrée of sea bass – two generous sauteed filets served with a delicious warm potato salad that combined red onion, capers and olive oil.
With a couple of glasses of local white wine, the bill came to about $80, but the view of dusk gathering on the water under a moonlit sky was free.
Cruising on a small ship
Dinners and shore excursions aside, the cruise itself was a delight, and far different than massive big-ship cruising, or even smaller river cruises. The 136-foot, 38-passenger MV Futura was well suited to Croatia’s broad coastal channel, navigating between rocky coastal cliffs and hilly wooded islands.
We had only two short bouts of rain in eight days; otherwise mid-June on the Adriatic was a time of cloudless skies and smooth sparkling water.
The sea was also warm and clear, as we discovered in the late morning each day when the ship would drop anchor at a cove or beach so passengers could take a pre-lunch swim or visit shore in the ship’s motor launch.
Our final island hop was to Rab, a sort of mini-Dubrovnik walled city of soaring steeples, narrow alleyways and red-tiled roofs, all surrounded by the blue Adriatic.
The island is known for Rab cake, a shortbread-like concoction flavored with almonds and lemon, and as a nudist hotbed – the future King Edward VIII and his then-fiancee, Wallis Simpson, were among the pioneers.
Dining in Konoba Rab
After exploring the island we found an outdoor café that mixed fine mojitos and cosmopolitans at happy hour, and then, at a local tour guide’s advice, made our way to Konoba Rab for dinner.
Located on a side street not much wider than a sidewalk, the multi-story restaurant in a narrow half-timbered building creates the feel of a rustic inn in central Europe, with low ceilings and tables tucked away in nooks and alcoves.
The friendly, burly host doubled as the server, hustling patrons and orders up and down the stairs, and could have been in the kitchen cooking as well for all we knew – service was not lightning-fast. But the results were hearty – a salmon steak for me and a beefsteak topped with prsut, Croatia’s answer to prosciutto, for my husband’s.
The midpoint of our journey was Split, Croatia’s second-largest city, with a unique and fascinating old town of its own. The Roman Emperor Diocletian built what was essentially his retirement home here, a massive limestone edifice covering more than seven acres at the water’s edge.
When the Roman era passed, locals took over the palace precincts, which form the core of Split today. Diocletian’s basement houses a mall of souvenir shops, and his main temple is now an ornate Catholic church, with a Venetian-style bell tower soaring next door.
Shops, family homes, and even a synagogue are housed elsewhere in a hybrid of Roman and Renaissance construction. We sat on cushions on steps surrounding the compact forum, had a drink served from an adjacent café, and listened to local musicians.
There’s enough to see for a day’s visit or more, but we had only a couple of hours to explore and, of course, find dinner.
We settled on Uje for its outdoor tables on a less-trafficked outdoor passageway, and because we were intrigued that it was a restaurant and an olive oil bar – another staple of Croatian cuisine.
An olive oil sampler was a highlight of the meal – a simple presentation of premium oil sprinkled with sea salt made a tangy dip for bread – as was a heaping platter of grilled lamb, chops and ribs and other cuts, served with salad and a dollop of ajvar, a traditional condiment made of pureed red pepper.
We splurged on a bottle of Croatian rose to take the edge off a warm day, and the tab ended up close to $90.
Others in our group had meals they enjoyed for much less, $10 or $15 without drinks, but we weren’t in the mood for food as fuel (pizzas, salads or hamburgers) and were happy to savor the Croatian dining experience.
We felt sorry for those who see Croatia aboard a massive cruise ship. They miss so much not dining on shore.
AdventureSmith Explorations www.adventuresmithexplorations.com offers several Croatian cruises including two that call for sampling local restaurants for your evening meal: the Dalmatian Coast Cruise and the Croatia Island Hopper. Both options are week-long small ship cruises operating between May and October, with prices starting at $1,725 per person.
Terri Colby is an award-winning journalist, a Chicagoan by birth and by choice, and a world traveler who is happy to leave her hometown in winter.