Xenia Taliotis sets aside her preconceptions of coach tours and discovers a new type of guided holiday full of amazing restaurants, island stops and unforgettable experiences.
Ever since I was child I’ve loved travelling by road, loved the opportunities it afforded for impromptu stops en route and the hours it allowed for gazing out of the window day dreaming about the lives that went on in the villages my dad drove us through on our summer holidays
As an adult – and as a driver – road travel lost some if its appeal, partly due to the pre-sat-nav stress of trying to map read and drive and partly due to time having become so precious that holidays were all about the destination rather than the journey.
So what joy it was to reclaim my childhood passion on, of all things, an escorted coach tour through Croatia.
Granted this may seem an unpromising prospect for rekindling any kind of passion, but being given time to daydream and to make friends, while you’re taken from one stop to the next without having to huff and puff your luggage along the way, is a luxury I now never want to do without.
Croatia by coach
I discovered this on a six-day tour from Sarajevo to Dubrovnik with Insight Vacations, which took us from bullet-scarred historic centres to hidden coves beneath infinite skies and places of pilgrimage and quiet contemplation.
Our time in Croatia began in Split, which is lovely even when bustling with day-trippers disembarking from the cruise ships that crowd its harbour. Seen out of season though, in early spring or late autumn, it wins over even the most reclusive and tourist-shy of travellers.
Nearly 2,000 years ago its Riva, one of Europe’s finest seafront promenades, won the heart of Emperor Diocletian who hoofed it to Split after he abdicated. Our group follows in his footsteps, visiting his palace, a lavish colossus with vaulted basements, a graceful colonnaded courtyard and wide avenues, which was built in 195 AD and is the town’s most remarkable man-made attraction.
From there we took to the streets, squeezing down Pusti me da Prodjem (Let me Pass) street, one of the narrowest in the world (particularly fun to do with someone you’re hoping to get to know better) – and stumbling out into grand piazzas that seem to shimmer like a mirage.
The next day our coach took us inland to Krka National Park. You can go road, by boat or on foot through pine-carpeted gorges and past stone cottages and watermills, to swim in Skradinski Buk, a crystal pool with waterfalls and cascades.
On another day, we might have seen people diving from the falls, but off-season we had only the lizards, cranes, songbirds and butterflies that danced before us for company. It was perfect.
Back on the road, we travelled through the Makarska Riveriera to Mali Ston and Ston, two jewels on the slim neck of land that joins the mainland to the beautiful wilds of the Pelješac peninsula.
What a drive – on our left, the hills studded with scented pines and silver olive trees, the roadsides splashed with clusters of wild iris and on our right tiny coves, white-washed villages and the crystal clears of the Adriatic zipped past.
Up ahead, were the Walls of Ston snaking across the landscape – built in the 15th century to protect Ston’s salt, the ‘white gold’ that has been an economic mainstay since the Middle Ages.
Not far from Ston, we stopped for an Insight ‘signature moment’. This may sound a little naff but the ‘moments’ are treats that pop up during your stay. Chosen by the tour director who accompanies each trip, they add a sense of spontaneity to the trips.
In this instance we ate oranges just pulled from the trees, moist morsels of date and fig cakes, and figs dried in such a way that they secrete their sugars like natural icing sugar onto their skins.
At Mali Ston we took a boat out to the bay’s world-famous oyster beds and enjoyed another ‘signature moment’ – watching the oystermen pluck the shells from the sea, shuck them and plate them up for us.
The Šare family, our hosts, have been cultivating oysters for 700 years. They also own the fabulous Bota Šare restaurants: there are three more besides the one in Mali Ston, a former castle, in which we ate fruits de mer, seafood pastas and risottos – traditional dishes inspired by recipes taken from two dusty old books the Šares found in their basement.
Korcula old town
Then it was onto Korcula, the island the Greeks named Korkyra Melaina – Black Corfu – because of its dense holm oak woods. Though very much on the tourist map, the green trails around the island and away from main town are wonderfully shady and peaceful.
In the diminutive old town, Italian influence is clear. The winding streets have a Venetian air and you’ll find St Mark’s Cathedral where statues of a naked Adam and Eve hang above the door, their carefully carved bits dangling above you, and the ruins of Marco Polo house, where the great explorer may have been born – but probably wasn’t.
Our final meal was at Filippi, overlooking the Pelješac Channel and the islands of the Korčula archipelago. The food was a match for the views: Adriatic octopus salad, home-made Žrnovo macaroni with Adriatic shrimps, cherry tomatoes, arugula and dried cranberries and steak with pancetta, raison and walnut brioche and dried tomatoes, accompanied by too many bottles of the excellent Grk wine.
I didn’t know how I would get on with an escorted coach tour but this trip proved something of a surprise, and I’ll be looking into new destinations for next year for sure.
Xenia Taliotis travelled to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina with Insight Vacations (0800 533 5622). An 11-day Treasures of Croatia and Bosnia trip costs from £1,974 per person, including return flights, 10 nights’ premium B&B accommodation, four evening meals, VIP door-to-door private airport transfers, sightseeing and a professional tour director throughout.
All photography by Renegade Photography.