Fiona and Frank Stephens of luxury tours agency Benalla Travel (Victoria) explore the Dalmatian Coast with APT Luxury Mega-Yachts aboard Ponant’s Le Lyrial.
The romance and adventure of sailing into a small port certainly provides a different perspective on travel and a keen understanding of the cultural identity of some of the world’s most beautiful small coastal towns. The larger ports that line the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia and Montenegro are a popular choice for exploration, but sailing past the dramatic limestone cliffs and navigating the tiny inlets amongst the hundreds of islands scattered offshore provides a greater sense of mystery and majesty – and overall sailing pleasure. It is for this reason that the region is referred to as Eastern Europe’s Riviera, a playground for the rich, famous and travel savvy. With kilometres of seafront and a complex network of inlets, coves and tiny pebbly beaches to explore, it’s best navigated by small ship. The Dalmation Coast’s summer, with its predictably balmy weather, is the perfect time to escape Australia’s mid-winter lulls.
Small-ship cruising is certainly the preferred experience for travellers who enjoy their independence, yet appreciate the serendipitous company of others. The benefit of such travel too is sailing into many ports for short stays. This presents perfect glimpses into the daily happenings of unique mainland and island villages, with just enough time to taste, see and explore their key cultural delights.
Recently, Benalla Travel’s Fiona and Frank Stephens boarded APT Luxury Mega-Yachts’ French-owned vessel Le Lyrial by Ponant for a 12-day luxury chartered cruise of the Adriatic Sea, its islands and coastal cities. During the tour they enjoyed the intimacy and luxuriousness of a private yacht experience combined with the thrill, adventure and facilities of some of the best large expedition ships.
Le Lyrial is intimate in size – it features just 122 staterooms and suites. The ship is relaxed in feel with attractive contemporary interiors that are free-flowing, airy and comforting. Suites are cleverly designed with plenty of space to unpack and tidy away luggage and with in-built smart technology everywhere.
Aboard guests can choose from two exclusive lounge-bars, an elegant lower-deck gastronomic restaurant or the more casual poolside upper-deck grill. Of course, Le Lyrial’s wine list features an impeccable selection of French wines. ‘We were surprised and delighted with the sommelier’s suggestion of the Domaine Laroche Premier Cru Chablis – a first offering that set a high standard,’ says Frank. With such refined options aboard, and some of Eastern Europe’s best sea-port dining restaurants on land, Le Lyrial delivers a unique gourmet element to the journey, a pleasurable complement to the mainstay cruise and adventure.
‘Just like the smaller private yachts, Le Lyrial has its own rear extension deck designed for water-sports and water play,’ says Fiona. ‘It’s a real highlight for the more adventurous guests who can choose paddle boarding and kayaking, or for others, a simple ocean swim. The process is so simple; the captain just drops anchor and into the water we all go!’
While there are opportunities for a random swim in the deep blue, or from the many white pebbled beaches, touring options are many. Once at anchor, city walks, winery and olive tours are among the curated offerings to guests. Or, simply enjoy the independence of exploring the sites self-guided. These were some of Fiona’s more memorable experiences:
A stopover on the small island of Korčula invites relaxed exploration navigating old town streets and viewing architecture influenced by the Venetian Renaissance. Korčula claims to be the birthplace of Marco Polo, so we toured what is purported to be the family home/ruin and associated museum. The city itself is grooved with a succession of narrow streets that branch off the spine of the main ulitsa (street) like fish bones. Korčula Old Town was planned this way to reduce the effects of wind and sun on its early inhabitants. Lunch on the waterside at restaurant Nonna, shaded by a row of Cypress pines, is highly recommended. Here you can watch the locals swim off the rocks as you dine. With an element of sophistication they take to the water using a cemented-to-the-rocks chrome pool ladder to climb in. It brings a smile, as does the fragrant, ever-so-slightly chilled rosé wine. A 10-minute taxi ride from town takes you through the terraced vineyards of Lumbarda to the small family-run Bire Winery, where we taste premium Croation grk, a dry white wine made from the grk bijeli grape, grown only on the island of Korčula.
Šibenik’s Saint James Cathedral, a triple-naved basilica, is considered one of the city’s most important architectural monuments, featuring exquisite portal stone carvings. The motif within the northern portal, known as the Lion Gate, depicts Adam and Eve standing on two lions. Next door, situated inside the 700-year-old Villa Pelegrini-Tambača, is Pelegrini Tavern & Enoteca, a highly-awarded restaurant widely considered the best in Šibenik. Head chef Rudolf Štefan’s philosophy is based on a creative combination of tradition and innovation. Using only local ingredients his traditional Dalmatian dishes are modernised with clever detail and a gentle balance. The Lardi i Riba (Lardo and Fish) is delicately presented. The poached white fish pieces, wrapped in thin slices of cured pork fat sitting atop squid ink tapioca crisps, are a class-leading primi (starter). The restaurant’s divine interior sandstone walls provide a comforting cool midday retreat from the baking sun. It’s a dream location to visit before climbing back aboard.
Le Lyrial docks literally on the Zadar waterfront, a beautiful place for walking and swimming. Here the Greeting to the Sun monument creates a playful game of lights activated by sunlight. Rhythmic pulsating tones harmonise with the waves as the Sea Organ – an architectural sound art object – pumps out experimental music as water flows in and out of a set of tubes hidden beneath the port’s large marble steps.
No other city on earth can claim to be built inside the fortified walls of a Roman palace; let alone one that’s reasonably well preserved. Emperor Diocletian built it around the turn of the fourth century, then retired to it soon after, in AD305, thus avoiding the violent fate of many Roman rulers. The Peristyle central square of the palace is watched over by a 3500-year-old black granite sphinx. ‘Having a fine European barista coffee on the steps circling the Peristyle is a unique experience – this is modern civilisation meets Greek and Egyptian ancient heritage,’ laughs Fiona. Another highlight is Galerija Umjetnina with its ground floor contemporary art collection representing the development of Croatian and local art from the 1960s to the present. Here courtyard metal sculptures shaped as garden bushes are painted in red, yellow and blue primary colours, looking like well manicured hedges.
‘Walking the city wall is a must-do (early in the morning to avoid the crowds); it’s worth it for breathtaking views of the Adriatic Sea, neighbouring islands and rooftops of Dubrovnik,’ says Fiona. A full-circuit walk along the battlements is a two-kilometre journey. Along the way one can explore Revelin Fortress on the eastern side of the city, and climb Tower Minčeta on the northern side. Experiencing Dubrovnik’s beautiful old city, strolling its immaculate white cobblestone streets and alleyways is a pleasurable pursuit. You’ll discover superb hidden cafes and, unfortunately, ‘way too many Game of Throne tourist shops’ says Fiona.
One of the grandest highlights of the cruise is entering the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro – a picturesque 30-kilometre long bay surrounded by rolling hills and enormous mountains: Mount Orjen to the west and Mount Lovćen to the east. Kotor is one of the best preserved and most beautiful medieval fortified towns in the Adriatic. One of its largest and most ornate buildings is the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon. While its internal art objects and frescos painted in gold and silver are considered treasures of beauty and high value, the exterior of Korčula stone, golden coloured at sunset, is no less spectacular.
Essentials Magazine highly recommends Frank and Fiona’s travel services to make navigating an APT Luxury Mega-Yachts cruise a truly unforgettable experience.
Tel 03 5762 3187