Croatia was on the top of my European scuba diving bucket list for some years before I book that Thomas Cook Airlines ticket that would finally take me to Split. I started building my itinerary back in 2012. If I quickly identified that between Split and Dubrovnik, there is a multitude of beautiful islands with excellent dive sites to organise a wonderful scuba diving trip of 2 weeks in Croatia, I struggled to organise this trip the way I like.
How to go island hopping in South Croatia?
I had so many questions before to go for 2 weeks in Croatia.
Would I need to rent a car? Were all the islands easily connected by ferry? Could I put the car on the ferry? Should I take an island hopping cruise to do it all?
Here is what I found:
- All island hopping tours on lovely wooden sailboats are not adapted to scuba divers’ schedule. The boats usually sail between late morning and early afternoon. There is no to time to even go on a single morning dive in each place, the boat would be already gone. The only solution would be to charter an entire boat for a group. With at least 6 persons, prices are interesting, and the crew can cater to your scuba diving schedule.
- Renting a car can be a nightmare for a road trip in Southern Croatia. First, the road to Dubrovnik crosses a corridor of Bosnia. It means you cross twice an EU/non-EU border, the car can be fully searched, and the car insurance may not cover you outside of the EU. Then I found that you cannot put your car on all the ferries as some are more like small catamarans.
- The buses are comfortable and affordable. In each bus station, there is a single ticket office selling all the different bus companies’ tickets. You can just show up and ask for the next bus to your destination, and you never wait for a long time. You can check the schedule on this website: buscroatia.com
- Taking the ferry is cheap and reliable. Ferry timetable used to be good only for peak summer (July/August). Between the schedule of 2016 and the schedule of 2017, I improved a lot for the low season. In high season, it might be better to book the tickets in advance, but in my case in May, I just bought the ticket the day before or even sometimes 15 minutes before the ferry left. Two companies serve Southern Croatia: Jadrolinija and Krilo/Kapetan Luka. I used them alternatively to make the best use of the available departure times with each. Study it well because not every connection is available every day of the week.
My next question was how to choose which island to visit?
Because with scuba diving I travel a bit slower, I couldn’t pick too many islands during my 2-week trip in Croatia. As I planned a minimum of 2/3 days in both Split and Dubrovnik, this gave me enough time to explore two islands (and a half). First, I chose Vis Island because I read it has good wreck diving and I wanted to visit the Blue Cave or Modra Splija on Bisevo Island, its sister island. Then I chose Hvar because it has this overcrowded jet-set reputation during peak season so I was curious to see how it would feel in low season and why it attracts so many people. At the same time, Hvar Town is facing the Pakleni Archipelago so I thought I could find some good diving there. I would have had a few extra days, I would have loved to spend time in Korcula and Mljet National Park. On the map below you can check all the details of the itinerary I followed during those 2 weeks in Croatia.
Day 1 – Split
From my very first moments in the Capital of Central Dalmatia, I knew it was love at first sight. Although Split’s historical centre is not so big and you can visit its main monuments in about half a day, its unique and lively atmosphere will make me come back.
The biggest highlight of Split is definitely its Palace of Diocletian, but this Roman site is not what I expected. Contrary to the Forum in Rome or the Parthenon in Athens, the ancient Roman palace is the old city centre itself! How is that even possible? Built by one of the latest Roman emperors during the 4th Century for his retirement, once the Roman era passed, many attacks on Split occurred, and its people found shelter within the walls of the Palace. Century after century, people reused was what left of the Roman Palace to build their homes. The result is an unusual mix of old and new which definitely keeps the old city very much alive. That’s why, don’t rush to visit the monuments or the museums, take your time and get lost in the maze of narrow streets, letting your imagination works everytime you stumble into a piece of the ancient palace.
The most beautiful parts of Diocletian’s Palace are:
- The Peristyle, an elegant square where people can enjoy a drink and live music in the evening on one of the cushions on the stairs. Don’t miss the view of the Bell Tower just before sunset for the most beautiful pictures and a less crowded atmosphere.
- The Vestibule, a stunning open skydome that was once the private quarters of Diocletian.
- The north wall has an impressively thick gate that will make you realise the palace was more like a fortress. While looking at the gate from the outside, you can see on the left side the windows of people living inside the wall! Near the gate, you can see the enormous statue of the Bishop Gregory of Nin (Grgur Ninski) sculpted by the Croatian Rodin, Ivan Meštrović.
- The Cathedral of St Domnius, it used to be the mausoleum of Emperor Diocletian, then is was turned into a Cathedral. It is now the oldest Catholic Church in the world. Make sure to buy the combo ticket for 40 kunas (£5) that includes the tour of the Bell Tower, the Cathedral and the Crypt, to save some money.
- The Bell Tower, although it isn’t an original part of the Diocletian’s Palace, don’t miss the breath-taking view of Split and its surrounding islands from its top. Be careful, the ascent is quite vertiginous on the old metallic stairs.
Don’t miss the sunset from the end of the waterfront promenade. From there you will get the best view of Split with the best light. If you still have energy, going to the end of the marina is also worth as you can see better the mountains in the background and you are almost certain to be on your own.
The thing about Croatia I had absolutely no expectation was definitely food. It came as a wonderful surprise when I realised that Croatian food was a mix of Mediterranean and Eastern European flavours. On top of this, Split is maybe one of the best places to enjoy it. Stopping at a bakery for lunch became my little habit during the trip. Make sure you try burek (puff pastry with cheese) or soparnik (flat pie with a spinach filling), if you feel like having something savoury, krempita (cream pie) or savijaca visnja (cherry strudel), for something sweet.
Day 2 – Trogir
30 minutes of bus from Split – fare 17-22 kunas (about £2/3€)
I had originally planned a full day in Trogir. My guest room was so comfy that I just decided to enjoy it a bit more by sleeping in. I only headed to the bus station around 11 am. It takes 30 minutes to go to Trogir by bus for as little as 17 kunas one way (less than 3€). I visited the charming medieval town from noon to 5 pm, and it was enough as it is small. So take your time and enjoy a relaxing day in this pretty town! I went to the top of Saint Lawrence Cathedral, wandered the cobblestone streets and walked along the seafront promenade until the Kamerlengo Fortress. It’s only from the top of the Bell Tower of the Cathedral that I realised Trogir was actually an island, separated from the mainland by a narrow canal. Moments later, I had the confirmation with an aerial view on a postcard.
Day 3/4/5 – Vis & Bisevo
1h50 by ferry or 1h25 by fast catamaran from Split – fare 45 kunas (about £5/6€)
The island of Vis is still an out-of-the-beaten-track destination as it only opened to tourism in 1999 as it used to be the base of the Yugoslavian army. If this is your thing, for information, you can join one of the military tours, but the biggest highlight is actually on Vis neighbour, the island of Bisevo, where you can visit the famous Blue Cave or Modra Spilja.
Vis had to be on my itinerary as I spotted many shipwreck pictures on a few brochures I had about Croatia since I started my research. In the end, on the 4 dives I did in Vis, I did only one shipwreck as a night dive, and the rest was mostly wall and cavern diving as I did everything I could to make sure I could visit the Blue Cave in Bisevo during a surface interval.
The island of Vis has two main ports, the town of Vis and Komiza. When you arrive on the ferry, you are in Vis, on the north shore of the island. Komiza is on the south-west coast of the island, a 20-minute bus ride away from the ferry pier. My first idea was to stay where the ferry was because I thought it wouldn’t be difficult to go to Bisevo from there. I also wanted to have a place close to the pier where I could drop my scuba diving bag after arrival and not have to wake up too early on the departure day (I had to take the boat of 7 am). It took me less than 24 hours to understand I wished I had stayed in Komiza. I had booked with a diving centre in Vis Town for the day after my arrival, but on the afternoon of my arrival, I decided to check Komiza too as the boats for the Blue Cave are leaving from there.
There are only a few buses per day, with a schedule fixed accordingly to the ferry timetable, but it was never an issue to wait for a few hours in Komiza before returning to Vis Town. The bus ticket is 20 kunas (3€), so it’s not so cheap, but I didn’t regret to take it twice per day during my 3 days stay in Vis. Just before arriving in Komiza which is downhill, the view from the road with Bisevo Island in the background is stunning especially just before sunset. After walking around the port and talking to two different diving centres, I knew this is where I should have stayed. So we made one morning dive from Vis Town the following day, then came back for a night dive in Komiza to come back again for a full day of diving in Bisevo. I wish I had an extra day to do a full day of wreck diving there too.
I went to my first dive from Vis Town. The dive site was Punta Ploce, a small island with a lighthouse on the edge of a deep wall, on the northeast shore of Vis Island. I was amazed by the concentration and variety of nudibranchs. The wall was at least 60m deep. While the other buddy team went to 40m, I didn’t go deeper than 31m as I was too busy to look for all the incredible macro life. It is only when I checked the pictures on my computer that I realised some of the nudibranchs were laying eggs, that was a first for me!
It was early May, so water was only 15°C in Vis. I didn’t feel any cold in my dry suit, but my buddy was in a 7 mm wetsuit and shivered once he made it back to the boat. Visibility was about 20m which was according to our dive guide not so good as visibility can be up to 40m in Croatia. It seems September is an excellent period for good visibility and water is also at its warmest, between 20 and 23°C.
At the end of the day, I went back to Komiza to do a night dive on one of the many shipwrecks that sank around the island. There is a large choice of shipwrecks in Vis Island, including two plane wrecks from WWII (the B-24 and the B-17). Many of them are deeper than 40m. Hence Vis is a very popular destination for tech divers. We dived on the Teti, a cargo ship that sank in 1930 and now standing in a downward position between 10 and 34m of depth. The shipwreck is full of life especially conger eels, scorpion fish and giant hermit crabs. Even if I didn’t see any of this, it seems many divers go diving on the Teti for a hug with the congers, the fish are obviously not over friendly without reason. I have to say it upsets me since we are supposed to only leave bubbles when we are underwater…
On the following day, I went for a full day of diving on Bisevo Island. As I arrived super early in Komiza (7.30am) because of the limited bus schedule between Vis and Komiza, I had plenty of time for breakfast on the port and to pack a picnic for lunch. At 9 am, I was ready to gear up in my drysuit.
We started with a drift dive along the deep wall of Punta Kobila which is going as deep as 95 m, so you need to carefully control your depth and your buoyancy. The current pushing us was not so strong, but as I was trying to take pictures, I realised that combining drift diving and underwater photography especially in a dry suit was not that easy and I struggled to maintain a perfect buoyancy and hence taking good pictures. My favourite image is certainly this shot of this small sea cavern which seen from the inside had the shape of a heart. Along the wall, my buddy and I found a lot of nudibranchs, lobsters and moray eels.
We made our surface interval on Bisevo Island, while the boat made it back to Komiza to refill the tanks. There we took our ticket to visit the Blue Cave or Modra Spilja. Before boarding the very first boat of the day, we had plenty of time for our picnic in the sun! For information, the boat tour does not last more than 5 minutes inside the Blue Cave, as it is a very popular tourist attraction. However, the blue light which is coming from the water is a show you do not want to miss, ideally between 11 am and noon. I felt very lucky I was among the first ones to enter the cave that day, as we got a few extra minutes in the Blue Cave on our own.
Special notes about visiting the Blue Cave in Bisevo:
- Since a few years, it is now forbidden to scuba dive, to free dive or even to swim inside the cave (contrary to all the pictures you will see on brochures).
- If you’re not diving in Bisevo, you can take the water taxi from Komiza to Bisevo for 100 kunas (13€/£12)
- The entrance ticket to the Blue Cave is 50 kunas (7€/£6) in low season, and 100 kunas in July/August.
Our afternoon dive was on the south shore of Bisevo Island. We dived a long sea cavern called the Seal Cave or Medvedja Špilja. It is safe and open to recreational divers as you can ascend any time to breath fresh air. We didn’t see any monk seal, but this dive was an exciting one as you progress between the rocks. From halfway inside the cavern, no light can enter anymore and you find yourself doing a night dive. Our group surfaced at the end of the cavern to take a look, we switched off our torch lights just to check how dark the cave was. As another group can cross your way as you make your swim back to the entrance, make sure to stick to your dive buddy. Generally speaking, I loved so much my dives in Vis and Bisevo that I added them on my list of the best diving in Europe.
Day 6/7/8 – Hvar & the Pakleni Archipelago
1h05 by catamaran from Split – fare 40 kunas (about £4/5€)
As there is only one direct ferry connection between Vis and Hvar on Tuesdays, I had to go back to Split as I left Vis on a Friday. I was actually quite happy to see one last time a city I liked so much. I left my scuba diving bag at a luggage locker near the pier. It was worth the 15 kunas to walk with only my laptop backpack. As I arrived in Split at 8.25 am, and the next ferry was at 2 pm, I had plenty of time for a delicious breakfast at Corto Maltese Freestyle Food Café while editing my scuba diving pictures from Vis. Before boarding the ferry, I also visited the Green Market, located just between the Diocletian’s Palace and the Ferry pier. On long tables, dozens of women sell the best fruits, vegetables, cheese and honey from the countryside. Getting some fresh food before boarding a ferry is a great idea since you can’t find this value for money on the islands. It was especially true in Vis.
It was kind of interesting to notice how much fancier the boat to Hvar was compared to the ferry for Vis. An hour later we arrived in Hvar Town (Hvar Grad), famous for its European jet set summer parties and the high prices that go with it. However, the island is more than just venues to party. The island has pristine nature and charming villages, it produces lavender and makes some of the best wines in Croatia. Don’t miss the view from the top of the Spanish Fortress of Hvar Town and the Pakleni Archipelago in the background. These wild islands are perfect for snorkelling and scuba diving. While Hvar is crazy crowded in July and August, if you are more into hiking, kayaking or scuba diving, the lower season in May, June or September would be the best bet to enjoy the beauty of the island without the crowds.
There are many dive sites along the coast of Hvar, but the best dive I did was definitely in the Archipelago of the Pakleni Islands or Pakleni Otoci. This archipelago would deserve to be at least on the list of protected nature parks of Croatia. Still, the wall dive we did on the island of Stambedar was stunning. With a maximum depth of 45m, the wall is covered in gorgonians themselves covered in nudibranchs and fireworms. About nudibranchs, it was finally in Hvar that I saw an entire family of Dalmatian Doris nudibranchs. How could I leave Dalmatia without saying hello?
If you are lucky, you can spot dolphins in the area, but I felt lucky enough I saw an eagle ray on the sandy bottom. There also are many little sea caves to explore at about 10/15 m of depth where you can find shrimp and sea anemones species which are used to the darkness. Because I went quite deep to take a picture of the eagle ray, I had to do a decompression stop which was limited to a few minutes as we stayed at 10m of for 15 minutes. Total bottom time was 57 minutes for a max depth of 44m (oops). Taking a tank of 15L wasn’t a luxury for this dive, but I went back on the boat with 60 bars. By the way, if the water temperature was warmer a the surface of a few degrees in Hvar compared to Vis, below 20m deep, the temperature was at 15°C too. I was glad I brought my dry suit.
On our last diving day, unfortunately, the sea conditions were too rough to take the boat, so we decided to go on a long shallow shore dive in the rocky house reef of Viking Diving Centre, to look for seahorses. Unfortunately, we couldn’t spot any that day, but while looking in the seagrass, we spotted a couple of octopus! We stayed underwater for 66 minutes in no more than 10m of water, water was 16°C, and we never felt bored with our underwater cameras in hands.
Of all the four scuba diving centres I went to during my trip to Croatia, Viking Diving Centre was definitely my favourite. It’s the diving centre I’d like to recommend: Positive vibe from the team led by Zsanett and Robert, a beautiful diving centre with all the amenities you need and a stunning view of the Pakleni Islands. If you go there for the first time and you have scuba diving gear with you, it is better to take a taxi as the centre is not so easy to find and away from Hvar Town Centre. Tell the driver to go to Hotel Podstine. In my case, my host kindly offered to drive me there both mornings as the apartment was further on the opposite side of Hvar Town. Once your hands are free from your gear, you can make your way back to Hvar Town along the beautiful seafront promenade in about 20 to 30 minutes walking.
Put Podstina 7, 21450, Hvar, Croatia
Phone: +385 91 6205847 / +385 91 5689443
Day 9/10 – Dubrovnik
3h10 by catamaran from Hvar – fare 200 kunas (about £23/27€)
Dubrovnik, aka the Pearl of the Adriatic, is further south, but as a dedicated Game of Throne fan, I could not resist the urge to visit GoT’s King’s Landing. While the Old Town didn’t disappoint me with its beauty, the crowds for such an early time in the season, the high prices, and the fact it was entirely turned into a historic attraction park for adults with only museums, restaurants and not a single local store gave me some mixed feelings. I felt grateful for coming Early May and even for having a day of rain, as it kind of chased away the groups from the Old Town. To take your money as far as possible, attractions being quite expensive if you take single entrance tickets, especially the City Walls, make sure you get a Dubrovnik Card 1 day (I found the 3 and 5 days less attractive). It lasts 24 h so you can start it at the end of a day and continue with it the following day while benefiting from 24 h unlimited bus rides. With the Dubrovnik Card 1 day, here are the sites I could enjoy for 170 kunas (20€/£22):
- The City Walls: An absolute must-see in Dubrovnik. The view is breathtaking from the walls. You get a variety of viewpoints that are all incredible, but I found the highest view from Minceta Fort, toward the end of the tour, to be the best. Allow a minimum of 2 hours to walk the 2 km as you will take many pictures. Best time of the day to visit it is before sunset. Officially the City Walls closes at 6.30pm, but you can stay until approximately 7.15 pm, so do not enter after 5 pm. Without the Dubrovnik card, the visit costs 150 kunas.
- The Lovrijenac Fortress: It is not advertised anywhere on the Dubrovnik Card, but once you get the ticket of the City Walls you can visit for free the Fortress located next to the West Gate. It’s a quick visit of 10/15 minutes but gives an excellent vantage point to see the Old City and its walls.
- The Franciscan Monastery: A very quick visit of 5/10 minutes is enough to check this small monastery which has a beautiful cloister with a rose garden. It also hosts the oldest working pharmacy in Europe (opened in 1317) and includes a tiny museum about the creation of pharmacies in Europe.
- The Modern Art Museum: Located outside of the Old Town, in the district of Ploce, the modern art museum displays beautiful impressionist, realist and abstract paintings of the most talented Croatian painters. The terrace at the first floor, display beautiful bronze statues and is one of the best secret viewpoints of the Old Port of Dubrovnik.
- The Maritime Museum: The most interesting part for me was at the first level where they explain all about the archaeological sites full of amphorae they found underwater. I noted that Mljet Island that is also a National Park is an excellent place for archaeological diving.
Even if I knew Dubrovnik wasn’t supposed to be the best dive destination in Croatia, I still wanted to give it a try to make my opinion. It seemed the best dive site is the Taranto shipwreck which is a just a few miles away from the shore. Unfortunately, the dive centres go there only if they have a minimum of four experienced divers with deep certifications. As it didn’t happen, I couldn’t hide how much I was disappointed. Instead, I went for two longshore dives from Lapad Peninsula. I must say despite the initial disappointment, I was positively surprised you could easily go to 20 m deep after a 10/15 minute swim! Marine life met there mainly included lobsters, octopus, scorpion fish and a few nudibranchs. On the first dive we went to 20 m for 58 minutes through a canyon, along a wall with a cavern, and on the second dive, we went to 15 m for 63 minutes mainly through a seagrass field. Water was a bit warmer at 18°C which was nice to take pictures during these hour-long dives! Generally speaking, diving was ok in Dubrovnik, but then I think I would have maybe preferred to go to Mljet National Park which is just an hour away by ferry from Dubrovnik: Live and Learn.
When to go diving in Croatia?
Let’s face it: if you’re not into overcrowded places and you can’t go on holidays outside of July and August, you are going to have a serious dilemma if you absolutely want to visit Croatia. It has become one of the trendiest holiday destinations in Europe these last years: In 2016, the increase of foreign visitors was +60%, and the forecast for 2017 is set to break a new record.
If you want to enjoy your 2 weeks in Croatia away from the crowd the solution is in the shoulder seasons: May, June and September. I cannot recommend going other months as many services are closed or scarcely available in Croatia outside of the May-September season, even if tourism businesses are trying to open more and more in October. The quietest is definitely what I did, beginning of May. However if you’re not a dry suit diver who is travelling with his own dry suit, as you won’t be able to rent one from a dive centre in Croatia, you might find the water a bit too chilly between 15 and 16°C in a wetsuit. The drawback of May is the visibility which is not at its best. Croatia is famous for incredible 40m+ visibility, but obviously, in May you just get a decent 20m visibility. If you want warmer water and the best visibility while avoiding the crowds, then September is your best bet. It will still be a bit busy but far less than July or August. You can also give a try in October but then make sure to contact scuba diving centre beforehand to check if they are open. More information about travelling and scuba diving in Croatia can be found on the site Central Dalmatia / Diving
Where to stay in Croatia?
The situation about accommodation is somehow unique in Croatia. Hotels prices even in the low season tend to be very expensive for this part of Europe with double rooms starting at 100€ in cities like Split or Dubrovnik. Even hostels were not so cheap; a bed in a dorm is on average 25 to 30€. The real bargain in Croatia comes from the Appartmani or the holiday rentals you find all over Croatia. On Booking.com, I found them to be cheaper per night than an AirBnB because of the extra costs you need to pay for the latter. As I shared each place with my partner, it was 25€ per night per person in Split (see picture above), and 22,50€ per night per person in Vis and Hvar. Always tell your host in advance when you think you will arrive as they are usually busy with another job. Here is below the list of places where I stayed during my 2 weeks in Croatia:
- Split: I absolutely loved the stylish guest room of Pietra Rossa. It was just a 5-minute walk away from the bus station and the ferry pier, and the Diocletian Palace was just a 10-minute walk away.
- Vis: as I explain I decided to stay in Vis Town because it was practical for the Ferry. Vitt Apartments was only 5 minutes walking away from the Ferry, had a huge bedroom and a terrace we used for breakfast and lunch in the sun with a beautiful view. I preferred the atmosphere of Komiza, and I would love to stay at Apartment Moli Bodak the next time I go scuba diving in Vis Island.
- Hvar: to find a perfect place to stay for a good price you usually need to go a bit further away. Irena Apartments was on the east side of Hvar Town, uphill, 15/20 minutes walking to the town centre. Walking in Hvar is any way delightful, and actually, by being a bit further away, I was also close to the nearest beach, 5 minutes walking away.
- Dubrovnik: as I said earlier I didn’t like so much the hotel where I stayed. Nonetheless, the district of Lapad was beautiful, ideally located near the scuba diving centre and the bus line going directly to the Old City in only 15 minutes. I checked again and found this charming apartment in Lapad.
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