Vid is sitting in his winter living room among the large model boats he has carved from driftwood – everything from galleons to the Titanic. “This is not a job,” he tells me. “This is a lifestyle. I came here five years ago to escape the world of business and city life. There are only three rules: no politics, no assumption of status and no grumpiness.”
On this Croatian road trip we have reached, it seems, the furthest possible point from cities, politics and grumpiness. Vid is an avuncular presence, gently supervising his hostel-campsite-taverna on the island of Kornat, the largest in the Kornati archipelago, a chain of 140 limestone outcrops off the port of Zadar. Vid has forgotten to mention another rule, actually a necessity, of his kingdom: you cannot drive or walk to it. The only access is by boat or kayak.
“It’s like a filter,” he says. “Paddlers and sailors are more likely to be good people. They’re friendly and don’t look down on other people.”
“This wind is the bura,” Marko declares. “But this is the third day of it, and it will die down soon.”
Our tiny flotilla sets out, performing a nervous turn through choppy waves and heading south. My daughter Maddy (13) and I, however, are in a double sea kayak which is as steady as a rock, and when we turn, the wind is at our backs, propelling us quickly around a headland, then through a narrow strait into the necklace of small outer islands that hangs from the neck of Kornat.
It is already clear that August is not Kornati’s quietest month. In fact, Italian families with speedboats love to whizz across the Adriatic and then spend an idyllic week or two carving these tranquil waters into white slices. Another summer migrant to spot is the billionaire. You might spy his super-yacht lying sleek and supercilious in a lonely cove, but sighting an actual superhero of capitalism himself is unlikely. (Croatia’s ports are full of gossip about them. One relative of a crew member told me how the flowers, €5,000-worth, were changed every day, whether anyone was on board or not. As this yacht belonged to a very minor member of the species, I shudder to imagine what other pointless extravagances are perpetrated.)
It is also clear, however, that a kayak can take you places no speedboat or superyacht ever will. On our first day out from Vid’s little paradise, Marko leads us to a chain of rocky islets with tough, bleached faces of karstic limestone, anything between a few metres tall to epic edifices as high as St Paul’s cathedral.
We have already had a lesson in how to exit a kayak at sea, and climb back aboard. Now it is time to practise. But the bura has been replaced by the mistral, a steady southerly that is rapping insistently on these cliffs. The reflections cause all kinds of wildness and into this we jump. Marko ties the kayaks together and steers away from the cliff. We swim into a mysterious and wonderful little cave, unseen from above the waves. The cliff is deeply undercut and so a theatrical blue light shines from below. After a few minutes we retrieve our boats and climb aboard – which is actually not as difficult as you might imagine.
Next day some of the group want to relax so Marko and I drop them at a lovely shingle beach with a restaurant and head for Mana. This island has truly magnificent cliffs set in a vast overhung amphitheatre, on top of which is a ruined castle. It is actually a film set, built before CGI for some lost epic about the new world.
Below it, the snorkelling along the edge of a dark deep drop is stunning. Then we paddle over to Baluni island for some deepwater solo climbing. This is Marko’s first love, I feel. He rolls from the kayak, swims strongly to the cliff, and climbs barefoot up a vertical 10-metre crack before leaping off the top and doing it again. My own attempt is fun, but not half as elegant or successful.
The days roll by. The initial annoyance with speedboats fades as I realise they all go to the same spots – the ones we don’t visit. One morning I climb up the hill behind Vid’s place to watch a panorama of islands, ethereal and mysterious in the dawn mist.
When we have paddled back to Dugi Otok and cycled to Sali, we are getting down from our bikes when a man approaches and hands out cakes. Who is he? A Marko stooge? No, just a passerby, heading home from the bakery, who felt like handing out delicious buns. Well, if nowhere can ever be paradise, this is about as close as it gets.
Discovering Croatia: anyone for picigin?
Croatian beaches in August can be crowded, but don’t rule the popular spots out too readily. Split’s Bačvice beach, for example, is where the game picigin was invented, and braving the crowds to see it or, even better, take part, is fun. The idea is simply to keep the ball out of the water. Aficionados argue about rules: some say the ball must be a tennis ball with all the fur removed – handy for using up local hero Goran Ivanesovic’s cast-offs. Others argue that one team should be in the water, the other not. On Bačvice this is often unrealistic, since you won’t find an inch of space on land.