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Chris & Allyson vs. Italy & Croatia (June-July 2019)

Croatia Day Four: Island hopping to Zlatni Rat, Hvar and the Pakleni islands

Like all great vacations, our 2019 vacation was based on a reality show. "Below Deck: Mediterranean" is set on a charter yacht. The crew squire rich people around, complain about the rich people behind their backs, then get blackout drunk and have sex with each other when they can squeeze in a day off. If there's anything you can learn from watching the show, in order of importance:

1) Do not ever sign a release form to appear on "Below Deck: Mediterranean," it will not go as well as you think

2) If you get the money together to charter a luxury yacht, maybe avoid the hot tub, because a lot of disgusting stuff is happening there when you aren't around

3) Croatia is very beautiful

Somewhere in between stewards vomiting and deck hands coming very close to committing sex crimes, Allyson was struck by #3. We don't quite have charter yacht money, so the bulk of our trip was on land. But visiting Split gave us a chance to try the island-hopping life. Besides, Allyson passes out after just one bottle of champagne. This was a happy middle ground.

We were up by 6:30, stocked with muffins by 7:30 and waiting on the edge of a mildly dirty dock by 8. Just as we were starting to get worried, captain Nikolai cruised over the horizon. He was a young guy who got into captaining after his older brother introduced him to the trade. He didn't have much going on after high school and decided to give it a try. This was his fifth year as a captain (after two years of training) and he was saving up to get his own boat. He wasn't particularly chatty, and he didn't seem to want to make out with either of us, but it's not a terrible thing if the captain focuses on not sinking the boat.

Croatia has more than 1,000 islands, ranging in size from boulderish to big enough for year-round residents. Of course the goal is to set foot on all of them, but we only had solid plans to see three. And most important, we had to visit Rat Beach.

The real name is Zlatni Rat, which translates to golden horn. I'd like to tell you that Allyson knew this, and that she was not excited to see a beach swarming with rats. But that would be a lie.

Despite its depressing lack of disease-bearing vermin, Zlatni Rat is something to see. It's a spit of sand, protruding out from the island of Brac. With the sea on either side, the tiny peninsula keeps changing shape with the tide. Sometimes it curves; sometimes it spirals. The shallow water by the shore is a glaring turquoise, which changes suddenly to a rich, dark blue at the edge of the shallows. You could mistake it for the Caribbean, except for the lack of rum drinks, dark-skinned people and overweight Americans (other than me).

There's not a ton of history to it — or if there was, Nikolai wasn't sharing — but sometimes you just need to sit on a nice beach. We reached it after a 40 minute ride through choppy waters and got dropped off at a small dock. Our only instructions were to come back when we wanted to leave. It was early enough that the beach was mostly empty, so we walked to the end of the horn, threw down our beach towels and soaked it all up. Ocean to the left! Ocean to the right! Ocean straight ahead! And behind us, a Eurotrash family that would have fit in well at the Jersey Shore. They wore ill-fitting swimsuits and blasted music from a portable radio. Truly, we are all Americans.

The thing about beautiful beaches: There are still only beachy things to do. I went in the cold but refreshing water, then read a book. Allyson put in headphones to listen to an audiobook and almost fell asleep. We didn't have paddleball with us — you have to make hard choices when packing for international travel — so we went for a walk. There's a wooded area by the base of the "horn," where snack stands are nestled in the undergrowth. There's a small city made out of inflatable toys, moored just off the edge of the family beach. There may be other things to do on the island of Brac, but Nikolai felt pretty certain there wasn't, and you gotta respect your captain.

Hvar was next. The town, which shares its name with the island, has a beautiful harbor jammed with super-yachts. (We had it on good authority that we missed Bon Jovi by a day or so; we sadly do not know if his yacht is named "Slippery When Wet.") The Venetians built up the port over several centuries, using it as a waystation in their global mercantile empire. Now it's mostly for foreign tourists to dock, get something to eat or drink, see the one big attraction and then leave within a few hours. Same energy, though.

White's Iron Law of Vacationing states that all excursions consist of going to the highest point in a region, having a drink, then going somewhere by the water and having a drink. We haven't vacationed in the Himalayas yet, but so far it's holding up. Hvar's high point is the "Spanish Fort," which half lives up to its name. It's a glorious fort — it's atop a steep hill overlooking the harbor, and with the right artillery you could probably sink Bon Jovi's yacht before it closed within half a mile. In the unlikely event that Bon Jovi's landing party reached the shore, they'd have to run up a steep incline to get at you. You'd have plenty of chances to shoot them through the heart. Overall, the structure looks very fortish.

The Spanish part is a little bit fuzzy, though. Fort construction started in the late 1200s, and it wasn't considered finished until 1551. "Spanish" refers to the nationality of the engineers who designed the structure — apparently two centuries of construction delays weren’t enough to deny them that honor.

The fort kept the island's residents safe from the invading Turks in the 1570s — they burned the town, but looked at the hill and said, "f*** it." The decade got wackier when lightning hit the gunpowder supply in 1579, blowing up a nice chunk of the building. Even with siestas factored in, they managed to rebuild in the ensuing 400 years. The trail up is now a series of switchbacks through a very nice succulent garden. It's steep and hot, and I recommend having all your toenails intact before walking the path if at all possible. But there are guys selling water along the way, benches where you can catch your breath, and the promise of a drink luring you to the top. There's not much else to do there other than walk the parapets, look at the harbor and desperately scan the horizon for Bon Jovi's yacht, but it's worth it.

The Iron Law demanded that we return to the harbor and find somewhere to have a drink, but medical necessity prevailed. I needed Band-Aids to keep my toe relatively safe from the inevitable infections that might occur in the wake of Bon Jovi's yacht. After we found a drug store, we walked around the harbor to admire how the other half lives. Judging from their yachts, they are almost certainly running sex-trafficking rings throughout the Mediterranean, trading teenage runaways with other cultural elites when they meet in ports like Hvar. (Allegedly.)

We could have wandered the docks like prostitutes all day, but it was very hot, and our nautical chariot was waiting. Nikolai thought lunch was in order and knew a place on the Pakleni islands.

There are something like 16 Paklenis, covering a total of 7 square kilometers. Five of those kilometers are Sveti Klement, which makes it just big enough for Croatia's equivalent of a white trash marina. The village of Palmizana has a few restaurants and, most important, a protected harbor where party boats can drop anchor, so people too drunk to drive can go swimming.

It's delightful. The restaurant we chose was "Toto," which observes a proud Croatian tradition: if a customer looks like they need help, ignore them. There was no host stand, and it took us a bit of time to figure out whether we were worthy of a table. But we eventually got a nice seat in the shade, overlooking the harbor. I had an overpriced (but good) steak, and we were attacked throughout the meal by bees. We managed to kill about six of them with our Croatian guidebook, and we trapped another under a glass. This might sound harrowing, but in my notes I specifically listed the whole incident as "funny."

When lunch was over, it was time to ignore all post-eating safety rules and hit the beach. The harbor of Palmizana is ringed by a narrow, rocky beach that's barely wide enough for one person; naturally, that means that most spots have two to four persons. There are lounge chairs on any stretch wide enough for a lounge chair, so we posted up and got down to business. "Business" in this instance was me going for a swim, while Allyson did some people-watching.

Both of us were rewarded. I got to swim around the harbor, marinating in whatever all the party boats were ejecting into the water. Allyson got to watch Eurotrash on parade. The highlight was a group of fraternity types, where one guy was being chased by his friends, tore his bathing suit and was basically naked as he hopped on a water taxi. For all that divides us across cultures, there are also fundamental human truths that bind us together. For example: Getting ripped near a body of water leads to something memorable happening. Namaste.

Is it better to be the guy hopping onto a water taxi cradling his junk, or the person watching that guy? Who is living the better life? Who is having the better vacation?

We had no time to ponder these questions, because Nikolai was waiting. And the weather started getting rough. He had a fourth stop in mind, where I could go snorkeling for a bit and and Allyson might watch me. But the swells were getting too high. We made a team decision that the day had been perfect enough, and it was time to go back to Split. This was an adventure in its own right. The sea was very choppy, but Nikolai had some coping strategies — he fell in behind another boat, captained by a friend, and treated us to the much smoother water produced by the wake. "It's kind of a dick move," he said, "but he has the nicer boat." He called the other captain on his cell phone as we laughed about the whole thing. Nikolai, as it turns out, was a genius — some of the group charters that passed us were later spotted stalled in the water, while day-trippers puked over the side. The ultimate boating experience is to look down your nose at someone, so this was pretty much the perfect conclusion to an outstanding day.

That still left the evening. We grabbed a drink at a bar by the harbor, enjoying the view while regretting the notable fish smell. Then we cleaned up at the apartment and tried our luck in the palace for dinner. Of course, luck is the residue of preparation, and we skimmed the Happy Cow app first. It lists vegetarian-friendly spots in almost every city in the Western world, and in this instance it steered us toward Fig, a very short walk from our crash pad. The menu was "travel inspired," and while Allyson enjoyed something meat-free, I was trying Mexican pulled pork. My primary objective in traveling to Croatia was to enjoy delicious Mexican food — hat tip to Maximillian — so it was a deeply gratifying meal.

Afterward, we strolled past the northern gate to the live music stage that we had noticed on the walking tour the day before. A jam band was playing — three older guys whom we dubbed Croatian Phish — in a space dotted with beer stands and mildly engaged locals.

It had been a very relaxed day. There was history, but not a lot of details. There was sightseeing, but a lot of laying around. Three-fourths of the day we were wearing bathing suits and no one batted an eyelash. The primary use of our Croatia guidebook was to squash bees into a pulp. The most burning question was whether we'd spot Bon Jovi.

Overall, it was the level of depth you get on "Below Deck: Mediterranean." Mission accomplished.

On to Croatia Day Five

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