Dubrovnik has never been short of admirers. The ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ was Lord Byron’s verdict on this red-roofed clifftop labyrinth jutting into the sea at the bottom end of Croatia.
So many cruise ships come calling that the authorities have to ration them.
For us, though, Dubrovnik was merely a beautiful starting point rather than a destination. It was from here that we set off to spend a week exploring the south Dalmatian islands, a part of the Adriatic which still feels undiscovered, even in high season.
Harbour lights: Robert Hardman set off on his epic voyage from Dubrovnik in Croatia
Imagine snorkelling over the remains of a Roman villa with absolutely no one else around, or having a picnic lunch on an empty archipelago. And there is only one way to do this — by boat.
As more and more people are finding out, you don’t need to be a sailor or Simon Cowell to hire a yacht in the Med. For the price of a hotel or villa stay, you can hire a family-friendly sailing or motor boat — along with a skipper to do all the work if you wish — and enjoy a different sea view every day.
It is also a good way of holidaying in a mixed group. In our case, we were a bunch of old friends, some with children (five in all, aged between seven and 12) and some without. So we put those with children on one boat — with me at the helm — and those seeking a quieter holiday on the other, in the capable hands of our professional skipper, Borna.
It was all organised by Zizoo, the online holiday yacht company which operates 30,000 boats worldwide.
Dubrovnik is well-served by easyJet, and Zizoo found us the ideal combination of sailing boats: a 53ft Jeanneau with six cabins for those with families with young children and a 46ft Dufour with four cabins, all en-suite, for the others.
For boats like this in high season, it works out at £525pp for a week sharing a double cabin, or £700pp if you are using a skipper. Add on another £10 to £20 per cabin in mooring fees for each night you spend in a harbour if you don’t drop anchor outside.
Borna was a brilliant addition to the party. Not only was he an expert local yachtsman, fluent English speaker and good company, but he also turned out to be a fully-qualified doctor when not spending his holidays afloat.
Holiday in style: Robert and family enjoy breakfast on their boat
Having a GP on board is certainly a blessing when your ten-year-old steps on a sea urchin.
We gave Zizoo a rough holiday plan — scenic swimming stops by day, please, and quiet harbours at night — and Borna came up trumps.
Having loaded up on essentials (water, wine, beer, pasta, fruit and milk), we were soon under way.
An early discovery was the densely-forested, squid-shaped island of Mljet. More than 20 miles long, with a single road and tiny population, it has a national park at its western end that proved an enchanting stopping point.
Further on, Borna had reserved us moorings for an evening beneath the walls of the magnificent old town on the island of Korcula (which claims to be the birthplace of Marco Polo even though Venetians are adamant that he came from Venice).
Perhaps the prettiest island we discovered is Scedro where we found the remains of a Roman mosaic in the shallow waters of Loviste Bay.
To the north of here lie Croatia’s best-known islands, Hvar and Brac, with their big resort hotels and oligarchs’ super-yachts. We struck out in the opposite direction, 30 miles from Split, to Vis, a quirky and historic isle with a famous sea cave. Millions will recognise it as the location for the sequel to Mamma Mia!, the ABBA-themed hit movie. It is also home to Europe’s unlikeliest cricket club, in the middle of the island.
During the Napoleonic Wars, when Vis was known as Lissa, this was the base for a British fleet led by Nelson’s protege, Captain William Hoste. As well as winning the Battle of Lissa in 1811, he also introduced cricket to the island.
Some years ago, local winemaker and restaurateur Oliver Roki decided to resurrect the sport, having played it during a childhood spell in Australia. He converted an unused patch of his vineyard into a cricket pitch and founded the Sir William Hoste Cricket Club.
Today, the walls of the Roki restaurant are covered in signed flags, shirts and photos from all the touring cricket sides (including MCC) who have played against Oliver’s team followed by a few bottles of home-grown Bugava wine and plates of slow-cooked lamb and octopus.
From here we turned south, anchoring in a sheltered lagoon on little Lastovo and taking a cab up to the hilltop village famous for its chimneys.
A highlight was discovering the ‘magical’ Odysseus Cave (above) on Mljet Island
Out at sea, tiny blobs such as the Vrhovnjaci made for perfect picnic stops. And when the wind eased, miles from land, the children would all leap into the sea and we would tow them along on ropes over the stern.
Heading back to Dubrovnik, Borna had one more surprise. As we returned past Mljet, he took us towards what looked like just another rockface. There we found the opening to an unmarked cave and he urged us to swim through it. Inside, it led to a hidden beach through a vaulted grotto where the sun turns the water a dazzling shade of blue. Anywhere else and it would be heaving with tourists.
The Croatians call it Odysseus’s Cave and insist Homer’s hero stopped here on his mythical journey home from the Trojan War. After a magical week, we all felt as if we’d had an odyssey.
EasyJet (easyjet.com) London to Dubrovnik from £87 return. One-week yacht charter in Dubrovnik from £143pp (or £269pp including skipper) for a three-cabin sailboat in June (zizoo.com, 020 3318 3641). To sail without a skipper, you need a minimum of a Day Skipper licence, see rya.org.uk.