Adriatic coast: Luxurious sailing in Europe

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 71 of the June 2008 issue.

by Lew Toulmin

Hot! Hot! Hot! The Adriatic coast is the hottest destination in Europe these days, with fantastic ports, relatively low prices and even newly opened countries to visit.

My wife and I were lucky enough to be invited to explore the Adriatic on an 8-day cruise in October 2007 aboard M/S Andrea, a luxurious small ship sailing under the flag of Elegant Cruises (24 Vanderventer Ave., Port Washington, NY 11050; 800/683-6767,

The highlights of the cruise were the fascinating vessel, her highly experienced captain, the Dalmatian ports and the new tourist destinations of Albania and Montenegro.

Captain Zlatko Pazanin (left) and Hotel Manager Sergio Calabrese beside their ship, M.S. Andrea, of Elegant Cruises. Photos: Toulmin

We boarded Andrea in beautiful Venice, where we had arrived a few days early to explore the Serene Republic and its many attractions.

We found that Andrea held a maximum of 105 passengers (but we sailed with only 90) in 56 cabins and had a crew of 48, primarily Filipino and Croatian. At 2,632 gross registered tons and a length of 286 feet, she had a beam of 44 feet, a draft of 15½ feet and a cruising speed of 15 knots (about 15.2 mph).

Built in 1960 in Norway as a coastal passenger and mail vessel, Andrea was thoroughly refurbished before being relaunched recently by Elegant Cruises. The interior décor is the unusual but charming “Gustavian” style, a form of Swedish rococo, with Swedish royal reproduction paintings, black-and-white checked furniture covers and lovely pastel walls and ceilings.

The style is named after King Gustav III, who ruled Sweden beginning in 1771 and who was strongly influenced by the French court.

Our cabin, No. 303, was attractive and large, about nine by 19 feet long, with an 8-by-8-foot bath en suite, two single beds, a small sitting area, color TV, safe, two one-foot-wide portholes and 220V outlets. (U.S. passengers need to bring a power converter if they have a standard U.S. 120V appliance.)

Since Andrea is a traditional vessel with rounded lines, her cabins come in many different shapes and sizes, unlike on new vessels which are built more like apartment blocks with identical cabins. So it is a good idea to study the deck plan (shown at when picking out your cabin.

The perfect cabin in any ship is large, amidships (to avoid any pitching) or forward (to avoid any engine noise and vibration) and not too high in the superstructure (to minimize any rolling motion).

On many ships, cabin selection involves some compromise, but on Andrea we found our cabin to be well designed, with little noise or vibration as we enjoyed calm seas sheltered by the many Dalmatian islands.

Laundry hangs outside the window of an apartment in the former palace of Emperor Diocletian in Split.

I was introduced to the very experienced master of Andrea, Captain Zlatko Pazanin, who maintains an open bridge policy.

He said, “I have spent 28 years at sea and have been all over the world, including Antarctica, but my favorite places on Earth are Split and my home island of Veliki Drvenik in Croatia, about 13 miles west of Split. I think these places are very, very beautiful.”

Later in the voyage we sailed by the captain’s home island and he blew the ship’s foghorn to say ‘Hello’ to his family ashore.

The captain told us about the war that disrupted the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995: “During the war, I was at sea. Thankfully, there was no trouble for me and my family, although some of our friends were injured in the conflict. Split was not attacked, and, of course, now everything is quiet and very safe.”

The safety and attractiveness of the Dalmatian Coast have been attracting visitors for over 2,000 years, as evidenced by our visit to Split, which was the retirement home of the Roman emperor Diocletian.

This emperor was seeking the perfect retirement haven, so from A.D. 295 to 305 he built a palace/fortress by the sea. It was enormous, 550 feet long by 670 feet wide, with 16 defensive towers, walls 35 feet high, a temple, a mausoleum, barracks, a water gate and three land gates.

After the fall of Rome, the palace fell into disrepair and locals moved in. Today the former palace is full of apartments, some sporting wash hanging on lines beside beautiful Roman columns!

The palace forms the center of the Old Town of Split, and it is fascinating to walk through it, admiring the Roman architecture, taking tours of the recently excavated palace basements, shopping in chic shops let into the palace walls and sipping coffee at the many sidewalk bistros. Split and its imperial palace provide a unique mix of history and current culture that is simply sensational.

The next day, Andrea called at the port of Vlora, Albania. For many years Albania was impossible to visit, so we were very excited to be able to go ashore.

I was quite surprised to learn that Albania’s known history dates back to the sixth century B.C., when it was first mentioned as Illyria in Greek histories.

We visited the archaeological site of Apollonia, described in early histories as a “well built” city with “good laws,” settled by Greeks and, later, Romans. The impressive site included the ruins of a marketplace, a triumphal arch, a temple of Diana and a theater seating 8,000 people.

On our way to and from the site, we saw evidence of more recent building. Dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania from 1945 to 1985, ordered the construction of over 600,000 round pillboxes, which cover the countryside like concrete mushrooms. Much of the gross national product of the country was poured into this bizarre and useless project, whose purpose was to resist outside invasion.

The Stalinist dictator directed every aspect of life for his people, insisting that no bright colors be used in house construction, ordering women to wear skirts exactly at knee length (and sending them to reeducation camps if their skirts were more than an inch too high or too low) and forcing men to shave their beards but retain their mustaches!

Today the country is in the middle of a construction boom and is finally starting to recover from the problems and poverty of the Hoxha era.

A typical concrete pillbox in Albania. The pictured local resident stables his donkeys inside.

The next day we visited another newly opened country, beautiful Montenegro. We rose early to experience our entry into the huge Gulf of Kotor, the most southerly fjord in Europe and one of the most gorgeous. It is shaped like a huge butterfly, about seven miles across at the “wings” but with a dramatic narrow waist that is only 200 yards wide.

After threading her way through the narrow passage, our ship turned south and approached the town of Kotor. This town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has an amazing, intact city wall that is built almost vertically up the side of a steep mountain. Some of the Andrea’s passengers actually managed to climb up the 1,200 steps to the fortress at the top of the city wall. We stayed in town and had a gelato!

Other memorable stops on the voyage included famous Dubrovnik, another World Heritage Site; Koper, one of the only ports on the tiny but lovely coast of Slovenia, and Zadar, Croatia, home of one of the only “sea organ” musical instruments in the world (played by the action of the waves in the harbor).

The delightful island of Korcula, in Croatia, provided the final punctuation mark to our memorable voyage. The island claims to be the real birthplace of Marco Polo, as opposed to Venice, which is usually cited.

The island contains a small museum devoted to Polo, and the exhibits convincingly argue that there are records of a “de Polo” family living in Korcula for many years before Polo’s famous travels. How appropriate that the most famous traveler of all should be from the Adriatic coast, one of the most lovely travel destinations on Earth.

In an outside cabin aboard Andrea, in the fall of 2008 a voyage similar to the one I took but 12 days in length costs from $5,215 per person, including tours and meals but excluding airfare and bar bills.

Lew Toulmin is the author of “The Most Traveled Man on Earth,” available for $16.95 plus $5 shipping from The Village Press (13108 Hutchinson Way, Silver Spring, MD 20906;

You can reach him by e-mail at