Reveling in Croatia: Looking Back at a Cherished Travel Memory

Reveling in Croatia: Looking Back at a Cherished Travel Memory
Be transported to the Adriatic Sea on this stunning kayaking adventure.
By: Peter & Kathy Holcombe

Two people kayaking in Croatia

In this article, Kathy shares an adventurous story from her family’s epic European van life road trip in 2019. While the world waits to travel again, we hope you enjoy being transported to Croatia through this beautiful retelling.

The voice on the other end of the phone was cryptic and drenched in a thick accent. She said, “Yes, come”, and then the line was dead. I turned to Peter with the phone still held to my ear wondering if the voice on the other end of the line had actually understood what I was asking. 

Peter asked, “What did she say?”
I repeated her words.
That’s it? Do they have boats for us? Is the weather still okay for kayaking?”
All she said is: yes, come.”

Even as seasoned full-time RVers, with an appetite for adventure and an impulsive disposition, this whole plan seemed pretty half-cocked. I mean, seriously, who in their right mind would travel more than 500 miles, across three countries, with little more than a vague confirmation that we would have what we needed to pull off this escapade when we arrived. However, the allure of exploring the Adriatic Sea by kayak was strong, so we took a chance and headed south out of Germany, across the mountains of Austria and Slovenia and eventually made our way into Croatia – hopeful that there were, in fact, three sea kayaks awaiting us, and that we weren’t too deep into the fall weather patterns that are notorious for high winds and heavy seas. 

Revel traveling on a ferry with cars around it

We loaded the Revel on a ferry from Stinica to Misnjak on the Isle of Rab. After the Revel, ferries are our favorite mode of transportation.

Planning Our Trip & Preparing to Leave our Rolling Home

When we arrived at Sea Kayak Croatia on the Isle of Rab we were greeted by Jogi, who welcomed us like family with a giant bear hug and invited us to join him in the courtyard behind his home to discuss our plans. There, nestled amongst pomegranate and lemon trees, he unfurled nautical charts and regaled us with stories of interesting waypoints along the perimeter of his home island. Jogi’s booming laughter and intricate knowledge of the entire area fueled our excitement to explore the crystalline waters surrounding the island. 

Abby and Kathy planning route with Jogi from Sea Kayak Croatia

Jogi, from Sea Kayak Croatia, was a wealth of information and spent the afternoon helping us plot our course for our week-long kayak adventure.

We spent the afternoon plotting out our course for a week-long circumnavigation of the island by kayak and gathering equipment and supplies that we would need for our adventure on the Adriatic Sea. It was all coming together beautifully until we discussed where to leave our Revel while we were away for seven days. Originally, Jogi had offered to let us park our van in his courtyard, but after seeing his driveway, there was no way that we would be able to squeeze beneath the low-hanging branches that stood sentry at his gate. And beyond his property, he really didn’t have any suggestions as to where we could park for a week other than a nearby city park: full of families by day and completely dark and deserted at night. 

Abby and Kathy sitting in Revel with kayaks outside preparing for kayak trip

The city park where Jogi recommended we leave our Revel while we explored the island via kayak.

At this point, a cynical look at our situation would reveal, at best, a bit of naivety on our part and, at worst, the brewing of potential danger. To sum up our situation, we were planning on leaving all of our worldly possessions in an abandoned vehicle in an unattended park in a foreign land, where a complete stranger laid out our course and knew our exact location for a week while we would be completely unavailable and out of touch. I’m pretty sure that I have seen some variation of this exact scenario on every crime tv show ever made. This is usually where some criminal syndicate absconds with a fortune or some naive family vanishes never to be heard from again. 

Yet, every single interaction with Jogi had been nothing short of charming and delightful, and the adventure that awaited us would most certainly be an experience of a lifetime. But were we being reckless and jeopardizing the remainder of our European tour? Our instincts said to trust, but our rational thoughts said to proceed with caution. We spent the morning deliberating our options, and ultimately decided to trust our instincts that Jogi was on the up and up, and that we should go ahead with our plans.

Kathy and Abby kayaking in Croatia

Abby and Kathy explore the waters surrounding the old city center of Rab.

Paddling Toward Adventure

We paddled away from our Revel with emotions swinging wildly, oscillating between excitement for what we would discover over the next week, and apprehension as to whether or not we were setting ourselves up for a dangerous situation. But the calm and soothing waters of the Adriatic Sea quickly washed away our fears as we paddled across the bay, beneath a soaring precipice that stood beneath the old city centre. The buildings that served as the capstone to the towering cliffs were ancient and ornate and connected by a maze of corridors draped with lush and fragrant foliage. 

Abby and Kathy kayaking in Croatia

Kathy and Abby explore some of the more remote areas of Rab.

We spied a break in the wall lining the sea, with stairs leading to a pathway that meandered up to the village above. Perched at the top of the stairs was a quaint oceanside cabana with a menu in a foreign tongue and pictures of tropical drinks and fresh seafood. We secured our kayaks to the stairs, stretched our cramped legs and settled into a quirky booth for a fabulous meal complete with crystal glasses and scrumptious delicacies. 

Abby and Kathy looking at menu at a beachside cabana

Abby and Kathy trying to decipher the menu at a beachside cabana.

After lunch, we returned to our boats and continued our clockwise trajectory around the island, past the ancient seaside village of Rab and onto a more remote area of the island. Just as our arms began to feel the weight of a full day of paddling, we discovered a hidden cove with a gravel beach that lay beneath a canopied shelf. There was a clearing in the underbrush that was absolutely perfect for our two tents. We scrambled ashore and set up our camp just as the sun dropped into the sea, slashing the sky with a multitude of rosy hues.

Abby sitting in hammock at campsite

Our campsite the first night, hidden away in a clearing in the dense canopy on the northern end of the island.

We continued on the next few days, exploring the restaurants and shops in small villages that punctuated the perimeter of the island, treating ourselves to ice cream at a seaside stand or relieving a heavily laden fruit tree of its burden. Occasionally, we wondered how our home on wheels was faring without us, but mainly we reveled in the joy of exploring a new and foreign land. 

Eventually, we crested the northernmost point of the island and shifted from the leeward to the windward side, and the contrast between the two was astounding. The lush abundance of the westside was completely eradicated and replaced by a wind-scoured, Martian-like landscape. There was nothing but etched and sculpted rocks as far as the eye could see, carved by the wind into intricate gargoyles and twisted figurines. 

Jogi had warned us to beware of the bora - a Croatian windstorm that can materialize without notice that is extremely dangerous to small watercraft, but we didn’t fully comprehend it’s magnitude and power until we witnessed the impact of the bora with our own eyes. We landed at a small rocky cove near the edge of the tree line at the Sveti Nikola Chapel, set up camp for the night, and prepared for what would be the most technical segment of our journey.

Two tents setup next to water at campsite

The leeward side of the island was lush and abundant with fresh fruit and fragrant flowers.

Abby and Kathy kayaking in Croatia

The perimeter of the island is punctuated with small villages, many of which were already closed for the winter after a bustling summer tourist season.

Winward side of island next to water

The windward side of the island was sparse and desolate, yet striking.

Kathy and Abby kayaking in blue waters of Croatia

Kathy and Abby explore the Martian-like landscape on the east side of the island.

Gargoyles in sea cliffs with Kathy on kayak in background

The bora winds that pummel the island throughout the Croatian winter sculpt gargoyles into the rocky sea cliffs.

Sveti Nikola Chapel on Isle of Rab

The Sveti Nikola Chapel sits at the northern end of the Isle of Rab and offers sailors refuge in severe weather.

We launched early the next morning in hopes that we would beat the afternoon winds for an open-water crossing to the neighboring island of Sveti Grgur. But even with our early morning start, a gentle breeze sent ripples across what had once been a looking-glass sea. As we left the Isle of Rab, the ripples became waves that amplified in height, rolling over the bows of our kayaks as we neared the center of the channel. 

Thankfully, they dissipated as we neared the far shoreline and it was smooth sailing once again as we paddled to the northern end of Sveti Grgur to the harbor of an abandoned women’s political prison that confined communist era artists and political dissidents throughout the cold war in the 1980s and early 90s. As we explored the crumbling ruins of prison cells and guard quarters that were scattered about, we couldn’t help but wonder about the people and the circumstances that landed them in the confines of this beautiful island. The conditions they must have lived in for crimes that we as Americans consider basic rights (like freedom of speech) were a poignant reminder of just how fortunate we are to live in a free society.

Border separating windward and leeward side of the Isle of Rab with Abby and Kathy on kayaks in water

The striking natural border that delineates the windward and leeward side of the Isle of Rab.

Political prison of Sveti Grgur

Remains of the political prison on Sveti Grgur.

Abby and Kathy setting up tents at campsite near water

Our campsite on the last night of our adventure, nestled amongst the rock sculptures on the southern end of Rab.

The contrast of our experience on Sveti Grgur, hiking, snorkeling, and exploring, and the experience of those imprisoned was a sobering insight that left us humbled and grateful for the freedoms that we have always taken for granted. We crossed the channel once again (this time with glassy smooth water) back to the Isle of Rab and continued to make our way down to the south side of the island. We spent our final night nestled in a small cove amongst a bora sculpture garden. The next morning the sea was rough and we found ourselves surfing three-foot rolling waves as we rounded the southern tip of Rab. 

Reuniting with the Revel

As we approached our final landing, the unease that we felt when we launched a week prior returned as we paddled back to the park where we left our Revel. As we rounded the final point, we spotted our beloved Revel VanGo, just as we had left it, and ready to carry us on to our next adventure. We breathed a huge sigh of relief and headed back to Sea Kayak Croatia HQ to return our equipment and thank Jogi for all of his help and hospitality. 

We ended up spending the entire afternoon swapping stories with Jogi who happily answered our endless questions about what we saw at the women’s political prison and about his experiences growing up during the Cold War. Over the course of a few hours, we developed a friendship that felt like we had known each other our entire lives. 

Abby walking on rocks of ruins of Sveti Grgur

Abby reflects on what life as a prisoner must have been like as she explored the ruins of Sveti Grgur.

When we came to Croatia, we had our sights set on an adventure in the Adriatic Sea. And that experience served as a catalyst that led us to discover a truly remarkable place and to develop a deep appreciation and fondness for the people who live there. 

In over six months of exploration across 18 European countries, Croatia proved to be one of our absolute favorites. And Jogi, a generous, hospitable, giant teddy bear of a man with a rumbling and contagious laugh, became a fast friend for life. 

Experiences and relationships like these cannot be purchased through a tour operator or found through online reviews. They are the result of a perfect intermingling of serendipity, a willingness to take chances when opportunities arise, and a belief that most people are truly wonderful and worth getting to know. 

Kathy driving Revel with kayaks on top

To us, this philosophy of being in the moment and trusting that extraordinary things await us, is the true essence of RV life and what has kept us full-time on the road for seven years. We cannot wait for the next opportunity that stretches us beyond our comfort zone and reconfirms that the world is indeed a beautiful place. Until then…onward!

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