There's not much sign on this rocky island in the Adriatic of the war that ripped the former Yugoslavia apart a decade ago. Indeed, from all visible signs, war barely touched that nation's coastal islands, being confined mostly to the mainland where city names like Mostar, Srebrenica and Kosovo conjure visions of ethnic cleansing and horrors unspeakable.
But an unease still lingers in the faces of the locals, and when three explosions rumbled down from the barren hills overlooking the harbor here one day last week, all eyes turned upward in apprehension. Moments later an armed boat with Policija emblazoned on its side and two armed men in the cockpit sped from the town quay to investigate.
The source of the staccato blasts and the puffs of powdered stone that followed them turned out to be just another road-clearing project. But the universal, wary reaction brought home the nearness of that awful civil war, which ravaged the seaside city of Dubrovnik not far south and knocked sideways the tourist trade for which the Dalmatian coast was justifiably known.
The pretty islands between Split and Dubrovnik are rallying. Last week seven of us from the Chesapeake area toured them in a 41-foot sailing catamaran, stopping in at Hvar, Vis, Brac, Korcula and other picturesque outposts where 1,000-year-old towns spill down to the sea on lanes of worn, slippery marble. It's a difficult region not to fall in love with, with its olive groves and grape arbors, delicious fresh seafood and wine.
"Drink all you like," said the cheery waiter at a little outdoor seafood restaurant here in Vis, where we inhaled a local bouillabaisse called brodetto and mopped up the aromatic tomato gravy with crusty bread. He was delivering our second bottle of the local white wine, which he said would leave us all "happy tomorrow, no headache, no problems." At $3 or $4 a bottle, who could say no?
We are far from alone. In addition to charter boats like ours, the passages between islands were dotted with traditional tourist motorboats that carry 30 or 40 passengers from spot to pleasant spot, with clients coming from as far away as South Africa and Australia. They pay a modest $400 to $500 a week per person for tiny cabins for two and two meals a day, a bargain almost anywhere by today's standards.
The weather and ambience of the Croatian coast is a lot like that of Italy or the south of France, but without the crowds or the high prices, at least for now. That's because Croatia is still rebounding from decades of iron Communist rule under Marshal Tito, which ended with his death in 1980, followed by 10 years of confusion and 10 more of civil war and its awful aftereffects.
The witty American writer P.J. O'Rourke once wrote a book called "Holidays in Hell," in which he went from one nightmarish, war-torn quagmire to another in search of fun. He didn't find much. Anyone who read it would have been unlikely to put Croatia at the top of his list in the 1990s, when it was clawing through and then out of the clutch of ferocious armed conflict.
But it's peaceful here now, and as beautiful as ever. The towns on the islands are small, the houses modest, the roads and lanes of polished stone, the churches cool and dark. Dining is largely outdoors, where the weather is Mediterranean. The sailing winds are mostly from the south and strong enough to test a charter crew's skills.
Nick Harvey of Annapolis and his girlfriend, Danielle Launais, arranged our charter. He's the North American distributor for Lagoon catamarans, so he worked out a friendly trade for a Lagoon here. He's the regular mid-deck hand on my boat on Wednesday night races back home, but he's the skipper and taking his responsibilities seriously. Every morning when we get up, Harvey addresses the crew, which includes Andy and Caroline Hughes, Teresa O'Keefe and my wife, Fran. He maps out the upcoming day.
The itinerary usually includes stops at two islands as we slowly make our way 100 miles south from the mainland city of Split to Dubrovnik. The sailing is smooth, the boat responsive, the sun is warm and the sea is clear and clean. It's close to perfection, though still a bit chilly for sunbathing.
We drag out the charts and map the course from Vis to Hvar to Korcula to Lastovo, and come into the sunlit little ports with all sails flying, marveling at the soft perfection of the terra cotta roofs and pale ochre of the stone streets and houses.
You are struck by the simple beauty of it all, and wonder how it must have felt to be here just over a decade ago, when the world abandoned this pretty country place, and its people bombed and shot and raped each other in a ruthless rush for power and control.