Dalmatia Is Spot-On; Croatia's Coast Is Dazzling, Says NIKKI BAYLEY

Article excerpt

Byline: NIKKI BAYLEY

CLUTCHING the boat's safety rail, I looked down at the sparkling water, took a deep breath and... leapt in.

Spluttering back to the surface, I wiped the water from my eyes and beamed. I could have been in the Caribbean, the sea was warmer than my local lido on a hot summer's day but the flight had been less than three hours from Gatwick. Welcome to Croatia's dazzling Dalmatian coast.

The tourist board tagline is "The Mediterranean as it used to be" and, for once, the ad people have got it spot on. Made up of almost 1,200 islands, only 67 of which are inhabited, and for the most part, blissfully unspoilt, it's easy to imagine that you're in a world far away from hectic modern life.

We'd flown into Split, in the south of Croatia, on the Adriatic sea. I'd been told that the best way to see Croatia's Dalmatian Coast was by boat. A short transfer by minibus to Trogir and there was my home for the next few days, a small river cruiser which caters for just 30 passengers.

I settled my things into the spacious cabin and then hopped off to take a stroll around the walled town as the sun set. Trogir old town is a UNESCO worldheritage site, a labyrinth of twisting alleys, cobbled streets and inviting bars, some with grapes growing in the ceiling.

Fortunately for my wallet, the shops were closed for the night so I settled instead for a glass of wine in the medieval square before heading back to the boat.

Lulled by the rock of the waves, I had a great night's sleep and woke raring to go. First stop was Zadar, a beautiful town about 90 minutes' drive away. The old mingles comfortably with the new here, ancient attractions include a ruined Roman Temple and St Donat Church, one of only three circular Catholic churches in the world.

Fancy something modern? Then head to the shore and be amazed by Zadar's famous Sea Organ, a fascinating system of underwater pipes that was tuned by an organist and plays according to the motion of the ocean. I sat with the fishermen and listened to the other-worldly sounds it made.

Behind me was the Solar Circle, a sunlight-powered display which shimmers when the sun goes down. Lunch was a platter of local specialities, including cheese from nearby Pag and salty melt-in-themouth anchovies.

Then we returned to the boat and headed back to explore Split, sailing into the sunset on the silky-looking calm water. We cruised along the coast, with something new and beautiful appearing every few minutes.

Rocky cliffs, a secluded cove, sandy beaches fringed with pine trees and, in the distance, the lights of Split.

Split's old town is simply one of the most interesting places I've ever visited. It dates back to the completion of Diocletian's Palace. Diocletian was a Roman emperor, his reign ended in 305BC and he'd decided that Split was where he wanted to retire - into an enormous palace by the sea, as you do!

What's amazing is that people still live there. As you wander around checking out the souvenir stands, you'll turn round and see a staircase leading to a door or see washing hung out to dry. …