TREASURE IN THE ADRIATIC; Strike Gold When You Hop Islands. around Croatia's
Byline: SUE JOLLY
IT'S not every day you see a nun hitch-hiking. But as we drive round a bend on a mountain road in Croatia there she is, thumb raised, expression hopeful.
We stop, of course. And she gathers up her habit, clambers on board... and puts us to shame.
We're on our way back from a trip to the Biokovo Mountains near the resort of Makarska, and the air is full of the smell of juniper and pine and the Adriatic Sea is sparkling far below.
We'd walked for just half an hour or so to take in the scenery. Our nun has hiked straight upwards for four or five hours - no doubt trusting in divine providence that someone would give her a lift down. She did it, she tells us, "just because it's so beautiful".
No arguments there. We too have been struck with the beauty of everything there.
In fact, when people ask me, "How was Croatia?" my answer is: "Loved it. I had no idea it was so pretty." My knowledge of this former part of Yugoslavia had previously been confined to a weekend in the city of Dubrovnik - the famous "Jewel of the Adriatic". But this time I was seeing a lot more, thanks to Saga, the over-50s specialist.
And beautiful though the mountains are, for my money it's the sea that makes Croatia a great destination.
It's only a two-hour flight from London. And if you look at a map, you'll see that a lot of it is in a thin ribbon of land just across the Adriatic from Italy - but it has a lot less mass tourism development. And as it is not in the Euro-zone the prices won't make you gulp.
What's more it has more than 1,000 islands in its waters. There is a state-run ferry service between the larger ones, but you can't beat doing your island-hopping by cruiser.
Which is how I found myself snoozing on a sun-lounger on the deck of MV Emanuel, a vintage vessel with only 18 passenger cabins that Saga will be using for some of its holidays this spring.
The setting was ideal. After a couple of days on board we'd left our last mooring, in the town of Split, and were sailing off to the island of Brac. But on the way we'd dropped anchor for the chance to swim off the boat in a perfect little cove - which we had all to ourselves.
It's one of the advantages of a boat the size of Emanuel. The three-deck refurbished vessel (built in the 1950s) is just 37.6m long (around 120ft) so it's able to slip into places cruise liners can't.
It's a cosy "polished wood" type of boat, the food is excellent and the staff attentive. There's free wine and soft drinks at meals - and a free bar most of the time. Some nights they even throw in a session by local singers. My cabin was small but comfortable and had air con and television.
There's a restaurant and lounge bar in the middle deck, and I'm snoozing above on the sundeck, deciding whether I can rouse myself enough to join the others in the sea.
We had joined the Emanuel at Trogir, a UNESCO World Heritage site just a short drive from Split where we'd landed. It's remarkably pretty. And in October it was wonderfully peaceful. And it was clean too. In fact, that's something else that struck me. The standards of all sorts of things seemed high everywhere we visited. Restaurants. Toilets. Even the pavement cafes had opted for decent furniture.
The coast is so pretty - the tourist board calls it "the Mediterranean as it used to be" - and the towns so steeped in history it's well worth doing some sight-seeing. …