Sea Kayaking Croatia

Off the beaten path, our editor-at-large tours the historic seascape of the Adriatic's idyllic northern Dalmatian Islands

The Cold War cannons are long gone, though their tunnels remain—a network of catacombs bored deep into a limestone hillside on the Croatian island of Molat. They were positioned to blast intruders, likely Italian, from entering Yugoslavian waters in the northern Dalmatian Islands of the Adriatic Sea.

The passage they're guarding along the 250-mile, 1,000-island chain — one we'd soon be paddling across — is one of only a few big enough for ships to pass through; defend it and they could protect the mainland city of Zadar. But the islands' protective properties make them as prime for kayaking as cannon fire.

Into the catacombs. (Photos courtesy Marko Mrse/Malik Adventures)

I'm here with Marko Mrše, 35, the founder of sea kayak outfitter Malik Adventures. The company's namesake is a folktale child-hero who always outsmarts the bad guys. Marko, a former marketing executive for Nike, takes the same approach, outwitting the hurdles of starting his company in a war-torn, post-communist country emerging as a traveling hotbed. He's lined up the necessary equipment, permits and insurance, and requires Canoeing Ireland certification for his guides. His clients hail from as far away as Japan.

"Word is getting out," he says as we dim our headlamps and head back out to a tiny opening of light overlooking the sky-blue sea. "Croatia is safe, beautiful, high value and easy to get to. And the Dalmatian Islands are made for paddling."

Paddling around a limestone stone stack near an old Roman rock quarry off the isle of Ist.

We paddled here from the village and island of Molat, where Marko grew up and his father still owns a house. He's the third generation of a family that still lives part of the year on the island. It's our first of several stops today, and once outside it takes my eyes a while to adjust to the in-cannon-fire-range route ahead of us. All I can see are islands and blue, blue sea.

I'd arrived in the port city of Zadar two days earlier, strolling Old Town, built atop a grid of ancient Roman foundations (the grid of streets is also known as Decumanum), before catching a ferry to Molat. Landing in the sleepy village in the afternoon, I settled into my quarters, the apartment of a local family's home, and killed time until Marko arrived: helping a Dutch captain moor his yacht, befriending a pair of boat-and-bike guides, and sampling local goat cheese.

I met Marko at a harbor restaurant right as my locally caught squid and local wine arrived. Aside from a lone bar on the dock and market with strange hours, it's the only business open. Things will pick up in the summer but now it's mid-May and sleepysville.

Up to 600 people used to live year-round on the island, Marko said. Now it's dropped to maybe 70—mostly retirees and fishermen living in the villages of Molat, Brgulje and Zapuntel. Cats run a close second; one eyes my cephalopod from a nearby railing. "The young people are leaving," he said. "There's nothing for them to do. There's more opportunity on the mainland."

Indeed, its residents are content to grow flowers, lavender and rosemary, whose smell wafts from every yard. Marko—an energetic oddity in a land of retirees with his sea kayaks, sups, bikes, scooters and even inline skates for the town's narrow passageways—helps the local gardening efforts by running an apiary, producing up to 600 pounds of honey per year. The word "Molat," it turns out, stems from mellitus, Greek for "tastes like honey."

It's certainly a sweet, carefree life for those who live here—and like the bees, rather incestuous. "Most people are related," said Marko. "There are maybe five last names." He relates a story about the island's lone baker who had five girls, who were the only students in the elementary school.

This off-the-beaten-pathness, however, was exactly what he was looking for. "When I travel, I try to find places like this," he said, "not some trendy resort. Plus, the logistics here work great for sea kayaking."

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Indeed, the Molat harbor is protected from all three prevalent winds. Bura comes from the mainland mountains to the east, when cold air piles up on the other side. It's consistent in the summer, and can top 100 mph come winter, coating houses and olive trees in Adriatic salt. The predominate maestrale winds arrive around noon each day from the north, after the islands' land mass heat up. The jugo winds bring low pressure and rain from the south, often changing temperaments. At one point during the Renaissance times, he said, a law in one Croatian republic voided contracts signed when jugo was blowing. "People are just sometimes not themselves," he said.

Molat's positioning means there's always a sea kayak route that's sheltered. While the southern Dalmatians are farther apart spelling bigger seas, the northern islands are closer together, with more sheltered waters.

In the morning we dined on a bigger-than-American breakfast on our host's porch, which overlooks the aquamarine sea and grove of olive trees. Beneath overgrown foliage are the remains of an Italian World War II concentration camp that harbored 25,000 prisoners until its closure in 1943. Dishes of yogurt with muesli and granola, toast with homemade cherry jam, soft-boiled eggs, and fresh bread with prosciutto and cheese made me empathize with the POWs.

Paddling with bura at our beam, our paddle took us across the bay and around a peninsula, where I followed Marko into a cove below the cannon tunnels. Two goats watched us disembark. They're an indicator of bura, Marko said. When bura blows, sheep, with their thicker fur, congregate on the ridges while goats retreat to the leeward bottoms. And they often move before it blows.

A lighthouse on the point of Dugiotok Island

Leaving the tunnels, we surf the bura swell across the passage, stopping off tiny Lagnici Island to snorkel the wreck of a sunken cargo ship. From there, we round a lighthouse on Dugiotok ("Long") Island and stop for lunch on a cobblestone beach. We pick leaves of the motar (rock sampfire) plant to add a citrus tang to burek pastries, tomatoes and garbanzo beans. Marko pulls out a stove to make coffee—a nice touch even in the day's heat. From there, we paddle to a tall alcove where Marko, also an accomplished climber, attempts a deep-water solo climb. He spiders twice as far as I do on the limestone overhang, and we each relish our respective plunges into the water.

Another 30 miles down the coast lies Marko's second outpost in Kornati National Park, an archipelago of 125 uninhabited islands. Saving that for another trip and sun waning, we begin the long paddle back, the head-on bura winds now thankfully replaced by the maestrale at our beam.

The rocky coast of Dugiotok Island, which offers ample opportunity to practice deep water solo climbs.

By the time we reach our harbor nook, next to a three-story agava plant which blooms only once every 50 years, the sun is bathing the village's orange-tiled rooftops in alpenglow. After a 22-mile day my winter-atrophied arms are toast, but they're soon replenished with the arms, or tentacles, of fresh octopus baked with potatoes. They turn to jelly again when we finish a bottle of local wine (Zinfandel is an ancestor of a Croatian grape) and a shot of homemade, herb-infused rakia, a local elixir distilled from plums. "Zivili!" we toast our host. "May we live!"

The next day, now joined by Andy Taylor, an editor for Britain's Ocean Paddler magazine, with bura at our back again we paddle another crossing to the island of Brscak, where we break in the shade of a salt-tested grove of pine trees. From there we cross to Dugiotok's near side, the winds shifting to maestrale again.

Today's destination: a 100-yard-long abandoned submarine cave, also built to protect the northern Adriatic from marauding invaders. The opening appears around a hidden bend, and we tentatively paddle inside, cueing off a vertical yellow stripe painted at the far end to guide captains. Refreshed by the cool air, we climb out at a rusty stairway at its end and explore its tunnels and equipment rooms, many blocked with corroded metal gates.

Exiting the claustrophobic confines of a Cold Way submarine cave.

Long sandwiched between opposing superpowers— and within striking distance of the ancient Greek, Roman and Ottoman empires, and more recently communist and democratic concerns—the Yugoslavia region is known as the Barrel of Dynamite. When Yugoslavian president Josip Tito died in 1980, a power vacuum ensued that boiled over when Croatia declared its independence in 1990 from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army. They fought for it until 1995, with 20,000 people losing their lives. While the submarine cave is a reminder of another era, war here still strikes close to home.

Back in the sun, we paddle across a bay to eat lunch in the village of Zverinac, a spitting image of Molat down to its Spanish tiles and sleepiness. Four older men whiling away the time join us on a white concrete wall in the shade, watching an acquaintance paint his boat white. Today's fare: chickpea falafels with barley, quinoa and rice. Between mouthfuls, Marko tells us the odd story of two villages nearby: in one, most of the men have died so its residents are mainly widows; in the other, a mile away, most of the women have died, leaving only men. Go figure that the latter is the one with the bar.

Paddling home, paralleling a terraced grove of olive trees, we spy a pod of dolphins breeching, their dorsals blending in with the backlit waves. Marko takes note. He collaborates with the country's only dolphin research association, Val, which gathers information to better understand their behavior. The association staffs a research center near his home on Molat.

Tonight's dinner is at Marko's friend Ivan's house. He's baked "peka," veal and potatoes in an outdoor pizza oven. It means "under the bell," and uses an actual bell as a Dutch Oven lid. Again, we toast with rakia to prime our palate.

Lamb stew, baked “peka-style,” meaning “under the bell.”

The next day we finally work our legs, hopping on bikes to ride five miles along the spine of the island to Zapuntel, where Marko meets us with the kayaks. The harbor is lined with tamarisk trees, an invasive species throughout rivers in the western United States but here native and thriving due to its salt tolerance. Marko shows us the terrace of a overgrown home, but just like the one his grandfather lived in. A porch is topped with vines for shade, a water well borders a potato garden and stone oven, and a traditional "konoba," or work place, lies off to the side where wooden wine and olive oil barrels are stacked beneath fish nets. "As many as 10 relatives would live here at a time," Marko yearns. "It was the old way of life, but now it's disappearing."

Touring off the Spanish-tiled village of Ist (pronounced “East”).

Parking our bikes—no need to lock them, Marko says, we can leave them along his friend's stone wall—we paddle in our calmest seas yet, the water mirror smooth. "You'll usually get one or two days like this on a week trip," Marko says. "No bura or maestrale."

We paddle around a small island that served as an ancient Roman stone quarry and then make our way to a stone stack, where we snorkel around a spire of limestone and lunch in its shade.

From there we paddle to the island of Ist (pronounced "East") and village of same name, where we hike to a church high on a ridge. It offers our highest vantage yet of the Dalmatian chain, whose islands dot the glass-like water as far as we can see. We see our routes from the past three days — the hillsides harboring caves, the shipwreck sites and orange-tiled villages — and countless more awaiting further exploration. But more importantly, we see the land's colorful past merging with the present to create a landscape and culture far from cannon fire and submarines — and one that's perfect for paddling.

—More info: www.malikadventures.com

—Read more sea kayak destinations, including our recent look adventure circumnavigating Palawan, “the world’s best island.”

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