ABOARD THE MS LASTAVICA -- Since the start of the pandemic, travel advisors and suppliers alike have, not surprisingly, reported a rise in demand for small-ship cruising and private charters.
And a week aboard this 18-cabin yacht that sails the translucent, turquoise Adriatic waters along Croatia's famed Dalmatian coast made it clear why most expect the trend to have staying power long after Covid-19 (hopefully) wanes.
Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
While pre-vaccine I wouldn't have been comfortable among strangers on a ship of any size, the sailing underscored how much more relaxed -- almost normal -- travel can be from the safety of a private charter where you can create your own bubble and rules.
In fact, other than occasional indoor mask requirements in some Croatian ports, it was the first of seven international trips I have taken since the pandemic where I almost forgot about Covid, thanks to the mostly outdoor nature of the itinerary and the relatively lax rules here.
Other than filling out a pre-departure form, showing my vaccination card upon entry and getting the required test to return to the United States (available in under 30 minutes at the Dubrovnik airport), no other special Covid hassles were required.
The cruise, hosted by Michael Gelber's IWorld of Travel, was part of a 10-day travel agent fam showcasing some of the new land and sea products being offered by the company Gelber launched in 2017 as a reorganized spinoff of IsramWorld, a mostly Israel-focused tour company founded in the 1960s by his late father, Ady Gelber.
We started in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, where we spent the night at the historic Esplanade Zagreb Hotel. After a private dinner at a local restaurant in the heart of the town square and a walking tour of the city the following morning, we headed to Plitvice Lakes National Park, the oldest national park in southeast Europe, known for its lakes and hiking trails along its many cascading waterfalls.
The next day we had lunch and a tour at Linden Tree Retreat and Ranch, a luxury Western-style dude ranch of sorts hidden inside UNESCO Velebit Mountain Biosphere Reserve.
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From there we made a quick stop in Smiljan, the birth town of Nikola Tesla, for a tour of his one-time home turned memorial center. The inventor, engineer and futurist is best known for his contributions to the discovery of electrical power.
The real fun began that evening when we boarded the Lastavica for a leisurely seven-day cruise, which offered a perfect mix of stops in some of the country's most popular ports as well as lesser-known islands and national parks accessible only by small yachts. We biked, hiked and swam in lakes that were nearly as crystal clear and colorful as the Adriatic Sea.
The ship is not licensed to sail at night, allowing opportunities to roam the narrow medieval streets and open-air bars and restaurants of Zadar, Havr and Dubrovnik. Other nights we docked or anchored at more remote ports like Telascica Bay and Mljet, where safe in our onboard bubble of vaccinated colleagues we were able to dance, swim and generally party like it was 2019.
The Lastavica in Telascica Bay, Croatia. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
To be honest, I was a bit hesitant about the trip, knowing the cabins would be small and the boat filled to capacity. But my cabin was surprisingly spacious, comparable to those on many river cruises.
And there was much more public space than I had imagined, making it a relaxed, comfortable way to traverse the Dalmatian coast with occasional swim stops and plenty of sailing time to take in the stunning views from the sun deck, hot tub and other scattered open-air lounging areas.
The Lastavica is one of four similar-sized yachts sailing for IWorld of Travel in 2022. The boats themselves might best be described as simple luxury. There aren't bells and whistles like room service, butlers or spas. But the cabins are well appointed, the crew and service top-notch and the fresh, local sea-to-table cuisine outstanding.
While FIT bookings can be made on some of the sailings secured for sale through IWorld, the product is really designed for advisors to book as full charters that they can then personalize and sell.
One of the first agents to book one of the yachts through IWorld, Jasper Fanfalone of Vast Passages in Armada, Mich., said he has chartered a May sailing that he is selling for about $2,000 per person, including breakfast and lunch, a few dinners and some included excursions.
After experiencing the product in person, Fanfalone said, "Croatia and her islands is going to be my new advertising campaign. My Greece and Italy people need to come here."
"I am really excited about the product," he said, describing the charter marketing opportunities as an "absolute gold mine."