A good chunk of my stay in Croatia included a weeklong trip to Korcula (core-chew-la), a small island just south of Split in the Adriatic Sea. In Korcula is Vela Luka, a small harbor town on the western end of the island. With a population of just over 4,000 Croats, Vela Luka is the second largest place in the Adriatic Islands. I journeyed to this small town in order to fulfill a “bucket list” experience – diving in the Mediterranean.
Getting There: I took the Jadrolinja ferry service from Split to Vela Luka for a surprisingly low cost of around $11 (70 Croatian Kuna). Having come from using Thailand’s ferry services rather extensively, stepping into a Jadrolinja ferry ship was the lap of luxury. Upon entering the great hull of the vessel (used for car transport) you take an escalator up to the passenger deck…that’s right, an escalator, stairs are for losers. Once on the passenger level one can choose from a variety of seating options inside the carpeted, teak-wood, air-conditioned interior. There are leather booths, group tables and even massage chairs. There are also several restroom options and a copious snack bar where I ordered 3 too many espressos during the 3 hour voyage. If you’d like to take in the views from outside the air-conditioned comfort there is also a multi-leveled outside viewing/seating deck with shaded areas and picnic tables where you can take in the spectacular island scenery as you cruise by.
Checking In: The Jadrolinja ferry pulled into Vela Luka harbor right on schedule. The next task was to get across the harbor to my destination, Croatia Divers. As I walked along the bay, I encountered the “water taxi”. For 5 Kuna, the water taxi took me and several other travelers across the bay, which was a superior alternative to walking the entire circumference of the bay in the early morning heat. The aquatic taxi dumped us off at its only stop, the Posejdon Hotel and I fixed my gaze on the sign adjacent to the hotel for Croatia Divers. Upon approach it seemed the early morning divers were just getting back in and use of the word Hectic would be an understatement. I walked in the open garage bay door to what appeared to be a counter. People in half stripped wet-suits were buzzing around carrying boxes of gear and rolling carts of oxygen tanks. After standing conspicuously in the middle of this mess for a few minutes, someone finally took note of my existence. Hard to tell of that someone was an employee or client of Croatia Divers seeing as how everyone is either half naked or wearing a salt stained tshirt. My greeter turned out to be Billy, brother of the owner and the general manager of activities during the day. Billy got my info, checked my diving credentials and informed me that since the Posjedon hotel had run out of rooms, I would be put up in a studio apartment one street off the bay. What Billy lacked in hosting ability he certainly made up for with efficiency and a humorous grin. Next on the agenda was getting my equipment. The only piece of diving equipment I carry with my while traveling is my own mask and snorkel as this is commonly the most frustrating (and defective) piece to borrow and its also easy to pack. This means, however, that I do need the rest; regulator, BCD, tank, fins and wetsuit. The only surprise here was getting fitted for a full 5mm wetsuit with hood and booties, which did not give good indication that the water would be warm, contrary to the 90 degree heat of the air.
Staying There: After the rigors of getting checked in and fitted for diving, the studio apartment was a pleasant surprise. Situated on the second level of a local home, the room had air-con, kitchenette and a sizable balcony overlooking the bay. After talking with some of the divers staying in the Posjedon hotel, the private apartment was a much preferred option. Since the only drawback was no easily accessible food option (rook service didn’t extend across the street unfortunately) the next task was to do a little grocery shopping. Another 5 Kuna water-taxi ride and I was back to the busy side of town and easily found several options for groceries. The combination of some local produce stands and a Konsum market proved sufficent for my culinary needs, the only negative being that i couldnt find any eggs…my search for a high-protien breakfast in central europe continues. Since my first dives started early the next morning, I spent the rest of my afternoon relaxing, writing and reading on my porch as the sun set.
Diving There: 7:30am, out front of the Croatia Divers HQ, the sun is already beating down on me and my new dive group; 2 Swedish, 2 Finnish and myself (much smaller groups than in Thailand). The Croatia Divers staff seems busy enough, buzzing around stacking gear and wiggling into wetsuits. The whole scene is a bit of an unorganized mess and I start to get the feeling that this is the norm for international diving operations. I begin to organize my own gear into staging and ensure its all working properly (much of the rented gear from CD is well worn). I experienced one of the regulator hoses explode as a Swedish dive partner turned on her air pressure, it nearly took my eardrum with it, luckliy this is why we check our gear before getting out on the water. After another hour and a half of delays, we were loaded into a rubber raft boat and shot off across the bay to begin a busy day of diving.
The water was a revelation, crystal clear, some of the most incredible visibility I could imagine underwater. If only there was any sea life to see! Despite its awesome visibly and unique underwater geography, the Mediterranean surrounding Croatia is relatively devoid of much life. I did encounter a spattering of fish, mostly smaller than my hand, a few lobsters and a few Octopi. The Octopus was probably the most interesting sea creature to encounter, I would find them hiding in the seabed with only their bulbous heads sticking out. After poking at this protrusion, the Octopus would pop out, squirt some ink and elegantly float away. Perhaps the coolest aspect of diving in Croatia was the underwater geography. There are numerous caves, cliffs and overhangs of rock that really give the diver a sensation of flying. Nothing like coming over a ledge drop-off to look down into a clear blue abyss. Another surprise (to me at least) was the temperature of the water. I mentioned getting fitted for a 5mm wetsuit with all the trimmings, but when I first jumped in, the water on the surface was as warm as the air. Even through my first dive of up to 18 meters the temperature didn’t change all that much and I found myself suffocatingly hot. It wasn’t until my second dive of the day did I realize the necessity. 20 meters and below you reach a thermocline that drops the temperature of the water dramatically. It goes from bath water warm to ice cold immediately. It created an interesting spa-like sensation when you are floating over rock formations, dipping into and out of the temperature change and having your body freeze and thaw repeatedly. During one of my dives I was able to tag along on an extra deep dive of 40 meters (I’m only certified to 30m), after spending 20 minutes at 38 meters, I was frozen solid, but it was an incredible feeling to rise back to the warm water and sun above…or maybe I was just slightly Narced.
I got to dive in a variety of locations, such as St. Ivans, Papillion and the Saddle, but there were several dive sites (mainly the caves) that I had researched beforehand and yearned to visit. Unfortunately dive sites have to cooperate with the weather and just like my time diving in Thailand, Croatia also experienced some unusual winds and stormy seas. I tried to inquire (politely) about extending my diving experience with Croatia Divers, if I was able to visit a few of these aforementioned sites. Billy beat around the bush for quite a bit, but ultimately I came to understand that the chances were slim to none, because of the weather history. I appreciate that no false promises were given, but he could have been more direct about it.
All in all, my experience with Croatia Divers was a good one. Despite what some people may have written on sites like TripAdvisor, I found the staff to be kind and welcoming. In fact, almost every night of my stay in Vela Luka I shared either a meal or drinks with members of the staff. The equipment was well worn, but also well loved, of course you are welcome to bring your own. As for their knowledge of diving and instruction, I didn’t find a shortage. Each of my instructors (I worked with almost all of them) gave me the essential rundown and answered any technical or naturalistic questions I asked. The instructors also provided me with a great deal of autonomy, from my equipment to my dives, which was great for me as I learn better by experience. It’s always a pain to have dive instructors looking over your shoulder and scrutinizing your every move. The price was indeed negotiable and I felt I got a good deal, including a great place to stay for the week. I did my negotiating online through email with Marjolein, one of the owners. I highly recommend this method, emailing and requesting a package deal. I would totally reccomned diving the Med to any avid diver, despite its lack of sea life and its chilly depths, it’s an awesome experience to behold. As for Croatia Divers, it’s a mixed bag, I enjoyed my situation, but I can understand a beginner having a rough go of it. If you are an advanced diver with a good attitude, you will have no issues, only a great time.
Eating There: When I wasn’t living it up with my dive team, I spent my evenings walking the tight tiered streets, lined with white stone houses filled with local Croats having dinner on their porches, talking and laughing. It was really a unique experience to see the island life played out in a small town. Locals living off the land or the sea and having their family vacations together just as we do back home. I was lucky enough to befriend the dive boat operator, a Vela Luka native named Bruno. Bruno enthusiastically showed me around the small town in exchange for workout tips (he was an aspiring fitness guru). Bruno introduced me to numerous residents and the local club scene (3 bars). I also have him to thank for one of the most satisfying meals of my life. When you wake up at 5am to get ready for a morning dive, a wholesome breakfast is generally pushed asunder, and after a rigorous day of hauling equipment, sucking canned air and baking in the sun, I can assure you that you will want to eat your weight in calories. After a few days of near collapse from starvation as I searched for a lunch big enough to quench my ravenous appetite, Bruno directed me to an innocuous looking cafe (aka someones house) filled with locals only. Once seated, the waitress didn’t hand me a menu or ask me what I wanted, the food just started coming out. First: A gigantic bowl of soup, literally a serving for a family in a huge salad bowl. It was mainly broth, but lurking at the bottom were deliciously al-dente spaghetti noodles. After polishing off the soup, I was the served the customary liter of Karlovacko along side a big bowl of sliced cabbage in vinegar (same as cole slaw) and a plate of tenderized pork chop with mashed potatoes slathered in gravy. To top it all off, the entire meal (including beer) was only 40 Kuna ($7). This meal definitely makes my top 10 all time.
I’ll say it again: forget Italy, head straight to Croatia.