Explore’s family break in Croatia includes a range of activities from a single base. Jo Kessel finds it a winning formula for clients with the brood in tow.
It’s rare for a holiday to start with an adrenaline rush, but that’s exactly what happens on the first morning of our family holiday with Explore in Croatia.
A hot hike leads us to a high rock from which we’re expected to jump into the Adriatic. The leap isn’t obligatory but there’s no other way to get into the water.
The 16 others in our small group, including my three children – twins Nathalie and Gabriel (15) and Hannah (13) – have already bravely leapt. It’s my turn now. “You can do it, Mummy,” my brood encourages.
I’m gripped by fear, but I’m also desperate to join in. Deep breath – three, two, one... splash! I’m in, and the reward is a sublime dip in a crystal-clear sea in a cove that we’ve got to ourselves.
Our Explore guide, Viktor Matio, swims with us. “Croatia has so many secluded coves that you could swim naked and no one will see you,” he jokes. “Except for US satellites!”
The reason for this is that Croatia boasts more than 1,200 islands, and our base for the week is one called Ciovo. A new road bridge (opened in July) now connects this island to the mainland and has made staying here so much easier. While previously it would have taken over an hour to reach Ciovo from Split airport, it’s now just a 10-minute drive away, a relief for holidaymakers as well as locals.
There’s a romance about staying on an island and Ciovo is very pretty with a lush interior. As Viktor leads the return hike (it’s nice to just follow and not worry about getting lost), he points out olives and grapes, fig and carob trees, encouraging us to taste them.
Our four-star hotel, the Sveti Kriz, is perfectly situated opposite a beach. Better still, moored slightly off the beach is an enticing, inflatable obstacle course. The three-hour hike was long enough for the nine youngsters in our group to gel and arrange to spend the afternoon together bouncing on it, leaving parents to lie back and relax unencumbered.
It’s also refreshing – and more relaxing for families – to be staying in one place instead of moving around. Activities are all within easy reach of our hotel and still to come are white-water rafting, kayaking and canyoning.
That night, while eating together around a large table in the hotel (most meals are buffets), Viktor drops a bombshell: “Don’t do canyoning if you’re at all scared of heights.”
I’d checked the definition of “canyoning” before coming: “Scrambling over rocks, jumping and swimming”. They’d sounded doable and I’d not thought any more about it. And still I don’t. I allow Viktor’s advice to wash over me, concentrating instead on the delicious Croatian Chardonnay the hotel serves – just £2.50 per very full glass.
The next day we set off to Dalmatia’s longest river – the 62-mile-long Cetina – an hour’s bus ride away for our next activity, rafting. Wetsuit on: check. Paddle in hand: check. My husband Marc takes two of the kids in his raft, I take the third and we paddle, wiggle and steer furiously through seven miles of frothy water.
The rapids aren’t hardcore but they are relentless. There’s a momentary pause to catch your breath after one before you face the next. I don’t see it happen, but once we’ve finished Marc sheepishly tells me that they capsized. “And it wasn’t even a difficult rapid!”
Viktor is from Dubrovnik and his local knowledge of Croatian history and politics is enriching, as are his food suggestions. Thanks to him, after rafting we eat at a gem of a mountain tavern instead of at the hotel. Here we try an “iron bell” – a Croatian casserole, slow-cooked in a bell-shaped pot.
The pork falls off the bone; the accompanying potatoes ooze with flavour. It’s sensational. Despite the wide age range of the children (8-17) they all get along brilliantly; it’s the same for the parents, who are a mix of professionals, from teachers and doctors to accountants and entrepreneurs.
There’s even an archaeologist in the mix. If your clients share a passion for travel, conversation and adventure, then this holiday is for them. And if they’d like a couple of days off to explore on their own or do nothing at all, then it will work for them too because the week has two “empty” days (not consecutive) to fill as you wish.
We spend one of ours visiting Split, an hour’s boat-ride from the hotel, where we explore the remains of Diocletian’s Palace (Roman ruins that are still inhabited) in the old town as well as strolling down its glitzy waterfront promenade, the Riva.
The other free day we stay put, playing on the hotel’s tennis court and returning to the beach. We don’t mind that it’s pebbly – few Croatian beaches have sand – but your clients might want to bring river shoes with them to protect little feet.
In between those free days, we enjoy our penultimate group activity: sea kayaking. A four-mile paddle takes us from Ciovo to the medieval mainland town of Trogir opposite, and back, passing under that new bridge en route. Trogir looks so inviting that we return later by ourselves on
the local ferry bus (£2.50 per person each way).
We splurge on bags and jewellery at its market and stumble upon gelateria Bella in its tangle of narrow cobbled streets.
Its “lemon cream” flavour recently won the Best Ice-Cream in Croatia award and it’s dreamy.
Before we know it, it’s the end of the week and we’re on the precipice of a sheer gorge about to start canyoning. Our destination is a silvery thread of river 150 metres below, and the only way to get there is on foot. I see Viktor’s point about heights – it’s like scaling the exterior of a skyscraper from top to bottom.
Helmets on: check; boots tied: check. Clinging to overhanging branches and ropes, we descend the near-vertical rock face inch by inch, muscles quivering.
Once we reach the river, we clamber over rocks and throw ourselves into rapids like human rafts. The kids whoop and holler as they’re tossed around, swallowed up and spat out again and again; the parents are more reserved.
And then, suddenly, there’s a fresh challenge. It involves another rock and a jump, only this one’s 10 times higher than at the beginning of the week.
It’s optional, but do I dare try it? The next thing I know I’m in the water and I don’t know who’s more surprised, me or the kids.
That night everyone toasts the week. “It’s been the perfect balance of relaxation and activity,” says fellow mum Melissa. “All the activities have been phenomenal,” says Tam, who’s done several Explore holidays before and claims this was one of the best.
“My daughter’s normally glued to her phone, so it’s great to see her so active and loving it,” adds Clare.
Dad Tim, whose daughter Imogen only just met the minimum age requirement of eight for this trip, makes a good point about the canyoning: “It’s physically demanding and had the specialist guide not been so exceptional, my youngest wouldn’t have managed.”
So if your client has a child at the younger end of the spectrum, make sure they’re the adventurous sort. It’s fitting that the week ends the way it began, with a massive adrenaline rush.
My kids say how proud they are of me for jumping (both times) and there’s a consensus that being part of a small group spurred all of us on to do things we would never normally do.
What’s especially great is that there’s not one child who hasn’t had the time of their lives from start to finish, and that’s what makes this an unbeatable family holiday.
Book it: Explore offers an eight-day Family Croatian Active Adventure from £1,235 per adult and £1,095 per child for 2019 departures. Price includes flights, half-board accommodation and activities. explore.co.uk