A Blissful L’Austral Summer

After more than 20 years sailing the seven seas aboard a veritable charivari of ocean liners, cruise ships and sailing vessels, I am convinced I have just experienced what is possibly the perfect itinerary. I have long held the belief that serendipity is the essence of cruising and my week-long sojourn along the Dalmatian Riviera turned out to be as spirited as it was sublime.

The transcendentally beautiful city the Italians call ‘La Serenissima’ revels in its implausible setting interspersed with campanile and domes, porticoes and pinnacles. As the early evening light intensified Venice’s ochre and sienna diorama, our ship’s whistle cleared flotillas of vaporetti and ferries criss-crossing the Canale della Guidecca as we slowly advanced towards the Adriatic.

The photogenic miasma burned itself into my recollection, for this was a sail-away unlike any other. Seldom have I witnessed an occasion that’s not so much faked as well edited, costumed and choreographed.

And the subsequent 699-nautical-mile Adriatic odyssey turned out to be a seduction of the intangible, as I was constantly aware of the artistic legacy of the Venetians.

For all its burgeoning popularity, Croatia still feels like a blissful backwater and nowhere was this more evident than during the first morning’s excursion when we left Šibernik bound for the Krka National Park. After a delightful meander through pine-scented forest, we changed into our swimming gear for a refreshing dip in a lagoon beneath the Roški Waterfalls.

Capital of the Dalmatia region, Split is a unique city with its heart carved out of the ruins of Emperor Diocletian’s vast palace. Dating back to AD295, this Roman metropolis was used for centuries as a fortress against invading armies and the walls still enclose a warren of houses and shops crammed within colonnades and buttresses.

From the lively Piazza del Signori, with its 15th century Town Hall, our tour took us to the ancient Temple of Jupiter as well as the Peristyle – the inner court of the ancient Palace and present day Cathedral and Treasury constructed on the remains of Diocletian’s Mausoleum. Later that evening, we joined local jeunesse in a passeggiata along the waterfront Riva.

Croatia’s filigree 300-mile coastline is dotted with 1,185 islands and, after a morning’s navigation past a necklace of islets gilded by a relentless sun, our anchor crashed into the limpid sea off the island of Korčula

Reputedly the birthplace of 13th century adventurer Marco Polo, the island’s eponymous capital is a chocolate-box ensemble of orange-hued roofs and spires. The bell tower of the 15th century Gothic-Renaissance St Mark’s Cathedral is a focal point of the distinctive streets laid out in a herringbone pattern. Inside the main door, framed by statues of Adam and Eve, we marvelled at the diptych of the Annunciation by Tintoretto crowning the triple-nave basilica.

Leaving Croatia in our wake for a day, we sailed into Montenegro’s Kotor at the foot of the sheer wall of Mount Lovćen. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the well-preserved medieval Old Town was a city of traders created by the Venetians.

We wandered around the fascinating labyrinth of cobbled alleyways past leafy squares to marvel at the aristocratic mansions and ancient churches – most notably the 11th century Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral dedicated to St Tryphon.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “Those who wish to see heaven on Earth should come to Dubrovnik,” while Lord Byron referred to this timeless citadel as “The Pearl of the Adriatic.” In the oppressive heat, we ambled along narrow limestone pavements that separate the honey-coloured stone buildings before cooling off with lemon gelato in the main thoroughfare of the Stradun.

The largest piazza in Dalmatia filled my camera lens the next day. Between lavender-growing fields and the azure Adriatic, medieval Hvar not only exudes more than a whiff of Venice, it’s so relentlessly gorgeous it makes your eyes ache.

St Stephen’s Square is remarkable for its Cathedral with distinctive trefoil fa