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The sun is high in the sky as we arrive at Koločep Island and tie up our sailing boat at the small stone pier. A collection of whitewashed houses with red roofs overlook the harbour. The tiny fishing boats lined up along the pier bob gently in the water and a man is tidying away a fishing net on a small blue wooden boat. As we nod in greeting, I ask how fishing was and he says he had a good morning and caught a few kilos of fish.
A little further along the sea front, waves lap over a tiny stone jetty and three brightly-coloured kayaks lie abandoned on the sand, with paddles and life jackets drying in the sun. Birds tweeting merrily in the trees seem to be the only sign of life – until we go up some stone steps to Skerac Restaurant, where some outdoor tables are set up on a stone terrace overlooking the clear water, and the kayakers are tucking into lunch.
Skerac is a typical basic island restaurant where menus are unnecessary – the day’s special is usually the seafood catch of the day – possibly just delivered fresh from the nets of the fisherman we met earlier. The waiter shows us a selection of fresh fish and we choose a large, whole dorada (sea bream), which is then sliced, stuffed with herbs and set onto the outdoor charcoal grill to cook.
To kickstart our seafood odyssey, we tuck into mixed salad and chargrilled aubergines. After this comes octopus salad, then delicious anchovies with capers. It’s all made locally with the exception of the white wine Zlatna Vrbnicka Žlahtina 2014, which is from the island of Krk, further north in the Adriatic. When the dorada arrives it is perfectly cooked, its succulent white flesh needing no further adoration or seasoning after the grill.
Koločep Island is one of the three Elaphiti islands, off the coast of Dubrovnik in Croatia. Only 160 people live on this island year round and the car-free isle has beaches and a walking track around Gornje Čelo forest park for after-lunch exploring. As we explore the paths, trees, olive groves and tiny stone churches, we meet a local woman selling all flavours of jam and marmalade – grape, lemon, blackberry, grapefruit, fig, orange, apricot, kiwi and strawberry. We pop a jar or two into our daysacks as a tasty souvenir.
We then climb into our mini sailing boat once more and head towards Šipan Island, the largest of the Elaphiti archipelago with 500 residents. Evening falls as we tie up in the tiny bay of Šipanska Luka. We walk along a stone path to a waterside tavern, where its terrace juts out into the bay and the calm water gently laps against the wall. Tables are set up for dinner and on the wooden roof, the golden lights twinkle as if to match the setting sun.
Seafood is again the star here, and rather than read menus, we’re happy to choose the catch of the day. For starters, we tuck into fresh anchovies served with lemon, followed by tuna carpaccio and octopus cakes. The main dish is a delicious shrimp and vegetable pasta.
Konoba Kod Marka was started by Marko Prizmic 30 years ago when he retired as a chef in Dubrovnik. He wanted to create a relaxed corner where people could escape from everyday life. And he seems to have achieved it as the bay of Šipanska Luka is so relaxed, locals say every day is like Sunday.
Marko’s son Dino now runs the restaurant. Dino tells me that the catch of the day is always local and is grilled or cooked in the oven. All the fish – like seabass, red mullet, monkfish – is caught around the island or a maximum of 10 miles away. “It’s different every day, it depends on the season, and on the fishing. They never catch two of the same fish,” laughs Dino.
Other specialities include local goats’ cheese, seafood risotto with clams and mussels, and prawns with garlic. Recognising that people may not be used to eating octopus and its tentacles, they serve octopus cakes instead so that less daring customers can still enjoy the unique flavour.
Dino was in merchant shipping for years, but the Elaphitis soon called him back. “I liked Šipan better than all the world’s seas,” he says. “For us, it’s the magic island. Not only for its history, but there are some really positive vibrations.”
Dino’s father Marko now has another restaurant Dubravka, at Villa Dubravka, a small stone guest house in the village in Šipanska Luka centre. Here, a few days later, at a shaded table among the palm trees, with a view of the harbour, we tuck into a delicious goulash made from wild boar, with gnocchi, and fresh crunchy bread.
To the west of the Elaphiti islands is the island of Mjlet, home to a pristine national park with rich forests, crystal clear lakes, cycling and hiking trails in a peaceful setting. We enjoy hours of cycling and kayaking before mooring for the night at Polače village. The harbour front is lined with bicycles for rent, and every restaurant has a blackboard menu outside, many advertising dishes ‘under the bell’ – a traditional way of slow-cooking meat or seafood with vegetables and potatoes over a fire and under a bell-shaped lid, where all of the flavours blend together for a unique combination.
In the early evening, as we relax on our boat, the sound of singing crosses the water – a group of men are gathered in a waterside tavern to sing acapella-style Klapa. They are in a wooden boat-shaped structure on the waterfront, with colourful nets and red and white navigation buoys as decor. In the background, sounds of clinking plates and glasses from a nearby restaurant, and crying gulls, add to the atmosphere.
Later we dine at Konoba Antika, which some say is the best in the village. It has an elevated view over the ruins of a Roman palace and the harbour. After a shared starter plate of cheese, ham, olives and shrimp, we tuck into the most delicious main dish of slow-cooked beef, lamb and goat with courgette and tomatoes. Perfectly filling after a day of adventure.
Late that night, when all is quiet and all lights are out except the stars shining overhead, I drift to sleep imagining I can still hear faint strains of Klapa music across the water, lulling me to sleep.
Additional images courtesy of Michal Luczycki/Flickr, One Afrikan/Flickr
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