Why Croatia Is the Next Top Kayaking Destination

Sea kayaking and paddleboarding offer the newest way to soak in Croatia's stunning coastal beauty.

It’s an odd place to unleash my inner Laird Hamilton, channeling the famous surfer’s impressive moves deep inside a cave meant for submarines. I’m on a stand-up paddleboard along the coast of Croatia’s northern Dalmatian Islands in the Adriatic Sea. Built by Yugoslavia during the Cold War, the cave’s sweeping, limestone ceiling is rippled like the sea outside.

I’m here with Marko Mrše, kayaker, rock climber, and the founder of Malik Adventures. Word is getting out, he says, about sea kayaking in Croatia. “It’s safe, beautiful, inexpensive, and easy to get to,” he explains. “And there are no long crossings.”

To get to the inlet, we sea kayaked across one of only a handful of nearby passages big enough for ships. Towing our paddleboards behind us, we’ve made our way through the collection of islands—all relatively close to one another, which makes them perfect for paddling.

Once we make our way outside, my eyes adjust to the Adriatic’s dazzling blue shimmer. Paddling home, paralleling a terraced grove of olive trees, we spy a pod of dolphins, the shape of their dorsal fins mimicking the waves.

Staying on Honey Island

I’d arrived on the Croatian island of Molat three days earlier by ferry from the coastal city of Zadar. Since Marko grew up here, he’s well connected. I’m staying with a local family and enjoying home-cooked meals that include obligatory shots of rakia, an infused spirit made from plums. Residents here are mostly retirees and fishermen, content to grow flowers and herbs, whose smell wafts from every yard. The word “Molat” stems from mellitus, Greek for “tastes like honey,” and Mrše helps continue his island’s tradition by running an apiary.

The relatively unknown nature of the region suits Mrše perfectly. “When I travel, I try to find places like this, not some trendy resort,” he says. “It’s the real Croatia. And it’s made for paddling.”

Perfect Paddling

Indeed, the Molat harbor is particularly suited for the sport. It’s protected from all three prevalent winds—bura, which comes from the mainland; maestrale, which arrive around noon each day from the north; and jugo, which brings low pressure from the south. This means there’s always a sheltered route.

Paddling with bura at our beam, our first outing together takes us around a peninsula, where we explore several Cold War cannon tunnels and snorkel through the wreck of a sunken cargo ship. From there, we round a lighthouse, lunch on a cobblestone beach (picking rock samphire, or Crithmum, leaves to eat with our Börek pastries), and deep-water solo climb a limestone overhang before plunging into the water.

By the time we return to the village, the sun bathing the orange-tiled rooftops in alpenglow, my arms are toast. They’re replenished with those of a cephalopod when I enjoy a dinner of fresh octopus baked with potatoes and washed down with local wine. “Zivili!” we toasted our host. “May we live!”

On our last day, I bike five miles to the town of Zapuntel, where Mrše brings the kayaks. Today’s water is mirror smooth—no bura, maestrale, or yugo winds. We paddle around an ancient Roman stone quarry, snorkel around stone stack, and paddle to the island of Ist, where we hike to a Catholic church high on a ridge. It offers our highest vantage yet, and we spot islands dotting the water as far as we can see. We trace our previous days’ routes—the bays, coves, cannon platforms, and shipwrecks we explored—and realize we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

Tips For the Trip

  • Bring a nylon rash guard and wide-brim hat for the sun.
  • Wear water shoes. The limestone on the islands can be sharp.
  • Prepare your liver, because rakia is part of every dinner.
  • Extend your stay with visits to the port cities of Split and Dubrovnik.
  • Visit the famous Sea Organs in Zadar, where the tide plays music by pulsing through slots in the concrete wharf.
  • Travel with an outfitter like Malik Adventures or Seakayaking Croatia to get the most out of your trip.

Eugene Buchanan is an outdoor writer, author of Comrades on the Colca and founder of Paddling Life. He is a member of the Explorer's Club.