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Wheely wild: Discovering the thrill of Croatia on a ‘cycling cruise’

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After doggedly pedalling uphill for what looks like a lifetime with only the sound of my very own gasping breaths for company, I’m suddenly aware of a ripple of applause and shouts of encouragement.

Looking up in surprise, I see my cycling buddies, who’ve already arrived on the crest of this monster mountain (OK, it’s a hill, but has assumed Everest-like proportions for me) are standing on the roadside, cheering me on for the ultimate stretch.

It’s a heart-warming touch that makes the climax of the winding seven-mile climb up 1,400ft on the Croatian isle of Hvar all of the sweeter — especially once I survey the magnificent views.

Even higher is the sprint down the opposite side. ‘It’s not a race,’ calls our cycling guide Vania as we speed like demons, relishing this exhilarating ride into the chi-chi port town, also called Hvar, to rejoin our three-masted motor yacht Princeza Diana.

Sara Macefield embarks on a week-long cycling cruise across Croatia’s Dalmatian islands aboard the three-masted motor yacht Princeza Diana (above) 

We’re partway through a week-long cycling cruise weaving across the extraordinarily pretty Dalmatian islands, scattered like precious emeralds within the Adriatic Sea.

There are 32 of us, mainly North Americans, a handful of Aussies and about eight Brits — most in our 50s and 60s. What binds us is our enthusiasm and experience of cycling. This is not any trip for novices.

Princeza Diana is a comfy haven with 16 traditionally furnished cabins (ours has bunkbeds and a double, plus an impressively spacious ensuite shower), loads of sunbathing space and a bubbling hot tub — just the place to appease aching muscles.

Shared tables within the dining salon and bar add to the sociable feel of the trip as we gather for decent breakfasts of fresh fruit, eggs and cheese, plus set three-course lunches, where the selection (delicious soups, grilled fish and pasta) and standard is more variable.

The ride into the chi-chi port town of Hvar (above) is 'exhilarating', Sara reveals

The ride into the chi-chi port town of Hvar (above) is ‘exhilarating’, Sara reveals

Princeza Diana, above, is a 'cosy haven' with 16 traditionally furnished cabins

Princeza Diana, above, is a ‘cosy haven’ with 16 traditionally furnished cabins

Our itinerary — one in all 4 offered by Sail Croatia, involving various levels of difficulty — is the hardest due to gravity-defying hills and each day rides of as much as 30 miles long.

No wonder half the group go for e-bikes, though I resist this. Yet it’s something I occasionally regret, especially during teeth-gritting climbs when the e-bikers glide effortlessly past, relaxed and barely breaking a sweat.

Nevertheless it’s not all hardcore hills. There are glorious meanders along deserted coastal roads that unlock incredible panoramas, and forays inland along country tracks through grape-heavy vineyards.

The sleepy villages we pass make great coffee stops, and their honey-stone houses with distinctive ochre roofs hint at their Venetian heritage.

One of the relaxing morning rides is on Mljet, Croatia’s most heavily forested island, which is protected on its western side by a national park.

Sara says that one of the most 'relaxing' bike rides of the trip was on the forested island of Mljet, above

Sara says that probably the most ‘relaxing’ bike rides of the trip was on the forested island of Mljet, above

While on Mljet (above), some of Sara's fellow cruisegoers opted to take dips in the Adriatic’s aquamarine waters

While on Mljet (above), a few of Sara’s fellow cruisegoers opted to take dips within the Adriatic’s aquamarine waters 

As we follow the empty tracks, Vania points out a Twelfth-century former Benedictine monastery on the tiny island of St Mary. Parts of the Romanesque complex and its church are open all 12 months round. There’s also a restaurant.

It’s reached by a free boat service which collects people on the landing spot after they wave the handily placed flag.

Further along, we ride over a reasonably humpback bridge, built to switch the one demolished by President Tito, ruler of the previous Yugoslavia (of which Croatia was a component), in order that he could sail his yacht through. We head out on our bikes once, if not twice, a day, though it’s not compulsory. Some opt to take walks or go for dips within the Adriatic’s aquamarine waters as a substitute.

Above is the Twelfth-century former Benedictine monastery on the tiny island of St Mary

Sara swaps her bicycle for an e-bike to tour around the charming island of Korcula. Above is the isle's Korcula town

Sara swaps her bicycle for an e-bike to tour across the charming island of Korcula. Above is the isle’s Korcula town

Sara flies up Korcula’s (above) hills ‘like a bird’ thanks to her e-bike

Sara flies up Korcula’s (above) hills ‘like a bird’ due to her e-bike

TRAVEL FACTS

Sail Croatia (sail-croatia.com) offers a one-week round-trip cycling cruise from Split to Milna, Bol, Hvar, Korcula, Mljet and Makarska from £699 pp, departing May 13, 2023. Based on half-board, it includes guided rides and Wi-Fi. Cycle hire and flights cost extra.

With daytime temperatures hovering around 20c, and a mixture of sunshine and showers, conditions are perfect on most days.

Because the cruise is half-board, we hop ashore each evening armed with recommendations for the very best dining spots from our guide Nina. We also hunt for foreign exchanges, as Princeza Diana runs a cash-only system.

Arriving on the charming island of Korcula, my body remains to be aching from yesterday’s killer hill and my legs feel like leaden weights. I can’t face getting back within the saddle, so persuade an e-biker to swap for the day.

What an inspired move it proves to be, as this powered cycle propels me along and I fly up the hills like a bird, feeling a tad guilty as I pass my puffing companions.

I can’t help pondering that I’m cheating, but I actually don’t care. Because the saying goes: If you happen to can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

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