Mountain Bikes Meets Boats - Croatia Treasure Island Trip
I’ve ridden mountain bikes in some incredibly unique and exotic locations over the years. A bike trip centered around boat travel, however, was something totally new to me. So when the opportunity came up to join Big Mountain Bike Adventures on its Treasure Island trip in Croatia, it was a no brainer.
Over eight days, the Treasure Island bike and boat adventure would take us to six different islands off the coast of Croatia. We would get to experience the rich culture as well as the unique mountain bike trails each island offers. A women's only trip, our group was comprised mostly of a mix of British Columbians and Coloradoans as well as a few Kiwis who supplied the laid-back attitude and fantastic sense of humor that Kiwis are well known for. Our group also included a mother-daughter duo with the impressive 12-year old Charlotte. Even though she was the youngest rider on the trip, she could easily keep up and was often the one pushing the pace each day on the bike. Impressive, to say the least.
Our adventure started in the village of Trogir, a UNESCO heritage site in the southern Dalmatia region of Croatia. We built up our bikes beside the San Snova, the 101-foot yacht that we’d call home for the next eight days. The magnificent oak boat was a masterpiece, having been built over four years by a local family. It is the last wooden boat of its kind to be built in Croatia and the San Snova truly lives up to its name, which means “the dream of dreams.”
I bunked with my friends Leslie and Lani, both Colorado natives. We had a cozy room under the main floor of the boat with our own bathroom and shower and a small circular window just above sea level. We each took a small section of the room to unload gear and stash our bags. The best part about this style of travel was not having to pack up every day when we moved to the next location. Once on board, our bags stayed put. Bikes were stored on the boat's bow and our local Croatian guides, Ivo and Marco, loaded and unloaded them before and after each ride.
After loading up the boat in Trogir, we set sail to Šolta, a small island close to Split, Croatia. Far from crowded, this 19-mile long island is famous for its honey production and its proximity to the mainland. The scheduled ride for the day was a short one, designed to spin out the legs and make sure the bikes were running smoothly. It was raining, and since Leslie and I had just finished a 9-day bikepacking trip along the Adriatic Crest Trail, we opted to sit out the ride. We hit up a nearby coffee shop for a cappuccino and a glass of wine with some of the Colorado crew. Croatia is known for its local wine, and a few of the gals were getting a head start on sampling. I knew this trip was off to a good start when our conversation about using Bag Balm went way off the rails and one of my new-found friends, Koel, snorted wine through her nose. Bonding often happens in the oddest ways and this set the tone for our week.
That night, we stayed docked at Šolta and then left early the next morning for Brač, the longest island and highest terrain in central Dalmatia. Arriving in the port of Milna, we prepared to head out for what would be one of our biggest days of climbing and mileage. Each day, we had the option between a longer and shorter route that we could choose depending on how we were feeling. But distance didn’t necessarily mean one was easier than the other. Sometimes the shorter ride was more technical; sometimes the longer ride was less steep.
Leslie, Lani and I decided on the longer route for our first real ride of the trip. This route essentially meant we’d climb to the top of a pass, descend down to the Adriatic Sea on an old hiking trail. Then we’d climb back up and over the pass on a different route and rode down into the town of Postira on the opposite side of the island from Milna.
Our entire group started the ride together as we wrapped our way around the coastline for the first 15 kilometers. We passed by small bays and inlets with old WWII and former Yugoslavian submarine tunnels carved into the side of the mountains. These massive caves now served as a shelter for local fishing boats and as tourist attractions. Catamarans were floating in the bays and people paddle boarded in and around the tunnels.
Brač is famous for its limestone and we rode through a ton of it. Croatia and the Dalmatia region are "stone rich," and there are hundreds of stone walls and piles across the islands. The stone walls are used for terracing and protecting the soil, which would otherwise erode over time with the constant winds close to the coast. Needless to say, the single track we rode that day was rocky and technical.
It was magical rolling into the little Mediterranean town of Postira on the north side of the island. We were all a little punched from a solid day on the bike and we headed directly to the boat which was docked and waiting for us in the town’s main harbor. The brilliant part of this type of travel meant we were immediately at our rooms after a hard ride and prepared food was already on its way.
The next morning, we ate breakfast as we sailed our way down the coast of Brač to the town of Pučišća. The day’s route would take us up to Vidova Gora peak, which is the highest point on Brač at an elevation of just over 2,500 feet. After a hot and exposed climb with a mixture of pavement, double track, and dirt roads, we looked down from the top of the peak to see Zlatni Rat beach. Also known as Golden Horn, this is one of the most famous beaches in Europe.
It felt fantastic to be up on top of Vidova Gore; the views of the Adriatic islands went on forever and it was a bluebird day. We had an epic single-track descent ahead of us all the way to Bol, a town on the south side of the island and like the day before, the boat would be waiting for us. That evening, we’d set sail during dinner for the island of Vis, the farthest inhabited island off the Croatian mainland.
The details of showering, eating, and resting up on the boat were quite convenient. Water was restricted so there was no lingering in the shower, but we could clean up with ample warm water and find space on the decks to chill during our transit from island to island. Big Mountain Bike Adventures hired Whistler-based massage therapist and nutritionist Tracy Higgs who treated our tired legs and bodies after long days on the bike.
Sylvie Allen, the owner of Sweet Skills– a Whistler-based mountain bike teaching and personal training company – was on board to assist guiding alongside Emily Slaco, a guide for Sweet Skills and Big Mountain Bike Adventures. Both Sylvie and Emily are fantastic teachers and helped teach techniques and skills that came in handy for tackling the technical switchbacks, steeps, and loose terrain throughout the trip. There were no formal clinics just instruction on demand for whoever wanted it.
The next day, we stopped at Vis island for an epic 28-kilometer loop out to the town of Komiza at the end of the island and then finished with a long and technical single-track descent back to Vis. Post-ride we ventured into town and raided their gelato supply with great gusto. The Italian influence in these island villages means the gelato content is high and plentiful. During this trip, I devised a formula that states the amount of ice cream calories consumed should be directly proportional to the number of kilometers ridden times ten. Wholly unscientific, I know, but it seems popular and well-received.
On our way from Viz to Korcula Island, the boat made a stop along the way for some swimming. We jumped into water that was surprisingly chilly - not Canada cold but also not end-of-July-in-the-Adriatic warm either.
Vela Luka was our port for the next day and night and the ride from the boat started immediately with a beautiful path by the seaside. About six kilometers into the ride, we climbed into olive and fig groves and passed back through Vela Luka, which means big harbor, on our way to do another loop. Most people who live on the island either fish, farm, or work in tourism. It's hard not to fantasize about the idyllic and laid-back lifestyle that comes with living on an island. While there is other cycling tourism in Vela Luka, we were the only ones taking it off-road. And having the trails all to ourselves except for a few hikers says to me there’s potential for a healthy and thriving mountain bike movement here.
Up next for our island adventure was Hvar, one of the more prominent and talked about islands in Croatia. Most people go to the actual city of Hvar, which is where the main tourist and party zones are located. Thankfully, we docked in Stari Grad, about 20 kilometers from the main city.
Stari Grad or “Old Town” ended up being my favorite village of the entire trip. The history, the streets, and the vibe were without equal. It’s one of the oldest towns in Europe and its ancient center is a UNESCO protected world heritage site. Founded by the ancient Greeks, the town has been around since 384 BC. It’s small enough that you can walk through in a couple of hours and the streets are narrow with pounded and polished stones that have endured for thousands of years. Restaurants are found around every corner and are beautifully presented with outdoor patios, planters, and delicious smelling food. We broke up into groups and took advantage of this amazing place for a night of exploration and dinner off the boat.
Throughout the trip, it felt like every place we stopped to explore and ride was more stunning than the last. After an incredible night in Stari Grad, we set sail almost back to where we started, just down the way from Trogir to the city of Split. Arriving in Split, we were surrounded by the most tourist traffic we'd seen since starting the journey. We walked off the boat and into a fully intact palace, Diocletian's Palace, built for the Roman emperor Diocletian at the turn of the fourth century. My mind had been blown daily with ancient history and this palace was no different.
The ancient fortress had barely degraded and I joked about it being something you’d find in Las Vegas. But this was the real deal, a majestic palace that used to be called the Illyrian Province of Rome. Now it’s called Croatia. These days, the palace holds kiosks and food vendors, loads of cafes and restaurants, and is tastefully integrates all of this into its surroundings, very much unlike Las Vegas.
The week flew by fast and what an adjustment it was adapting back to civilian life and land legs. Spending a week on the Adriatic Sea with Big Mountain Bike Adventures was an eye-opener of what’s possible in bike travel. Finding unique places, utilizing local guides, and bringing like-minded people together in some of the worlds’ most stunning natural environments is what they do best.
We packed up our bikes near the same place we’d put them together a week earlier and said goodbye to our new friends. Some of the group was staying for extended holidays and exploration; others were headed home that same day.
Floating from island to island to ride mountain bikes in a new place each day was surreal. The pre-scouted locations took us on trails and to towns that we would never have found on our own and riding through thousand-year-old cities was unbelievable. I’ve ridden mountain bikes in some incredibly unique and exotic locations over the years, but this is going to be hard to top.