Tomo locked eyes with me as he clinked his shot of Patrón’s XO Cafe against mine. “Someone will kill you if you don’t look them in the eyes when you toast them, Rebecca. I’m serious; you must learn this,” he said with a smirk that was anything but lethal. “Come, look me in the eyes.”
Laughing, I didn’t fully absorb the story that followed. Some adventure in Tomo’s early career on another ship, where a very burly co-worker took the lack of eye contact personally. Our thoroughly professional head waiter, a cruising veteran who caters to stars, had seamlessly switched on this last night to my favorite kind of sassy bar scamp. I was helplessly charmed yet again.
It wasn’t just the crystal goblet of gin and tonic that barely fit in my other hand that was going to my head or the days of divine four-course meals. Of course, I loved walking the walled cities of the fallen Venetian and Roman empires and swimming between the cliffs of Stiniva, one of Croatia’s most beautiful beaches. I still smiled, thinking of one crew member’s hilarious disbelief over dinner that I really couldn’t trill my Rs the way they do here. Croatia, the decade-long destination darling, certainly had exceeded my high expectations; but there was more to it.
A guest’s life on a superyacht like the Freedom with Goolets is as opulent and indulgent as portrayed in Bravo’s Below Deck. What doesn’t come through the screen as clearly and what you don’t feel until you’re there is how completely you’re seen. How you’re studied, analyzed, and then individually catered to like no other experience you’ve ever had, and how that ruins you for everything else.
When Goolets invited me to cruise Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast on a yacht, I heard all the typical responses. As a solo female traveler, I got the predictable warnings of ridiculous Taken scenarios. As a Midwesterner, I also got many doses of our traditional push back to good fortune. “Well, that sounds nice, but remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Only one of my closest friends and binge-er of all things Bravo nailed the real issue. “You know I love you, but you have no idea how to behave on a yacht.” Her crash course included everything from stews to proper dining forks to a pep talk on how to ask for things you want. “At least promise me you won’t try to carry your own bags.”
She was right to lecture me. Like most of us, I had never been so close to this type of elevated service and luxury. Being so looked after was vaguely uncomfortable and then insidiously addictive. Unlike past guests, I’m not yet requesting that the hot tub be filled with champagne or insisting that we roast a pig over an open fire on a wooden deck just to see if the crew would. But with a few more trips in me, I could see it.
And I’m clearly not the only one swept away with a feeling of invincibility. It’s good for crew stories told after three in the morning to be off-record, especially those full of some guests’ terrible decision-making and details that might not pass even HBO censors. I can say that under their relaxed poise, the crew proved excellent problem solvers with the connections to seemingly get anything sorted out.
Those personal, local connections make cruising here unique, according to cruise manager Ivan Ramljak. He would know. Part of his job is to listen to what you want, figure out what you don’t even know to ask for, pull all the strings onshore to make it happen, and then present it as if it was the easiest and most reasonable possibility. Ramljak moves from firing instructions in Croatian on the sidelines to front-and-center showman, gently corralling, teasing, and complimenting us.
But it’s more than just a hollow praise fest for guests, which you can get anywhere. This attention to perfection comes from the competitive passion underpinning the whole enterprise. It’s the energy of the young and hungry going about the serious business of claiming a piece of a global tourism industry worth trillions—even in a pandemic. They want and need you to love everything, and they will make it happen. Here locals don’t just have a stake in the game; they run the table.
Take captain and Freedom owner Ivan Rakuljić. He has all the low-key swagger and lack of pretension that you’d want from your captain. With a family legacy of generations of sailing, this is a man with a plan. I joined him on the bridge as we sailed to a private island for oysters and barnacle-covered bottles of wine because, of course, someone knew someone who had a bottle waiting for us.
After weaving the romantic tale of how his parents met through his father’s ferry, Rakuljić tackled sustainable and locally-owned yachting. He and other captains were about to start a frenzy of shipbuilding and re-modeling, with his own already impressive superyacht getting even more glam. But he also took a moment to reminisce on a time before cruise ships when Croatian was the most common language heard throughout the port in Split. He ended with the hope that tourism could find a balance. These genuine moments were the last ingredient in this exciting and contagious alchemy of experience, transforming everyday metal into once-in-a-lifetime travel gold.
The loss of it all smacked me that final afternoon. As I watched cruise manager Dominik Metličić patiently teach a new friend how to pluck “Stand by Me” on guitar, I faced the fact that my trip would soon be over. We’d dock soon, and I’d catch my flights home the next day, and leave this stress-free world where gourmet meals and wine pairings are at the ready. I’d leave this fantasy where my most pressing decision is if I should float in the salty Adriatic or lie in the sun. There would be no more sly winks when Croatians catch me watching them. So long, carefully curated activities for a super curious bunch. Goodbye to all these interesting people that built such camaraderie.
Instead, I’d plunge back into the daily grind of reality. I’d jump back into a form of travel that involves hauling my own luggage in and out of airports, vans, and hotels. I’d resume hunting and gathering my meals in unfamiliar cities through a search engine and not someone’s personal connections. I’d go back to having sole responsibility for my itinerary. Suddenly, all the skills that were points of pride in my travel portfolio somehow lost a bit of luster. If you get the chance to travel by yacht, board it. Even better, do it in Croatia. Just be prepared to return spoiled and catch yourself later, on other perfectly lovely getaways, thinking with a sigh: “If only this were Croatia.”