Off-road driving in a 4×4 up the winding roads and bone-juddering barely there tracks of the Lovcen mountains in Montenegro, looking down at the beautiful bay of Kotorbelow; white-water rafting in Slovenia’s Soca Valley or hiking the Paklenica National Park – w’here experienced climbers shin up the mountains like monkeys – and zip-lining through the Cetina Canyon in Croatia on cables so long it’s impossible to see the end through the dense tree canopy: these are just some of the thrill-seeking adventure-based excursions offered on Crystal Esprit The sleek 62-passenger yacht is one that looks set to appeal to a younger cruise crowd with its kayaks, paddleboards, snorkels and even a bubble-like submersible for two that can be deployed in a couple of ports.
On my week-long trip along the coast of Croatia, weaving in and out of the islands, past Slovenia to Venice, fellow guests include a Canadian diamond dealer, surgeons from Hawaii and a spirited gang of Mexican friends celebrating a 40th birthday who prop up the Cove bar each night, asking the pianist to play American classics until late. Of course, if you’d rather slow the pace, there are plenty of other less tiring activities too. Borrow bicycles and peddle round the pretty Slovenian town of Piran (we are the only cruise ship anchored here so it feels very authentic) where children run around waterfront square lined with low-key bars and cafes.
Or, in Croatia, wander sleepy, sedate Opatija, with its strip of buttery yellow and powder-puff pink buildings to buy jars of locally made fig jam and sage honey before an afternoon amble along rushing streams and wooden bridges in dappled sunlight at the Kamacnik Canyon (a shot of warming blueberry liqueur at the start is optional). The ship itself is elegant with cabins decorated in a cream and grey palette (each one is assigned a personal butler), double marble sinks in the bathrooms and a pool deck with cabins decorated in a cream and grey palette (each one is assigned a personal butler), double marble sinks in the bathrooms and a pool deck with cocooning white wicker chairs. The smart patio cafe wouldn’t look out of place on the King’s Road and, for dinner, you sit at teal banquettes in the Yacht Club restaurant as waiters take orders for a five-course fine-dining feast on their mobile phones.
Head chef Adam Jenkins (he has done a stint at the Ritz) is in charge and the food is sublime: beef crudo with smoked-apple wood chips that give a waft of incense-like scent when the lid is lifted off, lobster strudel and delicious pasta with delicate out-of-this-world sauces. The Croatian wine selection and cheese board, served with truffle honey, are also excellent. On the final day, moored up in Venice, I decide to skip jostling among the crowds in St Mark’s Square and instead head out to the lagoon on a six-man wooden gondola with the city’s oldest rowing club, the Bucintoro Rowing Society, to learn the age-old voga alla veneta technique (great fun but harder than it looks). It was one final sporty challenge, and a great new take on a classic city.