Cruising Stories

Island Hopping Along the Florida Keys

Which Key is Your Favorite?

By
Capt. Jeff
Werner

The Florida Keys are aptly named, because they do offer the keys to a boating paradise unmatched anywhere in our lower 48 states. If you mention those two magic words the Keys to any boater in Florida, immediately what springs to mind are visions of sparkling clear waters, snorkeling, scuba diving, tickling for lobsters, deep-sea fishing, back-bay flats fishing, and simply relaxing and letting go.A coral rock archipelago and accompanying barrier reef that stretch 200 nautical miles from Key Biscayne to the Dry Tortugas comprise this national marine sanctuary. And fortunately for boaters, the Keys are easy to transit in all weather, day or night, because the naturally formed Hawk Channel is well marked for buoy hopping and offers comfortable passage when the seas are raging outside the reef in the Gulf Stream.We'll begin our cruise from the Miami area and head south, keeping the prevailing easterly winds first on our beam and then on our stern as the Keys turn westward.

LEG 1 - Key Largo

Key Largo offers a relaxed atmosphere during the winter boating season and, obviously, shares a name with a classic 1948 Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall movie. Strangely enough, there is another Humphrey Bogart connection to Key Largo: The original African Queen, the steam-powered star of the Bogart and Hepburn movie of that same name, has been restored to its original Hollywood splendor and now gives tours around Key Largo. She departs five times daily from Marina Del Mar located at Mile Marker 100 along Highway 1. (By land, locations in the Keys are noted by their mileage from Key West, which is Mile Marker/MM 0). You can pretend to be Mr. Allnut while cruising the Key's canals.But the real star of Key Largo is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The upland park on Largo Sound offers kayaking and canoeing through mangrove swamps and tropical hammocks, and snorkeling and diving at its marine park out on the reef. Pick up a mooring ball at Molasses Reef or the perennial favorite Dry Rocks Reef and put on your mask, snorkel and fins. Dry Rocks is home to the foot bronze Christ of the Deep statue, which sits below the surface.Dock your boat overnight at the Ocean Reef Club and experience the megayacht lifestyle. The marina offers just about every amenity you can imagine: golf course, spa, tennis courts, watersports, and even a cooking school for kids.

LEG 2 - Islamorada

Quick: What does Islamorada mean in Spanish? Time's up! Purple island is the answer. Why the early Spanish explorers named this cayo purple has been lost to history. Today, Islamorada is also known as the Village of Islands and actually encompasses five isles, from Plantation Key in the north to Lower Matecumbe Key in the south. Islamorada is also the Sportfishing Capital of the World and was made famous by President George H.W. Bush, then a frequent visitor and avid fisherman. Whether your angling leans toward bonefish, tarpon or sailfish, you can have it all here. However, if your interest in sea life is more up close and personal, visit Theater of the Sea to swim and interact with dolphins, sea lions, sharks and stingrays.As you head down Hawk Channel looking for a marina to berth your yacht, you'll pass Hens & Chickens, a well-marked group of shoals off Plantation Key. Turn up Snake Creek to the Florida Bay side of the Keys to find Plantation Yacht Harbor at MM 87. The marina is well protected from the weather and located within a municipal park that has a swimming pool and tennis courts. It is an excellent base from which to start your exploration of the local restaurants and galleries. On the ocean side, the Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina (formerly Holiday Isle at MM 84) has been undergoing extensive renovations and improvements. The marina offers dockage for vessels up to 100 feet, and, thankfully, you can still enjoy a cocktail at the muchloved Holiday Isle tiki bar.

LEG 3 - Duck Key

Next stop is Duck Key or, more specifically these days, Hawks Cay Resort & Marina at Duck Key. The entrance channel is not for the faint-of-heart mariner when the wind and seas are up and they happen to be on your stern. As you surf down the waves, be prepared to make a sharp 90-degree turn to starboard into a quiet canal that leads to the marina.Hawks Cay is a family-friendly resort with lots of activities geared toward kids and teens. There are five swimming pools, plus outings such as nature hikes and scavenger hunts to keep everyone from getting bored. Swim with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins at the resort's Dolphin Connection center, or while the kids are being kept busy, relax at the Calm Waters spa with a signature Key lime-mojito body treatment. For a real mojito that goes down the hatch, have the bartender at on-property Alma's muddle one for you at the end of the day.

LEG 4 - Marathon

Marathon, on Vaca Key, is the most developed city between Key West and Key Largo and is the gateway to the Seven Mile Bridge on the Overseas Highway. Marathon is also a boating center with a number of marinas, a mooring field and a boatyard. Access to a large West Marine store, two supermarkets and even a Home Depot make Marathon a great stopover for repairs and reprovisioning. The Marathon Marina, Boatyard & RV Resort, located in Boot Key Channel between green markers 7 and 9, can handle vessels up to 125 feet and has a beautiful new pool, an oceanfront restaurant and bar and maintenance facilities that include a 75-ton travel lift.Marathon also has many other dining options, from ultracasual Keys Fisheries, where you can still watch the fishermen come in with their stone-crab catch (stone crab season runs from Oct. 15-May 15), to the elegant Butterfly Café at Tranquility Bay Resort.

LEG 5 - Little Palm Island

Did you ever see the movie PT109, the heroic biopic about a young John F. Kennedy? That was filmed on what is now Little Palm Island Resort & Spa. Still shown on nautical charts as Munson Island, Little Palm Island is located at the entrance to Newfound Harbor off Little Torch Key.The island is home to the most unique and romantic resort in the Keys, with 15 thatched-roof bungalows that are all luxuriously decorated. There is plenty of dockage for yachts both large and small, but make you reservations early if you plan to be there on a Sunday brunch is a true culinary experience. And if you have dinner on the beach at sunset, don't be surprised if a tiny Key deer nuzzles up to you at your table.

LEG 6 - Key West

Key West is the southernmost point in the U.S. and offers boaters a swashbuckling history of wreckers and pirates, a wealth of wonderfully restored 19th-century architecture, vibrant art galleries and street performances, great food, one-of-a-kind bars and night clubs and the best drag shows around. The center of activity for yachts is Key West Bight. Now a confluence of marinas, restaurants, bars and shops, it was once home to the Key West shrimp fleet. Conch Harbor Marina, the Key West Bight City Marina, A&B Marina and the Galleon Marina are all located in this historic seaport area. Or stay a few miles outside of downtown on Stock Island at the newly redeveloped Stock Island Marina Village or Oceanside Marina.Linger for a couple of days and you may never leave. Yes, Key West is that good. Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Calvin Klein, famed treasure hunter, Mel Fisher, Kelly McGillis and John Audubon have all called Key West home. Life doesn't get any funkier and laid back than living at Mile 0.

DRY TORTUGAS

The Keys don't end at Key West; they extend another 68 nautical miles westward, past Marquesas Keys to the Dry Tortugas. Loggerhead Key is the last key in the chain and is marked by Dry Tortugas Lighthouse, built in 1858 and almost 160 feet tall. Ever since then, it has guided ships to safe passage between the Straits of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.But the main attraction of the Dry Tortugas is on the next-to-last key, Garden Key, which is about three nautical miles east of the lighthouse. That is home to Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas National Park. Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, built with more than 16 million bricks. Construction of Fort Jefferson began in 1846, and in those days, smooth-bore cannon could not easily damage a brick fort with thick walls. By the time of the Civil War less than 20 years later, rifled cannon had been developed, and they hurled projectiles that could easily destroy a brick fort. Fort Jefferson was rendered obsolete. Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln, lived there as a prisoner before he was pardoned.In order to visit Fort Jefferson on your boat, you must obtain a free permit from the National Park Service. There are six free mooring balls for recreational boats available on a first-come, first-served basis in Garden Key Harbor. These are for daytime use only. If you plan to stay overnight, you are only allowed to anchor no more than a mile from the fort on the sandy bottom of Garden Key Harbor. There are no facilities for water, fuel or provisioning, so you must be self-sufficient. However, spending a day walking around the old fort and learning about its history and construction is an unparalleled experience that is well worth the time and effort to cruise there.

Capt. Jeff Werner has been in the yachting industry for over 25 years. In addition to working as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, he is a certified instructor for the USCG, US Sailing, RYA and the MCA. He is also the Diesel Doctor, helping to keep your yacht's fuel in optimal condition for peak performance. For more information, call 239-246-6810, or visit MyDieselDoctor.com. All Marinalife members receive a 10% discount on purchases of equipment, products and supplies from Diesel Doctor.

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Chartering Canal Du Midi
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Canal Du Midi bike trebes

The scenic Canal du Midi in southern France is a must for boaters! Cruising this 300-year-old waterway, you will savor the slow easy French pace, passing medieval villages, country farms and vineyards in the heart of the Languedoc wine region. Le Boat, the largest charter boat operation in Europe, offers surprisingly affordable, entry- level charters to this canal (and hundreds of other waterways). This historic passage is easy to navigate, scenic, fun and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Boating at a mellow 5 kilometers an hour aboard your vessel of 30-45 feet, the big excitement is passing through the lock system every few kilometers and arriving in ancient villages as your daily destination on your personal private cruise ship.

Don’t expect a luxury yacht holiday, however, because you are the crew and captain, you will be driving the boat or donning gloves to handle the dock lines in each “écluse” (lock). But it’s entertaining and affords a sense of freedom by chartering your own boat and navigating these centuries-old canals. Le Boat provides itineraries of how far you should voyage each day, but it’s truly up to you.

Our weeklong voyage started in Castelnaudary, a small, pretty village. Le Boat’s base in Castelnaudary is in the Grand Basin with a lovely view of the cathedral and village across the waterway, just a short walk over an old stone bridge to town. We could also see the majestic Pyrenees Mountains to our southwest along the French-Spanish border.

Greg on the Canal

Our first night, after our swift check in and orientation aboard our 40’ Horizon, we strolled to town, enjoyed local Languedoc wine and dinner at the Maison du Cassoulet sampling the specialty dish of slow-cooked white beans, tender pork and duck. Traditional “cassoulet” was a staple historically, especially in meager winters. Wow is it yummy and filling!

While returning over the old stone bridge back to our boat within the fleet, twinkling lights of the village reflected in the canal. We were excited to embark the next morning after a quiet comfy night’s sleep in the berth of our Horizon — Le Boat’s most modern vessel, equipped with a head, shower and full galley kitchen.

Before bed, I read about the fascinating history of the Canal du Midi. It was initially commissioned in 1516 by King Francis who hired Leonardo DaVinci to survey and create the route. Canal construction didn’t commence until 1667 and was completed in 1694, connecting 240 kilometers from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean with aqueducts, bridges and 91 locks to overcome the 620 feet height change in water level.

Designed as a trade route to shorten the otherwise long passage around the Iberian Peninsula, it’s also called the “Canal des Deux Mers” or canal of two seas. This vital trade route for two centuries is now a meandering waterway for pleasure boaters as well as bicyclists riding the tow paths paralleling the canal.

On the first morning, our first lock was the most dramatic, departing Castelnaudary via a series of four locks that descend 9.5 meters in consecutive rushes of water. Captain Greg (my husband) and I established our duties: he’d drive into the narrow stone chamber (thankful for bow thrusters) while I secured lines to the lock shore, ready to adjust as the water floods out.

Canal Du Midi Boat Locks

We traveled in tandem with two other boats, a Swiss family and a German couple. All were experienced boaters, so we developed an efficient rhythm of entering the locks sequentially, tying up, descending and exiting in order.

We cruised 15 locks by noon, then tied to a canal bank for the daily lunchtime lock closure of 12-1:00 p.m. We’d provisioned in Castelnaudary for the perfect picnic of flaky croissants, local ham and cheese, and a glass of Languedoc rosé on our boat’s top sun deck.

When the “Eclusier” (lock operator) returned to open the lock for us, we cruised the canal again with the occasional excitement of encountering oncoming boats in the narrow canal. Some boat captains were better at steering than others.

Our first day, we clocked 19 locks, 26 kilometers from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. We chose to stay overnight in Villesèque, a lovely anchorage with a few other boats tied to the shores. There was no marina, but we could walk to the tiny village over a charming stone bridge to see the church and the Sully elm tree planted in the square, among the last elms still alive in France.

We toasted to our first boat day with wine and cheese on our top deck, and invited over our boat neighbors, a delightful South African couple who proved Le Boat’s international appeal. He’d never boated before, but Le Boat states that you need no prior boating experience.

On Day 2 we cruised under sunny early October skies, loving the canopy of iconic Plane trees that drape some of the river. Unfortunately, much of the 40,000 Plane trees along the 240- kilometer stretch are diseased. Over 25% have the blight and are systematically being cut and burned, a huge undertaking. In parts of the river, trees are being removed, and replanting different species is underway, but it will take time to reestablish the majestic trees.

Carcassonne de la Citi

We arrived midday at the marina of Carcassonne and docked our boat well-positioned for exploring the city, with views of the waterfront park and tour boats coming and going across the Aude River.

Carcassonne exceeded my expectations, and I know now why it’s the second most visited tourist attraction in France (#1 is the Eiffel Tower). La Cité is a massive, fortified castle with 52 spiraling turrets and imposing double walls of rampart circling 3 kilometers perched above a medieval village.

We immediately rode our bikes, provided by our Le Boat charter, up to the fairytale citadel. You can also ride le Petite Train for 7 Euro. Crossing the castle drawbridge, we stepped in to La Cité and the 13th century. Be sure to pay to enter and appreciate the scale of the ramparts and the view of Carcassonne’s lower city and the Pyrenees to the west. Then stroll the maze of medieval cobblestone streets filled with shops and cafés. Lunch at Comte Roger was a chic culinary treat. A real luxury would be to stay at the five-star Hôtel de la Cité for an elegant evening in the illuminated castle.

Back in Carcassonne’s village, we found the grand pedestrian plazas marked by statues and fountains, boutiques, bakeries and casual bistros. It’s a fun city to explore on foot, with provisions aplenty for boaters.

A SIP OR TWO AT LOCAL VINEYARDS

Greg and Heather at Chateau du Pennautier

The next morning, after fresh pain au chocolat, we hopped on our bikes to cycle to wineries. Greg guided us with his iPhone’s Komoot app, which maps out recommended hiking and biking routes. Château Auzais (est. 1872) was a wonderful tour and tasting. Our guide described the Occitanie wine’s bouquet as the convergence of Atlantic winds melding with the Mediterranean, as we sipped our favorite wine aptly named “La Cité des Ventes.”

Château de Pennautier was another fantastic estate. The gorgeous 1620 castle was home to the financier of the Canal du Midi construction — the same architect who designed Versailles. The château’s authentic furniture is gorgeous. Reserve an interior castle tour or just stroll the beautiful gardens. From here, we visited the sister winery and restaurant for a lovely lunch and wine tasting of Pennautier’s whites, rosés and reds.

We planned to boat the next day to Trèbes from Carcassonne but biked instead. The tow paths along the canal are ideal, in fact you can cycle faster than you can boat. We waved to fellow charter boats as we breezed by vineyards, farms, locks and bridges. Our return into Carcassonne provided stunning views of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites at once — La Cité Castle and Canal du Midi.

Heather biking in the winery

Our return trip from Carcassonne to Castelnaudary only took a day through 24 locks and 30 kilometers with our now well-orchestrated rhythm of navigating locks. Our timing was good for the opening of most locks, and we traveled solo, as mid-October is end of the season the lock keeper told me. Summer is very busy on the canal, with boats in a queue for their turn in locks, and busier marinas.

As for the voyage, I recommend you plan one-way (for an upcharge) for the adventure of all new places along your voyage. The round trip had us retracing our passage, viewing previous scenery. We prefer the excitement of not knowing what’s around the next river bend and discovering new villages.

Also ascending the locks, going upriver, is more difficult. Captain Greg would let me off on a dock before the lock, I’d walk ahead and retrieve his tossed lines to secure the boat, we’d adjust during the rush of cascading water, then I’d board our boat when it came to the top of the full lock.

We felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment, having completed our week with success (i.e. no one fell in, no damage to boat). Our final day was leisurely aboard the boat, walking Castelnaudary’s village to a delightful bakery, to the cathedral and up the hill to the windmill, a wonderful 17th century Moulin with splendid views of Black Mountain and the French countryside. We biked along the canal, then relaxed on our boat’s sun deck viewing the Spanish peaks where we planned to ski in winter.

Our check out was quick but thorough. Le Boat’s fleet varies in age, so I was happy we’d opted for the newer spacious Horizon model. Funny, other couples posed for selfies by our boat preferring our more sophisticated-looking vessel for their posts. Some of the older boats are a bit banged up from lock passages, a testament to the “no license or experience required” policy of Le Boat.

We’re already browsing Le Boat’s itineraries: Italy, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, England, the Netherlands or Canada for our next charter adventure.

PHOTOS BY GREG BURKE

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Croatia's Coastline & Wine
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Croatia's Castles | April Winship

“WOW!” WAS ALL I COULD COME UP WITH when my neighbor asked, “So, how was Croatia?” I simply ran out of adjectives to express the beauty and allure of this country. With its unique combination of history, culture, cuisine, friendly locals, rugged mountains, long coastline and crystalline blue waters, not to mention hosting a world-class boating scene, it’s easy to see how Croatia is becoming a popular destination with something to excite everyone.

If you are looking for history, then exploring one of the many Croatian UNESCO World Heritage Sites will quench your passion for the past. Transport yourself back to the 4th century AD with a stroll through the remnants of a Roman emperor’s palace. Wander through one of the best-preserved Roman coliseums in the world, and you can almost hear gladiators’ swords clashing against wooden shields.

Croatia’s story is woven together with charming medieval hill towns where regal bell towers seem to pierce the heavens. Climb the ancient tower’s stone steps spiraling to the top and be rewarded with breathtaking vistas. Look straight down past the windows with a line of colorful laundry fluttering in the breeze and on to the delightfully twisty cobblestone streets just wide enough for a donkey cart to pass. Now, centuries later these lanes are lined with enticing artisan shops, gelato stands, and tucked into every bend, a little sidewalk café begging to be discovered.

Ruins of castles and fortresses dot not only the coastline but many of the islands. Standing guard, their thick limestone walls once provided safe haven to the residents within, and now only serve as a testament of a more turbulent time. Walk along the massive stone fortifications and peer down into the moat, and one can almost feel the thunder of horse hooves as knights ride across the drawbridge.

Surround yourself in the art of the ages by stepping inside Croatia’s sacred churches and splendid cathedrals, the architecture spanning the Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque periods.

Seaside Towns in Croatia | April Winship

Although it is possible to stay in a Hilton-style hotel or rent a Mediterranean villa by the sea, you have other options. We chose to immerse ourselves in the medieval world by staying in the heart of the old town centers in family-run studio apartments. Sleeping under a roof that dated back 600 years enriched our Croatia experience while also supporting a local family business. These cozy apartments are refurbished to modern standards and are as comfortable as any four-star hotel.

If you’re a nature lover, Croatia boasts eight national parks. One can hike a lake rim and descent onto a series of wooden boardwalks meandering among turquoise waterfalls giving a unique on-the-water view of Mother Nature’s power or try backpacking through an island forest. However, you do not have to go to a national park to be enveloped in nature, as Croatia is a wonderland anywhere you turn.

If you’re into adrenaline sports, Croatia can provide all you need from bungee jumping to zip lining. For those leaning toward adventure with less heart stopping action, cycling, paddleboarding, sea kayaking or snorkeling are popular choices. My favorite jaunt was an all-day off-road dune buggy ride with a final stop at a local winery for a tour and tasting.

Croatia has a long history in winemaking, and wine tourism is becoming increasingly popular. Croatia cuisine reflects the flavors of central Europe, Italy and the Mediterranean. The coast of the Adriatic Sea is famous for its fish and seafood dishes while the inland menu features hearty meat platters. Sharing a border with Italy, it’s not unusual to be enticed with handmade pasta or even pizza.

Wrapped around all these sensory experiences is the Croatian people. Perhaps it’s due to the mild Mediterranean climate that the locals exude, a version of a “malo po malo” or “little by little” attitude that entices us fast-paced city dwellers to slow down and take in life. Pausing for a wine spritzer or cappuccino at a sidewalk café could last hours, and it’s not only quite all right...it’s expected. As a local told us; “There’s no such thing as coffee to-go in Croatia.”

CRUISING CROATIA’S DRAMATIC SHORELINE

This small country is touted as the number one sailing destination in Europe, and with good reason. Rivaling the West Coast of the United States in length, Croatia’s shores are lined with protected ports and marinas that support a wide range of options for visiting the more than 1,200 islands. So, it’s no wonder that each year many visitors opt to explore Croatia by water.

Croatia's Coastline | April Winship

If your taste leans toward a traditional cruise line, you will find an ample supply of lavish cruise ships capable of hosting more than 3,000 guests making overnight stops at the most popular ports of call.

For those seeking a more intimate experience, it’s increasingly popular to book a cabin on a 20 to 40 passenger luxury yacht. Croatia specializes in these small ship cruise lines, because they can explore tiny islands with hidden coves and access regions of the coast larger ships can’t navigate. Becoming your mobile boutique hotel, these opulent yachts boast the finest service, cuisine, spacious teak sundecks and even jacuzzis to enjoy your final nightcap.

Looking to be captured by the romance of exploring the Adriatic under sail? Then your hot ticket may be booking a cabin on one of the smaller eight to 16 passenger schooners known as gulets. Handcrafted of mahogany, pine and teak, these motor-sailing gulets offer a marvelous blend of modern-day comforts with charms of tradition. Potentially a little more laidback, swimming, sunbathing and just plain relaxing become a favorite pastime of the guests.

If you’re a bit more on the adventurous side, contact one of the many charter boat companies servicing Croatia to reserve your own sailboat or powerboat. Both are available as bareboat or skippered charters. Many choose a local captain to handle the boat and play guide, allowing you to kickback and gain a sense of the culture, all the while discovering his favorite anchorages, villages and local restaurants you would have missed along the way. You just might end the cruise with a new best friend.

If you’re land trekking and want a quick taste of boating life in the Adriatic, wander down to the harbor and book a day cruise from a variety of island tours or dinner cruises offered on small excursion boats.

After a full day of exploring, we often found ourselves joining the locals sitting on the rocky shoreline and hoisting our drinks to yet another magnificent Adriatic sunset.

A WINE LOVER’S SECRET PILGRIMAGE

Grk Wine tasting | April Winship

Ever tasted Grk wine? If not, don’t feel bad. Most people, including wine connoisseurs, have never heard of, much less tasted, Grk “Gerk” wine. This Holy Grail of wines is one of the more elusive vinos in the world that ironically enjoys an almost cult-like following in Croatia.

Among wine specialists, there is no consensus whether this peculiar three letter name comes from the wine’s taste (to locals, Grk translates to bitter) or the origins of the first grapes brought to this area by the Greeks, which is also Grk in Croatian.

Around the 3rd century BC, ancient Greeks settled just off the coast of what is now mainland Croatia to a small island called Korčula bringing their precious vines. The southern slopes provided what Grk likes the most: excellent sandy soil and temperature stability under the influence of the surrounding sea. Vines enjoy sunny days, and locals swear that the grapes also benefit from the added reflection of the sun both off the water and the rocky hillsides behind.

These factors seem to be the sweet spot for cultivating this rare variety; however, the precious microclimate only exists in less than 100 acres of coastal land, which is the entirety of all the Grk planted in the world. Cultivation on other islands or in other parts of the country and the world have failed for the most part, making this one of the rarest grapes and categorized as “almost endangered” by the State Institute for Nature Protection.

To make matters worse, Grk is among the 1% of grape varieties in the world that cannot self-pollinate. Because Grk has only female flowers, it is always planted with the male grape vine nearby to enable pollination. This additional complication also hampers the desire to upscale commercial production.

Limited in production, it’s rare to see Grk wine served or sold outside Korčula. So, the best chance to savor this wine is to visit the handful of family wineries producing Grk. During summer when Korčula welcomes a massive influx of tourists, almost the entire production of Grk wine can be consumed within a season.

MEET ME AT THE WINERY

April Wine Tasting

Time to start my Grk quest. I took the two-hour ferry ride to the island of Korčula, and a short bus ride left me within walking distance of three family wineries. Confession: I had planned to visit all three wineries, but after I got settled into my wine sampling accompanied by a delectable charcuterie board, I began easing into island time and whiling away the afternoon at just one winery.

A tour of the production was accomplished practically from my seat overlooking the vineyards. I did walk over to view the wine cellar, which had enough room to house only eight wine barrels. These are tiny boutique wineries, and the labor of love that goes into making this wine is evident. I asked the owner if they bottled their wine to sell or import off the island. Looking at me quizzically, he replied that it was for sale only for individuals that came to visit the winery, and they sold out each year.

But was it good? As more of a full-bodied red wine lover, I didn’t know what to expect when he poured this pale golden wine. It was fabulous. It displayed an astounding depth and complexity I usually do not associate with white wine. The taste and texture were dry with hints of pine, citrus and saltiness leaving a subtle touch of tartness or bitterness at the finish.

I left the winery feeling my quest was accomplished. I smiled knowing that the bottle of Grk swaying in my backpack wasn’t going to make it back to the United States in my carry-on luggage, so I’d just have to enjoy it here. Now I have one more reason to return.

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FAQ About Doing the Great Loop
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Tim and Kate

My husband, Tim, and I spent most of 2021 and part of 2022 completing the Great Loop on our 31-foot Camano trawler, Sweet Day. One of the most unexpected and best parts of the trip was the opportunity to share our experience with friends and family. Guests stayed overnight, family members joined us for a day cruise, and generous friends brought over meals when we passed through their hometowns. For those who couldn’t experience Sweet Day physically, we shared our journey through our blog and Instagram, and caught up with stories when we got together off the boat.

Boaters who are familiar with liveaboard life know there is no shortage of questions that curious people ask about a nautical lifestyle. Those who are exploring this way of life may feel like there is no end to the questions you could ask.

Below is a compilation of the most common questions we posed to us about our year doing the Great Loop and living full-time on Sweet Day. Hopefully the responses will get you ready for your adventures on this incomparable waterway.

WHAT IS THE GREAT LOOP?

The Great Loop is a 6,000+ mile “loop” around the eastern U.S. and Canadian waterways. The journey takes about a year, if done consecutively, and covers 15+ states and two countries, depending on your route. A few hundred “loopers” complete the journey each year, some doing it all at once, and others covering segments year by year. Loopers plan their journey traveling by seasons to avoid hurricanes in the South and tough winters up North. The America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association (AGLCA) is the resource for all things related to the Loop, and we highly encourage checking them out when planning your trip.

Kate's AGLCA Flag on her boat

WHAT DOES THE FLAG MEAN ON THE BOW OF YOUR BOAT?

If you are currently looping for the first time, it is traditional to fly a white AGLCA burgee or “flag.” Once you complete the loop, it is customary to replace your white burgee with a gold AGLCA burgee to indicate to other boaters that you already completed the full loop. Those who have done the loop more than once fly a platinum burgee. All burgees can be ordered from the AGLCA website. It’s a great way to easily spot and meet other loopers.

HOW DO YOU MEET OTHER LOOPERS?

Since many of us on the loop travel the same segments of the trip at the same time, it is common to see loopers at a dock, anchorage or cruising by. The AGLCA burgee makes it easy to spot cruisers on the journey, and a lot of loopers also use the Nebo app, which shows where other loopers are physically located, so you can message each other. Sometimes we travel a few days with the same boats; others you may see one day and then meet up again a few weeks later.

DID YOU GET STUCK IN BAD WEATHER?

Having a flexible schedule and keeping a close eye on the weather kept us mostly out of uncomfortable waters. We used services such as Windy, AccuWeather, and NOAA to anticipate wind speeds and wave heights. We tried to only cruise when waves were under three feet, although twice we found ourselves in five+ foot waves (once on the Chesapeake heading to Annapolis and another heading to Presque Isle, MI, on Lake Huron), because our final destination happened to be closer than trying to find an alternative place of refuge. We also encountered strong wind while at anchor and tied up to docks, especially when the wind was going against the tide outside Savannah. By staying vigilant about our lines and anchor holding, we luckily were never in any danger. They say the boat can handle more than the captain, and thankfully the only thing we ever lost due to weather was a few hours of sleep.

Kate and Tim enjoying the Superbowl from their deck

DID YOU SLEEP ON THE BOAT EVERY NIGHT?

Our trawler had a v-berth with enough room for us to sleep comfortably. Often when we were near friends and family, they would offer for us to stay on land. Sometimes we took them up on it, but we preferred to stay on Sweet Day. Just like a land house, Sweet Day had all our comforts of home (because it was our home), and anytime we didn’t have to pack a bag was a plus.

WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT FOOD?

We ate about 75% of our meals on the boat using our tiny kitchen equipped with a small oven, three-burner stove, microwave, fridge and some pantry space. We ate out if we found a must-see place or were exhausted from a long day and not in the mood to cook. But often we were not close to a restaurant and had to be creative with what was in our pantry. We went to a grocery store two to three times a week by bike and would get enough fresh food for about three dinners (and snacks for lunches) but were limited by what we could carry and store in our boat. Because we didn’t have space for a ton of food, and sometimes our meals were whatever we had on board, so we wasted a lot less food than when living on land.

WHAT WERE YOUR FAVORITE PARTS OF THE TRIP?

We get this question all the time, and it’s still challenging to answer. Each part of the trip (inland rivers, Gulf of Mexico, Intracoastal Waterway, Chesapeake Bay, Delaware and Hudson Rivers, Erie Canal, Great Lakes) posed their unique challenges, breathtaking scenery, regional cuisine and character. The loop has too many special places to mark our favorites as each place we stopped shaped our journey, whether it was having a conversation with a dock hand to enjoying a locally made beer, to attending a community BBQ. Our country’s waterways are beautiful and a critical part of our infrastructure, and the life that is built around them is always worth experiencing.

Kate and Family on their boat

DID YOU EVER GET SICK OF EACH OTHER?

Mostly no, but sometimes we were very aware we were living together on a 31-foot boat. We learned communication is key and ultimately felt very fortunate to be on this journey together. Before the trip, we heard about the “80/80 Marriage,” which is the concept that spouses should not try to ensure each is doing their fair share (or 50/50), but each should aim to do 80%. This mindset helped a lot. At night lying in bed, I may say, “I forgot to turn off the water pump. Tim, can you do an 80 for me and get up and turn it off?” Or Tim would comment, “Kate, you really pulled an 80 on cooking dinner and doing the dishes.” We couldn’t imagine doing this trip with anyone else.

WHO WAS THE CAPTAIN?

We consider us both the captain. While we both have our strengths, each of us was involved in almost every aspect of the boat. We both drove, troubleshot boat problems, navigated, planned routes, grocery shopped, cleaned and so on. From a safety standpoint, it was important both of us could take on responsibilities should something happen to the other. This was our journey, and it was vital to us that we both were involved in decisions and operations that made this adventure possible.

Article and photos by Kate Carney

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