BY day three of my journey along the Adriatic coast, I'd established a morning routine. After waking up to the comforting sound of the boat setting off, it was coffee, toast, a friendly chat with fellow 'sailors', then a couple of hours reclining in the sun looking out to the dramatic Dalmatian mountains, green islands and the twinkling turquoise sea.
There is no better way to explore the coastline of Croatia and its beautiful islands than on an Adriatic cruise.
Arriving at Split Airport, we took a transfer bus to the port where we boarded Karizma, a shiny new cruise boat. A welcome dinner allowed us to meet other passengers, mostly Australians, Scandinavians and Brits. The atmosphere on board was relaxed and friendly - by the end of the week we felt like a little family.
Breakfast and lunch was included on board, (breakfast was a buffet, lunch a four-course affair, with local meat, fish and seafood dishes, risotto, pasta, soup, salads and cakes), then each afternoon the boat moored at destinations along the coast, mostly islands, giving us plenty of time to explore. Along the way we sunbathed on the spacious sun deck, on loungers and in a hot tub, and enjoyed regular swim stops in the clear, warm sea.
Our first stop was the island of Brac, where we wandered around Postira, a pretty market town with distinctive white stone architecture, then it was on to Makarsa, a cosmopolitan seaside town on the mainland. At the end of the promenade we discovered the Deep bar, built into the stone of a cliff, where we enjoyed a beer with our feet practically in the sea. A popular family resort, Makarsa also has lively nightlife.
Next day, after a lazy morning on the sun deck, we moored at Korcula, a delightful island and probably my favourite place on the trip. Known as "Little Dubrovnik", it's a walled medieval city with typical Dalmatian features of round defensive towers and red-roofed houses. Marco Polo is said to have lived here - I gave the museum a miss, but bought a keyring in his honour - and there's a lovely, relaxed vibe with live street music and waterfront restaurants. A highlight is Massimo, a cocktail bar atop a 15th-century tower, accessed via a wooden ladder. Sipping our Margarita and White Russian, which arrived by pulley, we took in lovely views bathed in early evening light. Go easy on the cocktails - there's only one way down.
Another highlight was Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic. A World Heritage Site, the old walled city is packed with winding streets and stunning architecture. A walking tour took us to such landmarks as St Blaise's Church and the Little Brothers monastery, home to a 14th century (and still operating) pharmacy, where huge lemons grow in the courtyard, behind 900-year-old limestone pillars. Big Onofrio's Fountain spouts fresh water from stone-carved maskerons, and on top of the bell tower, built in 1444, sits a brass clock face where two figures strike the bell every hour.
Dubrovnik was hit heavily in a 1667 earthquake, destroying many Renaissance buildings, and suffered significant damage in the Yugoslav Wars. In 1991 it was besieged by Serb and Montenegrin soldiers, and holes left by heavy shelling are clearly visible in some buildings.
The best way to see Dubrovnik is by walking its ancient city walls. Anyone who watches Game of Thrones, and that includes pretty much everyone, will know that Dubrovnik is King's Landing in the series, and much of the filming takes place there. Game of Thrones tours snake through the city - it's a must-visit for fans.
For a bird's eye views of the peninsula, a cable car reaches hilltop restaurants. It's on my to-do list for the next visit to Dubrovnik I was planning before we'd even returned to the boat.
Next stop was Mljet, a tranquil island covered largely by a national park. The greenest of the Adriatic islands, it's mentioned in Homer's Odyssey. Pine forests surround two saltwater lakes, connected to the sea via canals, and nearby are remains of a second century Roman palace. We took a boat across the larger lake, Veliko Jezero, to a Benedictine monastery island, and later swam in the smaller lake; its saltwater buoyant like a mini Dead Sea. Shoreline paths are popular with cyclists and walkers, and mountain trails lead to views of neighbouring islands.
While a cluster of shops and restaurants cling to Mljet harbour, it's quieter than other islands so a perfect evening to stay on board for the 'Captain's Dinner'. Against a glorious pink sunset, I enjoyed Croatian black risotto followed by sea bass and chocolate tart, then it was cocktails and dancing on board. Great fun.
The following evening we chilled out on Dalmatian hotspot Hvar, known as the "new St Tropez". With hip young things stepping off private yachts into chic waterfront bars, it's quite the upmarket party island - Prince Harry and Beyonce are among the rich and famous who have hung out there - and with ancient landmarks, including a Franciscan monastery and a fort, Hvar Town is great for exploring too.
We dined by the harbour and walked through streets around St Stephen's Square, the warm night air filled with twinkling lights and the sweet aroma of herbs grown and sold on the island.
Our cruise ended back at Split, Dalmatia's largest city. Initially a Greek colony, it became a Venetian city, then part of the Ottoman Empire, the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire before liberation in the 1940s to the state of Croatia.
A must-visit is the fourth century palace built by Roman emperor Diocletian. Construction took 10 years, using limestone from Brac, marble from Greece, and columns and sphinxes from Egypt. Inside the fortress-like exterior, spanning much of the peninsula, is a bustling labyrinth of narrow streets, ancient ruins and 220 buildings, mostly shops, museums, bars and restaurants and apartments - the palace today has a population of 3,000 and it's not unusual to see washing hung out over cobbled streets.
Croatia is one of those places you don't forget. Its natural beauty takes your breath away, and its history and rich cultural heritage is found in each nook and cranny. The coastline is particularly special, with pretty seaside towns and lush, green islands - and it was fabulous to reach it all by boat.
* Jet2holidays offers ‘Exploring the Adriatic Coast’ cruises, starting from from £749 per person (two adults sharing a lower deck cabin on the MS Eden or the MS Ocean) for seven nights half-board accommodation, departing Leeds Bradford Airport on September 24, 2016.
Visit jet2holidays.com/croatian-cruises or call 0800 408 5599.