When I heard about the annual Donkey Racing Festival in Sali, Croatia, I just knew I had to see it for myself. Sali is a tiny town on the island of Dugi Otok, an easy ferry ride from the city of Zadar. The festival is a three-day affair with music and games and athletic competitions that culminates with the actual donkey race on the final evening. That was the part I wanted to see.
There are three ferries scheduled to Sali on Sunday, and because the donkey race is scheduled to start at 6:00 PM, this means I need to take the 8:00 AM ferry. It’s going to be a long day. In the spirit of the spontaneity of my entire trip, I’ve researched nothing and planned nothing about Dugi Otok, so my first stop is to the tourism office. About 25 other people have the same idea ahead of me and by the time it gets to my turn, the poor girl is frazzled. Then I learn I’ve been waiting at the tourist agency not the tourist bureau. My bad. All she can do is book excursions, not give out information. She sends me down the street to the right place and I spend the next 30 minutes with a lovely lady that unfortunately most visitors don’t realize they should spend time with. I tell her I have nine hours to kill before the donkey races, and she shows me a map of the island and explains the various options.
I’m dying for a massage, I say, so she calls a place she knows in the next town over. Sorry, she says, closed on Sundays. What about renting a kayak? She calls Mate Frka, who rents kayaks, but he’s all sold out. How about a scooter, I ask? Sorry, all taken. A trip to Kornati Islands? Snorkeling at Telasica Park? Nope, those have to be booked a day in advance.
While we’re talking, we hear the sound of music…Donkey Music, to be precise. Each year, on the morning of the races, the band marches through the streets of town waking everyone up with Donkey Music. It’s a teaser for what’s to come later in the day.
After the parade I head up over the hill to the other side of town where a beach is waiting. Tourism lady has tipped me off that the main beach gets pretty crowded but if I hang a left I should be able to find a more private spot. She’s not kidding. By mid-day, every inch of the concrete seawall that serves as a beach is covered with beach towels and families and cannonballing kids. I’m watching this from 100 meters away on a nice, flat rock in the shade, with easy access to the clear blue waters of a protected bay. There’s a boat tied off to a tree next to me with a man sleeping inside, and although we inhabit the same space for more than eight hours, not a word passes between us. Sweet seclusion!
Dugi Otok strikes me as a cool island to explore. It’s not all that crowded, but it’s small and has few resources, so next time I will plan in advance if it’s high season and reserve some excursions. The Donkey Race itself, well, that’s a different story entirely.