Of all the activities in which Cailee and I partook on the Island of Mljet, Croatia, hiking to Odysseus Cave was my favorite, and that’s saying something.
Let me start off by saying that the entire island of Mljet is absolutely stunning. Compared to busier centres we visited such as Split, Zagreb, Hvar, and Dubrovnik, it was an absolute oasis on the Adriatic. Think turquoise waters, palm trees, hiking, friendly locals, boat rides, rose on patios, and space to have quiet alone time.
Guys, I fell for this place HARD.
Also, of all the sites we saw in Croatia, I’d have to say Mljet was the most off the beaten trail. Despite there being an absolutely gorgeous national park that takes up much of the Island, there is no mass tourism infrastructure. And for that, it is perfect. The towns of Mljet are small, and despite the fact that there aren’t a whole lot of touristy areas, tourism is a huge deal for the people living there.
These tourists are mostly of a certain type. On Mljet, you won’t find many diamond-clad snobs or egocentric partiers. On the contrary, the people who come to Mljet are adventurers; young people looking for authentic Croatia, or leather-skinned sailors docking their boats in the harbor. Our digs for our stay was a second-floor Airbnb apartment with the cutest Croatian family – a couple with two young daughters and a grandma – and the husband worked as a park ranger for Mljet National Park.
Mljet is a place where everybody knows everybody, shop owners and fishermen hang out on the docks together, and locals make friendly conversation with two young Canadian women who arrived just before tourist season.
But enough on Mljet Island for now, as that will be another whole post. Right now, I want to talk specifically about Odysseus Cave, and why experiencing it gave me a rush of adventure.
The Odysseus Cave Legend
So by now you are probably thinking, “wait, Odysseus Cave, that sounds familiar, does it have something to do with Homer’s The Odyssey?” Okay, so you might only be thinking that if you’re a nerd like me, but to answer that question anyway yes, yes it does.
So, as in the poem, legend has it that after surviving a shipwreck, Odysseus found shelter in a cave on the coast of an island. There, he was struck both by the Island’s beauty and by the nymph Calypso. Because of these things (and a bit of kidnapping on Calypso’s part), he stayed here for seven years.
It should be noted that there is also a cave in Malta that bears the same story, so like, make of that what you will. But this cave and Island are definitely beautiful enough to stay for seven years.
The Road to Odysseus Cave
Like with most activities on Mljet, it pays to do some research on how to get to Odysseus Cave beforehand. Oh, and you’re definitely gonna need a car or scooter.
Our Airbnb on Mljet was in a cute little town called Polače. And, lucky for us, about two doors down from our apartment was a car rental place. We literally showed up the morning of, adventure gear in tow, and got the last car on the lot – a cute little orange zipper (that we named Babino) which had a Croatian music cassette stuck in the deck.
Now here’s the thing about getting around Mljet – there is only one major road. If you need a map, it means that you have gone off-roading and, given that the one side of the road is rock face and the other is a drop-off into the sea, good luck with that. With that mental image painted for you, it probably goes without saying that this road can be scary. Cailee and I rarely went faster than 45km/h and when the inevitable big trucks, cars, and school buses came up behind us because we were going so slow, we just waved them on by.
Hiking the Trail
Odysseus Cave is closest to the southern coast village of Babino Polje, and so when you’re driving down the highway, you’re going to want to look out for a grocery store near this town called Tommy. This is SUPER easy to find as it’s the only supermarket on the road. Cailee and I used this place to stock up on some snacks and water before we started hiking.
To get to the entrance of the trail, hike up the highway a few minutes the way you came until you come to a sign pointing to Odysseus cave. The entrance itself is pretty nondescript, so if it looks like the only way in is to barrel down the side of the hill on a trail that maybe three people have gone down in the past 10 years, you’re on the right track.
From the road, it took Cailee and I around an hour to get to the coast, and this included snack / water / photo / dying breaks. In response to the last item of that list, I should say that although this isn’t the toughest hike ever, it certainly isn’t the easiest. In a lot of places, there are sharp, jagged rocks that you’ll have to maneuver around, slopes so steep that you will slide down them on your butt, and some steep cliffs to peer down to boot. Basically, leave the kids and stroller at home.
Also, when we initially researched this hike, we found some info online that said it should only take about 20 minutes from entrance to cliff. If you find this kind of information too, know that it is a bold-faced lie. That is, unless you’re as fit as the kind of people who climb the stairs to the CN Tower in 5 minutes flat.
Anyway, after hiking for a while, you’ll find yourself near the cliff, and in order to get to the entrance of the cave, you’ll pass through a hotel. Yes, you read that right, a hotel. It’s called the Hotel Penelopa (named after Odysseus’ wife, though I’m not sure if you can actually stay here), and they do sell drinks there at the Bar Calypso, in case you fancy a stop.
All of this makes the site sound super touristy, but I assure you, compared to the rest of Croatia it is not. This hotel is essentially a rugged little oasis by the sea consisting of a few pieces of wood slapped together and some hammocks blowing in the breeze. You will probably meet it’s owner on the way, as we did, while he smokes marijuana and casually nods that you are indeed headed in your intended direction.
From the hotel, the edge of the cliff is no more than 3 minute walk.
What to Expect at Odysseus Cave
After that walk from the hotel, you’ll find yourself on a smooth-ish rock face with no other indication you’re in the right place but a rope attached to a metal rod sticking out of the rock. This rope is so that you can pull yourself back up on the rock when you’re done swimming, because yes, you’re about to jump into the water.
There is no classy way to do this. The rock isn’t super high from the water’s surface, but it’s high enough that you can’t just gracefully slip into it. You’ll fling yourself, the water will be cold, and if you lack the forethought such as Cailee and I, you won’t bring a life jacket. Luckily, the water is salty enough that you will be relatively buoyant, and you’ll find it fairly easy to swim unassisted in the open water (assuming you know how to swim that is, if you don’t THEN DO NOT COME HERE.)
Once you’re in the water, you swim. You swim into the cave with water crashing into the rocks all around you, not really knowing what you’re in for as you go deeper into the dark cave. Not knowing how deep the water is nor how long it will take you to get inside.
This is why I’m not posting a video of the cave, of which there are many on Youtube. Because not knowing is so much better.
What I will tell you about it though is that once you reach the inside of the cave, there is a place for you to rest and take a break before you head back. There will be little fishies and beautiful pink rock on which to lounge. All you will hear is the sound of water crashing into rock, bats squeaking overhead, and the echo of your own voice.
Like Odysseus, you will be mystified.
While we were there, we ran into a pair of girls around our age hiking back from the cave, a supremely fit young man carrying lumber presumably to the hotel, and an older couple who got to the cave just as we were swimming away.
Other than that, we had this experience all to ourselves.