Balmy days along Croatian Riviera
I hope you are doing very well. Attached is an article that appeared in
yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle. So great to see so much positive press
on Croatia. All my American friends are going. This was a 4 page spread
with large color pictures. On the front page of the Sunday travel section.
You might want to add this link to your web site for other's around the
country to view.
Balmy days along Croatian Riviera
Adriatic isles have flavor of Greece, Italy
John Flinn, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2004
The hiss and gurgle of a cappuccino machine drowns out the drone of the engines as the coastal ferry Marco Polo glides past medieval walled cities and tiny islands crowned with stately monasteries.
On the sun deck, bikinied women rise from their lounge chairs to watch a pod of dolphins surfing in our wake. A warm Mediterranean sun is shining, the turquoise sea is flat as glass, and the entire tableau is as idyllic, serene and postcard-perfect as can be.
So don't be shocked when I tell you we're in Croatia.
For many Americans, the name still conjures disturbing images of ethnic cleansing, unexploded land mines and historic treasures blown apart by artillery shells. But it's been nine years since the last mortar round was fired, and Croatia's exquisite Dalmatian Coast -- which, except for Dubrovnik, was spared major damage -- is rapidly regaining its reputation as the Mediterranean's Next Big Thing.
Tourism is still 30 percent below pre-war levels, but it's expected to catch up in a year or two, or certainly by 2007, when Croatia hopes to join the European Union. Chic-seeking Europeans have been returning by the yacht- load, and hardly a week passes without news that a Hollywood celebrity, international soccer star or British royal plans to buy one of the 1,100 islands dotting the coastline.
Visitors from the United States are still so few, though, that when I had ferry tickets delivered to my hotel in Hvar, the travel agency didn't bother writing my name on the envelope. "Just give it to the American," the delivery boy told the front desk.
Here's what we've been missing: A constellation of sun-drenched Adriatic isles with achingly gorgeous harbor towns, gnarled olive groves, hard-working donkeys, fields of lavender and even those rarest of things in this part of the world, a few white-sand beaches. Oh, and some of the most imposing Roman architecture still standing.
The landscape is vaguely Greek, the food definitely Italian and the ambience in the palm-shaded cafes slightly reminiscent of the Côte d'Azur. The visitors are mostly German, French and British, more or less in that order, and their faces have one thing in common: smug grins from having gotten there before the tourist hordes.
Recently I spent 10 days island-hopping along the Croatian Riviera, as it's increasingly called, on the coastal ferries between Dubrovnik and Split. The traveling was easier than I'd expected. Ferries were clean, modern, surprisingly cheap and spot-on punctual (although they don't run on a full schedule until June 1, which I discovered the hard way.) Despite what the guidebooks said, just about everyone I met along the coast spoke English. This part of Croatia felt more like the easternmost outpost of Western Europe, which it keenly aspires to be, than the westernmost reach of Eastern Europe.
An island squared
Two hours up the coast from Dubrovnik is an island, and on the island is a lake, and in the lake is an island. I searched all over this smaller island for a pond, preferably with a tiny island in it, but had to settle for an 12th century Benedictine monastery.
Mljet, the main island (pronounced mill-YET), is the greenest, most tranquil, most environmentally protected isle in the Adriatic: Three-quarters of it is covered by a deliciously fragrant forest of oak and Aleppo pine. The entire western half, where you find the island-on-an-island, is a national park.
According to local legend, Mljet is Homer's island of Ogygia, where the beautiful goddess Calypso kept Ulysses as her lover for seven years as he tried to return home from the Trojan War. Ask anyone, and they'll give you directions to "Ulysses' Cave," where the Greek hero supposedly spent his days gazing longingly out to sea.
Local lore also has it that the apostle Paul was shipwrecked here on his way to Rome. (This, it must be pointed out, is at least the third Mediterranean island I've visited that makes this claim. Either someone is being inventive, or Paul was one guy you did not want to get into a boat with.)
Most people visit Mljet as a day trip from Korcula or Dubrovnik, and it can become temporarily crowded as the tour boats disgorge their groups. It's worth spending at least one night on Mljet to savor the sound of birdsong along the cool forest paths and to visit Sveta Marija, the island-on-an-island, when it's not teeming with tourists. There's only one hotel, with a number of private rooms for rent, called sobes. Bus service is limited. A lot of overnighters rent comically small cars called Mini Brums, which look like they escaped from a child's amusement park ride.
Your national park entrance fee covers the cost of the boat out to Sveta Marija, but I rented a kayak and paddled across the milky blue lake myself, detouring a few times to investigate intriguing coves and beaches.
Sveta Marija ("Island of St. Mary") is home to a Benedictine monastery, which was built in Romanesque style and given a Renaissance-style face lift in the 16th century. Abandoned by the monks in 1869, the monastery building now houses a restaurant. According to one news report, Britain's Prince Charles has expressed interest in adding the place to his real estate portfolio.
Because I arrived in Croatia a week before the ferries began their full summer schedule, my itinerary forced me to omit the island of Korcula. This broke my heart during the 40 minutes I spent docked there aboard the ferry. A miniature Dubrovnik, its main town is a medieval grid of streets and buildings made of square-cut limestone. It looked romantic as all get-out. If I'm ever in this part of the world again, I'll make a special point of going there.
Hvar from home
The island of Hvar, where million-dollar yachts crowd the fishing boats out of the harbor, and where impossibly fashionable, ridiculously tanned Europeans stroll the waterfront in their gold chains, is well on its way to becoming the Mykonos of the Adriatic. A little to my surprise, I quite liked the place.
With facades of faded mustard and peeling tangerine, the ornate hotels and homes lining the harbor in Hvar Town are faintly reminiscent of Venice, which once ruled the island. The main square, Trg Sveti Stjepana, a pocket- sized Piazza San Marco with seagulls instead of pigeons, is paved with marble flagstone polished to an alarmingly slippery sheen. In one corner is the handsome Arsenal, which once served as a repair station for Venetian galleons; the Venetians called it "the most beautiful and most useful building in the whole of Dalmatia." It now houses souvenir shops and a small theater.
The scent of lavender wafts lightly through town from the little stands selling dried leaves, soap and other products. The hillsides are normally carpeted with lavender in spring and early summer, but a fire last year scorched most of it, and it is expected to be a year or two before it all grows back. These days, most of the lavender sold on Hvar has to be imported.
Partly hidden behind a gracious, 16th century loggia, the Hotel Palace, where I stayed, is a boxy, modern hotel with Tito-era ambience and decor. But it's right in the center of the action. I could throw my shutters open in the morning and look straight down on the sloops, schooners and fishing skiffs bobbing in the harbor. This location lost a bit of its romance at 2 a.m., though, as I covered my head with my pillow to muffle the throb of the Euro- pop blaring from the waterfront clubs.
There are, if you need them, a number of diversions. You can climb the steep, twisting streets, as I did, to the hilltop castle called Fortress Spanjol for sweeping views of the town and offshore islands. Or you could hire an off-duty fisherman to ferry you over to the nearby islands of Jerolim and Marinkovic, with their nude beaches, which I did not.
More fun, though, was wandering the cool, narrow, car-free streets in the late afternoon before settling into an outdoor cafe along the harbor for some serious people-watching. I'd order a glass of bijelo vino (white wine) and sometimes a plate of the local prosciutto, known as prsut to the vowel-stingy Croats, and take in the passing parade of beautiful people.
Splendor of Split
Around 300 A.D., when the Roman emperor Diocletian grew bored with feeding Christians to the lions, he put an army of slaves to work building a vast and magnificent palace for himself on the distant shore of the Adriatic, near the village of his birth. Today Diocletian's fortified retirement home, large portions of which are still intact, is the historic downtown of Split, the second-largest city in Croatia. About 3,000 people live in the 220 buildings within the old palace walls; the whole thing is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Instead of toppled columns and outlines of brick foundations, you see standing Roman buildings that look more or less as they did in Diocletian's day. Parts of the city were modified during the Middle Ages, but it's possible to stroll the colonnaded streets and come upon spots that require only a little imagination to hear the rustle of togas.
My favorite was the little piazza that occupies the peristyle, the ceremonial courtyard outside the imperial residence. On one side, behind a row of six granite columns, an Egyptian sphinx and a medieval belfry, is Diocletian's octagonal mausoleum, with its chiseled Latin inscriptions. To the front is the grand protiron, the ornate entrance where the retired emperor, flanked by guards and dressed in swanky silk, would make his ceremonial approach before a crowd prostrated on the very granite floor upon which my cafe chair rested.
As the waiter set down a glass of bijelo vino on my table and the setting sun warmed the polished stone, I fully understand why the Roman emperor, who had his pick of pretty much anywhere in Western world, chose to live out his days in the place that 1,700 years later would later come to be known as the Croatian Riviera.
If you go The unit of currency is the Croatian kuna (abbreviated KN in Croatia, HRK in foreign exchange).
Lufthansa, code-sharing with United Airlines, flies from San Francisco to Zagreb, via Munich. Croatia Airlines (www.croatiaairlines.hr ) flies from Zagreb to Dubrovnik and Split several times a day. It and various European airlines also fly from London and other major European cities to Dubrovnik in summer.
Jadrolinija (www.jadrolinija.hr) operates large car ferries and smaller passenger-only ferries along the Dalmatian Coast, connecting most islands in the summer. Smaller companies such as Sem Marina (www.sem-marina.hr) run faster, pricier catamarans and hydrofoils. Ask at your hotel.
Where to stay
Most tourist hotels are bland, uninspiring Tito-era places that are generally clean and offer large but not always delicious breakfast buffets. Service varies. Expect to pay roughly $100 US a night. On stays of less than three nights, rates often go up 30 percent. Your other option is sobes, private rooms for rent. Occasionally you can find these on the Web, but more often the owners just meet arriving ferries and buses and try to strike deals. Travelers I talked to paid anywhere from $15 to $60 a night, and most were quite happy with their accommodations.
On Mljet, there's only one hotel, the Hotel Odisej (011-385-20-744-022, www.hotelodisej.hr ), with a good location and pleasant staff. Summer rates are about 216 KN (about $36 US) per person per night in a double room, with various taxes and national park fees that bring the total up to about $90 a night for a couple.
On Hvar, I stayed at the Hotel Palace (011-385-21-741-966; www.suncanihvar.hr ), where doubles in summer run from 240-278 KN ($40-$46 US) per person per night for a double, plus the 30 percent penalty for staying fewer than three nights.
In Split, I splurged at the very nice Hotel Park (011-385-21-406-400, www.hotelpark-split.hr), a 10-minute walk from the Old Town. Summer rates are 960 KN ($160 US) per night for a double.
Where to eat
Most mid-priced food is generic Italian tourist-menu fare, with an emphasis on seafood -- not bad, but generally lackluster. Pizza abounds, some of it quite decent. On Hvar, Gostionica Luna (local phone, 21-741400), on a street one block uphill from the main square, offers hip decor and a big jump in quality from the tourist places around the harbor for not much more money. Dinner for two with wine, 290 KN ($48.50 US).
In Split, Restaurant Stellon (www.stellon-split.com), in the restaurant-and-club complex next to Bacvice Beach, near the Hotel Park, has great sunset views and the best pizza I had in Croatia. Pizza and salads for two with wine, 150 KN ($25 US).
What to do
On Mljet, double kayaks and single bikes rent for 20 KN ($3.35 US) per hour. Rent them next to the dock on Veliko Jezero (the big lake), where you catch the boat to the small island.
For more information
Croatian National Tourist Board, 350 Fifth Ave., Suite 4003, New York, NY10118. (800) 829-4416 or (212) 279-8672; us.croatia.hr.
E-mail Executive Travel Editor John Flinn firstname.lastname@example.org .