With its dazzling coast and historic cities, the former Yugoslav republic is gaining a reputation to rival the Riviera. Rosemary Behan finds out if it is deserved
Croatia has been billed, with equal vapidity, as the "hottest new destination for 2003", "the new Med" and "the new Côte d'Azur". Celebrities are flocking there, we are led to believe, abandoning Tuscany and St Tropez faster than you can say Hvar, Korcula and Brac. Even Princess Caroline of Monaco is reported to be buying an island in the area (prices start at £1 million).
The country promises 1,000 miles of unspoilt coastline, some of Europe's clearest seas, a string of ancient walled cities and islands covered with olive groves, lemon trees and lavender, but is Croatia all it is cracked up to be? After all the hype, I was keen to find out.
When we boarded our boat in Trogir 15 minutes after stepping off the two-hour flight from London, things already looked promising. A vast flotilla of gigantic, shiny yachts from Barbados had moored next to our 97-year-old, 20-berth, wooden motor cruiser. It was named Bozidar, meaning "God's gift" (a popular name for boys in Croatia, apparently). I was sailing with a diverse group of 19 people, not the sort you would run into at the Caves du Roy in St Tropez but travel stalwarts, some of whom had visited Croatia up to 30 years ago, when the area first became popular with Britons. They knew that Croatia is not a "new" destination - some 500,000 British holidaymakers used to visit the coast of the former Yugoslavia every year before the civil war in the early 1990s. And in Trogir you can see immediately why Croatia has been able to emerge from almost a decade of conflict as a new country with new-found popularity.
Although fighting had ruined the economy of what had once been the richest of Yugoslavia's six republics, cut and destroyed its main railway lines and roads and seen oil pipelines, refineries, power stations and water supplies blown up or put out of action, Croatia emerged with the lion's share of Yugoslavia's coastline, which, with the exception of shelling in Dubrovnik and Split, escaped virtually unscathed.
Around 300,000 Croats fled westwards during the war to take refuge on the Adriatic islands, its resorts abandoned by holidaymakers. Now they have gone home and the tourists are returning. The Croatian Tourist Board is expecting some 135,000 British holidaymakers this year, nearly 40 per cent more than 2000. It is still a far cry from pre-war levels, but promising for a country that is trying to reinvent itself as an upmarket destination, having catered mainly to package holidaymakers in the 1970s and '80s.
Trogir's ancient and compact maze of mainly medieval streets is encapsulated within 15th-century city walls, but although it was a declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997, the town is, like most on the Croatian coast, gorgeously lived in. With washing hanging out of windows above bookshops in Gothic yards, exquisitely situated restaurants - some alfresco in the shells of derelict Renaissance houses - and the trendy bars and internet cafes in its narrow lanes, Trogir was one of my favourites, partly because, as I had heard so little about it, it came as such a surprise.
While Croatia may be short of exclusive hotels, it is a haven for yachties. Unlike the Côte d'Azur, Dalmatia has more than 1,000 islands, 500 ports and 48 marinas, and natural harbours and bays abound. The close proximity of the islands to each other - formed when the rising sea level drowned valleys along the coastline - also makes the area easily navigable.
From Trogir, at night, we sailed past the dark outline of Brac, Dalmatia's largest island, inhaling the smell of thyme and staring up at the stars. An hour later we arrived at Stomorska, a small harbour backed by an exquisite Renaissance village on a gently rolling hill on the island of Solta, where we moored for the night.
The following morning, we dropped anchor in a quiet bay next to Hvar for "lunch and swimming", the central pastimes of each day. The water was as blue and clear as I have seen anywhere - and certainly much cleaner than most of the Med. After we had swum, snorkled and sunbathed to our hearts' content, we set off again for Vis, the farthest offshore of Croatia's inhabited Adriatic islands.
It was a military base and closed to foreigners until 1989, and retains a sedate, sleepy feel. Its quiet atmosphere is a direct result of the collapse of the local population when the island was used as an Allied base during the Second World War: all men between the ages of 15 and 50 were called up by the Partisans, while women, children and the elderly were evacuated to a tent-camp in British-controlled Egypt.
We moored at Vis Town, an attractive medley of fine 16th-century Venetian houses, municipal buildings and deserted cobbled streets, and went in search of the island's "famous" wines. We were disappointed by the poor, watery red Viski plavac, and the unremarkable white Vugava. But while the wine failed to live up to French standards, the food was just as good and much cheaper. There was as good a variety of seafood as in France, Spain, Turkey or Greece. The same went for the wide selection of pasta and pizza dishes. None cost more than £4 and they were just as palatable as anything on the Côte d'Azur. Coffees cost no more than 50p and ice-creams 40p.
From Vis we set sail for the Blue Cave, an enchanting grotto on the islet of Bisevo, which can only be reached by boat. Once inside the cave, sunlight shining through the water from outside turns the sea an incandescent blue, with visibility to a deph of 50ft.
The islands themselves come in assorted shapes and sizes - from tiny flat islets to others more than 10 miles long - but their appearance is fairly uniform, consisting mostly of limestone outcrops and scrubland. They were not especially beautiful, but there was much to be said for the quiet of an environment unpolluted by huge resorts.
One of the reasons Croatia remains relatively undeveloped is the complete absence of sandy beaches. What beaches it does have are shingle, and small at that. This was not a major concern to us as we could jump straight off our boat, but at the major holiday centres - Korcula, Hvar and Brac - families were crowded onto narrow pebble beaches and strips of rock. The water, however, was divine, and crystal clear. The combination of rocks and seclusion also means that Croatia is popular with nudists - several times we rounded a corner into a quiet cove to find naked bathers perched uncomfortably by the water's edge.
Our next stop was Korcula Town, a much-hyped medieval ensemble clustered on the top of an oval promontory jutting into the sea. The best thing about Korcula, which had been variously described to me as the "jewel of Dalmatia", a "miniature Dubrovnik" and a "photographer's dream", was the approach from the water, which was truly enchanting. Sixteenth-century defensive towers rise dramatically from the sea, and the town's cluster of houses appears to form an island of its own. Inside the town, which plays on an extremely debatable claim to be the birthplace of Marco Polo, we found unfriendly locals looking to cash in on the boom in tourists. Its harbour was plain and unnattractive, and had too many of the people - rich, brash and over-tanned - that are so hard to avoid on the French Riviera.
The town had just two or three fashionable bars, which catered to a young, hip crowd, but the atmosphere was refreshingly laid-back and uncrowded. Korcula Town also had undeniably pretty architecture, including a medieval cathedral, city walls with towers, and streets paved with polished marble slabs. And like most of the town centres, it was car-free.
After Korcula we set sail for island of Mljet, a thin strip of land some 20 miles long and less than two miles wide containing two salt-water lakes and forming a national park.
Mljet was my favourite place - a large and rare expanse of woodland bordered the two lakes, the larger of which contained a tiny island housing a 12th-century Benedictine monastery. After kayaking the length of the two lakes, we cycled round them, breathing in the thick smell of pinewood in perfect weather. When we came to the place where the sea feeds into the larger of the two lakes, we found an exhileratingly clear and deep bathing spot where the water was the bluest and clearest any of us had ever seen - and it was deserted.
If Mljet was my favourite natural place in Croatia, Hvar was my favourite town. A well-preserved car-free haven of Venetian architecture, with an exquisite piazza reminiscent of Venice itself, Hvar is the place to be. Stylish yachts with names such as Slipstream and Passion Four lined the harbour (there was a queue just to get into it), lending the town a certain glamour, and the town centre features a large number of fashionable and atmospheric restaurants. There was a wonderfully young, relaxed air, and, with international DJs playing at the town's clubs throughout the summer, Hvar was the only Croatian town hip enough to match the South of France.
Our last port of call was Split, which, although Croatia's second-largest city, also has a very Mediterranean feel, its wide boulevards filled with the optimisim of international youth. The highlight, Diocletian's Palace, built when the Roman emperor abdicated in AD305, is a breathtaking hotchpotch of architectural styles, including Roman, medieval and Renaissance. As in Trogir, the fact that the palace is a Unesco site has not stifled the life of the place - some 3,000 people live within its confines and shops, bars and restaurants hum with excitement.
If it were a choice between the Côte d'Azur and Croatia, Croatia would win hands down - not because it is the same, but because it is so different - cheaper, much less crowded, more interesting and, above all, more relaxing. If I wanted a beach holiday, however, I would go elsewhere.
Explore Worldwide (01252 760000; www.exploreworldwide.com) has a Dalmatian Island Cruise (regular departures May-Sept) from £629 per person. The price includes flights from Gatwick (regional connections from £79), transfers, seven nights' half board in twin cabins and an Explore tour leader.
Other companies that offer holidays to Croatia include Hidden Croatia (020 7736 6066; www.hiddencroatia.com), which organises a range of tailor-made trips from around £500 for seven days, including flights. It also offers flight-only arrangements to Dubrovnik (from £169 in August, including taxes) and Rijeka (from £99, including tax) on Krk island.
Simply Croatia (020 8541 2214, www.simplytravel.co.uk) and Holiday Options (0870 013 0450; >a href="http://www.holidayoptions.co.uk">www.holidayoptions.co.uk) offer flight-only deals and self-catering and small-hotel options across the country. Villas and apartments are available through Croatian Villas (020 8368 9978; www.croatianvillas.com).