The beautiful coastline and islands of Croatia are making a comeback as a major summer destination
The beautiful coastline and islands of Croatia are making a comeback as a major summer destination. Fred Mawer reports on this alternative to the mainstream Med
In the late 1980s, the coastline of what was then Yugoslavia attracted nearly half a million British visitors a year. Then came the civil war, in the early 1990s, which all but obliterated tourism.Croatian coast: Europe's unspoilt riviera
Now, with the conflict long over, tourism in Croatia is on a roll. The Balkans are thought of as safe again, and yet at the same time Croatia is perceived as a more adventurous option than tried and tested Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Spain. The Croatian Tourist Board is expecting 135,000 British holidaymakers - nearly 40 per cent more than in 2000, and several tour operators, including Cosmos and Simply Travel, have introduced Croatian programmes this year.
So, what will visitors find when they get there, and does Croatia deserve its renewed popularity?
On the upside, its coastline - more than 3,600 miles long if you take into account its 1,200 islands - is a strong contender for the most beautiful and least spoilt in the Mediterranean. Much of it is fringed by pine woods; the sea is as clear and inviting as anywhere I've ever been; and there has been no new tourist development since the war.
The resorts are special, too. Dubrovnik and the former Venetian ports of Hvar and Rovinj are simply stunning, and traffic is banned from all their centres. The atmosphere is civilised and has a more Italian than east European feel to it. Everyone takes a leisurely passeggiata in the early evening, any self-respecting café serves espressos and 20 flavours of ice cream, and pizzas, pasta and risottos are staples on menus.
I had been warned that Croatian food was lousy. But I found that if I chose my restaurant carefully I could dine as well in Croatia as on the Italian side of the Adriatic. Prices are mostly low: an espresso costs 40p, a pizza £3. But a drinkable bottle of local wine, such as Dinjac, costs £10, and if you eat fish you can easily spend £25 a head on a meal.
But Croatia does have its drawbacks. Most glaringly, it has virtually no sandy beaches. (CROWN op-ed Where have you been, not to see sandy beaches? From the top of my head 20 AMAZING ones) Some resorts have picturesque pebbly and shingly beaches, but you may find that a concrete bathing platform is your only option. Because of this, Croatia has limited appeal for families. It's better suited to couples who are happy to spend as much time pottering about in the towns as on the beach.
Another shortcoming is the quality of hotels. Package-oriented hotels are usually vast, soulless, communist-era dinosaurs, with indoor swimming pools (not what you want in August when there's no beach nearby), unreliable plumbing and poor food (try to avoid half-board packages).
That said, many are being revamped, and I found at least one or two places of character in most of the resorts, including the occasional smart new boutique-style hotel.
Here is a summary of what to expect in the most popular resorts along the Dalmatian coast and on the Istrian Peninsula.
Near the farthermost tip of Hvar island, Hvar town takes some effort to get to. It's worth it. After Dubrovnik, this town - ruled by the Venetians, with a few interruptions, from the early 1300s to the late 1700s - is the most beautiful spot on the Dalmatian coast. Its centrepiece is a vast, rectangular piazza of a square, flanked by a cathedral, Renaissance palaces, a colossal arsenal (upstairs housing a delightful 17th-century theatre) and an inner harbour full of fishing boats. The stone buildings have a grey and golden, almost Cotswold hue, and the square is paved in smooth marble slabs.
To the north, below a hilltop citadel, are lanes lined with tumbledown mansions: look for crumbly coats of arms, and a sculpted pietà awaiting a restorer's hand. From the inner harbour, long quaysides lined with bars and cafés fan out in both directions - ideal spots from which to watch the constant toing and froing of ferries, yachts and fishing boats. All these charms have not gone unnoticed. Hvar is a fashionable place, with several smart restaurants and boutiques, and hordes of flashy Italians in July and August.
In the mornings, boats ferry passengers across to the wooded Pakleni islands, just round the corner from the harbour; their beaches are rocky and pebbly, and popular with naturists. Hvar island is also worth exploring. Much of it is covered in vineyards, olive groves and fields of lavender, and the ports of Stari Grad and Jelsa, though overshadowed by Hvar town, are very pretty.
Where to stay The Hotel Palace is the best of a lacklustre bunch. It's just off the main square overlooking the harbour (expect some noise), and there's a big terrace from which to watch all the goings-on.
However, public areas are gloomy and bedrooms plain.
Where to eat and drink Macondo, on an alley just north of the square, is a good seafood restaurant: knowledgeable staff, delicious shrimp pasta (£7), and recommended mixed platters of grilled fish. Locals regard the square as an outdoor living room, and its cafés are always buzzing. There are also lively drinking spots along the waterfront south of the square, including Carpe Diem.
People come to the resort of Bol because it's next to Zlatni Rat (Golden Cape), Croatia's most famous beach. It looks extraordinary. Banks of shingle and pebbles flank a triangular pine wood, then come together in a yellow tongue poking out into the bluest of waters. Expect crowds in high summer (including nudists on its far bank), when thousands of trippers descend each day on boats from Hvar and other resorts.
Bol itself is over a mile from Zlatni Rat. You can get between the two by boat, tourist train, or on foot - the walk along the paved promenade through the pine forest is lovely, and passes other shingle strands used by windsurfing outfits (this is the main centre in Croatia for the sport).
Cut off from the rest of the island of Brac by a mountain ridge, Bol is a lovely little place. Old stone houses snake along its long, pedestrianised waterfront, past a couple of striking nautical sculptures. Keep going beyond the harbour to reach a 15th-century monastery above a little-frequented shingle beach.
In general, though Brac is rather bleak. There are quarries and fields with piles of rocks everywhere. The island's white stone was used in the construction of Diocletian's Palace in Split, a 45-minute ferry ride from Supetar on the north of the island. The remains of the emperor's retirement home, now interwoven with medieval buildings and modern shops and cafés, are fascinating.
Where to stay Villa Giardino (Bond Tours), a mansion 150 yards inland from Bol's waterfront, has gorgeous gardens filled with statues, and good modern bedrooms with interesting art. The Hotel Kastil, by the harbour, has stylish rooms, but you may be disturbed by live music from its pizzeria. In the woods between Bol and Zlatni Rat are four big package hotels, including the Elaphusa - soulless, but with decent bedrooms.
Where to eat Riva, overlooking the harbour, does good grills, and cuttlefish risottos - a Croatian speciality - for £4.50. There are several more romantic dining spots east of the harbour.
The Makarska Riviera
The resorts along this 40-mile stretch of coastline have none of the charm of those elsewhere in Dalmatia, but they do have long and attractive shingle and pebble beaches. The biggest resort by far is Makarksa, a likeable, vibrant place worth considering if nightclubs and watersports are high on your agenda. (You can also go on guided ascents of the imposing Biokovo mountain range, the highest in Croatia.)
The resort centres on two bays - one backed by a long arc of pine-fringed beach, the other with innumerable cafés and bars facing a busy harbour where fishermen sell their daily catch direct from their boats. The nearby resort of Brela is much smaller, quieter and prettier, with a long pedestrian promenade behind picturesque, pine-shaded beaches.
Where to stay In Makarksa, the Meteor is the most comfortable hotel. Though large and ugly, it has good facilities, and it is right behind the beach. It is, however, next to a building site; no work should be carried out over the summer, but check before booking. A simpler option is the Biokovo, on the harbour front, with acceptable rooms and a popular café. Brela has more than its fair share of large, unappealing package hotels, but it also has the six-room Pension Hedi Zamic (00 385 21 618 409, £27 a night for two b & b), an airy old house with a big garden right behind the beach.
Where to eat One of the best restaurants in Makarksa is Susvid, which has a pleasant terrace on the main square: try prsut (£5), Croatia's excellent cured ham, as a starter.
If there is one place in Croatia you should not miss, it's Dubrovnik. The old town, perched on rocks above the sea and enclosed by more than a mile of colossal walls, is like a pristine, stage-set version of a medieval city. Its limestone pavements have been buffed improbably shiny and smooth by centuries of wear; the wide main thoroughfare, the Stradun, with its identical façades of arched windows and regulation green shutters, looks too perfect to be entirely real.
It is even harder to believe that two-thirds of the old town's buildings were damaged in the siege of 1991-1992. The extent of the reconstruction becomes apparent only when you walk the city walls and look down on all the new terracotta-tiled roofs.
Though there are interesting monasteries and Renaissance palaces (some are the scene of regular concerts), much of the pleasure of Dubrovnik is to be had just strolling through the traffic-free squares and alleys and dawdling in the many cafés. The most bewitching time is early evening, when the cruise ship tours have left, the swallows wheel around the clock towers, and the locals promenade up and down the Stradun.
Where to stay There are two hotels in the old town, both new. The Pucic Palace (Bond Tours, Simply Croatia), on the market square, is a mansion with 19 luxurious bedrooms, antiques, fine art, flashy bathrooms and a smart and expensive café/restaurant. The Stari Grad (Bond Tours) is more modest, with eight smart but plain rooms, and sensational views from its roof terrace.
Also consider one of the upmarket hotels set into the cliffs of the Ploce district. Many of their rooms have fabulous views of the old town, which is 10 to 15 minutes' walk away. Villa Dubrovnik, once a rest home for communist officials, is civilised and tranquil, with understated bedrooms, excellent staff and a water taxi to the old town; there is no pool, however, and access is via a long flight of steps. The larger Argentina has just been refurbished; it has smart bedrooms, an inviting seafront pool and a bathing terrace.
Most hotels are on the Lapad peninsula, a 10-minute bus ride from the old town. The leafy suburb is pleasant enough, but you are better off staying in the old town or Ploce.
Where to eat and drink The many restaurants that fill Prijeko, an alley in the old town, are pushy and best avoided. A notable exception is tiny Rozarij (at the Ploce Gate end), which has been in business for more than three decades: excellent seafood risottos for £5. No-frills Kamenice, on the market square, does a roaring trade in plates of mussels and small fried fish for £3.50. Mea Culpa specialises in vast, tasty pizzas for £3-£4, served at wooden tables that fill the back street of Za Rokom. Gradska Kavarna, overlooking Luza, the main square, is the grandest and most atmospheric of the cafés. Lively night-time bars are concentrated around the cathedral.
If you want a sedate base near Dubrovnik, consider this pretty, villagey resort, a 40-minute bus ride or £6 return boat trip along the coast. It's set around a wooded peninsula squeezed either side by two deep bays. Palm trees and a string of cafés and restaurants line the waterfront. Behind, stepped lanes climb up into the old village, where you will stumble across tiny chapels and courtyards with fig and lemon trees.
Where to stay The Albatros is one of several large package hotels on the resort fringes. Ten minutes' walk from the centre, and close to a 250-yard-long pebbly beach, it has lots of facilities, including a big pool and a dive centre.
The quaint little town of Korcula guards the straits between its eponymous island and the mainland. The pale stone houses of its old town unfurl in a neat grid over a hilly peninsula. The Venetians ruled here for centuries - their legacy is in hidden churches and architectural flourishes such as coats of arms and balustrades. Korcula is a popular stopping-off point for yachties. There are also plenty of day-trippers from Dubrovnik, a 90-minute hydrofoil ride away. The alternative approach is a two-hour drive via the vine-covered Peljesac peninsula, then a 15-minute ferry ride across from Orebic (decent shingle beaches).
Where to stay The old-fashioned Hotel Korcula is on the waterfront, right by the old town. The sea views and sunsets from its large, convivial terrace compensate for the small bedrooms and saggy beds.
Where to eat Try Adio Mare, an atmospheric, vaulted restaurant in the old town next to Marco Polo's house (Korculans claim he was born here). Good bean soup (£2) and simply grilled fish and steaks (£8).
The Istrian peninsula
Tucked under thickly wooded slopes overlooking the lake-like Gulf of Kvarner, Opatija feels utterly different from Croatia's other resorts. Its golden age was the late 19th century, when it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire's version of the French Riviera; its Belle Epoque hotels and villas and its benign winter climate attracted royalty.
Now it is a faded, soporific place. The hotels are still resplendent in pink, green and mustard, but many could do with an overhaul. They attract an elderly clientele, who spend their days playing cards, having coffee and cakes, and pottering along the rocky, wooded foreshore (the main "beach" is a concrete platform). An eight-mile path follows the waterfront up to Volosko, a pretty fishing village just north of the resort, and down to Lovran, a smaller version of Opatija that is famous for its chestnut trees.
Where to stay The plushest hotel is the Millennium, close to the waterfront in the centre of the resort: atmospheric bedrooms in the original building; smart, contemporary rooms in a new block; first-rate breakfasts; and the best café in town for afternoon coffee and cake. The neo-classical Hotel Kvarner is the most redolent of Opatija's heyday, but it's well past its prime.
Where to eat Volosko has a clutch of good fish restaurants, including Plavi Podrum: memorable scampi bouzzara (£9) - whole prawns in their shells in a garlicky tomato sauce - and grilled fish deftly filleted for you at your table.
The Italian border is a short drive up the coast, and the resorts on the indented western side of the Istrian Peninsula have a strong Italian flavour. Street names are in Italian as well as Croatian, and Italians make up a large proportion of holidaymakers, particularly in July and August. A day trip by hydrofoil to Venice is a popular, if expensive, excursion.
Nowhere is the Italian influence more pronounced than in delightful Rovinj. Once a Venetian port, it has an old town covering an egg-shaped peninsula and with a disproportionately large Baroque church and bell tower.
Down at the harbour, faded, stuccoed and pastel-coloured houses and several dozen cafés and pizzerias overlook a jumble of yachts, fishing boats and craft selling sponges. The back streets deserve attention, too - especially Grisia, which climbs up to the church and is lined with art galleries.
A 20-minute walk south of the harbour brings you to Zlatni Rt, a wooded headland park. Its main bay has several picturesque shingle coves, backed by grassy picnic spots.
The port of Pula, a 40-minute drive away, has a colossal and reasonably well preserved Roman amphitheatre.
Where to stay The Hotel Villa Angelo d'Oro (Simply Croatia), on a cobbled back street in the old town, was a bishop's palace in the 18th century. It has flagstone floors and lots of fine art and antiques, and has a lovely hidden garden - altogether highly recommended. The Melia Eden, with large and lovely grounds around a super pool, is one of Croatia's best big package hotels. It's two minutes' walk from Zlatni Rt's beaches, and 20 minutes' walk from the old town.
Where to eat Veli Joze, near the harbour, serves interesting pasta dishes - with truffles from the Istrian interior, lobster, and scampi and mushrooms (£6-£10). Its interior is decorated with old musical instruments and pictures of Rovinj.
Porec is Croatia's largest and liveliest resort. Its old town, spread over a little peninsula, has been taken over by tourism but is still pleasant. Jewellery, lace, candle and T-shirt shops line its main street, and there are appealing bars and restaurants off what was once the Roman forum (some ruins are visible). For a quick dose of culture, pop into the Basilica of Euphrasius to admire its dazzling Byzantine mosaics.
Most of Porec's 30 or so hotels are in two large, purpose-built resort areas, Plava Laguna and Zelena Laguna. These are two to three miles from, and have boat, bus and tourist train services to, the old town. With lawns, pine woods and footpaths along the shore (mostly rocky, with concrete bathing platforms), the holiday villages are attractive, and offer a host of sports facilities. However, most of the hotels are dated.
Where to stay The Hotel Neptun is in a great spot - right by the old town, overlooking the waterfront; simple bedrooms, decent breakfasts, and a café with a big terrace. Laguna Gallijot (Bond Tours), in Plava Laguna, has good-quality rooms and self-catering bungalows spread over its own, car-free wooded peninsula, as well as a smart, big pool.
Where to eat and drink Pizzeria Nono, opposite the tourist office, is the busiest restaurant in town: a smart rustic interior, and £4 for a huge pizza with prsut ham topping. Lapidarium, a bar on a back street close to the harbour, sometimes has live jazz in its courtyard, which is full of classical masonry.
Adriatic Tours(CROWN sponsor)
Croatia Travel (CROWN sponsor)
Croatia Airlines (020 8563 0022, www.croatiaairlines.hr) flies to Dubrovnik from Gatwick ( £249) and Manchester ( £276), and to Split and Istria (Rijeka or Pula) from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester (from £211). Holiday Options has charters to Dubrovnik from Gatwick ( £209), Birmingham and Norwich, and to Split from Birmingham. Fares are returns for this August, and include taxes.
Ferries The main ferry company is Jadrolinija: schedules on www.jadrolinija.hr. Services to the islands are punctual and frequent in summer. However, normally you can't book: if you have a car, turn up at least an hour in advance.
Car hire Fred Mawer hired a car through Suncars (08705 005566, www.suncars.com): a week's hire this summer costs from £249, fully inclusive.
Buses Local buses are frequent and inexpensive ( £1 anywhere within Dubrovnik).
Tips* Be wary about going in August - the coast is swamped with Italian and German visitors. * The local currency is the kuna, though hotel rates are often quoted in euros. There are cash points in principal resorts, but credit cards are not universally accepted. * Private rooms and apartments are widely available; look for signs, or get contacts from local tourist offices. A room costs £15- £30 a night, an apartment from about £30 a night. * Take plastic sandals to protect your feet on the pebbles and rocks.* The best guidebook is The Rough Guide to Croatia ( £11.99) - a new edition has just been published. * More information from the Croatian Tourist Board (020 8563 7979, www.croatia.hr).
Report filed: 19/07/2003