The Sunday Times January 14, 2007
Croatia vs Greece
In the red corner, the Hellenic classic. In the blue corner, the young pretender ready for glory. Which should win your affection?
Greece has sharpened up its image in recent years, but Croatia needs no makeover. Summer holidays here are hype-free, a throwback to the Med as it used to be, but without the yesteryear facilities. Few bits of Europe compare with the southern Dalmatian coast. Consider the superlatives: it has the cleanest seas in the Med (sorry, Greece); the sunniest islands in the Adriatic (Hvar and Mljet); and the longest, whitest beaches in Croatia.
Then you have the luminescent quality of the light, and the green, green valleys, shot through with silver olives and splashed by rust-red soil. And the nights, boiling with stars. A Croatian folk tale says that this coast is the leftovers from heaven - and who would argue?Alongside poster stars such as Dubrovnik, Hvar and Korcula lie timeless hideaways that Croatians keep for themselves: the pristine lost worlds of Vis and Lastovo; the Elafiti islands, still "lovelier than gardens", as they were when first discovered by Renaissance aristocrats; and Mljet, which bewitched Odysseus and Prince Charles alike. All are places of pinch-me perfection, where lunches are long and nightlife means sipping rakija by the harbour.The Dalmatian people, a stirring mix of Balkan heart and Italian dolce vita, invented their own word to encapsulate all this - fjaka. It defines a deliciously lazy mood of pure contentment.
Top tables: something is sizzling in Croatia, and it's not just the raznjici kebabs. Gourmet cooking has arrived, as chefs experiment with fishy carpaccios and add truffles to grandma's old recipes. Coachloads of wine buffs now tour estates on the Peljesac peninsula.Posh places such as the Atlas Club Nautika, in Dubrovnik, have embraced the new mood of indulgence, but classic Dalmatian cooking - the gutsy good stuff, rustled up in a konoba (a sort of bistro) and flavoured in equal parts by Italy, the Balkans and the Med - is just as tasty. Lamb roasted under a peka (an iron lid) heaped with embers is slow food by any other name, and age-old favourites such as brodet (fish stew), pasticada (beef stew) and lobster flash-fried with wine were organic long before that term was invented.Dubrovnik's smooth stone streets burst with restaurants. You're also spoilt for choice on Korcula and Hvar. But I love Vis, Croatia's most distant island, which is sensational for seafood, locally made wine and escapism. A harbourside dinner at Bako, in the postcard-pretty village of Komiza, comes as close to perfection as eating out gets.
Rated rooms: goodbye concrete boxes, farewell dreary decor. At last, Croatia has bought into boutique, as Yugoslav-era hotels get a makeover and family guesthouses start to appear.In the heart of Dubrovnik, baroque glamour comes with five-star standards at the Pucic Palace (www.thepucicpalace.com; doubles from £200, B&B). On Hvar, you can choose between streamlined style at the revamped Riva (www.suncanihvar.hr; from £113) and artsy villas at the luxury Meneghello complex (www.palmizana.hr; from £751 per week). The latter is on the islet of St Klement, from where a private boat whisks you into Hvar town in jet-set style.
Just as special are bolt holes such as Paula (www.paula-hotel.htnet.hr), on Vis, with rustic charm and harbour views to nurture your fjaka.Private lodgings are also widely available: £12 or £13 will buy you a room, often with a glass of grandpa's plonk thrown in.Super sands: King Edward VIII removed the royal trunks in Croatia and went skinny-dipping with Mrs Simpson. Who can blame him? The beaches of southern Dalmatia are the stuff holidays are made of: laid-back, with shingle fine enough for sand castles, and a konoba for lunch. Tiny coves scallop the coast, should you decide to find a private day retreat by foot or fishing boat.The family favourite is Punta Rata, in Brela, Forbes magazine's Best Beach in Europe 2004. Nearby Bratus is a well-kept secret even in August, while Zlatni Rat, in Bol, is famous for its windsurfing. Then there are the out-of-the-way spots. On Lopud, tiny Sunj is the Dubrovnik getaway par excellence; and from Vis, where numberless beaches are washed by seas clear to 100ft, you can swim in Bisevo's Blue Cave as it fluoresces turquoise at midday. Magic. History and culture: Dalmatia is no stranger to tourism. Its very name comes from the Dalmati, prehistoric Illyrians who brought with them peka cooking and jewellery designs that are still in use today. The ancient Greeks liked it so much, they emigrated in the 4th century BC, followed by the Romans, who on Vis left the trappings of a city considered by Julius Caesar to be the most distinguished in the area. But the clincher is not the stuff of dusty museums - rather the swoony Italianate architecture. Dubrovnik, for example - Croatia's flawless, brilliantly crafted crown jewel. Or Korcula town: where in the Cyclades can compare with this pocket-sized Dubrovnik - the alleged birthplace of Marco Polo, with a treasury of old masters to its name? Or Hvar town, a honey-hued city in miniature, the golden child of the
Venetian Adriatic, its Renaissance looks as ritzy as its modern visitors? I rest my case.
James Stewart is the author of Croatia (Cadogan £12.99)
Formated for CROWN by Nenad Bach
Distributed by www.Croatia.org This message is intended for Croatian Associations / Institutions and their Friends in Croatia and in the World. The opinions / articles expressed on this list do not reflect personal opinions of the moderator. If the reader of this message is not the intended recipient, please delete or destroy all copies of this communication and please, let us know! Or simply...enjoy and spread the word and good vibrations.