What’s the attraction?
In the 25 years since Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, it has gone from war-torn region to one of Europe’s most desirable destinations. Its glittering Adriatic coast meanders for nearly 1,800km – but its size almost trebles once you include Croatia’s 1,244 islands, reefs and islets. Croatia’s 1,800km coastline, with its islands and turquoise Adriatic, is well established on the holiday scene. Except on the west coast of Istria and the Makarska Riviera, it has few purpose-built resorts.
What’s striking is its sheer diversity: the ancient Roman ruins of Pula, Split and Zadar; the Venetian splendour of Rovinj, Hvar and Korcula; the mix of medieval and baroque in Dubrovnik; the old-world elegance of the Opatija Riviera; the stark barren beauty of the Kornati archipelago, the lushness of the green island of Mljet.
Officially recognised as Europe’s second-cleanest (after Cyprus), Croatia’s shores tend to be pebbly rather than sandy. The best are on the islands: Rab boasts a lovely bay at Lopar, Korcula has two sandy beaches near Lumbarda, while tiny Susak island is entirely composed of fine, compacted sand.
Add to that the countless beaches – most of which are pebbly, although the small island of Rab in the Kvarner Gulf manages to squeeze 22 sandy beaches into its 90sq km area. The most distant island in the gulf also has one of the loveliest sandy beaches, Spiaza Beach in Susak.
Head down Lopud, one of the Elaphite islands north of Dubrovnik, where the sandy curve of Sunj Beach awaits after a walk through pine-scented woods. Although it’s one of the most developed parts of the coast, the Makarska Riviera south of Split has some of Croatia’s best pebble beaches, notably the pine-backed Punta Rata Beach at Brela and the Blue Flag beach at Baska Voda.
The beaches make a dreamy backdrop for the growing number of dance festivals that pitch up every summer. Zrce Beach on the sprawling island of Pag springs to life from June to September with events including Hideout (26-30 June; hideoutfestival.com) and Fresh Island Festival (12-14 July; fresh-island.org).
While the pioneering Garden Festival ended last summer, its successors in the village of Tisno near Sibenik include SunceBeat (20-27 July; suncebeat.com) and Soundwave (4-8 August; soundwavecroatia.com). London-based Croatia Wave (croatia-wave.com) organises packages to most festivals that include accommodation, tickets and parties but not flights.
Joining the festival calendar this year is Wave Week (13-20 August; waveweek.com), a seven-night boat party that goes in convoy from Split to Vis via Brac and Hvar, stopping for fort raves and supper clubs along the way. Yacht accommodation starts at £510, with festival tickets from £75.
For something a little less frenetic, the private island of Obonjan (otokobonjan.com) near Sibenik is offering a programme that includes yoga, workshops, open-air film screenings, sports as well as live music. Its first season runs from 28 July to 6 September, and accommodation is in air-conditioned tents and lodges. Prices start at €70 per night and include yoga, workshops and screenings.
Currently, £1 is worth 9.64 Croatian kuna, while $1 is worth 6.62 kuna.
There’s an island to suit every taste: green Mljet (reached via Dubrovnik) is best for nature, Vis (via Split) for food, Brac for watersports and Hvar for relaxation and celebrity spotting. The best approach to hopping between islands is to focus on well-connected groups. It’s easy to move between Krk, Rab and “party island” Pag; or Brac, Hvar and Vis. Ferry timetables are available on jadrolinija.hr. An escorted eight-day cruise between several of the major islands is offered by Travelsphere (0844 567 9961; travelsphere.co.uk). Starting from Dubrovnik, it costs from £839 per person half- board, including flights on 14 October.
With a bit of planning, you could visit groups of islands using public ferries, although services between islands aren’t frequent as those departing from coastal cities. You could save yourself the trouble and take an island cruise on an intimate motor sailor. Boats operated by Back-Roads Touring (backroadstouring.com) take no more than 16 people and start in the attractive island town of Trogir near Split.
A leisurely eight-day tour takes in Korcula and the tranquil island of Lastovo before exploring Vis and Solta islands. Prices start at £1,465pp for departures from August to October and include most meals but not flights.
Inntravel has a new 10-night island-hopping tour starting in Istria and taking in the islands of the Kvarner Gulf including Cres, Losinj and Rab before ending in Zadar. Prices for departures until 31 October start at £865pp and include car hire, breakfast and some dinners. Flights extra.
Dubrovnik is essential viewing, but it’s only one of many attractive coastal cities. Consider Pula, with its Roman remains, or Sibenik, which has undergone a makeover including a new town beach. Best of all is Split, with its vibrant Saturday market, excellent beaches, and the Riva esplanade lined with cafés and bars.
The newest central hotel is the boutique Marmont (00 385 21 308 060; marmonthotel.com), where a double room with breakfast starts at €105. Hvar, the most beautiful and upmarket of the towns built by the Venetians, which lies on the island of the same name, is just a day trip away.
With Croatia’s sparkling waters, national parks and hiking and biking trails, there’s enormous scope for activity holidays. Scuba divers head to Premuda off the coast of Pag to explore the underwater caves, as well as Vis’s Blue Grotto, whose vivid shade of blue is quite extraordinary.
Wear Active (wearactive.com) runs kayaking, cycling and yoga holidays for all ages on Vis, a military naval base which until 1989 had been off limits to tourists. Holidays run until October, and prices start at £820pp, with B&B, activities and some meals. Flights extra.
Children aged four to eight are catered for in a family adventure holiday by Activities Abroad (activitiesabroad.com). Based mainly on the island of Dugi Otok, this nine-night package features sea kayaking, a boat trip around the Kornati islands and swimming in Telascica Nature Park. Prices for departures in July and August start at £1,365pp (children from £695) with flights, B&B, transfers and most meals.
Fed and watered
Fish and seafood – freshly caught and simply grilled with olive oil – dominate the menus along the coast and on the islands. Head to the Peljesac peninsula north of Dubrovnik for a delicious double bill of superb Ston oysters and one of Croatia’s finest wines, Dingac.
Just beyond is the island of Korcula, home of dry white Grk wine and the setting for a cookery holiday with Vivados (vivados.com). The British-Croatian couple who run the Artisan Bakery School offer seven nights in their villa near sandy Lumbarda beach, with daily cooking classes and most meals. Prices start at £950pp, excluding flights, with departures in September.
The Istrian peninsula at the very northern end of the coastline is dotted with vineyards, villages and Roman remains, as rural accompaniments to its Italianate coastal towns (Porec, Pula and Rovinj) and its succession of coves and beaches. The region’s network of cycle routes makes the bike a good way of seeing the sights as well as sampling the sea.
New for 2012 is the “Coastal Croatia” cycling tour offered by Headwater (0845 154 5301; headwater.com). The eight-day holiday costs from £1,418 per person with Thomson flights from Gatwick to Pula, transfers, hotel accommodation and some meals.
A sailing holiday is an ideal way to see some of the more remote and uninhabited islands such as the beautiful Kornati archipelago of 130 islands, scattered off the coast between Zadar and Sibenik.
Sail Dalmatia (0800 124 4176; saildalmatia.com) has a Sun Odyssey 379 (three double cabins) for charter from Sibenik. The cost of a week’s bareboat hire in late August/early September is €2,420. If you need a skipper, it will cost an extra €150 per day. You also need to supply your own food (and the skipper’s) as well as find your own way to Sibenik (flights to Split or Zadar).
Where to stay
With its beaches, medieval lanes and Unesco-listed cathedral, Sibenik has a lot going for it, but the accommodation had been lagging behind. That’s changing with the new D-Resort (dresortsibenik.com), an ultra-modern luxury resort on the Mandalina peninsula overlooking Croatia’s only superyacht marina. Doubles from €260, B&B.
British couple Chris and Amanda have set up a new boutique B&B in Hvar’s Stari Grad (Old Town) – well away from the buzzing nightlife of Hvar Town. Hidden House (hidden-house.com) is in a 300-year-old stone home, with four exquisitely decorated rooms. Doubles from €60, B&B.
In Korcula, new Tara’s Lodge (taraslodge.com) is a modern boutique hotel set into the hillside overlooking the beach at Zrnovska Banja. There’s also an outdoor pool and an Asian-Med fusion restaurant. Doubles start at €150, B&B.
Best beaches in Croatia:
If you feel like people are all of a sudden hyped about Croatia — a gorgeous country in southern Europe you hadn’t heard much about until the past couple of years — there’s a reason it’s only popping lately. For most of the early ‘90s Croatia was embroiled in the horrific Homeland War — also called the Croatian War of Independence, when the country declared freedom from Yugoslavia. Now, barely a generation later, this West Virginia-sized country on the Adriatic Sea boasts one of the fastest-growing tourism industries in Europe.
The main reasons? Cheap prices help. They’ve gotten a bump from Game of Thrones filming several iconic settings there. And the country rocks some flat-out beautiful beaches — with more than 3,000 miles of coastline, if you include the many islands.
Adjectives are cheap, so I hope it does something to quantify the wonder of Croatia’s coastline when I say that I’ve been to around 20 countries in Europe and (with the exception of my beloved Greece, but that’s a childhood nostalgia thing, can’t be helped) and this is the region that was the most beautiful, the most jaw-dropping, and the one to which I most want to return. Here are some of the most show-stopping features of this no-longer-secret European playground.
This port town is known for its riviera, which will make you forget all about the one you’ve heard of in France. It stretches for more than 30 miles, opening up into a succession of beaches sprinkled with sunbathers and little boats bobbing in the sea, which is known for being extraordinarily clear.
The sea here achieves a shade of green I thought existed only in the Seychelles, but it’s of a unique texture — more sparkly — because the water is shallow and the light is so often bouncing up off smooth stones, not sand. This is where you go for vacation vacation.
Old Town Dubrovnik
We’re hitting Dubrovnik first because you already know it’s going to be on this list, and while it very much deserves to be on this list it is not the best thing on this list. Dubrovnik’s Old Town fortress is of Game of Thrones fame — you’ll recognize it as the fortress of Westeros capital city King’s Landing — and you’ve surely seen its medieval facade plastered up and down the internet.
What you might not have seen is that if you walk deep enough into the stone ramparts you’ll eventually come to a literal hole in the wall — duck through it, for on the far side awaits the other kind of hole in the wall. This is Buza, a bar built into the outside of the fortress walls, and from which, should you get hot, you can simply jump off of into the sea.
Zlatni Rat Beach
Known also as Golden Horn or sometimes Golden Cape, this beach on the island of Brac is one of the most distinctive anywhere in Europe. The two sides of the spit reach more than 2,000 combined feet into the sea, but the lines of the beach are being constantly redrawn by the tides; Zlatni Rat is known to change shape every few years.
Plitviče Lakes National Park
Alright, eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that this one is not on the coast, but before you all go off on me in the comments let me explain that I am putting this one here for context, and if you’ll hang on a sec you’ll see why.
Also, it’s just bananas to look at, and you came to this article for pretty pictures so hush.
You guys, I was so geeked by this one. Zadar is known for a pair of art installations on its waterfront: Monument to the Sun (or Greeting to the Sun), and the Sea Organ. The former is a disc of hundreds of intricately layered glass plates — you can walk on them — that collect solar energy by day and turn it into a light show at night.
The latter, which is among my fondest memories of Croatia, is a set of marble steps descending straight into the sea — you can jump off them; I did — underneath which are a network of pipes that the water “plays” when the tide comes in. The bigger the wave, the more intense the sound. I’ve generally found that it doesn’t do to travel somewhere based on the One Specific Touristy Thing It’s Known For, but Zadar was an exception. Watch. Listen.
Ston is the site of the oldest salt pans anywhere in Europe, and the natural beauty of this less-trafficked bit of coastline coupled with the reflective salt pans is stunning. Mali Ston, a few minutes away, is famous for its oysters, which were bar none the best I’ve had in my life. They’ll give you a bag of salt for the road, too, and I still have some in jars I’m trying to use as slowly as possible.
Trsteno is in Dubrovnik, and known for its arboretum, which you’ve probably seen on Game of Thrones, too. It’s also known for being an absurdly idyllic stretch of coast. Look at that shit. You want to swim there, you already know you do. You want to just float on your back in the sea and feel the sunlight through your closed eyelids and probably make it to the arboretum eventually, if there’s time, but if not that seems fine, doesn’t it?
Pag is a party island, but I don’t give a fuck about that and it’s not what I’m here to tell you about. You go to Pag for the cheese. The vegetation on this island is uniquely flavorful, and the sheep that graze upon it go on to produce flavor-infused milk, and thusly we arrive at Pag’s salty, herby, extraordinarily luxurious cheese.
It’s widely considered the best sheep cheese in the world. I will now stop talking about cheese and let you look at Pag’s beauty undistracted, but just, y’know, if you’re ever in the area make sure you get some cheese.
The whole Dalmatia region of the country is just bonkers-beautiful, but Split is really the only place you can get the breathtaking aesthetic of Dubrovnik without actually going to Dubrovnik, which while lovely can be crowded and expensive relative to others on this list.
Diocletian’s Palace, which dates back to 4th century Romans, is incomparable. This is another Game of Thrones-y site; Diocletian’s Palace and Klis fortress double as the slave city of Meereen, including Daenerys’ throne room.
Krka National Park
Thank you. Now, this is technically a few minutes in from the coast, but it counts. Plitviče gets all the attention, but the breathless posts about it you’ll see all up and down Pinterest and whatnot overlook a critical fact: You cannot swim in the Plitviče waterfalls.
You can, however, swim in the Krka waterfalls, and having been to both I can say that the comparatively overlooked Krka is about 85% as beautiful as Plitviče, and when adjusted for the swimming handicap comes out to 200% as beautiful (these were the GoT Westeros Riverlands.)
If you are not afeared, you can sneak around the teenage lifeguards and climb the waterfalls and jump. The climb up is sliiiightly dangerous if, as I was, you were drinking Croatia’s exemplary red wine from a Nalgene bottle all day, but standing atop these waterfalls is magical. It’s like FernGully. It’s wondrous.