Some of the best sailing and boating in the world, islands that rival Greece, endless beaches, craggy bluffs, hidden coves, some of the most dramatic Roman ruins still standing, as well as cuisine to match their Italian neighbors — travel insiders tout Croatia as the Mediterranean’s next big thing.
As if caught in a perfect confluence of time and place, Croatia today enjoys the same emerging “it” factor as St. Tropez circa 1955 or Post Cold War Prague. You’ll hear Dalmatia’s island-dotted coast referred to as “the new Riviera” or the “Croat d’Azur," and Istria’s look and feel as “the new Tuscany." All true, in a sense, and yet the Croatia we know isn’t "the new anything" so much as it is reinventing its wonderful old self.
Europeans have long flocked to Croatia’s coast as a lesser-known alternative to Greece, Italy and Spain. Indeed, half a million Brits played in Croatia’s sun and surf each year in the late ‘80s. This allegiance quickly shifted, however, with the civil conflict of the early ‘90s. Today, fading reminders of that conflict stand in stark contrast to a palpable optimism and the Croatians' competence in seizing the new opportunities at hand. Having finally shaken off both ancient and modern aggressors, there’s the sense Croatians are feeling true independence -- as if for the first time -- making it an exciting time to visit. Indeed, chic-seeking Europeans have been returning in droves (along with many Hollywood celebs), pleased that they got here before the rest of the world.
The Croat d’Azur
Recently dubbed the “Croat d’Azur” or the “New Riviera,” the stunning beaches and exquisitely beautiful isles and harbor towns of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast certainly attract their fair share of glitterati. Though it lost favor with Europe’s jet set during the country’s civil conflict in the early ‘90s, the hum of cappuccino machines has returned to many of Dalmatia’s seaside cafés. In hot-spots like the island of Hvar, huge yachts cruise by, complete with bikini-clad women lounging topside while pods of dolphin follow playfully in their wake.
Still, in spite of its renewed appeal as a coastal haven for the impossibly fashionable, the vast majority of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast is so much more than a chic beach destination (and even the beaches are vastly different in character). Ironically, most of Dalmatia is really a throwback to simpler, non-commercialized times and its beaches are just the tip of what there is to explore in Dalmatia’s wonderful, old-world culture.
The cuisine is certainly one attraction — superb fish, shrimp, octopus and oysters, all washed down with increasingly renowned wines. The Italian influence is unmistakable: risotto becomes rizot and proscuitto becomes prsut. You’ll also taste hints of Hungarian, Turkish and Slavic flavours, making eating out in Croatia a delightful (and affordable) affair.
On the Island of Brac
Long renowned for its quarries (they provided the stone for the White House), Brac today is most famous for its beachfront, specifically Zlatni Rat (the Golden Cape) — touted as the best in Dalmatia and except for a few local gelato vendors, uncommercialized. As with most Mediterranean beaches, tops are optional and on the far side of the cape, so are bottoms. The nearby breezy harbor town of Bol -- where ferries come in -- is a tourist hub, but it retains a mellow vibe and is a windsurfers’ haven.
Supetar is a typical Dalmatian town, distinguished by a picturesque promenade with numerous fishing boats and palm trees, giving its center that typical Mediterranean charm. There are however many other wonderful medieval villages and towns to explore, such as the oldest settlement on the island, Skrip, which is home to the Brac Museum, housed in the white-roofed house known as Radojkovic.
Brac’s grey mountainous interior stands in rugged contrast to the inviting profusion of green flora, red-tiled roofs, and brilliant blue water and skies of its coastline. To the west of Bol, evergreens line the shore and a limestone promenade follows the twists and turns of the coast. The pathway goes for about a mile alongside 40-foot high cliffs — an incredible nature walk with spectacular views.
Nearly every Dalmatian island town has a communal wine press, and a large number of families bottle their own. On the island of Brač, the community winery, Poljoprivredna Zadruga, produces some of the best wines on the island.
And of course, yachting — you don’t need to own your own to join the vibrant yachting scene here. Charters are available from many of the islands.
On the Mainland:
Split is home to the 416,000-square-foot Roman Emperor Diocletian’s villa, circa 305 AD. About 3,000 people live in the 220 buildings within the old palace walls — now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A month-long summer festival of performing arts fills theaters, squares, and galleries all over town. Past and present seamlessly intermingle here as local kids play alongside monuments like the Cathedral of Sveti Duje (Saint Domnius) and the Baptistery of St. John (Jupiter's Temple, in Diocletian's time).
The Surrounding Islands:
Hvar — the epicenter of Dalmatia’s "beautiful people" scene. Take a seat at one of the many harbor-side bars or cafés and just watch the world waltz by.
Vis — a short ferry ride away from Brač, Vis is as insular as Hvar is glittering and international. A strategic outpost as far back as Greek and Roman times and as recently as WW2, Vis today hosts a natural bounty — over 500 varieties of herbs flourish here, making trekking the island’s rugged hills a rich olfactory experience.
Korcula — this Island’s biggest draw is its town of the same name — an impossibly picturesque and compact version of Dubrovnik. Its distinctly Venetian charm remains remarkably untouched by the last 10 centuries.
Diving (for older kids and adults) — explore a thousand years of maritime trading and naval battles reflected in sunken ships in Dalmatian waters off Komiza on the island of Vis. There’s even a B-17 bomber that went into the drink in 1944 on the southeast side of the island. Newbies and those of all experience levels can be accommodated.
Windsurfing — The wind regularly whips along the channel between Brač and Hvar at speeds of up to 30 knots, making the coastal town of Bol (on Brač) a mecca for windsurfers and kite-boarders.
Sailing — Sailing has always been a necessity around these parts and there’s no better place for veterans to enjoy their passion or beginners to learn the fundamentals of this ancient art.
Hiking — Many options throughout surrounding islands.
Ice Cave and Treasure Hunt — Explore the hilltop “ghost town” of Humac on nearby Hvar Island with its spectacular views of the Adriatic, then walk down to explore the Grapceva Spilja Ice Cave.
Traditional Boating — Climb aboard one of two existing replicas of Adriatic Dalmatia's original fishing vessels—30-foot wood boats with two sails and six-inch keels that were ideal for pulling up onto the shore. Take a day-sail to the islands that surround Split, such as Solta and Ciovo, or perhaps a twilight sail around Split's Marjan area, a forested hill atop a cove-studded peninsula that juts into the Adriatic.
Festival of Sword Dances — July and August is the time for Korčula's re-creation of a battle between two 16th-century armies. Combatants dressed in flowing red and black uniforms duel with genuine metal sabers in a tightly choreographed flurry of sparks, sweat, and bloody knuckles to the accompaniment of brass bands.
Vanka Regule, is a wacky sort of Adriatic X Games, in which participants free-dive, windsurf, long-distance kayak, and jump bikes into the sea. It takes place in July in Sutivan on Brač.
From North America:
The best way to reach the island of Brac is to fly to Split airport, then take a ferry to Brac. On a limited basis, you can also fly directly to Brac, which has a small airport near Bol.
If renting a car at Split airport, then catching the ferry, drive to the car ferry terminal on Split's harborfront (approximately 30 minutes). The ferry terminal is clearly sign posted in the city. Check ferry times in advance at www.jadrolinija.hr. Take the ferry to Supetar on the island of Brac (ferry ride approximately 45 minutes). Remember to buy a ticket for the car and the number of passengers, and ask at the ticket office for the terminal number that the ferry departs from and the time of departure. Allow an hour to get the tickets and queue. Drive your car up to the ferry terminal and wait in the queue. When you arrive at Supetar (Brac), follow signs to Selca/Sumartin. The drive from Supetar is about 30 minutes to Selca and 45 minutes to Sumartin.
If you are not renting a car in Split, you can take either the car ferry to Supetar or the catamaran or hydrofoil to Bol which is faster. Bol is approximately 35 minutes from Sumartin.
If you’re driving from Dubrovnik, follow the Adriatic coast road to Makaska or Split (regarded as one of the most scenic drives in the world).
Dubrovnic is approximately 4 hours from Split and Makarska is about 2.5 hours. The quickest way to get to the villa from Dubrovnik is to take a car ferry from Makarska. When you arrive at Makarska allow 1 hour to queue for the ferry. The ferry terminal is on the harborfront. Park your car in the queue next to the ferry and go to the Jadrolinja ticket office to buy a ticket from Makarska to Sumartin (Brac).