Michael Webb explores the unspoiled delights of Croatia’s Dalmation Coast in the off-peak season.
Croatia has a marketing slogan, “The Mediterranean as it once was,” evoking an idyllic era when the coastline was pristine and you weren’t jostled by crowds at every turn. It’s hard to sustain that illusion in summer, as the onslaught of cruise ships and coach tours overwhelms the narrow cobbled streets of old cities. But, as compared to the south of France and Spain, the Dalmatian coast and its 1800 offshore islands are still unspoiled, and you can find plenty of tranquil retreats and stunning vistas, especially in spring and late fall.
Lufthansa will whisk you from major American and European cities to Dubrovnik at the southern tip of Croatia, from where you can drive up the coast, hopscotching to a succession of offshore islands a short ferry ride away. The journey is part of the fun, for Route 8 (E 65) is a well-engineered roller coaster that ascends to a dizzying height above the sea and then swoops down to the bustle of a marina. Sailors have the best time, for the waters are crystalline and there are inlets and small harbors at every point around the coast. It’s easy to bargain with a local for a day trip, or rent a more luxurious craft with friends for a couple of weeks.
Dubrovnik is on everyone’s must-see list, but you can beat the crowds by arriving at daybreak and watch the city come to life before the first tourists arrive. The limestone pavers of the long central square, polished by centuries of foot traffic, gleam in in the early light. Walk to the far end, linger over coffee on the terrace of the Grads Kavana, and climb up to the walkway atop the massive walls. You can circumnavigate the entire city in an hour, gazing over the expanse of red-tiled roofs, punctuated by church towers. A good choice for lunch or dinner is Orsan, located in the yacht marina, where you can sit under pine trees at the water’s edge and enjoy the catch of the day. Menus vary little along the coast, but everything, especially the shellfish, is super-fresh and simply prepared. Scampi buzara (in a white wine sauce), black risotto (cooked in the squid’s ink) and dorade baked with thin-sliced potatoes, are specialties, and you can splurge on lobster and truffles in season.
The wooded island of Lopud is an hour from Dubrovnik by ferry, and, like the walled city, it’s traffic-free. The ruined Grand Hotel is a modernist landmark, and there’s an unexpected treat just off the waterfront. Signs point to Your Black Horizon, an installation by David Adjaye and Olafor Eliasson for the Thyssen-Bornemisza contemporary art foundation. Within a plain wood shelter, a ramp leads up into a square dark room, barely lit from a thin white strip that runs around all four sides. The top half of the structure appears to hover weightlessly over the lower half; in fact, the thin plastic insert is lit by LEDs, which change color every five minutes.
Split, the sprawling second city of Croatia, began life as a Roman palace, which was built by the Emperor Domitian, and settled long after his death by refugees from barbarian invaders. Apartments sprout from the walls and fill every space between the surviving arches and columns, washing is strung across the narrow streets, and the place is full of energy. Sip a Travarica (a herb-flavored grappa) in the peristyle as a balladeer or rock group performs, or soak in the hot springs at the art nouveau bath house on Marmont Street. A stylish and affordable place to stay is the new Goli + Bosi Hostal (Croat for barefoot and naked), a wonderfully inventive, bare-bones adaptation of an old department store. All-white rooms, including a duplex for a couple and a dormitory for eight sleeping in wall capsules, open off searing yellow corridors adorned with super graphics. A roof terrace offers a stunning view over the city, and a hip bar-restaurant spills out of the ground floor and fills the pedestrian-only square.
Hvar may be the most beautiful of the major islands and it draws a chic crowd to its yacht harbor. The main road follows the spine of the mountains, serving villages to either side, and the scenery is ruggedly beautiful, with dense coverage of pine and lavender. There’s little to do but hang out at the many cafes of Hvar Town and Stari Grad or hike down to rocky beaches. At the northern tip of Dalmatia, the Venetians fortified the harbor on the small island of Rab, and this hilltop gem has kept its character intact.
Fire and invaders destroyed many of Croatia’s treasures, but a few were spared—notably the cathedral of Trogir with a portal carved in a wild scramble of sacred and secular imagery, and an exquisite Renaissance chapel. Still more impressive are the sixth-century mosaics in Porec on the Istrian peninsula. Euphrasius, a bishop turned saint, was a self-promoter who incorporated his monogram into the rich geometry of inlaid marble and mother-of-pearl at the base of the sanctuary. Above are richly expressive Byzantine mosaics that recall those of Ravenna across the Adriatic. For a magic moment go there just before the church closes at 5pm, when all is quiet and the sun highlights a few of the figures. A sense of artistry still flourishes in Porec. In a recent addition, gently rounded channels carry rainwater along the streets that slope down from the polished stone plaza at the heart of the old town.
In Rovinj, the Lone Hotel is located a short bike or taxi ride from the walled peninsula in a wooded zone near the beach. A triumph of contemporary architecture and design, the sweeping white balconies evoke a luxury yacht, and a skylit atrium ties the six floors together. The guest rooms are coolly elegant, and there is a first-rate restaurant with a terrace overlooking the pool. Exemplary service: the hotel provided their driver when overzealous cops towed my rental car, to pick me up and translate my excuses. Too bad there’s another hotel close by that was blasting “Que sera, sera” and other tacky retro pop the night I dined outside.