Exploring the Croatian Islands: Where to stay, eat, play and swim
The Dalmatian islands are a jet set dream! Palm fringed, yacht lined, sparkling harbour towns where you can arrive by speedboat and go large at celebrity island party spots. If you prefer to be a little more low key there are a multitude of unspoilt sparkling bays and coves to get lost in. Either way, you’ll find amazing restaurants, with exclusive island wine on tap, beach bars and laid back, sea edge lounge bars. Each island has its own lilt so the only question is where to start?
Brac Island, the largest of them all and a 50 minute boat hop from Split Old Town, has a smorgasbord of quirky and interesting places to choose from. Parties or serenity – both are on offer. As well as a good stock of pristine beaches and turquoise bays, Brac is also gaining a reputation of the most action packed island. Zlatni Rat, Croatia’s most famous beach, actually boasts the ideal conditions for wind and kite surfing so this is not to be missed if you’re an adrenaline junkie. On land, Brac is taking the lead in mountain biking and has many trails to explore. Take the Vidova Gora downhill trail – the highest peak of the island with fantastic views across to Hvar Island and Zlatni Rat beach below – or head to Sutivan, which has family friendly trails through the olive groves with gorgeous views and scenery – the local company Aldura Sport covers all the essential activities and equipment so this is a good place to start.
For a more offbeat afternoon, how about submerging yourself in Yugoslavia’s cold war past with a swim in a submarine pen? The southern shores of coast of Brac housed designated military zones in ex Yugoslavia. However, you can hop on a boat and explore them. Check out Maslinova, Kruscica and Smrka. Alternatively, scuba dive Lucice Cave, which has a chamber at 15m and two underwater tunnels dropping down to 30m and 44m. Or the relatively shallow Drasine Cave which has the remains of a Roman mosaic.
If serenity is more your thing, grab a kayak or paddle board and glide instead – the water in Croatia is millpond calm and you can see metres below your toes. If you prefer to stay on land, head into town and meander though the little streets and boutique shopping outlets. The harbour town of Bol is charming and colourful and leads to some lesser known but beautiful crescent beaches further down. With sun loungers right on the sea edge and picture perfect views and steps from the Ribarska Kucica beach bar and restaurant, it ticks all boxes.
Villa Corrine in Mirca Bay sits between Sutivan and Supetar – a beach bar, olive groves and the beach. Supetar is a wander if you feel the need for civilisation. Make use of the villa chef or for a really special evening of wine tasting and some very tasty food, it’s worth pre-booking an evening at the Senkovic Winery. It must be pointed out that this is a winery and not a restaurant, so there’s only space for a small number of guests – but it offers a truly great atmosphere.
If Brac Island is understated, Hvar Island is certainly the opposite. This is Croatia’s most famed and happening island, especially if you want to see and be seen. It was once the playground of Jackie Onassis and now attracts the likes of Prince Harry, Tom Cruise, Bono, and even the cast of Made in Chelsea! With the rest of the island still rather provincial, however, Hvar Town is the place to be if you are after some of Croatia’s cosmopolitan, exclusive vibe.
Looking to party by night and chill out by day? Well head to Hula Hula beach bar on the sea edge for après beach chilled out DJ sets and sublime sunsets. The legendary Carpe Diem is the original VIP cool spot though. Located on Hvar Riva since 1999, this venue offers sunset tunes from 5pm and something a little more upbeat after dark. As bars have a strict 2am close time, Carpe Diem has decided to move its nightclub out to Stipanska Bay on Marinkovac Island, just off the town’s coast. It’s a 10 minute boat ride away and the party usually carries on until about dawn. For the best location in Hvar Town, Villa Esmerelda is just off the main drag and unbeatable if you want a bit of pizzazz.
If you’ve not been partying all night, head out of Hvar Town and discover idyllic beaches and hidden coves. Dubovica Bay is one such gem – take your sunscreen and a book – there’s a beach bar and a stunning crescent bay. For even more low key charm and sandy bottomed bays, hire a car and head off through the lavender fields to the pristine beaches around Jelsa, Vrboska and Starigrad at the other side of the island. Or take a trip through the olive groves and vineyards via the mountain tunnel to Ivan Dolac and Zavala. The views have real ‘wow’ factor.
If you can’t bring yourself to venture too far then speedboat around the Pakleni Islands, which are located off Hvar Town itself. Check out Bohemian Palmizana and have lunch on Sveti Klement. See a more exclusive side of Hvar with some luxury yachting around the inlets and secret coves near Hvar Town. Villa Sea Rose is situated in a beautiful hidden bay, and is just 15 minutes drive from Hvar Town. Anonymity on demand…
For dinner, Restaurant Gariful is high end simplicity – offering fine diners a water’s edge location, a fantastic wine list and of course, Hvar’s signature dish of Gregada – a delicious stew of fish, potatoes, onions, garlic and olive oil.
From the best known to probably the least well known, having retained much of their original charm and unspoilt beauty, Korcula Island and the Peljsac Peninsula feature some of Dalmatia’s most authentic areas. Slightly further to get to than Hvar, Korcula Island is, however, reachable from Dubrovnik or Split, so fly into either airport. Rick Stein recently visited the area for his TV food show ‘From Venice to Istanbul’, specifically the oyster fields of nearby Peljesac. There are some fantastic local bistros and low key restaurants to be found here, nestled in Korcula’s many fishermen’s bays. Stunning scenery and untouched turquoise bays are everywhere on Korcula. You only have to look at its zigzagging coastline to get an impression of the sheer number of coves and inlets.
The authenticity of the island is probably its biggest attraction. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, a well known anonymous traveller, reputedly has one of his favourite restaurants located here. Korcula Town is a must see when visiting the island, as it offers a stunning location. For some spectacular beach scenes head for Prizba Villa Spring, which is right on the beach. For ocean views, Villa Zavalia at Zavalatica is hard to beat and you can even go out with a local fisherman to catch your own supper.
Peljesac, historically known as the Point of Ston, is the second largest peninsula in the Adriatic. Sprawling over 355 sq km, it’s blessed with craggy mountains, sweeping valleys, idyllic coves and fine wines, making it a glorious place to visit. The views are stunning and take you right to the heart of the Dalmatian islands. It would be a shame to venture onto the Peljesac Peninsula without visiting Restaurant Kapetanova Kuca. On the sea edge at Mali Ston, right at the heart of the ancient oyster beds and salt flats, it’s the place to stop for a mouthwatering lunch of fresh seafood.
Peljesac is prime wine country and still only the territory of those in the know. Some of the best vineyard locations in Dalmatia are located here on the Peninsula. Stop off at the Grgic Winery at Trstenik and stock up on Plavac Mali and Posip – regarded by many as the best quality wines in the region. There are some fabulous beaches as you drive up but the wineries and vineyards will lure you in from all sides so it may take some time to get anywhere quick. Beach wise, the little pine covered village of Mokalo is a true seaside heaven – with a fantastic beach bar hidden away on the hillside. It’s the sort of place you dream about stumbling upon. Idyllic Villa Coturi has steps to the beach from the garden. As you come up over the hill and down towards Orebic itself, the view of Korcula Island and its archipelago is jaw dropping.
Loviste is the star attraction of this area, at the very tip of the Peninsula. Dating back to Illyrian times, its still waters and peaceful picturesque coves are a draw for yachts, and the sea edge eateries of Pension Gradina and Restaurant Barsa are hard to beat for their relaxed ambience and delicious seafood. Real barefoot luxury.
Details of all the restaurants, bays and beaches mentioned above can be found on croatiagems.com.