Rise & Shine
Quest’s Editor in Chief Martine Bury went island hopping in Croatia and discovered a different Mediterranean in the region known as Central Dalmatia.
When I think of Europe’s great seaside escapes, I think of the French Riviera, Mallorca, Spain or Kefalonia, Greece. In Croatia, everything is fresher and more surprising: a layered history, a profound wine culture and islands so vivid they actually look like precious jewels.
The stark contrast of the Adriatic Sea’s cerulean blue with the sun-bleached sandstone of Split’s Old Town makes a powerful first impression. Cloudless cobalt skies frame the Mosor Mountains and golden sand beaches trace the coast as far as the eye can see. Nearby neighborhoods are so verdant they look like forests wearing terracotta rooftop hats. From walls to cobblestone streets to underground waterworks, Croatia’s second largest city reflects the struggle of civilizations—which at different turns included the Greeks, Romans, Slavs, Venetians, Austro-Hungarians and Ottomans. And the main thoroughfare, Riva Boardwalk, flanked by ruins, is immaculately preserved.
The first order of business in this ancient hub on the mainland is to take a stroll. Begin with a visit to the Gallery of Fine Art, and then embark on a private tour of Old Town and Diocletian Palace’s outstanding landmarks, including the Temple of Jupiter which is guarded by statues of Egyptian Sphynxes. Outside the Golden Gate, make a wish and rub the patinated toe of the 88-year old statue of medieval bishop Grgur Ninski. Don’t forget to visit the imperial palace’s Game of Thrones sets above and below ground.
With a prime location among this UNESCO World Heritage Site’s alleyways and 200 buildings, Hotel Vestibul Palace sits in the middle of the action near the ancient Roman Peristyle. Throughout, chic shops and hip restaurants and bars spill out onto the sidewalks. Operated by a young brother and sister team, Bokeria Kitchen & Bar serves a delicious, well-curated and beautifully plated overview of regional food and wine. Grab a tasting of flights and small bites at Uje Olive Oil, Food and Wine, or meander over to Zinfandel restaurant and jazz bar and allow the gregarious staff to ply you with carafes of hand-selected regional examples.
Venture beyond the palace to Konoba Matoni to try traditional Dalmatian fare under coved ceilings and wrought iron chandeliers. For a different perspective overlooking the city’s popular beaches, tuck into Hotel Park. If it’s warm, head out for a swim.
If you have extra time in Split, take a day trip that interweaves Dalmatian history and wine to the seven seaside villages of Kaštela, birthplace of the Tribidrag wine grape determined to be the ancient antecedent of Zinfandel. Or head to the colorful city of Zadar, with its Roman and Venetian ruins, Soviet Era architecture in the new town and curious Sea Organ along the sea wall, which fills the Old Town with music created by the Adriatic’s waves.
Split is the prime launching point for exploring Central Dalmatia’s beautiful islands. Hop aboard a private yacht and spend as much or as little time as you like. During the summer months, snorkelers and divers can explore shipwrecks in the blue depths along the Dalmatian Coast. On a clear day, sailboats glide along the sparkling Adriatic. Struck by the immaculate waters, I can see urchins in the shallows.
Dalmatia’s largest and tallest island is famous for bright white Brac marble, which was used to build both Diocletian’s Palace and The White House in the U.S. Take a car to the highest point, Vidova Gora, and see Italy in the distance if the conditions permit. On summer nights, a seasonal air flow called Gažul creates the perfect climate for night sailing, a major spectacle here. The vineyards of Brač are distinguished by their growing medium, the white stone called stina. A private tour of the STINA Vineyards’ cellars and ultra-modern tasting room is the best introduction to Croatia’s dizzying number of varieties: from crisp, white pošip to the heady red plavac mali.
In this region, winemaking is often a family tradition. Croatians will tell you that everyone grows a few vines in their yards to produce a few bottles for celebrations. To experience the best of this practice, head to boho-chic Senjković Winery, which is run by husband and wife team, Saša and Magdalena Senjković. Upon guests’ arrival, Magdalena prepares beautiful hors d’oeuvres and Sasa pours something light. Pair your tasting with stories of the craft inherited from his great grandfather.
Sunny Hvar Island sparkles with Riviera-style glamor—the bars, harbor-side cafes, the yachts and the exclusive Pakleni Islands a speedboat ride away. This is especially true in Hvar Town where the narrow passageways reveal a vibrant world of beautiful people sipping coffee or wine against the backdrop of 13th-century buildings and dramatic Gothic architecture. Try regional seafood dishes, like hvarska gregada, Croatian fish and potato stew served in a dutch oven along with wine and crusty bread at one of the seaside eateries. Escape the crowds and walk along the bay to the 15th century monastery and its serene gardens, which houses a modest but impressive art collection, including 16th-century Venetian painter Matteo Ingoli’s rendition of The Last Supper. Don’t miss the chance to tour Fortica Španjola, Hvar’s imposing hilltop fortress. It’s the gateway to the true charms of this island city, which lie beyond in the pine-forested hills. A day’s road trip reveals small towns, lavender fields and family vineyards. In these hidden gem regions, you can also fulfill your athletic yen, with opportunities to hike or bike.
Spend a few days relaxing at Little Green Bay, a private hideaway on the island’s Lozna Bay side accessible by boat or transfer over the hill from Hvar Town. Fifteen rooms face either the aromatic herb garden or the calm, green-blue bay which tempts guests to take a dip. “It’s like a swimming pool,” says Mathieu Grinberg, the Frenchman who owns the hotel with his interior designer sister Julie. Mathieu takes personal care of each guest, making sure every item on your wish list gets ticked. What he and the friendly staff really hope, however, is that you give in to the natural beauty and barefoot luxury of this flawless spot.
Of all the Central Dalmatian islands, Korcula is magic. Dense with pine trees, undulating hills edged with old wine terraces, olive groves, secluded bays and farms of collard greens (that’s right), you’ll see a million shades of green. Arrive to Vela Luka by boat and trace the coast on a chauffeured drive with a local historian, ending at the town gates where locals perform the traditional Moreska Sword Dance. The island is also popular for cycling, with paths for every level, as long as you love a view. If the timing is right, tour the steep, quiet streets of walled, medieval Korčula Town at sunset, stopping at the rumored birthplace of Marco Polo and continuing past the delicate, pastel facade of 16th-century Gabriellis Palace. Stay at Lešić Dimitri Palace, a Relais & Châteaux hotel housed in the 18th-century Bishop’s Palace. Inspired by Marco Polo’s travels along the Silk Road, each suite recalls a stop along the storied trade route with names like Ceylon, India and Arabia. Eat outside at the hotel’s LD Restaurant, which dishes seasonal Adriatic cuisine created by Head Chef Marko Gajski. He personally ensures you take the culinary journey guided by samplings of local olive oil and wine.
There is nothing like approaching King’s Landing from the sea. Although technically in South Dalmatia, the most famous walled city is a must-visit. The crush of tourism in recent years requires approaching Dubrovnik with creativity. Spend the day on a guided hike or kayaking excursion or sail to one of the lovely nearby islands or resort towns. Tour the sites from Game of Thrones. Head into the city after 4 p.m., when the cruise ships have departed and locals venture out for music and cocktails. Sleep at six-room St. Joseph’s Boutique Hotel, a luxuriously restored 16th- gem in the quiet quarter of Old Town. With attentive service and freshly baked local pastries delivered to your suite when you wake, this sweet little hideout is a reminder that the best travel experiences are all about feeling at home.
Pro Tip! Despite having a pleasant Mediterranean climate, the Adriatic is known powerful winds that turn up along the Croatian coast. Pack a light windbreaker, even in summer. - Liane Soukup, Luxury Travel Expert