In the summer of 2014, Johanna and I explored the southern coastline of Croatia in late-June and the first week of July. During our two week stay, we visited Croatia's second-city (Split), an island paradise frequented by the yacht-set (Hvar), and "the Pearl of the Adriatic" (Dubrovnik). We had such a great time that we have been looking forward to our next visit almost since the day we returned to the US.
Split is the second city of Croatia in large part because of its large shipping port. That, however, is juxtaposed by the ancient and romantic city-center, Emperor Diocletian's Palace. The Roman emperor, who was born in Croatia, built his retirement home in what is now the city of Split and the UNESCO Heritage Site remains and thrives today. With restaurants and shops taking the place of his possessions and guests within the compound walls, Diocletian's Palace is definitely worth exploring.
In our case, we had several days in Split before moving on to the Island of Hvar, which were "split" between a bike rental trip that took us to the nearest island (Brac), some seaside relaxation in the cafes of Bacvice Beach, and several excellent dinners within the palace walls.
We stayed in an AirBnB rental apartment for about $60 per night and we think this was probably the best way to do a stay in Split. Our apartment was located just five minutes walk from Diocletian's Palace, the farmer's market, and the waterfront. About 15 minutes walk to the southeast brought us past a clay-court tennis facility to Bacvice Beach, the city's beach. Apparently, that's also where much of the partying nightlife can be found, but we visited during the day and enjoyed hanging out in a cafe and walking along the water.
On the evening before our departure for Hvar, a summer storm blew in and buckets of rain began dumping on the city of Split. Much of the dining space for the restaurants is annexed from narrow pathways within the palace walls, but we managed to snag a table inside after our table's umbrella finally gave in. After dinner, we moved to a bar, where we watched the howling storm pelting the few customers who, cigarettes in-hand, were compelled to remain outside. As is so often the case, the times when things don't go as planned are often the most memorable bits of our travel adventures.
Brac Island, Croatia
There are more than 1,000 islands in Dalmatia (the Croatian coastline), making decisions about which to visit extremely difficult. While we didn't have too much time to island hop, we took the opportunity to rent reasonably high-quality road bikes to explore the Island of Brac, just off the coast of Split.
Visiting Brac is like stepping back in time, particularly if venturing outside of the two main port towns of Supetar and Bol. We used the Jadrolinija ferry to go from Split to Supetar, before making a loop of the western side of the island. There were almost no cars on the road and we passed through several seemingly deserted hamlets, where stone walls stood firm against the test of time, but held little life within.
Stopping in one of these places (Donji Humac), we found a restaurant we had heard about and settled in for some lunch and a thirst-quenching beer. Croatia is warm in the summer and the air hangs wet with tropical humidity. After spending a while refueling and enjoying the terrace views of the island from the high vantage-point of the restaurant, we descended back towards Supetar.
Taking the smaller side road first to the east of Supetar, our route ended with a mile or two of peaceful meandering along quiet, pine-sheltered coastline. Occasionally, a tanned body appeared amongst the pines and the rocky coast, sometimes in a swimsuit and sometimes in a more natural state. On this stretch, there is no one to bother sunbathers and plenty of space to find a beach to call one's own.
Follow the link for more info about our route.
Hvar Island, Croatia
Hvar Island is about an hour away from Split by ferry and a world apart from mainland Europe. This truly is an island paradise! Upon arriving in Hvar Town, we walked along the seafront promenade for about 20 minutes to reach our AirBnB rental "Patak's Place." We were located on the top-floor of this small apartment complex that is rented out to tourists by a family. Beyond our balcony, views of the Pakleni Islands and the blue waters were framed by vibrant bougainvillea and tiled roofs.
The promenade walk to the west (towards our rental) leads past the well-known Hula Hula Beach Club, but beyond its blaring electronic music and swaying bodies, there is real solitude and quiet relaxation. Falco Bar sits at the end of the promenade, unbeknownst to many (we didn't find it until our last day on the island). Falco is "chilled out" as the Euros would say, a place where you can enjoy a Karlovacko and some light food. It is also easy to take a dip in the clear blue water anywhere along the promenade.
Most Croatian beaches are of the pebbled and rocky variety and include the added dangers of sea urchins. Don't let this deter you! Both are evidence of the pristine condition of the water and the gentle flow of the current. Visibility is incredible and there are fish and urchins to entertain you underneath the surface, so bring goggles!
Beyond Hvar Town, there is much to see and do on the island, which is known for its lavender and wine. We decided to rent a convertible and drive across to Jelsa, on the north end of the island, as well as explore more remote parts of the southern coastline, where we discovered real, old-world vineyards that were clearly family-run.
Our first stop in the convertible was in the town of Velo Grablje. Our stay happened to coincide with Hvar's lavender festival (okay, I admit it...I planned our trip to coincide with the lavender bloom) and this town is one of the hosts for the festivities. One of the goals of the festival is to revitalize and maintain local culture on the island, which has increasingly become a plaything of the rich and famous. To learn more about the lavender festival, visit this website.
One word of warning about Velo Grablje: the roads are very narrow in this little town and parking is tough, so get there earlier in the day for the festival. We witnessed one car dangling a wheel off the edge of the hill trying to pass. It took a good half-hour and some local ingenuity to get the car fully back on solid ground!
After our visit to Velo Grablje, we continued on through lavender fields and vines to the coastal town of Jelsa. I had read about this place and its beauty was not overstated. We got hooked into some wifi (and a beer) at a local bar and then moved over to a restaurant in the marina for lunch. As is typical in many of the smaller Croatian towns, this restaurant was family-owned and operated. Our waitress was taking turns between bringing us our delicious meal and sitting inside with her baby in a stroller. Being on vacation and in an easy-going mood, we found this arrangement quite charming, whereas in the US, service expectations would certainly be different.
Later on in the day we made our way to the south side of the island, which is where most of the wine is grown, to sample some of the local vino. In order to reach this side, the Pitve Tunnel must be taken through the middle of the island. Fun and just a little bit nerve-racking!
The tasting experience on Hvar is nothing like the commercialized approach of California wineries. While we love our California tasting rooms and sprawling estates, there was something uniquely appealing about coming upon a little shack with the elderly matriarch of the family offering us samples of wine from unlabeled bottles. She spoke absolutely no english, but between our limited Croatian and hand gestures, we managed to get on famously.
Another thing that is special about wine grown on Croatian islands is that it is typical unique to the island on which it is grown. These rare varietals have been grown in the same place and in the same way for thousands of years, completely cut off from outside influence, making them a delightful way to truly access the past. Some of the vineyards in Croatia have been around in one form or another since the days of the Romans, and here in Hvar, very little has changed. It is a simple and beautiful life.
Another thing we did while in Hvar Town is visit the actual waterfront center of town. There is a large square that, at night, fills with tables and chairs growing out from the small restaurants within the stone walls. A lively bar scene occurs in the late-night hours along the ports edge, as well as up the hillside a few blocks in alleyways and along ancient stairs.
In the day, we continued up the hillside to the fort that sits above the city and port. It's a strenuous walk to the top, but well worth the views it yields once you get there. The fort also seems to be set up to host weddings and other special events, which would certainly make a spectacular impression upon guests!