Squint, and it could be Venice. Besides the decadence and patina of the medieval architecture, the narrow winding maze of alleys, the pavement cafes and the proximity to water, there are the same armies of tourists, being led by flag-waving guides.
Although it suffered shelling during the war in 1991, Dubrovnik remains one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It’s an essential stop off on a modern-day Grand Tour of Europe, and a great starting point if you’re ‘doing’ the Dalmatian Coast.
If you’re looking for luxury in Croatia, then there’s plenty to be found, although you’ll have to temper your expectations a little. One might say tourism developed too quickly here after the war. You’ll come across plenty of iconic images of Dubrovnik in the midst of the conflict in bookshops and online — the main thoroughfare of Stradun looks as abandoned and as shuttered as it is beautiful, inhabited only by the odd stray feline. When civility and peace returned, the old town became populated with souvenir vendors, identikit pizza menus and unintentionally camp Catholic grottos. Today, it’s a frenzy of selfie sticks and rotund Americans on the hunt for Game of Thrones T-shirts (it was, famously, filmed here).
“Oh God, don’t talk to me about that awful TV show!” begs a waiter, in a wonderful Croatian drawl, when someone from a Flyover State strikes up on-location banter. He brings her sushi, and the woman FaceTimes her daughter back home, taking an elaborate order for earrings made from seashells, and T-shirts emblazoned with crystals spelling out the name D-U-B-R-O-V-N-I-K. So that’s who buys all this stuff.
As with Venice — once upon a time Dubrovnik’s rival for maritime trade — you can’t escape the bad, but you can focus on the good. And it’s very good indeed. You can whizz to the top of Mount Srd in a state-of-the-art, 21st-century cable car and take a table on the cliff’s edge for a cocktail, overlooking the 13th-century magic of the old town. You can’t deviate from the cocktail list though — if you want Campari with Prosecco instead of Aperol, you’ll have to order the components individually. Just as restaurants are, by law, forced to serve a certain set of condiments and not others, legislation forbids deviation. Such is Croatia.
There’s a lot to fall in love with in the city itself. Dining on the roof of Proto is as elegant as anything you’ll find on the Adriatic. They serve a variety of oyster that’s virtually extinct outside the region, and their snails in red wine sauce is as excellent and memorable as the simply, perfectly grilled fish of the day. It’s also a great place to introduce yourself to the local wines — the revelation for me. The red Plavac Mali from Bukvic packs a punch of flavour as well as strength: Croatian wines are as heavy in alcohol content as they are taste.
Leaving the restaurant in the dark, the daytime tourists largely gone and the cobbles in the surrounding streets illuminated by lantern light, the scene was cinematic. During a sudden, unexpected rainstorm, I took shelter in D’vino, a tiny wine bar in a narrow alley on the side of the main street. The list is made up of local wines you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, and the barman is thrilled to recommend a flight. I stayed long after the rain had stopped.
When it comes to luxury hotels, the Villa Orsula — part of the Adriatic Luxury Hotels group’s attempt to populate the coast with world-class, five-star properties — is the most exclusive in town. It’s just across the street from the Museum of Modern Art, which has a grand and wonderful sculpture terrace. The hotel has a dramatic ocean-side pool, accessed by rambling gardens and surrounded by cliffs. It’s your best bet for a plush stay within a short walk of the walled old town.
But Villa Orsula has a little grit in the oyster: my airport transfer failed to materialise, and I had a table booked for dinner on a night that the restaurant had, it turned out, been taken over for a wedding. But the rooms are large, comfortable, modern and stylish. And when I did have dinner on the pretty ocean-view terrace, the seafood was very good indeed (much better than the attempt at eggs benedict for breakfast).
Supper at the hotel’s sibling — Vapor at the Bellevue Hotel — is similarly worth a recommendation. I ate roast angler on broccoli mash, and lobster with more butter than you’d find in a bowl of Robuchon fondant potato. With a few tweaks to the lighting to make it more fine dining and less breakfast room, it would be a very good restaurant indeed.
All aboard for Hvar
From Dubrovnik, I take the ferry to Hvar, the country’s sailing centre. This being Croatia, they changed the schedule of the ferry on the day I sailed, from 4.30pm to 4.00pm, without updating the official website. Arriving uncharacteristically early, I made the sailing with zero seconds to spare, and no time to actually collect my tickets. Thus began a frantic hour of discussion and data roaming, while also trying to persuade a Chinese couple that they couldn’t rationally take up six seats on an otherwise full ferry.
When we docked at Hvar I was met by Jacob and Johanna, two exceptionally energetic young Swedes; the skipper and hostess on my yacht for the next few days. I went straight for dinner at Zori, an arrestingly beautiful restaurant set in a bay, amidst palm trees, and reachable only by boat. I kept the slight chill of the night air at bay with the blankets that had been left on the back of each chair, drank superb wine and ate better steak than I’ve had at the legendary Hawskmoor in London, or any parilla in Argentina.
“We don’t use local beef,” explained the waiter. “We want the best.” The best, it turns out, is Welsh, from the Rhug Estate in Denbighshire. Medium rare, with just the right crispness to the surface, and smothered in a blue cheese sauce — it represented a moment of profound carnivorous wonderment.
The next few days passed in a haze of photogenic docks in old ports, drinking wine at sunset and lazing around reading books on the yacht, a Hanse 575. It’s the fastest in its class, and it was this particular boat’s first season. It still had that new boat smell. There’s a sense of liberty on a yacht that you just can’t get any other way on this kind of coastline. And while the skipper does all the hard work, clearly loving every minute of it — whipping sails and ropes into shape while throwing capoeira-type shapes in bare feet on the deck — you get to do nothing but watch the world go by. It’s all one, giant, super-playful Boy’s Own adventure. With your own yacht, the whole coastline becomes one big beach.
“Can I go in?” I asked, as we sailed close to what looked like a mothballed James Bond set — an old, abandoned, submarine dock. Yes, apparently, I could. I hopped into a dinghy and motored my way into the weird concrete tunnel.
Then we sailed around the coast for a trip up to Fort George, a partially restored 19th-century British garrison, for sundowner cocktails on the battlements. It’s a great opportunity for fine dining, art, music and spectacular views.
I’d heard about Roki’s, ‘a secret restaurant’ a short drive from the fort. You have to order your food in the afternoon — lamb or seafood stew — as it takes hours to cook. Someone picks you up at a specified time from the port, and drives you into the hills. I couldn’t resist the idea of it, although when I stepped into its ramshackle garden, I discovered Roki’s is no secret. It’s definitely unique, though.
As I waited for the manager to deal with the slight problem of not, apparently, having a table for me, I watched the chef at work in his open kitchen in the garden. He was a character actor and a half, with a fag dangling from his lips while he moved the huge, covered pots of peka [the national dish of meat and vegetables drizzled with olive oil and herbs] around the blazing charcoal with his giant paddle. The food was good but its theatrical preparation was better. And I spent most of the dinner with a glass of wine in one hand and at least one stray kitten on my lap.
Location, location, location
I left the yacht the next morning in Trogir and picked up a hire car. With a few hours to kill, I Googled what attractions the town had to offer. Instantly, I felt ashamed for pouring scorn on the woman who’d been so excited by her proximity to Game of Thrones locations. Trogir, it turned out, played the part of a significantly more famous port in the Doctor Who adventure The Vampires of Venice. For Whovians, this was like striking gold. So off I went, to take pictures in the courtyard of the town hall, which played the part of Helen McCrory’s palace in the episode, and other assorted parts of the old town where Matt Smith and Karen Gillan had run around. Location-spotting aside, Trogir really is a mini-Venice — a beautiful town for an afternoon’s stroll.
One fairly epic and picturesque five-hour drive later, I pulled up at the Hotel Lone in Rovinj. Connected to Croatia’s most lavish hotel, the Monte Mulini, by a shared, space-age gym and spa wing (with an Instagram-friendly sci-fi corridor that changes colour), the Lone is one of those hotels you take 10 pictures of before you even get inside. It looks like the kind of thing Issey Miyake might create if commissioned to design a billion dollar superyacht — all graphic monochrome curves.
There’s a nightclub in the basement and a store selling contemporary Croatian design. The bedrooms are sparse, sleek and superficially flash — they look like they should offer every conceivable Bluetooth pairing, but actually all you get is two pillows and a Pilates ball. But as over-designed resorts go, it’s great fun, and the service and dining are excellent.
You can also walk around, past the new Mulini Beach Club (designed by the Hotel Lone’s Croatian architects, 3LHD), into the old town. If you keep walking up, up, up into the town, you’ll hit the church. Just before you reach it, you’ll find Monte, the town’s Tripadvisor-topping restaurant making its bid towards 21st-century fine dining.
“What bit do I eat?” bellowed a wonderfully jovial Welshman when what looked like a small olive tree landed on his table. There are some good things going on in the kitchen at Monte, but the owners are big on using five ingredients when three will do. Dishes glow and change colour. Asparagus is turned into foam and sponge. There’s suckling pig with curried lentils and pancetta. The ‘active volcano’ pudding comes with ‘a surprise’ — popping candy, which hasn’t surprised anyone since around 1983. But if you’ve been overdosing on grilled fish hitherto, it’s an entertaining evening.
Better, however, is La Puntulina, which serves good seafood and pasta, on the rocks. Literally, on the rocks. With tables and chairs set out on several naturally formed ledges above the water’s edge, this is one of the most romantic restaurants in the world. Locals sit on the stairs drinking wine while couples sit and kiss with their feet dangling over the ocean. This isn’t really somewhere to eat alone, but if you run out of conversation, there’s certainly no anxiety in silently enjoying the view.
However, the best meal I had in Croatia was in the Wine Vault — chef Tomislav Gretic’s restaurant at the Hotel Monte Mulini. The hotel itself is visually richer, busier and more sophisticated than its sibling. You can spend lovely days by its various swimming pools, or you can wander down to the beach club and drink fairly priced Champagne and eat salads in between dips in the sea. This is an excellent resort. There’s even a throwback 1970s bowling alley hidden away somewhere, in a cheaper hotel across the manicured gardens.
The best way to experience Gretic’s cooking is by taking the chef’s table, a graffiti-walled nook in his kitchen (you’re invited to add your own drawings). Here’s a chef doing something that would stand out in San Sebastian or Napa. It’s modern and delicious. Gretic played US indie band The National’s latest album at volume while he cooked, serving me raw scampi with apple and a fragrant olive oil; salmon with leek and potato soup and smoked horseradish; fresh foie gras and lentils; and a dish with Joselito ham and white truffle that was so extraordinary, looking back weeks later, I found I’d scrawled the words ‘best thing ever’ next to it on my tasting menu. I ate too much and I drank too much. Much too much.
The next morning, I caught the dawn ferry from Rovinj to Venice. With the Veneto so close, finishing my trip here was irresistible. And after starting in Dubrovnik, it seemed like a coherent finishing line.
By the time I reached the recently refurbished Gritti Palace, I was in need of some relaxation at the Acqua di Parma Blu Mediterraneo Spa and a significant amount of silence. And there’s no better hotel for it. The Gritti Palace takes all the romance of that sunset dinner at La Puntulina in Rovinj and turns it into woven silk, incredible dark marble and crystal. I can’t find enough words to express how great a hotel it is, so it’s probably easier to find fault. Dinner — the actual food, rather than setting — is merely OK. But everything else is astonishing: walking into a room is like walking inside a couture dress, albeit one with immaculate antiques next to state-of-the-art B&O technology. It’s all profoundly comfortable, grand and truly luxe.
And for a journey that had been all about life by the water, my last morning ended on the perfect note. Walking out onto the terrace of the Gritti for breakfast, the vista of the Grand Canal, with its palazzos and gondoliers, striped poles and vaporetto traffic passing left and right, seemed so exceptional, so art directed, so beautiful, that I laughed out loud. I squinted into the bright sunlight; this was definitely Venice.
British Airways flies between Gatwick and Dubrovnik and between Gatwick/Heathrow and Venice. EasyJet flies between Gatwick and Dubrovnik from April to October, and between Gatwick and Venice, plus from Glasgow to Split. Monarch Airlines flies to Split from Birmingham and from Manchester to Dubrovnik, while Jet2 flies from Manchester to Dubrovnik. Croatia Airlines flies direct from Heathrow to Zagreb.
Average flight time: 2h40m.
The Dalmatian coast is best tackled by boat, car, or a mixture of both. Train lines in Croatia are centred around Zagreb, with few coastal services. Kapetan Luka runs high-speed ferries from Dubrovnik to Hvar on Tuesday and Thursday from mid-May to mid-October.
European Coastal Airlines offers seaplane connections between the islands.
Venezia Lines runs daily ferries from Rovinj to Venice.
When to go
The Dalmatian coast is highly seasonal. Most resorts close from autumn to spring. Travel in peak season — July and August — is expensive and docking space is sparse when cruising. Early September is ideal with temperatures around 20C.
Need to know
Currency: Croatian prices are often marked in euros but the official currency is the kuna (HRK): £1 = 10.46 HRK.
International dial code: 00 385.
Time difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
Seamaster Yachting offers crewed and ‘sail yourself’ yacht charters across the Croatian islands. Yacht charter prices, £2,750-£9,250 per week for up to 10 guests, which includes skipper and host.
CroatiaHolidays.com offers villas and hotels in Croatia, including Dubrovnik and Istria. Accommodation prices, £500-£8,500 per week for up to eight guests.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)