From perfect beaches and unspoiled nature to some of the best seafood in the Mediterranean, it’s all on offer on Croatia’s islands, says Andy Jarosz
Clear blue water, quiet sandy beaches and beautiful Venetian architecture: Croatia’s islands may not receive the same level of attention as the Italian resorts just across the Adriatic, but after one visit it’s easy to understand why they’re rapidly becoming a popular choice for vacations in the Mediterranean sunshine.
Croatia’s islands offer some of southern Europe’s most attractive coastal scenery and architecture, and while prices have risen in recent years, they still represent some of the region’s best value vacation destinations. Croatia’s entry into the EU has brought an easing of border controls, and in 2013 around 10 million overseas visitors came to the country — around 160,000 were from the US. In recent years, there’s been a steady increase in the number of upscale hotels and fashion boutiques, while the variety and quality of seafood restaurants is consistently good.
The Croatian islands run along the full length of the country’s 327-mile Adriatic coastline — ideal for cruising — with the most popular islands in the south, easily accessed by ferries from the historic cities of Split and Dubrovnik, which nearly all itineraries take time to admire.
Korcula is perhaps the best-known and most photogenic of the islands, with its Venetian heritage, coast-hugging wall and medieval town topped with tightly-packed red roofs. Shore excursions take in walking tours of the historic towns and some cruises offer activity options, such as mountain biking or kayaking in the clear blue water off the shores of the islands.
The region is becoming increasingly connected to the European flight network, with low-cost airlines and national carriers connecting the airports with several major hubs. Getting around is simple, and car rental is easily arranged for those wishing to explore the more secluded beaches. And with increasing visitor numbers leading to an ever-greater choice of hotels, there are options to suit almost any budget.
Where: This thin finger of an island lies north of Korcula, and is the longest island in the Adriatic, stretching for almost 50 miles from west to east. From the port of Sucuraj at its eastern tip, it’s just fives miles to the Croatian mainland.
Best for: Glamor, activities, and lavender fields.
Why: More than any other Croatian island, Hvar is a destination in its own right and while it can be visited for a few days on an island-hopping trip, it also makes a sensible base for a week-long vacation. The old town, Stari Grad, dates back to 385BC and is a delightful maze of alleyways and stone houses clustered above its harbor.
It’s said that Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson enjoyed their escapes to Hvar, and today the rich and famous still come in numbers, judging by the luxury yachts found in the swanky surroundings of Hvar Town. Here guests can shop in some of Europe’s most exclusive designer boutiques, and indulge in fresh grilled fish and wild boar, accompanied by light and refreshing local wines. Hvar was once one of the world’s leading producers of lavender and tours still run from the main resorts during the summer for visitors wishing to admire the colorful fields and purchase oils and other lavender products.
Combine with: Scedro, a small island to the south of Hvar, offering deserted family-friendly beaches, along with a pace of life that hasn’t changed for centuries.
Where: Sitting around eight miles south west of Hvar, Vis is a relatively small island with a far more sedate vibe than its larger neighbor. There’s a direct daily ferry service from Split and a seasonal connection with Hvar.
Best for: Unspoiled coastline and food.
Why: For those in search of an untouched Mediterranean island, Vis is a perfect choice. A military base during the Yugoslav years, the island had no tourist industry before Croatian independence, and even now it’s still relatively undeveloped. The majority of accommodation is in comfortable guesthouses rather than large hotels, and the island has garnered a reputation for the quality of its homegrown food and produce. Diners can enjoy some of the Mediterranean’s most consistently good seafood, particularly lobster, and its finest white wines — unsurprising if you take a drive across Vis and pass the miles of vineyards.
With relatively few visitors, it’s quite easy to enjoy exclusive use of one of the coastline’s many quiet coves and beaches — perfect for families and couples. Stiniva Cove is a favorite spot for snorkeling, and is also a good place to see loggerhead turtles in their natural habitat. Vis is a popular island for cyclists, with leisurely and well-marked circular trails enabling them to cover most of the island in a day, plus off-road opportunities for mountain bikers.
Combine with: Bisevo, a tiny island nearby with a population of only 15. It’s home to the ruins of a Benedictine monastery, and also the enchanting Blue Cave (or Blue Grotto), where for several hours a day piercing sunlight passes through the sea cave and bounces off the sea floor to create a magical blue glow.
Where: Korcula sits off the southern Croatian coast and is one of the larger islands, with
25 miles separating the two main towns of Vela Luka and Korcula. Ferries run from Korcula
to Dubrovnik, and the island is separated by barely a mile of sea from the Peljesac Peninsula on the mainland.
Best for: Culture and beaches.
Why: The jewel of Korcula is without doubt its old walled town. This well-preserved medieval settlement boasts some of the Adriatic’s finest Venetian architecture. The town is dominated by St Mark’s Cathedral, and from its elevated position beside pretty Pjaceta Square, a series of narrow lanes winds down to the waterfront. Medieval houses are now home to artisan shops, luxury boutiques and chic seafood restaurants. A popular attraction is a house claiming to be the birthplace of Marco Polo — although there’s no evidence to support these claims.
The waterfront promenade on top of the town walls is perfect for an evening stroll, with the path offering views across the sea below. Dolphins can occasionally be spotted close to the shore. Away from the town, there’s an abundance of quiet beaches. One of the most popular is sandy Vela Przina Beach, five miles to the south of Korcula Town, while further west is pebbly Pupnatska Beach, set in a beautiful secluded cove.
Combine with: Wine tasting. Visiting Korcula on a tour from Dubrovnik will inevitably involve a two-hour bus trip across the Peljesac Peninsula, creating the perfect excuse to stop at one of the peninsula’s vineyards and sample the local wines.
Best of the rest:
Mljet: With two inland saltwater lakes, this finger island to the west of Dubrovnik is a quiet, undeveloped option that’s popular for scuba diving and those seeking a peaceful retreat.
Proizd: Accessible only by water taxi from Vela Luka on Korcula, this tiny island is known as a top quality sunbathing spot, with its golden rocks and crystal clear water.
Krk: Croatia’s largest island, and also its busiest, is linked to the mainland by a bridge. Good roads make it easy to explore, and there’s a wide choice of accommodation catering
to all budgets.
Mali Losinj: Known for the striking deep green color of its waters and its vibrant inland forests, Mali Losinj is popular with visitors looking for a natural retreat and a choice of healthy outdoor activities.
Rab: With its golden sand and shallow bays, Rab’s many beaches are ideal for families and those looking for a traditional seaside vacation. The Venetian old town is particularly charming.
Climate: The Croatian islands in the Adriatic have a typically Mediterranean climate, with reliably hot summers soaring above 95F and relatively cool winters dropping to 20F.
Sea temperatures are ideal for swimming between June and September.
Currency: Croatian kun (HRK). $1 = HRK6.72.
Time: GMT +1.
Dial code: +385.
Getting there: Ferries to the islands leave mainly from Split and Dubrovnik. Both cities have international airports, which have services to major European hubs, including Frankfurt, Paris and London. At present there are no direct flights from the US to Croatia.
Getting around: Inter-island public ferries run daily in the summer to and from the coastal towns and cities to the main islands, with less frequent off-season schedules. Most islands have a bus service, and car rentals are available on the larger islands.
Red tape: No visa is required for US citizens wishing to visit Croatia.
Geography: Croatia sits by the Adriatic Sea, bordering Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro.
Visitors: Around 160,000 US visitors in 2013 (latest figures).
Contact: Croatia National Tourist Board.
T: 212 279 8672 (New York). croatia.hr
Sample: Croatia Travel offers an eight-day cruise, starting and ending in Dubrovnik and taking in Mljet, Korcula and Hvar. Prices start at $1,700 per person, including cabin with private bathroom, breakfasts, most lunches, airport transfers, service charges and taxes.
T: 1 800 662 7628. croatiatravel.com