Rob Bleaney enjoys a magical trip down the Dalmatian coast
CROATIA is one of those rare holiday destinations that absolutely everyone seems to rave about.
The sea is amazing they say, and the ancient buildings are so beautiful. The weather is wonderful, they cry, and everything is so cheap.
Having only visited once before for a weekend, I decided it was time to take a proper trip down the Dalmatian Coast to see exactly what the fuss is all about.
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Days 1-3 Zadar
Our first stop was the vastly underrated city of Zadar, with its wonderfully troubled history.
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Just a ferry ride across the Adriatic Sea from the Italian city of Ancona, Zadar has been ruled by Italy, France, Germany and Austria over the years. During the Second World War it was bombed to smithereens by the Allies after it was occupied by the Germans. And in 1991 the city’s residents were virtually imprisoned in their homes for three months as rockets rained down from Yugoslavia.
Nowadays it’s a classic Dalmatian city, with a picturesque old town jutting out into the ocean and designer shops lining the cobbled streets.
Most holidaymakers head out to Borik, Zaton or Petrcane to the west of the city, where the Austrian-based Falkensteiner group run a number of resorts.
After a couple of days by the pool at the kiddie’s heaven that is the Family Hotel Diadora, we headed into the old town and the elegant Hotel Bastion overlooking the harbour.
Churches and museums abound, but the most unusual attraction is the world’s only sea organ, which produces a hypnotically mournful sound when the water pushes through its strange system of pipes and whistles.
Day 4 Sibenik and Krka National Park
An hour an a half south by coach is Sibenik, a surprisingly pretty seaside town which provides the base to explore the Krka waterfalls.
A 30-minute bus ride and a short boat trip provide a very interesting entrance to the park.
In truth it’s not as stunning as the World Heritage Site of Plitvice Lakes further north, and the wildlife is not as impressive. There are also a lot of tourists around, but there’s a very pleasant walk through the lush green foliage around the park, the waterfalls are majestic and you can swim in the crystal clear waters below.
Days 5-7 Hvar Island
With the rain hammering down following an all-night thunder storm, we spent the next day travelling. A coach to Split was followed by a catamaran to Hvar Town, Croatia’s destination of choice for the rich and famous.
Hvar is the sunniest and greenest of all the Dalmatian islands, and even through the clouds the arrival at Hvar Town is something to behold.
A long promenade stretches around the harbour and gothic palaces litter the skyline as the town stretches up the hillside.
The marbled pedestrianised streets are great for a wander with an ice cream, littered as they are with 13th century squares and monastries, 16th century cathedrals and modern day galleries, theatres and boutique shops.
The beaches are rocky but everyone just hops on taxi boats to the Pakleni Islands, one of which is sandy, two are naturist and another has an outdoor nightclub with boats heading back until 1.30am.
For about �40 you can hire your own motorboat for the day and explore the islands yourself.
By night Hvar Town itself really comes alive.
It has a reputation as a party place, and many of the bars are packed with young revellers dressed to impress and ready to dance. But the scene is a far cry from the binge-drink booze-cruise fuelled aggression so common in places like Ayia Napa and Faliraki, and visitors of all ages mill about together.
For those looking for something a little more laidback than the Aussie backpacker-dominated nightclubs, there is an abundance of top quality restaurants, serving up everything from Japanese to classic Dalmatian cuisine.
A people watching walk along the millionaires marina is always fun too. We didn’t quite spot Roman Abramovich or P Diddy strolling off their yachts, but the people we did see wasn’t far off.
When the stars do come to town they usually head for the Hotel Adriana, which overlooks the harbour on the posh side of town, with its amazing views of the majestic old town from the rooftop bar. The rooms are so close to the water you really feel like you’re at sea as you lie in bed.
Day 8 Korcula Island
A short ferry ride south from Hvar is the island of Korcula, home of Marko Polo.
The small but charming old town is designed in a grid pattern to protect people from the Maestral wind which whips up from the sea.
With it’s cobbled streets, high walls and location jutting out into the sea, it is like a mini-Dubrovnik, although in marked contrast you can stay centrally and in comfort for around �10 per person if you pick the right woman offering sobe (rooms) at the port.
It’s a bit choppy for swimming off the old town - although some brave soles do tackle the plunge - but there’s a fantastic promenade for breakfast and coffee, some fantastic history and even a bar in a turret you have to climb a ladder to access.
Days 9 & 10 Dubrovnik
Known as the Pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik is the number one reason why so many thousands of tourists flock to the Dalmatian coast every year, and it is a truly breathtaking city.
The ferry ride down the coast is pretty special in itself, and the excitement builds as you pull into the port past some of the city’s well to do suburbs with the mountains soaring up into the sky behind.
The recently renovated Hotel Lapad looks proudly out over the harbour where some of the biggest cruise ships in the world dock, but just 15 minutes on a bus and suddenly you see what all the fuss is about.
The Old Town took an almighty hammering during the civil war of 1991 and 1992. More than two thirds of its 824 building were bombed, there were 111 hits on the great wall, nine historic palaces were completely gutted by fire and many of the most famous landmarks were damaged. But you would hardly know it.
Everywhere you look are magnificent stone buildings with the stunning red brick roofs synonymous with the city. There are imperious monuments around every corner, and the cobbled streets and historic squares brim with energy.
On the downside there are tourists everywhere, it’s expensive and the restaurants are a little more pushy than anywhere else in the country, but somehow it doesn’t seem to matter.
The best way to take in Dubrovnik’s full beauty is a walk around the Old Town’s awe-inspiring city walls. It’s not one for the feint-hearted, but it provides a beautiful contrast between the historic city, emerald green sea and majestic harbour.
From up there you also get a flavour of how the locals live in the Old Town, with children enjoying impromptu football matches in the narrow alleys in the sky.
Days 11 & 12 Kolocep Island
One of Dubrovnik’s less well-known attractions is the Elafiti Islands, the perfect place to escape the madness.
We took the 20-minute boat ride to the beautiful unspoilt island of Kolocep for a couple of nights of total relaxation. There are no cars about, but a little wander around the island sees you stumble across churches and monasteries as well as a number of picturesque points from which to dive into the sea.
The only hotel is the peaceful Villas Kolocep, with its fantastic sea views, live jazz by night and beautiful sandy beach, which provides a welcome relief from the daily battle with the sea urchins. Those rubber shoes the Germans love may look pretty unstylish, but they seem a lot more appealing once you have experienced an urchin’s needle in your toe.
Days 13 & 14 Split
The final leg of our journey was a mini city break in the bustling city of Split and a stay at the perfectly located Hotel Authentic. This 300 year old ruin just moments from the ferry port and the World Heritage site of the Diocletian’s Palace has been lovingly restored by a pair of young Croatian newlyweds, and you could not wish for a better base.
Split has changed massively in the last five to ten years, and more and more people are choosing it as a base for a summer holiday. As well as being the gateway to the islands, it has a lovely park, a buzzing promenade, fantastic shops and cafes, and it is one of those rare cities with a nice beach. And with flights from as little as �60 return it would be a very interesting weekend break destination during the winter.
Like Split, Croatia as a whole is a place on the rise. The weather may not be as universally amazing as some people make out, particularly come September, but there’s so much history and culture to take in and explore that the odd cloudy day can be a blessing.
It’s cheap to get to, amazingly interesting and surprisingly easy to travel around once you get there.
Family Hotel Diadora, Petrcane, Zadar
Full board from 65 euros per person per night
Tel: +385 23 206 624
Hotel Bastion, Zadar
Double rooms from 156 euros per night
Tel: +385 23 494 950
Hotel Adriana, Hvar Town
Double rooms from 229 euros per night
Tel : +385 21 750 750
Hotel Lapad, Dubrovnik
Double rooms from 100 euros per night
Tel: +385 20 455 572
Hotel Villas Kolocep, Kolocep Island, Dubrovnik
Tel: +385 20 757 025
Double rooms from 58 euros per night
(season runs April 22 to October 16, 2011)
Hotel Authentic, Split
Double rooms from 99 euros per night
Tel: +385 91 752 5980