Think of Croatia and swaggeringly beautiful Dubrovnik probably springs to mind, a movie-set jumble of baroque palaces and bell towers, neatly encircled by massive ramparts.
There’s a lot more to Croatia than its star attraction, though. When Yugoslavia broke apart in 1992, Croatia got by far the longest stretch of coast, 1777 kilometres, but a massive 5835 kilometres if you count the 1246 pine-clad, sun-bleached limestone islands scattered along the entire coastline.
There’s much to admire in the country’s interior: a landscape of pristine forests, lakes, gorges and mountain ranges, not to mention a rich culture and complex history. But the reality is that most visitors come for the summer sunshine, the crystal-clear sea, the lovely, red-roofed old towns and the antiquities along the coast.
Exploring Croatia is possible by rail, car and, if you’ve got time, the intricate network of ferries that serves the islands. Organised tours tend to take in the main attractions, Opatija, Zadar, Split, Korčula and Dubrovnik, but do build in some downtime; it’s important to cultivate the Croatian concept of fjaka, an un-translatable word that means a sense of serenity from doing very little. This could be a long brunch of truffled cheese, smoked ham, olives and a chilled dry white from the Pelješac peninsula – or taking your time over a coffee with friends.
The heart-shaped Istrian peninsula forms the northernmost stretch of coast, encircled by holiday resorts and rocky, pine-fringed shores. Inland, there’s a fine gastronomy to explore, as this is where truffles, olive oil and asparagus are grown, not to mention excellent wines. The coast is fairly developed, and some of the 1960s communist-era architecture isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but take time to visit Opatija, east of the peninsula, a resort that oozes old money, all frothy Belle Epoque villas in improbable pastel shades, built in the Austro-Hungarian era as seaside homes for rich Viennese. There are no beaches to speak of as the wooded hills stretch right down to the water, but swimming off the rocks in the cool water is blissful.
Further south you reach the buzzing town of Zadar in North Dalmatia. Check out the sea organ on the waterfront, a series of steps concealing pipes leading to a hollow chamber below. When the waves break on the steps, air forced through the pipes plays haunting ‘tunes’. Zadar is also the jumping-off point for the stark Kornati archipelago, 140 treeless, white islands rising out of a metallic blue sea. The islands, all uninhabited, are riddled with karst formations of gorges and sea caves and are only accessible by boat, so book a daytrip and pack swimmers and a picnic.
Another worthwhile excursion from Zadar takes you inland, to the ruggedly beautiful Paklenica National Park, where there are decent hikes through a deep gorge, its sheer limestone rock faces attracting nesting birds of prey and its sun-dappled woods home to bears, wolves, lynx and wild boar.
Heading south, the Krka National Park, inland from the resort town of Šibenik, is where that iconic shot of cascading waterfalls and rocky pools comes from. Here, the Krka river tumbles over a series of limestone rock faces in the wooded gorges of the park. Until now, a short hike followed by a plunge into the cooling depths of Skradinski Buk, the pool at the foot of the biggest cascade, has been the thing to do. But the park’s popularity has become such that swimming here will be banned from the end of 2020, so make the most of this last chance.
Split is a gorgeous city, like Dubrovnik, something of a victim of its own success, but always lovely to explore. The magnificent Diocletian’s Palace is a living part of the city, its ancient walls housing shops, markets, bars and restaurants. Some 3000 people live here, amid marble columns and grand structures originating from the fourth century. Seeing washing strung across narrow alleys, many of them centuries old, is an incongruous sight. Climb the belltower for views over the rooftops and then reward yourself with fresh octopus and a chilled white on a shaded terrace by the sea.
No trip to Croatia is complete without exploring some of the islands. Korčula, one of the largest at 47 kilometres long, has it all: vineyards producing world-class wines from the indigenous grape pošip, olive groves, pretty villages, piney coves and tiny, sandy beaches. Red-roofed Korčula town is almost Dubrovnik in miniature, encircled by sturdy ramparts, its narrow streets forming a neat grid inside the 20-metre-high walls. Locals claim that Marco Polo was born here. There’s little proof of this, although the town certainly packs in historic intrigue and atmosphere. Wide, polished stone steps form a grand entrance at the Land Gate, while inside the walls, there’s much to explore. Climb the Revelin Tower for views over the rooftops and peek into the ornate, 16th-century St Mark’s Cathedral, with two works by Venetian master Tintoretto inside.
Most tours would continue south from Split or Korčula to Dubrovnik, but the sleepy villages of Ston and Mali Ston on the Pelješac peninsula are astonishingly underrated. The two are connected by three miles of ramparts that snake impossibly over the rocky mountaintop. The walls were built in the 14th century to protect the precious salt pans at Ston and they put the dramatic ramparts of nearby Kotor, in Montenegro, to shame. You can walk on top of the walls over to Mali Ston in about an hour where, happily, the local specialities are oysters and wine.
Croatia’s shining star, Dubrovnik, is in the far south of the country. Unfortunately, Dubrovnik has become better known for overtourism recently than much else, but there’s room for everybody, especially if you overnight there, or at the very least, wait until the cruise ships and daytrippers have left. Early evening is, in any case, the best time to stroll along the city’s big attraction, the medieval walls, two kilometres long and studded with towers and bastions. It’s quieter at this time and the light is soft and glowing. Just past St Peter’s bastion, look down and you’ll see people drinking on narrow terraces cut into the rocks below the ramparts. That’s Buza; a grungy bar with the best sunsets in town. You can reach it via the baroque staircase at the end of Gundulić Square, behind the cathedral, following the sign saying ‘cold drinks and the most beautiful view’.
There are more stupendous views from the cable car that whisks you up Mount Srd, behind the town. Heat permitting, the zigzag path back down to the city is a peaceful 40-minute walk, with the scent of wild herbs in the air and views of the town and islands beyond. On Stradun, the main boulevard, all gleaming, polished limestone, drop into the Franciscan Monastery. The 14th-century cloister surrounds an exquisite courtyard shaded by orange trees while, inside, old paintings depict Dubrovnik before a catastrophic earthquake felled the city in 1667; it’s fascinating to see how much taller the buildings were then.
On hot days, do as the locals do and escape the crowds by hopping onto one of the half-hourly ferries from the town port to Lokrum island, a nature reserve 10 minutes across the water. Here, you can bask on flat rocks, explore the ruined monastery or snooze in the shade of pine trees, emerging to plunge into the clear sea; fjaka in action.
Take me there
Fly Emirates flies from Sydney to Dubrovnik, changing in Dubai for the Dubrovnik non-stop sector flown by Flydubai (it operates on Thursdays and Sundays in the European summer, May-October). Qatar Airways flies from Sydney to Zagreb, with a change in Doha. From Zagreb, there are regional flights all over the country.
Drive Getting around by car is fairly easy; the roads are good and the scenery gorgeous, although locals tend to drive very fast. Factor in time for the border crossing at Neum if you’re driving between Split and Dubrovnik, as you’ll pass through a tiny coastal section of Bosnia. Forget about parking in the old, walled towns; it’s better to leave the car at your accommodation and get around on foot or by taxi. Most of the main car rental companies, including Europcar and Hertz, operate from Dubrovnik Airport and offer one-way rentals, so you could drop off at Split, or Zadar.
Sleep In Dubrovnik, there’s a choice of boutique hotels or Airbnb accommodation inside the old town, or a series of grand resort hotels just outside the walls. The Grand Villa Argentina is a pleasant 10-minute walk from the Ploče Gate and has gorgeous terraced gardens and a pool (adriaticluxuryhotels.com). In Split, stay in the heart of the action; the boutique Vestibul Palace hotel is actually inside Diocletian’s Palace, packed with atmosphere and handy for the many bars and restaurants along the waterfront (vestibulpalace.com).