Emma Stone, of RB Collection takes a familiar journey around beautiful Croatia to reignite her love affair with this Adriatic jewel
Never mind that I know Croatia really well (it’s one of my favourite places on earth) and never mind that it was just a few months ago that I had cruised along the country’s amazing coastline on board the Adriatic’s newest casual ship, the Agape Rose. Just three months later I was back, enticed by what is surely one of the most beautiful coastlines in Europe. My love affair with Croatia is sincere, passionate – and ongoing.
And so it was in mid-September that I returned to my beloved Croatia – to the Dalmatia region to be exact. The peak season crowds had left (wonderful), everything was still open (great) and the sea had warmed up beautifully (perfect). Most days it was sunny and around 24C.
My journey started in Zadar, a glorious waterfront town about two hours north of famous Split and where the city’s old defensive walls had gained UNESCO heritage status just a few months earlier, in July 2017. A couple of cruise ships were docked one day, yet their passengers did not swamp the old town as sadly sometimes happens elsewhere. The two main attractions for the cruising crowd were the Greeting to the Sun and the Sea Organ, both located on the wide pedestrianised seafront promenade. They were installed a few years ago to bring life to the waterfront and they have done just that. The Greeting to the Sun is a massive, solar glass disk on the ground which stores the rays of sun during the day and releases them in the evening into a frenzy of colourful, sparkling laser-type beams. The Sea Organ is a clever piece of work where drilled holes and pipes allow the sea to make music – literally. People sit there for hours, listening and watching the bright blue Adriatic.
I passed them as I headed for the ferry to Dugi Otok (long island). Part of my love affair with Croatia is connected to her amazing, hidden beaches and there are some gorgeous ones here. I adore secret bays.
That evening I drove the 45 minutes to the amazingly named Biograd na Moru and the Hotel Ilirija right on the waterfront. Over coffee with Davor the reception manager (who said he remembered me from the previous year), I heard about the new indoor pool coming in spring 2018, the new glass balconies and when we moved on to the subject of music, Davor berated me with “How did you miss our amazing jazz and blues festival?”. It is now in the diary – late July 2018. Here I indulged in two days of swimming through the lagoon-type bays with a quick trip over to Zlarin island late one afternoon and yes, a secret beach which I had to myself. I love the way that Croatian ferries and catamarans make travel so easy.
My journey southwards brought me to Trogir a few days later. I never tire of this place and it really is one of the most stunning walled cities. It too is a UNESCO heritage site and handy for Split just 30 minutes away. Endless polished marble streets, a museum telling the legend of Kairos, the God of the Fleeting Moment (useful for a pub quiz perhaps?), the wonderful main square with St Lawrence Cathedral and some impressive jewellery boutiques. I stayed at the brand new Hotel Ola at Seget Donji, a quick taxi ride away (both road and water type). I had read reports about the jaw dropping views from the rooftop infinity pool and, oh yes, they were amazing as was the view from my room across the sea towards Trogir. The hotel’s brilliant design means that every room has a wonderful sea view. But it was the Energy Clinic and Spa that drew my attention. There I learned that in April, May, September and October there is usually a 25 per cent discount on most of the programmes from detox to anti-smoking and I had found the perfect birthday present for my old pal David who has been trying to kick the habit for years. Voucher beautifully wrapped and tucked away, I wondered if my friend might welcome me as an observer next May?
Food in this part of Croatia is essentially Mediterranean and healthy with lots of fish, seafood, pasta and quality olive oil and I had been eating lots of it. I had also noticed cookery courses advertised in Trogir.
But I was getting ready to eat in a different way in Split, Croatia’s second city. Even 10 years ago, Split was considered as just the main ferry hub for the islands. Fast forward and it has become as sought after as Dubrovnik further south and people now stay longer. Split has always had a buzz, with daily life going on inside the historic walls of Diocletian’s Palace (also a UNESCO listed site and where the Emperor astutely had his retirement palace built). I had been told that Split had become something of a gourmet hotspot. Really? I found trendy new wine bars serving a wide range of tapas-style dishes, bistros offering everything from fusion cuisine to gourmet burgers, wonderful beach cafes serving small fresh fish in paper wrappers and some very high quality fine dining establishments too. Whoever would have thought it? On my last morning here I had coffee at a cafe on Split’s sandy Bavcice beach (sandy beaches are rare in Croatia) and watched locals play their game of ‘picigin’ which involves running through a shallow sea and some dexterous moves with a sort of tennis ball. It was time to leave for my ferry.
My destination was Supetar on the north coast of the island of Brac. The crossing takes just 50 minutes and it’s so easy and frequent that many locals commute to Split for work. Tourists staying in Supetar can easily nip over to Split for a night at the opera – and back (last ferry from Split is at midnight). The island of Brac is one of my favourites. There are some great beaches, some excellent walks across old shepherds trails, some wonderful summer festivals of food, wine and music and yes, some secret coves. While the V-shaped Zlatni Rat beach in Bol on the south of the island is possibly the most photographed place in Croatia, there are plenty of smaller waterside spots. I took a water taxi along to Lovrecina beach (not far from the Hotel Pastura in Postira – best reached from the sea or down a track) where I enjoyed a seafood risotto lunch at the beach bistro with a glass of superb white wine for around £12. There I met an American couple who were on their way to the island of Vis next day. They were going there for the very experience that bowled me over when I had visited from my Agape Rose cruise earlier in the year.
Military history really doesn’t get more fascinating than on Vis with those hidden submarine hideouts, miles of tunnels and underground rocket launch sites, the old airfield and so many monuments to those who gave their lives during World War Two. I half wished I was going with the Americans. I wondered if they might bump into Meryl Streep, Colin Firth and others who were on the island during September and October, filming the sequel to the film Mamma Mia.
Dubrovnik was to be almost my final stop on this incredible coastal journey. So much has been written about this UNESCO protected city. Has it been spoiled? No. Has it been over-run by cruise passengers? Yes, they are there in numbers but if you plan your visit to the old city before 10am and after 5pm, many of them have returned to their ships. Is it expensive? Yes, in just the way that a famous, sought after place anywhere in the world is more costly than a tiny, unknown village.
Beauty does become Dubrovnik. I have visited so many times since the early Nineties and it still is special. I look beyond the tourist tat on sale up into the Renaissance balconies, I try to take in a concert in Rector’s Palace and I always hop over to Lokrum island (just 10 minutes away) to stroll through the Botanical Gardens, admire the monastery ruins and the Venus pools. There is always a peaceful spot there somewhere.
I stayed in my favourite place near Dubrovnik and that is Cavtat. A long curved waterfront lined with palm trees that has a look of Saint Tropez about it, a lovely walk through woods up to the Racic mausoleum (great views) and the Hotel Cavtat which is always popular with returning Brits. The owners had superbly upgraded the place since my last visit with a stylish new restaurant, new rooms and an extended seafront cafe. I grabbed my book and headed for a seat by the water. I thought about how sometimes, things are not quite what one expects in Croatia. Indeed, they are often 20 times better.
J’AIME reader offer
We have created these two perfect Croatia holidays for you to choose from, based on the hotels Emma stayed at during her visit.
Hotel Ola, Seget Donji, near Trogir (adult only hotel)
7 nights from £799 per person including an upgraded room with a sea view and breakfast.
Hotel Croatia, Cavtat
7 nights from £699 per person including an upgraded room with a sea view and half board.
– Security fast lane access and VIP Lounge on departure
– Return flights with checked in luggage
– Return airport/resort transfers
– 7 nights’ accommodation as stated in upgraded rooms
– Local representative service
– Expert advice on what to see and do
– RB ‘VIP Experience’ service
Contact us to book your holiday to Croatia. Nathan, Kirsty, Nicola and Oliver have all visited and would be delighted to assist you further. Prices are based on low season and subject to availability, terms and conditions. Visit www.rbcollection.com or call 01543 258631.