The Daily Telegraph
Published on Saturday August 1, 2009
Chris Alden enjoys an island-hopping tour of Croatia.
The island of Prvić, just off the Dalmatian coast north of Split, is by all accounts a sleepy place. The bigger of its two villages, Prvić Luka, is a little clutch of tile-roofed houses around a seafront square – overlooked by the Venetian windows of the Hotel Maestral, one of the most attractive inns in Croatia, and a school of fish restaurants. It is, so the guidebooks say, the perfect place to spend a relaxing few days as part of an island-hopping tour of Croatia.
Having visited Prvić, I would agree with that assessment – with one reservation. If it’s dreamy romance you want, don’t do as I did and time your visit to coincide with the island’s annual inter-village tug-o’-war contest – when a thousand islanders and their friends return to dance all night long, beneath the charming Venetian windows of the Hotel Maestral.
In retrospect, I should have noticed there were quite a lot of people on the boat.
There are, of course, worse things in life than dancing to Balkan folk rock with a crowd of excited islanders letting off flares and drinking rakija, the local spirit, deep into the night. All things considered, I would go back. But more romantic souls may wish to remember that there are 364 sleepier days of the year to visit Prvić, and 1,184 more islands along Croatia’s Adriatic coast. If at first you don’t succeed, hop on a boat.
For the rest of that memorable Croatian holiday – planned using Jadrolinija ferry schedules and advance hotel reservations – we travelled from Split to Dubrovnik, via four of Croatia’s most beautiful islands, without heading back to the mainland in between; and discovered an endless chain of crystal-clear coves, villages relatively untouched by mass tourism, and yachtie resorts populated by the partying elite.
You might be here for the laid-back island life, but do plan a few days in Split. My own fond memories of the city are the Zephyrus, a luxury B&B just outside the city walls; the Café Luxor, which is, I am ashamed to say, the only watering hole I have ever been to in the open-air peristyle of a Roman imperial palace; and, right by the city gates, Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović’s landmark statue of Gregory of Nin – depicted as a fiery, bearded priest with a pointing right finger, a holy book in his left arm, and a wizard-like hat that wouldn’t look out of place if worn by Dumbledore.
A short ferry ride from Split, Hvar island is a shift upmarket – a place, in these recessionary times, to marvel at yachts owned by people slightly less rich than they were before. But it has an attractive cobbled square dotted with palms, fishing boats, and church towers, and as night falls you could do worse than go to the art deco Bonj les Bains beach club five minutes’ walk from town, lie in a deckchair and look out at the sunset with a pricey cocktail at your side. Make it last.
In search of more rustic charms, we took a ferry from Hvar to the island of Lastovo. Depopulated and off the tourist trail, Lastovo’s biggest village is a ghost town where you wander among tumbledown houses populated, it seems, largely by cats – and old women dressed in black, who will beckon you in Italian to stop, have a drink and spend a little cash. For my part, I found peace for a day in a forgotten fishing port called Sveti Mihovil (St Michael) – where I sunbathed on the concrete in the Croatian style, and listened to 80s music while reading a book I’d been meaning all year to start. Heaven.
I could have spent a month at that little harbour, but if you take the ferry back from Lastovo toward Hvar, disembarking at the first port, you’re at Vela Luka, on the island of Korčula. From here a bus will run you along the length of the island – past woodland, vineyards and stone walls – to Korčula town, whose stone buildings are crammed onto a dramatic headland, with the mountains of the mainland rising high above to the north.
In Korčula, an entire tourist industry has grown up around the idea that this is where the great traveller Marco Polo was born – even though outside Croatia, he is accepted to have been born in Venice. But don’t let that stop you wandering the pretty streets and buying souvenirs from the Marco Polo Shop.
If, like Marco Polo, you start to get itchy feet, don’t worry – Mljet, the last island before Dubrovnik, is a cracker. Its entire western end is a forested national park, where you can hike to green hilltops, cycle round saltwater lakes, or – as many do – skinnydip in the crystal-clear water amid the shelter of the trees. This is apparently where Odysseus spent seven years on his journey to Ithaca, and it’s easy to see why he would have stayed.
From Mljet, the boat to Dubrovnik deposits you back in civilisation – but it’s a pleasant civilisation, as you promenade up and down the main street, the Placa, before taking a tour of the city walls. It’s well worth taking a personally guided tour to learn more about the Serbian bombardment of the city less than 20 years ago. But if you still haven’t had enough of islands, take a day trip to Lokrum, just offshore, where you can walk among the trees with the peacocks and sunbathe for the last time on a rocky cove. In Croatia, there’s always one more island to get to know.
Way to Go
InnTravel offers an 8-night, self-guided Dubrovnik & the Dalmatian Islands tour, including Korčula and Mljet, until Oct. From £665pp (01653 617945, www.inntravel.co.uk)
Adriatic Holidays offers a week on the “Sedna”, a crewed, 3-cabin, 20-metre gulet (luxury wooden yacht) based in Split, until Oct. From €9,800 (£8,425) for the yacht including port taxes but not marina fees, plus €250pp for half-board. (01865 516577, www.adriaticholidays.co.uk)
To island-hop by ferry, check the schedules of Jadrolinija (www.jadrolinija.hr).
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All content © Chris Alden. Original design by Andy Brockie, adapted by Chris Alden over the years.