Sunday Times (http://travel.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,18929-1484042,00.html)
special: a star is born
Croatia has entered the Mediterranean big league, but
how can you get the best from the 'New Riviera'? David Wickers shows
These days, it’s not hard to find a contented Croat. While many popular
Mediterranean destinations grapple with a downturn, last summer was
a bonanza in the Balkans, with UK visitors up by 40% on 2003. This year’s
prospects look perky, too: 15 tour operators are featuring Croatia for
the first time, and those that dipped their toe in the Med’s clearest
water in 2004 are now diving headlong into other parts of the country
— and splashing cash about wherever they go.
Since much of Croatia is a long narrow strip of coast, it’s an obvious
candidate for the classic sunny summer holiday. Having emerged from
the bust-up of old Yugoslavia with the lion’s share of the shore, it
offers almost 1,000 miles of seaside, reaching all the way from the
Slovenian border to the Montenegrin one. And should you run out of mainland,
there are still 1,185 islands to play on — many of them as easy to reach
as the Isle of Wight from Hants.
There’s more. Far from being packaged just for indolent pleas- ures,
the self-styled “New Riviera” comes with a storehouse of Unesco- protected
cities, founded by the Venetians in the Middle Ages to show off their
maritime supremacy. Some of our leading purveyors of cultural holidays
— history buffs Martin Randall, archeologists Andante, wine-loving Arblaster
& Clarke — are now featuring Croatia; while sporty outfits such
as Saddle Skedaddle and Seafarer Cruises will this year add to its activity-holiday
options. There’s even a cosmetic-surgery package, so you can guarantee
to go home looking younger than when you went away.
of nips and tucks, Croatia has been chalking up an impressive list of
celebrity patrons. Roll those credits for 2004: Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg,
John Malkovich, Sting, Gwyneth Paltrow, José Carreras, to name just
stated, prices are per person for a week in August, based on two sharing.
All packages include flights rom London; contact the operator for regional
or Irish departures.
the thing. True, most of the beaches are narrow, pebbly and hard on
the tootsies, but they are lapped by the cleanest waters in the Med.
More than 80 fly Blue Flags,and many are shaded by factor-30 pines:
an important factor for tinies. Meanwhile, families with older children
will find a bumper range of watersports at all the main resorts.
might get a little frustrated when they find their spades blunted by
all those pebbles; and if sand is essential to your family’s pleasure,
you need to be choosy. Bol, on the island of Brac, is where you’ll find
Zlatni Rat (“Golden Cape”), the beach that looks like a shark’s fin
and stars in all those “Come to Croatia” posters (though, actually,
the sand is more gritty than grainy). Lopud island, just across the
water from Dubrovnik, has Sunj, arguably the best beach in southern
Dalmatia. Other soft options include Baska on the island of Krk; Crikvenica,
just north of Zadar; Donje Celo on the southeast coast of the islet
of Kolocep; and several nameless beaches at the southern end of Mljet.
the Istrian Peninsula is one of the best bets for independent families.
It has nonstop flights to both Pula and Rijeka, including some regional
departures, and short transfers both to mainland beaches and islands.
The peninsula also scores for its wealth of self- catering places, which
can be booked either online or through tour operators, without the need
to commit to flights or transfers.
and Home targets independent travellers, and has about 30 self- catering
places, mostly on, or within walking distance from, a beach. Another
useful starting point is Croatian Villas. In general, expect holiday
houses to be simpler here than in Spain, France or Italy: few have dishwashers
or air conditioning, but they do sometimes come with a motorboat.
of Krk is strong on sand. Villa Marija, available through Cottages to
Castles, is on the western side, close to the town of Malinska. It sleeps
six in two double rooms and in a separate apartment with its own entrance
— ideal for grandparents or teens in the party. It costs L2,290, villa-only.
long, the approach roads to the main coastal towns are lined with locals
holding up handwritten “rooms to let/chambres libres/zimmer frei” signs
to passing motorists. Prices are extremely low: about L25 per night
for a double or L30-L35 for a family room, B&B.
Bol likes families. Hidden Croatia offers the three-star, all-inclusive
Bonaca hotel, 150 yards from the best beach and with a large pool, for
L590 (L520 per child under 12 sharing).
Sports and Wellness Resort, a short walk from Zlatni Rat, on the same
island, is not a name that suggests happy families, but it has a decent
children’s club and a huge tennis centre. Parents, can escape to the
excellent spa. The resort is all-inclusive and costs L2,454 for two
plus two (L729 per adult, L498 per child aged 2-11) with Holiday Options.
easy striking range of Split, has a portfolio of gorgeous white-pebble
beaches backed by a fringe of pines, with watersports on the main strand
and a coast path that leads to some smaller, quieter neighbours. If
you want to up the tempo, walk to the tad-livelier Baska Voda, or hop
on a bus to the full-on Makarska, where clubbing teens will love Grotta,
set in a beachside cave with a glass dancefloor. Stay at the three-star
Marina hotel, above the beach, for L579 (L450 per child under-12 sharing),
half-board, with Bond Tours.
On a budget?
Consider camping. Canvas has introduced Croatia for 2005, and features
Bi Village, a modern site on the Istrian coast near Pula. It costs L810
for a family of two adults and up to four children in a tent, or L1,055
in a mobile home, including ferry crossings with car. For other camping
options, contact Eurocamp.
families invariably focus on the coast, inland Istria is well worth
considering, especially since nowhere is more than a short drive from
the Adriatic. The rolling green countryside and hilltop towns are reminiscent
of Umbria, and there’s a good stock of self-catering properties where
families can combine life by the pool with forays to the delightful
resorts of Porec and Rovinj.
the pink-stone Casa Cristina, in Barat, has its own pool and is just
12 miles from the coast, with rustic restaurants close by. It sleeps
12 — ideal for two families sharing (though the outdoor stairs to some
bedrooms are not too toddler-friendly) — and costs L2,395, villa- only,
through Vintage Travel. Flights and car hire can be arranged for you.
Also ideal for a tribal gathering is Villa Dvori, near the village of
Podobuce on the wine-growing Peljesac Peninsula. It’s profoundly rural,
but has sea views, and sleeps 10 for L2,180, villa-only, through Croatian
for the two-plus-two family, Rina’s is ideal: a two-bedroom converted
stone farmhouse owned by a family who make their own merlot wines. It’s
in the small hamlet of Ruzici, on the Istrian Peninsula, and costs L515
for four with Simply Travel, including car hire.
not have screaming thrill rides or mega waterparks. Your nearest bet
for that kind of action is the Makarska Riviera, once the Gold Coast
of Yugoslav tourism. But there are many more interesting ways to inject
a little adrenaline into your Croatian family holiday.
island- hopping is always an adventure for children, and in Croatia
a wide choice of reliable services makes it surprisingly stress-free
for parents. Arriving ferries are usually met by locals offering digs.
On the whole, independent travellers should ignore the big hotels, because
their business is geared to tour operators and they charge silly rack
rates: perhaps L50pp per night for a grim three-star.
with older children should check out the action-packed website for Huck
Finn, a locally owned company that focuses on rafting, kayaking, cycling,
sailing and hiking. On its Country of Clear Rivers trip, you’ll go canoeing
and rafting on the Una River, along the Bosnian border. The company
has several bases, and a week costs L299 if you stay in a hotel, or
L259 in a tent, with a small discount for children aged between 10 (minimum
age) and 14 when sharing.
Activities Abroad has a two-week Adriatic Adventure itinerary, beginning
with a week at the Hotel Fontana, on Hvar, where you’ll spend your days
swimming, snorkelling, scuba-diving, trekking, climbing, biking and
kayaking across to the Pakleni Otoci (Hell’s Islands). Week two, at
the Hotel Gadja, in Baska Voda, on the mainland, is for white-water
rafting, canyoning and canoeing on the Cetina River. All this, and a
sea-kayak trip around the walls of Dubrovnik, for L1,320, half-board
(children up to 12 L1,065), including all activities. You’ll pay about
L225/L200 extra for flights.
was cut out for Croatia
suggested Croatia — I wasn’t too enthusiastic. But it turned out to
be one of the best — and cheapest — holidays we’ve had. We rented a
house in Hvar. The sea was astonishingly clear and blue, and there are
all these tiny islands you can swim out to. It’s also very family-friendly,
which was a relief, as we’re realising that children are not welcome
everywhere. They are in Croatia.”
sand is less essential to seaside satisfaction, and there’s wonderful
bathing to be had on Croatia’s coast. The only thing you need is an
infla- table air bed to recline on between swims (more comfortable than
a beach towel) and some jellies to protect your feet.
Free of the demands of small children, you can reach some out-of-the-way
beaches: handy, because in summer the main resorts heave with Brits,
Germans, Italians and Russians. On the Kornati archipelago, you might
even find an island all to yourself. Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and
Clint Eastwood have made sure of this, by each buying themselves one.
armed with a ferry timetable (more reliable than those in Greece), you
can enjoy several different beaches on an island-hopping holiday. The
lazy approach is to choose a single base and enjoy daily outings by
ferry and excursion boat. Dubrovnik works well both as a gateway to
the Elafiti islands (including Lopud, with its excellent beaches) and
as a terrific place for city exploring.
If you want
to go the extra mile, consider the more remote islands. A two-week holiday
could include Vis, for example, a former navy island that was off limits
until 1989, and so escaped tourist development. It comes with a little
sister, Bisevo, home of a blue grotto to rival Capri’s in everything
but crowds. Hotel Tamaris, on the quay in Vis town, has simple rooms
and sensational views.
If you want
to prebook your island-hopping stays, Croatian Affair offers two one-week
itineraries and two over a fortnight. Clients are greeted at the airport,
given their first ferry ticket and vouchers for their hotels, and taken
to the port. They are met again at the end of the trip and returned
to the airport. Prices start at L584, B&B, including flights to
Split. Croatia has long been popular for bare-all beach holidays, especially
with German and Dutch nudists. Koversada, an island linked by bridge
to the Istrian mainland, is the oldest among 30 official naturist resorts.
All are indicated by “FKK” signs (from the German Freikorperkultur),
but there are also scores of unofficial strips.
the big issue here is whether to opt for one of the mainland resorts,
which tend to have the larger hotels and more action, or an island.
Let’s begin with the mainland.
a happy, low-key sort of place with a good beach. It is backed by the
Biokovo Mountains, and, for night owls, the busy resort of Makarska
is within easy reach. There’s also a daily ferry to the island of Brac.
A week’s half-board at the Laurentum hotel costs L639 with Bond Tours.
an elegant little resort of tile-and-whitewash houses about 15 miles
south of Dubrovnik (with regular excursion boats). You’ll pay L709,
half-board, at the Hotel Croatia, with Cosmos.
city of Dubrovnik, Byron’s “pearl of the Adriatic”, has been fully restored
after its savage pounding in the early 1990s. Its honey-coloured walls,
terracotta roofs and cobbled streets are back to pre-war perfection.
The city also makes an excellent base for exploring, and while short
of beaches, offers 15-minute ferry hops to nearby Lopud. Dubrovnik’s
Pucic Palace, converted from an 18th-century nobleman’s house overlooking
the daily market on Gundulic Square, was one of Croatia’s first boutique
hotels; L1,450, B&B, with Simply Travel.
approach to Dubrovnik is to make that hop in reverse, using Lopud, with
its sandy beaches and cluster of restaurants, as a base. The attractive,
adults-only Villa Birimisa has six self-catering studio apartments;
L639, with Tapestry.
As well as
its iconic beach, Brac is noted for its olive and lemon groves, free-ranging
sheep and the famous pale stone that was used to build the White House
in Washington, DC. The three-star Kastil, a short walk or shuttle boat
from Zlatni Rat, costs L559, B&B, with Holiday Options.
Hvar is the
most Riviera- sophisticated of Croatia’s islands, its main town a Renaissance
showcase of white palaces around a marbled Venetian square. Overlooking
all this is a fortress, with a tiny museum of shipwreck-finds and a
sobering plaque that reveals that, in antiquity, one in every 50 voyages
ended in disaster. Hvar also has its own offshore archipelago, the Pakleni.
The new three-star Hotel Podstine, small and family-run, stands a 15-minute
walk from the main square, and has its own rocky beach. It costs L689,
B&B, with Holiday Options.
draw on Korcula is its 14th-century Venetian city, supposedly the birthplace
of Marco Polo (lots of Di Polos still live on the island today). It
has a St Mark’s Cathedral, housing a Tintoretto altarpiece, and an impressive
collection of art in the Bishop’s Treasury. The only shortcoming here
is a lack of decent hotels; the best is the Korcula — bang on the water
and forming part of the old city walls; L579, B&B, with Holiday
new scheduled flights into Rijeka airport, it’s now much easier to reach
the remote island of Rab. Simply Travel is the only UK operator featuring
the island, and it has a choice of self-catering apartments, as well
as a new boutique-style waterfront hotel, the Ros Maris, in the main
town; L825, B&B.
for lovers of the remote is Vrnik, just 200 yards off the coast of its
big sister, Korcula, and small enough to walk around in half an hour.
It has just three year-round inhabitants, no cars and the Castle (a
private residence that is more like a tower) for guests. The Castle
costs L647, based on six sharing and including a private boat, with
naturists should turn to the No1 specialist, Peng Travel; a week’s half-board
on Koversada costs L398.
you delve inland, the less touristy the Croatian countryside becomes.
Hotels are less expensive, restaurants simpler and cheaper, and the
Italian cultural influence less pervasive. In a 2002 survey by Yale
University scientists, Croatia ranked 12th best nation for its “preserved
and unpolluted nature” (Spain came 44th, Greece 60th and Italy 84th).
So, if you’re
after completely unspoilt Croatia, you need to turn your back on the
coast. The country is shaped like a boom-erang, its muscular right shoulder
turning inland between Hungary to the north and Bosnia-Herzegovina to
the south. Here, in the mountains and on the Danube flood plain, you’ll
find a wide range of fauna (bears, wild cats, griffin vultures) and
flora (edelweiss, orchids and alpine rose).
all you need to explore Croatia’s rural hinterland is a flight and a
car, both of which can be booked in the UK through Croatia for Travellers.
Book now for a scheduled flight in August and you can expect to pay
between L200 and L240. Those planning to tour should consider an open-jaw
ticket with Croatia Airlines — flying into Split and home from the capital,
Zagreb. A week’s car hire, with insurance, will add about L170.
If you prefer
not to take pot luck on finding a bed, Hidden Croatia can book accommodation
throughout the country. Rates for two- and three-star hotels in August
are L25-L30pp per night, or up to twice that for a hotel in Dubrovnik.
best-known rural attraction is the Unesco-listed Plitvice Lakes National
Park, roughly halfway between Zagreb and coastal Zadar. It has a network
of 16 lakes and countless cataracts, and a memorable duckboarded footpath
leads you right above the falls. Hotel Jezero (doubles from L38) is
in the park; or try Dalma Holidays, which offers a choice of villas
and apartments in small villages outside Zadar.
to Castles has 15 rural properties, including Harmony Cottage, in Celopeci,
near Dubrovnik, a two-bedroom house with a garden, views of hills beyond,
and the sea a few minutes’ drive away. It costs L680, villa-only, based
on four sharing.
the most rural of Croatia’s islands, neglected by visitors because it
is rather a pain to reach (the ferry links are infrequent and serve
two different ports). It’s an island of forests and saltwater lakes,
and mostly protected by national-park status. The southern coast has
some excellent sandy beaches, and you can hire bikes and canoes for
exploring. The three-star Hotel Odisej (L35pp per night, B&B) is
in the centre of the national park.
you’ll find plenty of packaged beds in the Croatian countryside — both
in hotels and self-catering villas — but most are sold on their convenient
access to the coast, rather than their proper hinterland locations.
Villa Momjan lies in hilly, forested countryside near Momjan village,
just south of the Slovenian border. It has its own pool and costs L1,569
through Vintage Travel, plus about L230 for a flight. Alternatively,
Tapestry features the Stancija Negricani, near Vodnjan, converted from
an old farm building: L709, B&B, including car hire.
made the world, he took the offcuts and tossed them into the sea. The
sea was the Adriatic and the shards were the Kornati, an archipelago
of about 100 wild limestone islands, latticed with stone walls and protected
as a national park. Made out of “tears, stars and breath” according
to George Bernard Shaw, they are unique in the Med and hardly known
to Croatians, let alone the rest of the world.
To stay here,
you’ll need to rent one of the handful of fishermen’s houses that have
been turned into rustic holiday lets. You’ll draw water from a well
and flush the loo by pouring a bucket of seawater into the pan. They
are remote and basic, but Bond Tours can arrange a stay, along with
flights and (incongruously enough) the option of your own motorboat
or kayak, for L549, including one night on the mainland and five on
first sailed these shores in the 13th century, and decided to stay for
the next 500 years, building glorious walled towns and stamping their
lion emblem on the gable ends, so everyone knew where they’d been. Although
Dubrovnik gets star billing, there’s a whole bunch of these special
settlements to visit, including Trogir, a perfectly preserved outpost
of Serenissima; Stari Grad, a miniature version of Dubrovnik; the walled
town of Korcula; and the town of Hvar, built around its ancient harbour.
an extensive ferry network strings together some 40 islands and 60 coastal
resorts (see Travel brief, right). The flagship route is the six- times
weekly service from Rijeka, leaving at 8pm and sailing to Zadar, Split,
Hvar (Stari Grad), Korcula and Mljet, arriving in Dubrovnik at 2.30pm
the following day. It continues across the Adriatic to Bari — so you
could fly into Ancona, sail with Jadrolinija to Zadar, pick up the island-hopper,
then fly home from Bari. Deck-class passengers can hop off at ports
along the way using the same ticket, but if you want a cabin, you’ll
need to book leg by leg.
prefer to collect your islands from a single base, choose Hvar. It offers
regular day trips to Korcula, Mljet, Brac, Dubrovnik — even north to
Sibenik, to see the waterfalls of Krka. Hvar also has an offshore archipelago,
the Pakleni, with some good beaches. The day trips are operated by Atlas
Travel, on the harbourfront.
one of the best sailing spots in the Med: cruising around the Kornati,
for example, is the closest Europe gets to a Thor Heyerdahl experience.
And for those who like their sailing to have a social dimension, there
are no fewer than 500 harbours and 50 fully serviced marinas, each with
restaurants, hot showers, mini-marts and weather charts.
If you know
the nautical ropes, you can charter bareboat: Sunsail has three bases
in Croatia — Kornati, Kremik and Dubrovnik — and a 39ft Oceanis, sleeping
up to eight, can be hired for L3,920. Other sailing operators to try
include Sail Croatia; Nautilus Yachting; and The Moorings.
several com- panies package island-hopping holidays afloat. Explore
features the Bozidar, built more than a century ago to carry fruit from
Egypt and now converted into a simple cruising boat. It sleeps up to
20 in 10 tiny cabins with shared facilities, and calls at Trogir, Vis,
Bisevo, Korcula, Mljet, Scedro and Hvar; from L629, half-board, plus
a local payment of L100.
flies to more bits of Croatia from more UK airports than all the other
operators put together. It has introduced the first ever cruise to the
coast north of Split, taking in the 89-island Kornati National Park.
A place on the 12-cabin boat costs L789, half-board.
the skills to go bareboat should choose a flotilla. You’ll sail in the
company of a dozen or so other craft, under the watchful eye of a lead
boat manned by a skipper and “hostie”. Sailing Holidays has a two-week
itinerary for L995pp, based on four people sharing a 33ft yacht. It
sets sail from Kremik, handy for the Kornati.
base in Lumbarda, on Korcula, you can learn yachting, go flotilla sailing,
or just enjoy a spot of dinghy sailing, mountain-biking, windsurfing
and scuba-diving, with instruction included in the cost. A week in August
costs L715, B&B, including flights and all watersports.
with a difference, try Swim Trek. As the name implies, you swim between
land masses, escorted by boat. Based on the island of Zlarin, and with
walks across each island to the next cast-off point, the trip departs
several times during the summer: six days, half-board, leaving on July
30 costs L625, excluding flights.
adventure on firmer ground? The Wayfarers will this year offer guided
walking in Croatia for the first time, with two eight-night trips along
the Dalmatian coast — one in April, one in October. Each costs L1,795,
including all meals and wine. Croatia is also featured by Ramblers Holidays,
Exodus and Headwater.
Company has a half-board week of canoe- ing, rafting, riding, biking
and canyoning, based at Trilj, for L679 (plus L100 local payment).
Skedaddle has introduced Croatian cycling tours, with overnights in
local farmhouses. Its mountain- biking weeks in Istria make use of a
spider’s web of ancient tracks through the hills and valleys. It costs
L655, full-board, excluding flights (add about L150) and bike hire (L120).
There’s also a self-guided option for independent bikers: from L555,
half-board, again excluding flights and bike hire.
Getting there: scheduled flights are operated by Croatia Airlines from
Gatwick and Manchester to Pula, Dubrovnik and Split, and from Heathrow
to Split, Rijeka and Zagreb. New flights from Glasgow and Nottingham
East Midlands to Dubrovnik start in May. Flights to Dubrovnik start
at L163, other destinations from L284. British Airways will start flights
from Gatwick to Dubrovnik and Split from May 27, from L99; and from
Manchester to Dubrovnik from May 19, from L129. Also, Aer Lingus will
fly from Dublin to Dubrovnik from March 27, from €116.
operate to Dubrovnik from Gatwick, Manchester, Bristol, Stansted, Norwich,
Birmingham, Bournemouth, Glasgow, Belfast, Nottingham East Midlands,
and Dublin. There are also charters to Pula, Split, Rijeka and Zadar,
although with fewer departure airports. For flight-only deals, call
Holiday Options, Travelrepublic.co.uk, or Charter Flight Centre. Midsummer
fares are from L250 to L300, but last-minute deals can start at L150.
For the Istrian Peninsula, consider flying to Trieste with Ryanair from
Stansted, from L25; or via Ljubljana (in Slovenia) from Stansted with
EasyJet, from L41. Buses operate to the Istrian coastal towns for L10
each way, taking about 21 hours.
Getting around: there is a good network of cheap and reliable ferries
in and around the islands, mostly operated by Jadrolinija. Many routes
can be booked through Viamare Travel, or Dalmatian & Istrian Travel.
For example, Dubrovnik to Korcula takes about four hours and costs from
L16. Good value, but only available locally, are travel-pass-style tickets
— valid for 10, 20 or 30 days, from about L55. Alternatively, a week’s
car hire starts at about L155, through Holiday Autos. Or try Sixt.
Guidebooks: Croatia (Lonely Planet L11.75), Dubrovnik (Bradt City Guide
Tom Cruise does his cruising
cruised along the south coast last summer — from Cavtat to Korcula and
Mljet — on the luxury yacht Arctic P.
coastline is spectacular. I love its mixture of steep cliffs, sheltered
bays and beautiful beaches. And Dubrovnik is a fascinating city: so
much history and so many beautiful buildings. It’s certainly somewhere
I’ll return to.”