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Croatia special: a star is born

 

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The Sunday Times (http://travel.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,18929-1484042,00.html)

Croatia 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 the way

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.

Speaking 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 a few.

Unless 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.

 

Croatia for families

THE SEA’S 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.

 

BEACHES

Toddlers 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.

Go independent: 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.

Croatia Holiday 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.

The island 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.

All summer 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.

Go packaged: 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).

The Bretanide 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.

Brela, within 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.


COUNTRYSIDE

Although 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.

Go independent: 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 Affair.

Go packaged: 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.

 

ACTIVITIES

Croatia does 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.

Go independent: 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.

Families 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.

Go packaged: 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.

Ozwald Boateng was cut out for Croatia

“My wife 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.”

 

Just for grown-ups

THE BEACHES

For adults, 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.

Go independent: 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.

Go packaged: 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.

Tucepi is 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.

Cavtat is 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.

The 1,000-year-old 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.

An alternative 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.

The main 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 Options.

Thanks to 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.

Another option 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 Croatian Affair.

Package-preferring naturists should turn to the No1 specialist, Peng Travel; a week’s half-board on Koversada costs L398.

 

COUNTRYSIDE

The further 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).

Go independent: 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.

The country’s 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.

Cottages 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.

Mljet is 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.

Go packaged: 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.

The two-bedroom 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.

When God 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 the island.

 

ACTIVITIES

The Venetians 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.

Go independent: 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.

If you’d 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.

Croatia is 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.

Go packaged: 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.

Holiday Options 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.

Sailors without 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.

At Neilson’s 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.

For island-hopping 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.

Prefer an 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.

The Adventure Company has a half-board week of canoe- ing, rafting, riding, biking and canyoning, based at Trilj, for L679 (plus L100 local payment).

And Saddle 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.


TRAVEL BRIEF


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.

Charter flights 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 L6.95).

 

Where Tom Cruise does his cruising

THE ACTOR cruised along the south coast last summer — from Cavtat to Korcula and Mljet — on the luxury yacht Arctic P.

“The Croatian 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.”