Unlike the heavily urbanized French Riviera or overbuilt stretches of the Spanish and Italian shorelines, Croatia’s Dalmatian coast remains remarkably unchanged. Bone-white mountains rear dramatically above the Adriatic, an expanse of cobalt blue bordered by aromatic shrubs and dotted with more than 1,000 islands. Here, you can rediscover the Mediterranean world of 50 years ago.
In addition to this stirring scenery, the long history of the region (Dalmatia was originally a Roman province) has endowed it with two of the most intriguing cities in Europe, Split and Dubrovnik, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. In the Middle Ages, Dubrovnik was a city-state of sufficient wealth and influence to rival Venice. And today, it remains a magical place, with an extraordinarily picturesque walled city (intact despite the best efforts of Serb gunners during the Balkan upheavals of the early 1990s). Split grew up around the palace that the Roman Emperor Diocletian built at the water’s edge in A.D. 300, and its enchanting old town contains many impressive Italianate Belle Epoque buildings.
Until recently, the absence of charming and comfortable places to stay meant that the only agreeable way to visit the Dalmatian coast was by boat. (To find out more about chartered yachts in the Adriatic, contact an Andrew Harper travel specialist at (800) 375-4685.) Many visitors will still wish to spend parts of their vacations afloat, but a new crop of luxury hotels provides a fine choice of pre- or post-cruise options. A spell on land also makes it easy to take escorted tours to places such as the exquisite medieval town of Mostar in Bosnia. (We advise against attempting such trips on your own, as the roads are often narrow and driving conditions thoroughly unfamiliar.)
An ideal itinerary would contain a mixture of sightseeing and pure relaxation. Split and Dubrovnik are so interesting that they each merit at least two days of exploration. Afterward, you might want to spend some time at one of the newly refurbished resort hotels nearby. And an excursion to the lovely Croatian island of Hvar (reached from Split) is virtually mandatory. The best months of the year to travel are May/June and September/ October. Indian summer weather generally means that it is still possible to take a dip in the warm waters of the Adriatic until late fall.
A note on the cost of travel: Since Croatia is a former Eastern Bloc country and not yet part of the Eurozone, many travelers expect it to be cheap. It is not. In fact, prices for the country’s best hotels and restaurants are on par with those in France, Italy and Greece, and higher than those in Spain or Portugal. Foreigners also often end up paying considerably more than the locals. As well-known writer Slavenka Drakuli´c explains in her fascinating book Café Europa: Life After Communism, many Croatians still assume that everyone from the West is extremely rich, which makes it morally acceptable to charge them double. Armed with this insight, we bargained hard with a guest-relations representative at a Dubrovnik hotel and managed to reduce the exorbitant cost of a car transfer to Split by nearly $200. So if your nerves are robust, it often makes sense to haggle.
CLIMATE: After a chilly and rainy winter, spring comes to Croatia at the beginning of May. Summers are hot and sunny.
TIME: Six hours ahead of New York (EST).
CURRENCY: Most recommended hotels quote rates in euros (€). Fluctuating rate valued at €1.00 = US$1.30 as of December 2012.
U.S. EMBASSY: Zagreb, Tel. (1) 661-220.
DIRECT DIAL CODES: To phone hotels in Croatia, dial 011 (international access) + 385 (Croatia code) + city code and local numbers in listings.
GENERAL INFORMATION: Visit www.croatia.hr/en before your trip.
The Pucic Palace
Atmospheric 19-room hotel housed by an imposing 17th- century building of oatmeal-colored stone. Air-conditioned accommodations on the second and third floors provide mosaic-floored baths with walk-in showers.
Adriana, Hvar Spa Hotel
Overlooking the harbor of the resort island of Hvar, this stylish 59-room hotel is located in the Old Town. The rooms offer modern baths, and many have picture-postcard views.
Hotel Vestibul Palace
Modern boutique hotel integrated into the walls of a 1,700-year-old Roman palace. Access is through a subterranean tunnel, or vestibule. Book a suite, as rooms are small.
Renovated 209-room hotel, once a stopping point for travelers on the Orient Express. Spacious, well-furnished guest rooms provide large dressing rooms, art deco furniture and marble baths with walk-in showers.