Croatia See And Do
St. John's Fortress, at the southeast corner of the city walls, has stood guard over Dubrovnik's harbor since the 16th century (though parts of it date back to the mid 14th century). Today, it's home to two family-friendly museums that illustrate Croatia's love affair with the sea. The Maritime Museum is full of artifacts like scale models of famous ships, surprisingly accurate ancient maps, knives, dueling pistols, antique coins, and other booty. The Aquarium pumps more than 4,000 cubic feet of seawater through 31 tanks. Occupants include spiny lobsters, eels, sea horses, octopi, and the most popular resident: a 53-year-old loggerhead turtle. Despite the sheer amount of curiosities packed into the two museums, it only takes an hour or two to see both.
Dubrovnik isn't as great a beach destination as the Dalmatian Islands that surround it. The stone ledges around Old Town pass for beaches with locals, though Banje Beach, a five-minute walk from the Ploče Gate, is a nice swimming spot with a large stretch of the tiny pebbles that are common on Croatian shores. Our favorite beaches hide out on Sumratin Bay on the Lapad peninsula, easily reached by bus No. 4 from the Pile Gate. Or for a low-key day trip, hop a ferry and tour the beaches on the nearby surrounding Elafiti Islands. You'll be surrounded by ancient ruins, a couple of monasteries, a few small townsand not much else. To get there take Nova's Sea Bus, which leaves from Gruz port for Koločcep, Gornje Selo, Lopud, and Šipan several times a day (385-20-313-599).
There are more beaches on the hundreds of small islands in the area than one could possibly count, many of them appearing and disappearing with the tide on secluded coves. They're often pebbled with small, smooth rocks (due to the calmness of the sea there are no strong waves to crush them into sand over time), so shoes or sandals are mandatory—but a bikini top is not. (And bottoms are sometimes negotiable.) While we recommend finding your own favorite by foot, bicycle, or kayak, a handful merit singling out. On Brač, Zlatni Rat is the most photographed beach in Croatia (just one example shown here), an arc of textured sand that juts into the ocean like the blade of a knife and is the launching point for the windsurfers who make pilgrimages to the island. In the mainland city of Split, the place to be is Bačvice, a lively, shallow, and sandy expanse lined with cafes and bars—it's a prime place to see how gorgeous (and friendly) young Croatians are. Stiniva, Vis's best beach, is a wedge of sand that's nearly closed off from the open water by cliffs squeezing in on either side—a classic protected cove. You'll have to arrive by small boat or by navigating a narrow footpath. The Adriatic, by the way, is a lovely place to swim, with summer temperatures averaging 77 degrees.
Just across the water from Vis, the island of Biševo is famous for its waterlogged rock cavern, locally called the Modra Špilja, that can only be reached by boat. For an hour or so a day, usually beginning around 11 a.m., the grotto seems to glow from underneath with an incandescent blue light. Charter boats leave every morning from Komiža, on Vis, though once there, you'll have to swim or hop on a rowboat to get inside the cave. And while there's no question that most visitors feel an otherworldly connection to the place, on summer days it can get distractingly crowded.
Since visitors usually make a beeline for the islands, Split is overlooked as a destination. A pity: Croatia's second city is home to this 416,000-square-foot retirement villa Roman Emperor Diocletian built for himself in 305 AD. Today, the Palace is a living monument—a walled city home to 3,000 residents, reams of cafes, bistros, boutiques, and even a hotel. It's a surreal intermingling of past and present: The very same pieces Diocletian used to decorate his villa—such as the Egyptian sphinxes, which look down serenely from pedestals—still adorn the place. Kids play soccer alongside monuments like the Cathedral of Sveti Duje (Saint Domnius) and the Baptistery of St. John (Jupiter's Temple, in Diocletian's time). You realize that the Croatians not only take their history seriously, they still live in it.
ISSA Diving Center
Tel: 385 21 713 651
Like to wreck-dive? Thousands of years of maritime trading and naval battles means more than a few sunken ships in Dalmatian waters. ISSA Diving Center in Komiža, Vis, takes clients down as far as their experience and talents allow. One highlight is a B-17 bomber that went into the drink in 1944 on the southeast side of the island and now sits in 250 feet of water. For less experienced divers—ISSA honors PADI and NAUI certifications—there are also plenty of caves and reefs. Newbies can be certified or can opt to snorkel.
Seasonal: April to October.
Od Sigurate 1
Tel: 385 20 326 100
For seven weeks each summer, you can soak up some culture along with the Adriatic sunshine, when world-class musical, dance, and dramatic acts (James Galway, the Leipzig String Quartet, the Croatian National Ballet) flock to outdoor stages all over Dubrovnik. Be warned: The crowds can be maddening; purchase tickets in advance.
Winter is chilly on the Dalmatian Coast. No wonder the warm months are filled with opportunities to get out and about, such as Split's monthlong Summer Festival a performing arts celebration that fills theaters, squares, and galleries all over town. Highlights from past years include Le Corsaire, performed by the Latvian National Opera and Ballet House, and concerts by Moscow's Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra (runs from mid-July to mid-August; 385-21-363-014; www.splitsko-ljeto.hr). July and August is also the time for Korčula's traditional Festival of Sword Dances, a re-creation of a battle between two 16th-century armies. Combatants dressed in flowing red and black uniforms duel with genuine metal sabers (though they're not terribly sharp) in a tightly choreographed flurry of sparks, sweat, and bloody knuckles to the accompaniment of brass bands. The zaniest festival takes place in the end of July in Sutivan, Brač: Vanka Regule, a sort of Adriatic X Games, in which participants free-dive, windsurf, long-distance kayak, and jump bikes into the sea (385-98-522-725; www.vankaregule.com).
Tel: 385 20 321 410
Much of this Romanesque/Gothic structure (occupied by monks for more than 600 years) was rebuilt after the ruinous earthquake of 1667, but the 14th-century cloister survived. You can tour its columned courtyard with delicately carved capitals and a still-operational pharmacy from 1317. The gilded interior of the church next door has an impressive vaulted ceiling, and the accompanying museum displays old medical equipment, an early Christian sarcophagus, and cases of jewelry and crucifixes.
An island just ten minutes' ferry ride away, Lokrum was declared a nature reserve in 1964. Legend has it that Richard the Lion-Hearted was shipwrecked here in 1192 after the Crusades. In the 19th century, Ferdinand Maximilian of Hapsburg erected a mansion here. Now, there's a botanical garden (open to the public since 1959) and a hilltop fortress built by the French in 1806, with great views of the city and the islands. A little interior lake, the Mrtvo More (Dead Sea), is perfect for childrenand tends to remain peaceful even when the many beaches on the perimeter are packed.
23 Put Frana Supila
Tel: 385 20 426 590
This sprawling, 2,000-piece collection of modern Croatian art occupies a minor palace overlooking the seafront just outside the Ploče Gate. The stately neo-Renaissance villa, which underwent a complete renovation in 2007, is a significant draw in its own right; indeed, unless you are a Croatian art scholar, you probably won't know many of the names on display. Not that the art isn't worth a look: Highlights include Impressionist tableaux from Vlaho Bukovac, minimalist midcentury bronzes from Ivan Kožarić, and startling expressionistic portraits from Ivo Dulčić.
Pred dvorom Dvorom 1
Tel: 385 20 321 497
This 15th-century palace (now a museum) was once the governmental seat of the Ragusan Republic, which ruled from the 13th to the early 19th centuries. Its Gothic columns, Renaissance arcade, offices, and parlors (still loaded with a centuries-old art collection) are befitting of a wealthy medieval city-state; its arsenal and prison cells, appropriate for its enemies.
Tel: 385 21 717 813
Sailing has always been a necessity around these parts, and tourists can learn the fundamentals of the ancient art at Hvar Adventure, which has courses for novices and more experienced sailors. The class is taught in English and normally lasts a week; beginners return to Hvar town each night, while advanced sailors sleep on board and island-hop. Book well ahead, as the weeklong programs sell out quickly; prices start at $850.
The calm Adriatic waters surrounding Dubrovnik are ideal for sea kayaking and make it easy to traverse the islands powered by your own two handsno experience necessary. Both Adriatic Sea Kayaking (opened by 1998's Miss Universe Croatia, Ivana Grzetic) and Adventure Dalmatia offer half-day jaunts as well as multiday journeys that cater to total novices and X Game aficionados alike. Half-day treks, which start at around $50, should be paddle-time enough to experience the islands.
Dalmatia's original fishing vessels—30-foot wood boats with two sails and six-inch keels that were ideal for pulling up onto the shore—have largely disappeared due to modern boatbuilding technology and the tradition of burning boats in sacrifice to St. Nicholas, the fisherman's patron saint. Today, only two replicas exist. One is operated by friendly Aussie couple Shane Braddock and Julie Morgan, who run Lifejacket Adventures. They'll take you on a day sail to Brac island from Split, with lunch and swimming included. They also offer a sunset sail to nearby Šolta and Čiovo Islands (385-98-931-6400; www.lifejacketadventures.com).
Dubrovnik's 82-foot walls were built between the 8th and 13th centuries to keep invaders out, but these days the picturesque limestone fortifications do a better job of attracting foreigners than repelling them. The walls extend for more than a mile, so set aside an hour to walk their length and take in the view of terra-cotta roofs and the sea. The most photogenic (and romantic) view comes one to two hours before closing time, when the sunset gently illuminates the rooftops of Old Town. Plan more time if you want to stop for a coffee or cocktail (vendors set up cafés along the way) or visit the Aquarium and Maritime Museum at the wall's southeastern edge. A staircase by the Pile Gate, at the beginning of the Stradun, leads to the entrance. But you can also access the walls from the Franciscan Monastery, St. Luke's Tower, and St. John's Fortress.
Tel: 385 20 322 166
The world's only exhibition space devoted to war photography, this venue (opened in 2003) depicts the realities of combat through the lenses of accomplished photographers, such as Ron Haviv and Antonin Kratochvil. There's a permanent exhibit on the 1990s Balkan conflict, as well as temporary shows. A multimedia room on the top floor is used for plasma displays and digital projections.
Bol , Brač
The wind regularly whips along the channel between Brač and Hvar at speeds of up to 30 knots, making the coastal town of Bol (on Brač) a mecca for windsurfers and kite-boarders. Most mornings, easy winds from the southeast provide excellent conditions for beginners; in the afternoon, stronger winds from the southwest put that morning practice to the test. The folks at Big Blue have been teaching and renting boards for more than 20 years. They also rent out sea kayaks (385-21-635-614; www.big-blue-sport.hr; seasonal: April–October).
Nearly every island town has a communal wine press, and a large number of families bottle their own. That's because wine is an integral part of most Dalmatians' social identity. And since Croatia is not yet a member of the European Union (it's a candidate—the smart money has it joining up in 2009), it isn't hampered by regulations regarding production and export. The Zlatan Otok winery in Sveta Nedjelja, Hvar, is an ideal place to taste the robust flavors that result when grapes grow facing south under a sun that beats down 300 days a year. Sample the winery's red Plavac Mali; the grape is a relative of California's Zinfandel and regularly reaches 14 percent alcohol (385-21-745-803; zlatanotok.hr). On Korčula, try the dry, white Grk, which is full-bodied enough to serve with red meat. The Marinka vineyard serves up a fine example, and also rents rooms. On the island of Brač, the community winery Poljoprivredna Zadruga produces some of the best wines on the island. The Bolski Plavac—a powerful red reminiscent of Sangiovese—is an exceptional bargain (385-21-635-055).
Given its proximity to Italy and Greece, it's no surprise that the Dalmatian Coast has been drawing big-money yachts—we're talking $10 million and up—away from the tried and true Mediterranean routes. But chartering a motor yacht or sailboat is not limited to millionaires. Many charters originate from Split and last one week—enough time to complete a circuit that takes in Hvar, Vis, Korčula, and Brač. Both crewed and bareboat (sans crew; ICC or RYA license required) charters are available. The best time to be on the water is in the months just before and after the high season of July and August: Besides having fewer boats to contend with, the winds are stronger. SAT Yachting in Split has luxury yachts, motorboats, sailboats, and catamarans. Prices compare favorably to those in Greece and Italy: A weeklong bareboat charter of a 46-foot Bavaria 46 sailboat, which sleeps up to eight, is just north of $4,000, excluding food and port charges; a roomier Lagoon 440 catamaran without crew runs closer to $9,000 (385-21-544-033; www.sat-yachting.hr).