Dalmatian Coast See And Do
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.
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 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.
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).
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).