See + Do
Rector's Palace, Croatia
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.
See + Do
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.
See + Do
Franciscan Monastery and Museum, Croatia
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.
See + Do
Aquarium and Maritime Museum, Croatia
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 20000, Croatia
Tel: 385 20 412 910
Right by the Hilton near the western entrance to the Old Town, the family-owned Sesame Tovjerna offers classic Dalmatian dishes in a series of picturesque settings. Order plates of cheeses and local smoked ham, osso buco with dill, chicken with rosemary and olives, or mixed fresh shellfish while admiring the view from the palazzo-floored beamed terraceor choose the ivy-covered courtyard or the barrel-vaulted dining room lined with framed prints. The 200-year-old stone house surrounded by orange trees is famous around here, so call ahead. There are also four clean, simple bedrooms overlooking the garden on the first floorwhich, at a top rate of around $115, qualifies Sesame as one of the best lodging bargains in town.
See + Do
Wine Tasting on the Dalmatian Coast
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).
See + Do
Windsurfing, Brač, Croatia
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).
See + Do
Traditional Boating on the Dalmatian Coast
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).
See + Do
Diocletian's Palace, Croatia
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.
See + Do
Blue Cave, Biševo, Croatia
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.
See + Do
Beaches of the Dalmatian Coast
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.
Restaurant Robinson, Hvar, Croatia
, Hvar 21450, Croatia
Tel: 385 91 383 5160
Situated in an idyllic bay, Robinson is about a 30-minute walk along the beach east of Hvar Town's main harbor (after leaving the sidewalk near Pokonji dol Bay, continue on an easy path until you reach Mekićevica Bay). When you arrive—look for a weathered wood sign shaped like a fish—ask the owner, Domagoj Vekić, what's available that day. Chances are he will rattle off a round of delectable choices such as octopus salad, spit-roasted shrimp covered with cheese and served with eggplant, marinated sardines, and fish stew made with tomatoes and garlic. If your choice is the catch of the day, Domagoj will clean the fish from a stone perch above the water and take it back to his kitchen hut to grill. Guests relax on the bleached-white stone beach until lunch is ready. Afterwards, take a dip in the impossibly clear waters. Because the restaurant is open odd days, it's best to call ahead before making the trek down the beach.
Lunch only: 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Luna, Hvar, Croatia
Hvar Town, Hvar 21450, Croatia
Tel: 385 21 741 400
Italians love Hvar, and they especially love Luna—one of the few places on the island that might be described as glam. Owner Tomislav Rudan understands that visitors want a break from the standard fare and rustic ambience, so he serves dishes such as smoked salmon, shrimp gazpacho, and beef tenderloin with a truffle cream and mushroom sauce—a welcome break from picking tiny bones out of your teeth (fish in Croatia is rarely filleted). Located in the center of town, the restaurant has a dining room with a swirl of quirky paintings and a moon-shaped rooftop terrace. You'll hear a babble of languages and see many of the same good-looking folks at Carpe Diem later that night.
Closed November to March. Lunch and dinner.
Adio Mare, Korčula, Croatia
Korčula Town, Korčula 20260, Croatia
Tel: 385 20 711 253
The oldest family-run restaurant in Korčula is still a place where locals gather at shellacked picnic tables to devour mussels dripping with oil, garlic, parsley, and white wine. A high-ceilinged, open-air dining room located inside a 200-year-old stone building within the city walls, Adio Mare has stuck to its beliefs even as the lines outside grow increasingly long: no reservations, fair prices, and delectable food.
Dinner nightly: 5 p.m. to 12 a.m.
Bars and Clubs of the Dalmatian Coast
Hvar Town has become the party capital of the Adriatic. This is due in large part to Carpe Diem Bar and Lounge, a longstanding outdoor-indoor spot (pictured) whose afternoon après-beach scene often spirals into an all-night dance party. It's on the international DJ circuit, and sees a beautiful crowd of Europeans in their 20s and 30s who know one another from other global hot spots—"Brigitte, didn't I see you last week in St. Tropez?" (385-21-742-369; www.carpe-diem-hvar.com).
A few other nightlife spots lack Carpe Diem's following but stand out as fun places to let loose after a beach day. In Split, Puls 2 is one of a cadre of modish cafe-bars inside Diocletian's Palace. Locals and tourists mix under the stars drinking the best local beer, Karlovačko (1 Buvinina; no phone). In Bol, on the island of Brač, the action is at Hotel Kaštil's Varadero Cocktail Bar, an open-air nightspot with good DJs for when you're up dancing and comfortable wicker furniture for when you're not (385-21-635-996; www.kastil.hr). In Korčula Town, one of the coolest bars you'll ever experience is Massimo. It's actually part of the ancient fortified seaside wall: You climb a ladder to the crenellated tower, which looks over the water and town; bartenders serve drinks via a pulley system (385-20-715-073).
Dubrovnik Palace Hotel, Croatia
Tel: 385 20 430 287, Tel: 385 20 430 000
With a $50 million renovation and a spring 2004 ceremonial opening by the president, this small village of a hotel (and don't forget the Conference Centre and Spa) was Croatia's largest single tourism project in 30 years. Surrounded by pines and fronting the Adriatic on the Lapad Peninsula a couple of miles outside the Old City, the ten-story building is no thing of beauty, but who cares when the design (with its bulging front and setbacks) allows for all 308 rooms to have a private, full-sea-view balcony? Said rooms involve much teak-finish wood and earthy tones, and they have flat-screen satellite TVs with broadband Internet access and pay movies. There are three outdoor pools (one for children) and an indoor one, several cliff beaches, a tennis court, and what is claimed (with good reason) to be Croatia's best and biggest spa. Add four restaurants, a nightclub, four bars, a kids' club, and, in summer, boat service to the old port of Dubrovnik directly from the hotel quay, and you have a good deal. Of course, the gigantic conference center could interfere with your peace, but it doesn't seem to have bothered anyone very muchreports from here are uniformly enthusiastic.