There’s much more to Croatia than the beautiful ancient city of Dubrovnik, as Sarah Dunn discovered on a journey up the country’s coastline
GREECE has built its tourism industry around the stunning scattering of islands dotted in the dazzling blue green seas off its mainland.
Croatia has just as many idyllic spots hidden away on hundreds of islands nestling in the waters off its extensive coastline – they are simply not as well known.
With these in mind, I booked a flight to Dubrovnik with a plan to have a look at the city before hiring a car to explore the coast.
Dubrovnik grabs you as soon as you get a glimpse of the glowing terracotta roofs through the bus windows as it winds around the cliff roads.
The first thing you notice is its size - this is no big city break to Paris or Barcelona, but rather a pleasant mix of relaxing sun and sea with stimulating history and culture.
So remember to pack your swimming cossie when you set off on the walk around the city walls. Because after working up a sweat taking in the stunning views of the city, port, fortress and nearby neighbourhoods of Lapad and Ploce, you will be ready to take a rest on the rocks and enjoy a dip in the miraculously clear water.
One of the best places to indulge in just that is in the bars of Buza 1 or Buza 2. They cling to the cliffs on either side of the city, providing a place to grab a cold beer to enjoy with the ultimate sea view – and even a platform from which to dive into the water.
The main street, Stradun, is beautiful by night when the cobbled stones appear to glisten as if they’ve just been washed. From here you can also enjoy views of bustling side streets whose steps rise sharply away from the town – often providing a make-shift bar seat for punters.
But Dubrovnik is bustling – and when cruise ships arrive in the harbour the city can become overcrowded.
So the next stop - the resort of Bol on Brac - was a welcome contrast.
It’s accessible by car ferry from the pretty coastal town of Markarska or Split, another popular flight route into the country.
On arrival into Supetar there’s a 40 minute drive to get to Bol, the home of the iconic Zlatni Rat - a thin triangle of beach which juts out dramatically into the blue Adriatic.
Our hotel – the Elaphusa – was one of the closest to the beach, offering spectacular views.
This was the time to indulge in pure relaxation with plenty of sun and sea, but no sand – as most of Croatia has pebble beaches. Be sure to pack suitable shoes so you can make the most of these inviting waters and craggy rocks which surround them.
The centre of the family-friendly resort is a 25 minute walk away and features a pretty harbour with underwater lighting, along with plenty of bars, restaurants and shops.
From here our next stop was Hvar – perhaps the most ‘happening’ of the Croatian islands with recent holidaymakers including Prince Harry and Beyonce.
Annoyingly there’s no connecting car ferry so you have to go back to the mainland via Makarska before catching another ferry from the town of Drvenik.
It’s a good hour and a half drive from Sucuraj to Hvar Town, taking in some stunning scenery on some rather precarious routes.
Our home for two nights was the historic Hvar Palace, right on the harbour. It’s a beautiful building in a prime spot – enjoying breakfast on the balcony an idyllic way to start the day – although the character comes at a price. The interior is a little dated, with only a ceiling fan rather than air conditioning.
The resort attracts posh yachts and one of its most famous bars – Carpe Diem – has been known to welcome the likes of Roman Abramovich as they dock at the front door.
With a ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ attitude we hired a boat for the day. Although our rickety vessel, with a 25cc engine, was no luxury cruiser, it was enormous fun being able to buzz between secluded beaches and sunbathe on the open sea.
A walk up to the old fortress is a must in Hvar. The view from the top combines bustling port, beautiful Venetian-style buildings and lavender-covered islands dotted in the water for as far as the eye can see.
From Hvar it was back to the mainland and a trip to Sibenik. Still very much recovering from the war, the town is far less touristy – a factor which only added to the impact of the Cathedral of St James, a UNESCO World Heritage site which is all immaculate white stone on the outside, contrasted with a dark Gothic interior.
The lack of development meant our base was in the nearby resort of Vodice. The Hotel Olympia was impressive, with a gorgeous pool complex, and around 20 minutes walk away from the bustling town centre.
It is an ideal spot for exploring the Krka National Park and the wonderful waterfalls within it. Entry includes parking and a bus trip through the tree-covered hillsides to reach the falls, and you can pay for extras like a boat trip around the lake.
It is enough, however, to drink in the splendid views, before taking to the water for a swim in front of this most magical of backdrops.
The final leg of our trip was 90km north, to the city of Zadar.
It felt more like a living and working Croatian city, with a bustling night-life scene which includes The Garden – an outdoor bar perched on top of the city walls opened by two former members of UB40. The chilled out vibe is great for cocktail supping.
Head into the city centre for a more upbeat feel and try Maraska – the local spirit made of cherries.
On the way make a stop at the city’s sundial which uses the solar power it collects by day to create a light show by night.
As in Dubrovnik, we stayed in a room let out by the homeowners who live in the same quarters. It’s a great way to do Croatia flexibly and on a budget – since prices are competitive and rooms are offered on spec by locals as you dock in a ferry port or wander down a side street.
There’s no doubt Croatia is becoming more widely recognised as a holiday destination – and its beauty doesn’t stop at the Old Town walls of Dubrovnik.