Words: Annabelle Thorpe
Whether it's the island of Pag threatening to take over from Ibiza as the clubbing capital of the Mediterranean, or Dubrovnik doubling as King's Landing in the wildly successful, Croatia is definitely having a moment. This once quiet corner of the Med has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, luring in A-listers such as Beyoncé and Jay Z (Blue Ivy was even made an honorary Croatian citizen after the media frenzy around photos of pregnant Bey there), but managing to keep its laid-back, unspoiled charms from too much tourist development. There are the big draws – Dubrovnik and the glitzy islands of Brac and party-central Hvar, but you'll find the best bits off the tourist track. Also, the country's non-Eurozone status – Croatia has its own currency, the kuna – means five-star living comes at a bargain price. Whether you want to party all night or chill all day, these are the 10 places you need to know.
1. Šibenik, north Dalmatia
Quite how Šibenik has managed to stay under the radar for so long is a mystery; a pretty Venetian Old Town with a tangle of boutique-dotted cobbled streets and a cafe-lined promenade. Its profile is set to rise this year thanks to the swanky new 70-room D-Resort, which has opened on the headland, five minutes out of town. Modernist without being chilly, the spa and pool area have spectacular views across the islands that ripple out from the mainland. The curved bar, designed to look across the water to the Old Town, is just where you want to be for a sundowner. Once the stars come out, hop on the water taxi into town for dinner on the outdoor terrace at Pelegrini (pelegrini.hr), currently Šibenik's hippest restaurant.
D-Resort Šibenik, Obala Jerka Šižgorića 1, 22000 Šibenik, 00 385 22 331 452. Doubles from £135 B&B
2. Sveti Klement
There's nowhere glitzier in Croatia than the island of Hvar – loved by A-listers like Beyoncé and Jay Z, Eva Longoria and Gwyneth Paltrow – but those in the know take a boat taxi from Hvar Town and hole up at the idyllic Palmižana hotel on Sveti Klement. Owned by the Meneghello family for more than a century, the private family home has become a rustic-luxe hideaway with 13 vividly painted villas and bungalows set in beautiful botanic gardens. There's little to do but potter between house and beach, sip cold beers in the tree-house bar or have long, lazy lunches under the trees in the Toto restaurant. In short, bliss.
Palmižana, Meneghello Place, 21450 Hvar, 00 385 91 478 3111. Doubles from £77, B&B
3. Cavtat, Dalmatia
Honeymooning on the cheap? Cavtat does a good line in seaside romance with its huddle of terracotta-roofed houses on a pine-wooded headland, fringed with small coves and clear blue water. By day, hop on the boat taxi to Dubrovnik (40 minutes), or to the quiet beaches of the Elaphiti Islands (30-60 minutes). Or, hire a car and head into the olive-clad hills of the surrounding Konavle region (10 minutes). At night the town really comes alive; the cafes and restaurants along the harbour-front buzz with life, serving up mussels buzara (in a thick tomato sauce) and crni rižoto (black risotto with squid ink). If you want to be in the heart of the action, book one of Villa Pattiera's 12 boutique rooms. The former home of the famous Croatian opera singer Tino Pattiera, it sits right on the water.
Villa Pattiera, Trumbićev put 9, 20210 Cavtat, 00 385 20 478 800. Doubles from £62 B&B. Cavtat is 5.9km from Dubrovnik Airport
4. Motovun, Istria
There's a reason why the hilly, rural region of Istria feels like a dead ringer for Tuscany; it was Italian for the early part of the 20th century. Motovun is the region's most instagrammable hilltop town; cars can only get halfway up into the village. Beyond the 13th-century gate, slim cobbled streets dotted with konobas (small restaurants) and art galleries wind upwards, leading to the historic Hotel Kaštel, the best place to stay in town. Food is a big deal in Motovun; the region is famous for its truffles, olive oil and wine. Don't miss supper on the terrace at Mondo Konoba – the white-truffle fuzi pasta is to die for.
Hotel Kaštel Motovun, Piazza Andrea Antico 7, 52424, Motovun, 00 385 52 681 607. Doubles from £74 B&B. Motovun is 69.6km from Pula Airport
5. Plitviče Lakes, Lika
Forget any ideas about pretty, tranquil scenery; this 297km2 protected area, around 1 hour 45 minutes drive inland from Zadar, is home to a series of 16 lakes and two cascading, tumbling waterfalls that roar over natural terraces and dissipate into glassy pools, coloured with natural minerals that create vivid teal-blue and jade-green water. Neat boardwalks zigzag over the lakes and waterfalls giving amazing views, but although this is a hearty, outdoorsy kind of place it doesn't mean you have to rough it. Stay at the chalet-like Ethno Houses where the spa comes with day-beds cut into the hillside, the cosy restaurant serves up homemade risottos, pastas and casseroles and the 18 wood-panelled rooms are decked out in handmade furniture and sumptuous beds.
Ethno Houses Plitvica Selo 66/1, 53231, Plitvička Jezera, 00 385 911 234 175. Doubles from £83 room only. Plitviče is around a two hour drive from Split Airport
Quirky is the best way to describe this eclectic waterfront town, famed for its spectacular outdoor art installations (check out the Sea Organ and the Sun Salutation), lively bar culture and Roman ruins that pop up between modern buildings. As the sun sets, pop into Zadar's most famous bar, the Garden, home of the Garden Festival, which this year was replaced by Love International in nearby Tisno (29 June-6 July). If you want an evening of bar-hopping, Mihovila Pavlinovića is the street to head for – Bar Brazil in one of the best. Stay at the stylish Hotel Bastion, where the 28 rooms are housed in a converted 13th century fortress, and the outdoor terrace is one of the best spots for dinner in the city.
Hotel Bastion, Bedemi Zadarskih Pobuna 13, 23000 Zadar, 00 385 23 494 950. Doubles from £115 B&B
7. Rovinj, Istria
A mini-Dubrovnik without the cruise crowds, Rovinj is an elegant Venetian walled-town that fronts right on to the water with a picturesque harbour lined with restaurants and shops. Wander the shady pedestrian streets up to St Euphemia's Cathedral; the steep climb up the 60m-high bell tower is worth it for the amazing views over the town. As the sun sets, kick off with cocktails at La Puntulina where cushions are set up on the rocks, and eat fantastic local seafood at Restoran Sante Croce. Rovinj is home to Croatia's first Design Hotel, the Lone; a sleek, minimalist affair surrounded by the pine woods of Zlatni Rt Park, and an easy stroll to the beach.
Design Hotel Lone, Ul. Luje Adamovića, 52210, Rovinj, 00 385 52 800 250. Doubles from £146 B&B. Rovinj is 39km from Pula Airport
8. Pag Island
Pag is the island of choice for the festival set; the season kicks off with Spring Break (26-29 May) and continues through Hideout ( 26-30 June), and Hard Island (5-8 July ). It's not the most beautiful of Croatia's islands – at times the landscapes have an almost lunar feel – but it does channel an Ibiza-esque vibe. Most of the action centres around Zrće Beach, a long stretch of bar-backed sand. At night some of Croatia's most famous clubs open their doors, including Papaya and Aquarius, which call in the big names each summer, including Fatboy Slim and Paul van Dyk. Carve out some time to chill with a room at the lovely eight-room Hotel Boškinac, surrounded by olive groves and vineyards.
Hotel Boškinac, Škopaljska Ulica 220, 53291 Novalja, 00 385 53 663 500. Doubles from £134 B&B. Pag is 70km from Zadar Airport
9. Lopud Island, Dalmatia
There are no cars on Lopud; no busy streets or crowded bars – it's a bit like stepping back to how Croatia was when it first welcomed tourists in the Seventies. Popular with day-trippers, if you stay on the island, once the crowds have gone, you can have the gorgeous Sunj Beach pretty much to yourself. In sleepy Lopud Town you can hire bikes to whiz around the island, or kayaks to discover the coastline. La Villa Hotel – a 19th-century mansion right on the waterfront, with eight simple but stylish rooms – makes a relaxing base. If you want to pep things up a little, spend a day or two in Dubrovnik; and don't miss dinner at Gil's, apparently a big hit with Owen Wilson.
La Villa Hotel, Iva Kuljevana 33, 20222, Lopud, Dubrovnik, 00 385 91 322 0126. Doubles from £55 B&B. Lopud is 50 minutes by ferry from Dubrovnik.
10. Vis Island
Croatia's furthest island from the mainland, Vis's particular history (it was a military base until 1989, entirely cut off from visitors), means it has remained unspoiled by mainstream tourism. That doesn't mean it's a backwater; the flourishing wine industry (try the vugava, a clean, fresh white) and thriving fishing tradition give the two small towns, Komiza and Vis Town plenty of bustle. The coastline is dotted with pretty coves and a couple of sandy beaches. If you're looking to party, you may find one at the bar on Grandovac beach, which often stays open until the small hours, but evenings usually consist of slow, seafood suppers at a waterfront konoba. Stay at the surprisingly luxurious Hotel San Giorgio, with 10 cream-hued bedrooms and one of the island's best restaurants, Boccadoro.
Hotel San Giorgio, Ul. Petra Hektorovića 2, 21480, Vis, 00 385 21 711 362. Doubles from £98 B&B. The ferry takes 2 hours 55 minutes from Split
Getting there :
Easyjet has return flights from around £69, from London Gatwick, Stansted and Edinburgh to Dubrovnik, from Gatwick, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Luton and Stansted to Split, and from London Gatwick to Pula. Ryanair flies from Stansted and Manchester to Zadar from £39 return. Jadrolinija operates ferries between the mainland and all major islands.
For more information on the country, see Croatia Tourism
Annabelle Thorpe has spent years
travelling in Croatia. Her new novel,The People We Were Before (Quercus, RRP
£14.99) tells the story of a young Croatian boy, Miro Denkovic, from his
idyllic childhood in a tourist village to the war-torn streets of Sarajevo.
Available on this direct link at amazon.com and good bookshops.