Croatia Reborn

20th November 2009

It’s been just 14 years since peace was declared in the former Yugoslavia. Torn apart by civil war, this new state has had to face more than its fair share of challenges, to rebuild and flourish after half a century of communist rule and four years of fighting, and to establish itself on a world stage.

Rowena Carr-Allinson went to visit…

Croatia is fast becoming the darling of European holiday-makers and travel-savvy Americans who are flocking to its coast, and for good reason. Croatia’s Adriatic shores are dotted with 1,185 islands each offering our idea of paradise: secluded beaches, sparkling turquoise waters bathed in sunshine and, most of all, originality – miles away from our globalised identikit resorts. Each has its own personality, its history, stories and charm.

In the best known island, Hvar, dubbed the ‘new St Tropez’, the subtropical climate transports you to an exotic, balmy world of palms, oversized aloe cacti, lavender fields and lemon trees. Hvar Town’s beautifully preserved medieval harbour embraces modern life. Hip hotels and stylish restaurants blend in with stunning Venetian architecture.

Everything is pristine on the main square or Pjaca. There are rules and regulations about everything, even down to the colour-coordinated off white café parasols that flank the magnificent 16th century cathedral.

The back streets are hauntingly beautiful. Mostly they’re renovated, but some of the buildings are still awaiting their facelifts and they are the most touching: those very same butterscotch limestone blocks erected by the Venetians are still standing 500 years on…

Climb up the steep steps to the 16th century citadel for the best vantage point. It’s definitely worth the effort. Ljubica Zaninovic, Hvar born and bred, says that the fortress played a key part in the island’s fate. “Unfortunately three big disasters ended our golden Renaissance era: the Ottoman Empire attack, the plague and the fort’s explosion. The gunpowder stash was hit by lightning!”

Aside from its nightlife and natural beauties, the island is known for its many churches and monasteries. One religious order still beats strong at its very heart: the Benedictine convent where nuns live in seclusion, tucked away behind impressive old stone walls. The nuns have become world famous for threading Agave cactus lace, and tending to their lush gardens where everything grows plentifully. Ljubica, whose name means ‘violet’, whispers: ‘They sing to the flowers in there.’

If historical sights and religious tales aren’t your thing, Hvar is the place to hit the beach, go snorkelling or take a boat tour. The archipelago includes twenty odd islets, accessible by ‘taxiboat’. Each islet has its own secluded beaches and quaint ‘konobas’ (restaurants) – from Stipanska’s cool Carpe Diem to St Clements’ beautiful Zori and the laid back Patak on Zdrilica.

Back on Hvar itself, there’s a multitude of choices for dinner, from the sleek Riva Roots restaurant overlooking the mega-yachts, to the low key pizzerias. To sleep in style we opt for the Adriana, which comes complete with spa, rooftop pool, fabulous breakfast and Philippe Starck furnishings.

The adventurous drive to Dubrovnik takes around five hours on roads skirting sheer cliffs, punctuated by a ferry hop from Sucuraj, a slightly surreal crossing into Bosnia and those amazing coastline vistas around every corner.

The very name ‘Dubrovnik’ (like ‘Istanbul’), has always held a fascination for me… and the ‘Jewel of the Adriatic’ certainly deserves its nickname.

During my first visit in 2001, the city was just getting back to its feet. Walking along the 2km fortress wall that surrounds the Old Town, the scars of the 1991 siege were obvious, despite the façades having been renovated. The city – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – has now had a complete facelift, so brilliantly done that despite its checkered past it appears totally timeless.

I’m left in awe of the city’s beauty, fast realising that we are but transient guests here, in this place that will live on long after we are gone. It’s humbling, and somehow heartwarming.

The pedestrian streets are a maze of shining white marble cobblestones. The main thoroughfare – the famous Stradun, dating back to 1667 – gleams mirror-like, polished by centuries of footsteps.

My first stop is a tiny restaurant where I had my first squid ink risotto. I’m glad to see that the no-frills Buffet Kamenica on Gunduliçeva Poljana is still as tasty, cheap and plentiful.

At the other end of the scale, Gil's, at the city gate, is a hot favourite. A decadent al fresco pop lounge, with lovely sea views and modern French-Fusion cuisine, it’s the perfect place to celebrity spot for the likes of Nick Nolte, Steve Buscemi and John Malkovich.

A-listers also like swish gourmet seafood restaurant Nautika. We book a table for the following night and dine overlooking the imposing city walls and the sea below. I order a delicious light risotto with scampi, followed by scallops and potent black truffle shavings. Fantastic. The meal comes with a lovely local white wine, and fabulous service from the charming Marija. The only downside? The pricing: more Chelsea than Croatia.

For cocktails, try Hemingway’s, across from the beautiful Rector’s palace, or, for a view and late night dancing, head to Revelin above the old harbour. Just out of town is the trendy East West Beach Club on Banje beach, en route to the Excelsior hotel.

Originally built in 1913, the Excelsior was rebuilt in the 60s, becoming a luxurious hideaway for both Hollywood types and royalty… Yul Brynner, Sophia Loren, the Queen. Labelled ‘Croatia’s first luxury hotel’, it was entirely renovated in 2007 in impeccable taste. With a perfect location and jaw-dropping views over the old town, the 158 room hotel now has its own designer spa, sushi bar, beach and fine dining restaurant. In the funky bedrooms, which come with top-end marble bathrooms, you’ll find all the little trimmings that Owen Wilson and Sir Roger Moore might expect: from fluffy bathrobes to original artwork.

For something new, try the Radisson Blue, another first: Dubrovnik’s first ‘resort’ style hotel. It’s all about contemporary design… relaxing beige throughout with touches of flamboyant turquoise, and floor-to-ceiling windows onto the open sea.
The resort also has several restaurants, from the lounge-like Ginja with its funky purple and white décor to the fancy Origano. There’s a beach (of course), a dive centre, outdoor pools, and my favourite: a huge 3,500m2 Anne Semonin spa with all the gadgets, from a hydrotherapy pool to a hammam. I book in for a facial with exciting-sounding ‘radiance ice cubes’ and a Black Sand Scrub which delivers the promised peach–soft skin.

For those who prefer exploring, a trip to the Elaphiti Islands is a must. Kolocep, Sipan and Lopud are exotic and green, covered in olive groves, vineyards, tropical plants, Roman ruins and churches. A day trip simply isn’t long enough to do everything: canoeing, biking, wine tasting… It turns out that Croatia is the historic home of the Zinfandel grape, and the Dalmatian coast’s vineyards, destroyed during the war, are now thriving again, gaining international acclaim.

For overnight stays, Sipan hides a gem: the Hotel Sipan, an 80 odd room boutique hotel with a beautiful terrace, sea views and designer bedrooms. We soak up the atmosphere and vow to return.

I have fallen hard for Croatia. I’ve been charmed by its simplicity, by its beauty, its food, its people, its stories, and its stunning mementoes from days gone by, but also by its enthusiasm for all things new. I’ve fallen so hard that I’ve decided to get married there next year, the perfect place to share with loved ones and the right place to make a part of our story.

Fact File:

Rowena Carr-Allinson travelled to Croatia with Cadogan Holidays: www.cadoganholidays.com • 08456 154390

Croatian National Tourist Board: www. gb.croatia.hr • 020 8563 7979

Excelsior Hotel & Spa: from €430 (classic room, inc breakfast):
www.alh.hr • +385 (0)20 353 000

Radisson Blue: from €130 (standard room, inc breakfast):
www.radissonblu.com/resort-dubrovnik • +385 (0)20 361 500

Adriana Hotel: from €282 (superior room, sea view):
www.suncanihvar.hr • +385 (0)21 750 750

Hotel Sipan: from €56 (based on 2 sharing, low season):
www.hotel-sipan.com • + 385 20 754 900

Hvar Adventure: www.hvar-adventure.com

Culinary Croatia: www.culinary-croatia.com

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