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Natural Beauty on the Dalmatian Coast

My friends and I play a travel game we call Swoon. The rules are simple: Choose a storied locale from a particular moment in the past 50 years, and the place that earns the most "aaah's" wins. Someone invariably picks St.-Tropez circa 1955, or Ubud in the seventies. Pre–charter flight Ibiza. Post–Cold War Prague. Such places are the geographical equivalents of Truman Capote's Black and White Ball or Manchester's Hacienda Club: that perfect confluence of location and time—before the rest of the world arrived, before the inevitable Wild On! specials on E! Think of Bahia in the sixties, Saigon in the nineties, or Tan-gier in Paul Bowles's day.

Think of these and you'll begin to understand the Dalmatian Coast in 2005. Right now, the islands of southern Croatia are—among a certain group of people—the premier destination in the Mediterranean region. They glimmer on the periphery enough to attract the trendy, yet hang enough off the radar to elicit blank stares among the rest. And the rest don't know it now, but they'll be coming soon, too.

Europeans long favored Croatia's coastal resorts as a low-key alternative—Greece, Italy, and Spain without the tourist junk or the exorbitant prices. (In the 1970's and 80's, Yugoslavia drew more British travelers than any other European country besides Spain; most of them were bound for Dalmatia.) When Yugoslavia erupted into civil war in 1991, the Dalmatian Coast was not as hard hit as the inland regions of Bosnia and Serbia. But violence was widespread even here, and tourists—the backbone of Dalmatia's economy—disappeared altogether.

Today the pockmarks of mortar fire are faintly visible in Dubrovnik's ancient walls, grim reminders of the 1991–92 siege by Yugoslav forces. In most of Croatia, the war now feels ages, not just a decade, gone. And tourism is increasing by as much as 50 percent a year. Europeans are again flocking here each summer—arriving by yacht, by sailboat, by car ferry, or by Gulfstream—and picking up where they left off. Americans, too, are finally being clued in: dozens of cruise lines and tour companies have added Dalmatia to their itineraries in recent years. And, for better or worse, Croatia was recently given the Wild On! treatment on E! If that's not a tipping point, I don't know what is.

So what's the appeal?The landscape, for starters. This is the most stunning coastline in Europe: a mix of limpid bays, craggy bluffs, hidden coves and beaches, vineyards, olive groves, and forests of cypress and pine. Remarkably well preserved ancient towns hold vivid examples of Greek, Roman, Venetian, and Slavic architecture. The sailing and yachting scene here rivals any other, with hundreds of ports and dozens of marinas and countless natural inlets scattered across a thousand islands. Dalmatian cuisine—consisting of superb fish, shrimp, octopus, and oysters, along with increasingly renowned wines—compares favorably to Italian cooking, and borrows heavily from it: here risotto becomes rizot and prosciutto becomes the delectable prsut. But Dalmatian food is earthier and rougher than Italian, blending hints of Hungarian (paprika-laced goulash), Turkish (kebab-style raznjici, or meat skewers), and Slavic (sour dumplings). It's also exceptionally affordable.

Finally, an exuberant nightlife dominates on the larger islands of Hvar and Brac, where revelers keep the party going until sunrise. There's a palpable urgency to the proceedings. This may be the most widespread consequence of the war: everyone—Croatians themselves, as well as their blissed-out guests—seems to be making up for lost time. For now, it's Croatia's moment; who knows how long it will last?

DUBROVNIK

Dalmatia's most famous city is touted as an unspoiled gem, though this is really a matter of degree. While it's not yet as overrun as, say, Prague or Positano (the two unlikely places that Dubrovnik most resembles), it's well within the crosshairs of mass tourism. Dubrovnik's Old Town maintains a precarious equilibrium between Then and Now, Here and Elsewhere. Menus in Italian, English, and German hang outside every tra-ditional wooden-beamed konoba, or tavern. Benetton and Diesel boutiques line the medieval lanes. And pushcart vendors proffer not just handmade olive soaps but also Old Town mouse pads.

Such culture clashes form the essence of this city, and always have. In the Old Town, one feels a sense of displacement, as if all of Europe had come to cluster within Dubrovnik's fortified walls. At various points, most of Europe has. Witness the twisting staircase above Gundulic Square, an explicit homage to the Spanish Steps; the 16th-century Baroque cathedrals abutting Renaissance palaces and medieval fortresses; and the Gradska Kavana, a café straight out of fin de siècle Vienna.

The Old Town is shaped like a cereal bowl; from its elevated rim you can gaze across the city's orange roofs to the vividly blue Adriatic beyond. Down below, at the center of the bowl, lies the Stradun, Dubrovnik's limestone main drag. Centuries of casual strollers have buffed the street to an icy gloss—you expect a Zamboni to arrive at any moment. Each evening the Stradun roars to life for the nightly korso, or promenade. A motley crowd emerges: teenagers in sunbleached-blond dreadlocks, grizzled Croatian men smoking pipes, cruise-ship passengers in flip-flops, Italian men in Ferragamo loafers. A white-haired nun passes by, cocooned in an all-white habit. She's trailed by a surfer dude in satin shorts, nothing more. Both wear crucifixes.

The summer crowds may seem unavoidable down on the main streets, so strike up any lane into the higher parts of town. Here the only signs of life are alley cats dozing on the cool and shady stone. The air carries the scent of jasmine and lemon trees, laundry soap, cat spray, and, occasionally, the buttery aroma of scampi frying in tiny kitchens. Climbing a deserted lane one afternoon, I heard, of all things, faint strains of Dixieland echoing down the alleyways. I soon came upon an open doorway, inside which—barely visible in the dim—sat a half-dozen young Croats in shorts, gleefully blowing jazz for an audience of indifferent cats.

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