I was lucky enough to score a bed at the 19-room Pucic Palace, the Old Town's first upmarket hotel, carved out of an 18th-century nobleman's mansion. Even now, as tourism explodes, hotels in Dalmatia are mostly Socialist-era holdovers with lackluster service and design. The Pucic Palace is the glittering exception, a stylish blend of contemporary (gallery lighting, Bulgari bath products) and old-world (copper-shelled, claw-foot tubs; rustic beamed ceilings, olive-wood floors). Balconies look over Gundulic Square, one of Dubrovnik's prime social spots. At night it's filled with café tables and Cinzano-sippers, but by sunrise the entire piazza is transformed into a farmers' market. Each morning I would step outside to buy a breakfast of figs, plums, and Charentais melons. The peach bins were swarming with honeybees, but the stall tender paid them no heed; she simply tossed a few peaches into a paper sack, bees and all, then handed them over with a toothless smile. I closed the bag tight, tucked it deep inside my backpack, and waited till noon to open it, by which time the bees had passed out. The peaches were sublime.
The Old Town has some compelling museums—the best of them focusing on 16th-century religious art—but they draw curiously few visitors, and most of those seem to be merely seeking respite from the heat. You almost get the sense that Dubrovnik's tourists can't wait to get out of the city and into the surf, or at least onto a chaise longue. Browsing displays of medieval coins, muskets, and teacups at the Rector's Palace were two barefoot Spanish girls in dripping wet swimsuits. The guards hardly noticed.
Despite its sober visage—stone battlements, stately Baroque façades—Dubrovnik in July feels as louche as any Mediterranean beach resort. For every Franciscan monastery, there's a raucous café serving cocktails called Test Tube Baby and Blow Job. The bacchanal reaches its apex at Buza. If this isn't the perfect beach bar, I'll eat a honeybee. A literal hole-in-the-wall (reached via a tiny opening in the Old Town ramparts, and marked by a sign reading COLD DRINKS), Buza unfolds across a series of terraces hewn to the cliffs. There's nothing but a narrow railing between you and the Adriatic. Plastic chairs and tables cluster under a thatch canopy; the bar itself is just a refrigerator and a stereo, both powered by an extension cord running up the cliffside. At sunset I joined the locals leaping off 20-foot-high bluffs into the green water below. Dean Martin was crooning "Cha Cha de Amor" while a 12-year-old girl waited tables, bringing chilly Ozujsko beer from the fridge. At some point, a yacht pulled up and dropped anchor in the cove below. We all watched as the bronzed pilot dove into the water, swam up to the rocks, climbed the winding staircase, sat down at a table, and ordered a beer.
The sharp scent of pine resin mingles with salt air on Korcula, three hours by ferry from Dubrovnik. Forests of Aleppo pine, cypress, and holm oak make this one of the Adriatic's most verdant isles. It's known for top-notch wines and for being one of several alleged birthplaces of Marco Polo.
Korcula's primary draw, however, is the town of the same name. A snow-globe version of Dubrovnik, with a compact historic quarter encased within stone walls, Korcula took shape under Venetian rule between the 10th and 18th centuries. The Italian influence lingers in Renaissance-era loggias, arched bridges linking the upper stories of palaces, and myriad statues of St. Mark. In contrast to Dubrovnik's, the architecture is quite rough-hewn—all of Korcula looks to be carved from a single piece of stone, like an Adriatic Petra—and is on a decidedly smaller scale, with squat fluted windows and minuscule doorways rimmed with green shutters. The 30-odd lanes wending through the old quarter are so narrow that one could leap from rooftop to rooftop clear across town.
The English writer Rebecca West, visiting in 1937, likened Korcula to "a goldsmith's toy, a tortoise made of precious metals, sitting on its peninsula as on a show-stand." Not much has changed. Days begin with ink-black espresso at one of Korcula's ubiquitous cafés, followed perhaps by a circuit around the pine-fringed promenade just outside the city walls. The Old Town's promontory juts like a thumb into the shimmering bay, lapped by waves on three sides. From inside the walls, however, you'd have little idea you were on the sea; the crooked passageways huddle in shadow for most of the day. I alternated stints at the sun-drenched town beach with cooling strolls down the old quarter's lanes. Peering into darkened ground-floor kitchens I could glimpse the dim figures of housewives preparing lunch: grilled squid, sautéed shrimp, wine-braised octopus. At Korcula's jumbled Abbey Treasury museum, a charming old docent followed me from room to room, pointing out Titians and Tintorettos and switching lights on and off as we went.
In the afternoons I would bike out for a bracing swim at Przina beach, a pebbly strand on Korcula's southern peninsula, near the town of Lumbarda. Lumbarda is famous for Grk wine (wonderful name, that), a pungent white with the sweet character of liqueur. Vineyards crept over the roadside here; wheel-crushed grapes stained the asphalt. The road wound past olive, lime, and almond groves, past stalks of blood-red sunflowers, past a medieval chapel dropped in the center of a vineyard. With slices of prsut and sharp paski sir cheese procured from a butcher, I stopped to picnic beside the shell of a stone farmhouse; a copse of trees poked up through what remained of the roof.
I returned to Korcula Town just before sunset, the evening air soft as a silk shirt. The passageways were bathed in the glow of amber lamps; moonlight cast a blue aura on ship masts and church steeples. Several women were grilling garlicky dorado on a barbecue while their children squeezed in a game of soccer. I assumed they were Korculan, but upon closer inspection, I realized they were all speaking French. (Foreigners—particularly French and Italian—are buying up property here at a dizzying pace.)
Just beyond the medieval walls, Vespas were honking their way through the crowds by the marina. Beck's "Sexx Laws" thumped from a harborfront disco. At the Internet café, Croatian teenagers were playing Grand Theft Auto. But down the musty, catacomb-like corridors of the Old Town, the night slipped back 100, 500, 750 years, and Korcula looked much as it must have in Marco Polo's day. The wine, of course, helped.
By far the most glamorous of the Adriatic islands, Hvar is heir to that noble lineage running from Cannes and Capri through St. Bart's and South Beach: the latest of the famous international playgrounds. At the height of summer, Hvar Town is so relentlessly gorgeous it makes your eyes ache. Everything screams, Ogle me: the harbor edged with bougainvillea, the perfectly aged Renaissance façades, the absurdly huge yachts and sailboats, and a nonstop parade of caramelized torsos. As if the cast and setting didn't already suggest a perfume ad, Hvar's entire waterfront is redolent of lavender, which proliferates on the island and is sold in satchels by sidewalk vendors.
Each afternoon in summer, another dozen yachts glide into Hvar's mandrac—the marine equivalent of the driveway at Monte Carlo's casino. Here come the new arrivals, in their brushed-steel cleats and finery: the Pescatore from Tuscany, the Commitment from London, the Aerie from Cap d'Ail, the Coup de Grace from Barbados. And here come their occupants, strutting insouciantly down gangways to alight on the pier: men in cream linen suits and Gucci sandals, divas in sheer silk wraps and Michael Kors bikinis. These people can make an ATM withdrawal look sexy.