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Natural Beauty on the Dalmatian Coast

You could spend a month within two blocks of the marina and never tire of the daily routine. At the morning market, Claudia Cardinale look-alikes rub shoulders with black-cloaked biddies shopping for figs and olive oil. As the sun climbs higher, the yachties move from café to konoba around St. Stephen's Square, and breakfast seamlessly merges with lunch. After a swim off the rocks, it's time for midday cocktails at chic quayside bars, where all the chairs face out to provide views of the show. Hvar's Renaissance-era planners must have anticipated the town's eventual function as one of the world's preeminent catwalks.

At twilight the yachties are all dining on their decks, served by white-gloved attendants. The air fills with the clink of Prosecco glasses, voices chattering in a dozen languages, and the clapping of high heels on stone—and Hvar's evening promenade begins. The top-shelf crowd congregates at Carpe Diem, the ne plus ultra of trendy boîtes. Wicker sofas and cushioned cube-stools are occupied by couples who pay with Bank of Geneva platinum cards—probably nobility from some obscure corner of Europe. When the terrace is full they adjourn to the loggia and drape themselves across marble ledges with uncanny grace.

On this particular night, however, Carpe Diem was not the most fabulous spot in town. Just past midnight, a five-story superyacht slid into a berth opposite the club. On the terrace at Carpe Diem, all heads turned as the crew emerged, clad in marine whites with brass epaulets. Ropes were secured, decks scrubbed, torches lit on the ship's sprawling veranda. Two sailors prepared the gangway, then posted themselves on the pier to tend, no joke, a velvet rope.

One by one, elegantly dressed women strode through the assembled throng, got the once-over from the doormen, and were ushered up the gangway. Baccarat glasses appeared; votives flickered in the breeze. Soon enough the lucky inviteds were shedding all but their skimpiest clothing and gyrating to hypnotic soul music—a scene straight out of a high-class porn movie. I passed by again at 5 a.m. and the celebrants were still on deck, still dancing half-naked in the predawn light. By breakfast time the ship was gone. The owners, for all I know, never got off the boat.

VIS

Just 12.5 miles across the water from Hvar Town, the island of Vis is as insular as its neighbor is cosmopolitan, its hardscrabble landscape a far cry from Hvar's sparkle and polish. Foreign visitors were not allowed on Vis until 1989; before then the island was largely controlled by the Yugoslav army, with just a scant population of farmers and fishermen for company.

A crucial strategic outpost for warding off seaborne invaders, Vis has been variously occupied by Greeks, Romans, Illyrians, Venetians, and Austro-Hungarians. Toward the end of World War II, Tito set up his Partisan headquarters in a mountain cave here and, with the help of the British, transformed the whole of Vis into a military base. During the Cold War, miles of tunnels were carved into the rock to connect subterranean barracks, gun turrets, and missile silos. Portions of the tunnels remain. Today you can comb through the rubble and find Eminem graffiti covering the skeletons of rocket launchers.

From the sea, Vis seems an unforgiving hunk of rock, dotted with parched scrub and brush. Despite its desolate appearance, Vis holds remarkable natural bounty. More than 500 varieties of herbs flourish on the island (consider that the whole of England has only around 300). Climbing those scrabbly hillsides, you can grow dizzy from the scent of rosemary and sage. Asparagus, garlic, and arugula all grow wild here, alongside the mandarin-orange and carob trees—carob infuses the local grappa. There are also some passable island wines, such as the dry white Vugava and the ruby-red Plavac, which, for some reason, Viskis often dilute with ice cubes.

I sampled the wild asparagus at Konoba Bako, in Komiza, where I had the best meal of my trip. Komiza is an unpretentious fishing village with few stores and cafés, and even fewer tourists. Those who come tend to gather at Konoba Bako, whose waterfront terrace makes an idyllic backdrop for simply prepared seafood. Lunch began with pristine oysters from Mali Ston, northwest of Dubrovnik, where underground springs and freshwater rivers create an ideal feeding ground for shellfish (Mali Ston oysters were purportedly a favorite of Emperor Franz Josef's). A luscious pâté of anchovies followed, then a sublimely tender stewed octopus. Finally, out came a grilled dorado, its skin as crisp as a roast chicken's, its pearlescent flesh so rich and juicy that olive oil and lemon seemed redundant.

BRAC

Brac was always renowned for its quarries; the island's creamy white marble was used for the walls of Diocletian's Palace in nearby Split and, farther afield, for the White House. Nowadays the stone trade has ceded to the sun-and-surf market. Possessing Croatia's most famous beach, as well as a limpid bay for swimming and snorkeling, Brac is an obvious haven for sporty types. On the breezy harbor around Bol, the island's tourist hub, windsurfers slice the water like dorsal fins. The downside: Brac is becoming popular with package vacationers, and is being developed accordingly. Sprawling, chain-style resorts are still rare on the Dalmatian Coast—pensions, B&B's, and small hotels have long dominated the market here—but Brac now has more than its share of behemoths. (This may explain the preponderance of Jet Skis.)

The upside: there's enough beachfront for now to accommodate the crowds. And the town of Bol, diminutive though it may be, manages to absorb the ferryloads of visitors without sacrificing its mellow, understated character. After the evening ferries depart, Bol settles into the pleasant vibe of an after-party. Still, most travelers come here on day trips from Hvar or Split and skip the town altogether, heading straight for the beach.

Brac's mountainous interior is spotted like, well, a dalmatian—harsh gray stone broken by patches of scraggly maquis. Against this towering, nearly monochromatic backdrop, the coastline seems to explode in a riot of emerald greens, terra-cotta reds, and aqua blues, as if all of the island's color had long ago trickled down the hillsides to the sea. Just west of Bol, a ring of evergreens hugs the shore, shading a limestone promenade. Carpeted in pine needles and lined with vendors selling seashells, sarongs, and coral necklaces, the pathway stretches for a mile alongside 40-foot-high cliffs. Cicadas and crickets thrum in the trees. Through the forest you can catch glimpses of an impossibly blue bay glistening in the sun.

Finally, the path slopes downward and you emerge onto Zlatni Rat (Golden Cape), the beach everyone comes here for. It is, even skeptics will admit, an extraordinary spot. The cape forms a V that thrusts into the bay, rimmed by a broad, flat strand of polished shale. (There are hardly any sandy beaches in Dalmatia—and if you miss the softness, you certainly don't miss the mess.) The beach slides gently into the water, translucent as an indoor swimming pool and nearly as warm. Commerce is nonexistent, except for a couple of stalls selling kiwi, melon, and coconut gelatos. The far side of the beach is reserved for nude bathers (naturism is quite the rage in Croatia) but, given the size of European bikinis, there's precious little to indicate when you've found it.

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