The Istrian Peninsula has all the knockout beauty of the Dalmatian Coast—without the crowds. We found four reasons to explore.

Because its islands and beaches are still a (relative) secret. Leave Venice to the cruise ships. Just across the Adriatic, Istria is laid-back and idyllic—and rocky beaches abound. In Kamenjak Park, near Pula, cliff-jumping into the sea is a pastime. Farther north, you’ll find the popular sunbathing spot Monte Beach, reached via steep stone steps, and the wildly beautiful Golden Bay. Board the crewed wooden cruiser Delfin, based in Rovinj, for daylong trips to outlying fjords and archipelagoes, with stops at St. Andrew (where you can visit a sixth-century monastery), lush St. Katarina Island, and the St. John lighthouse.

Because the food blends the best of Croatia and Italy. Istria is known for its simple approach to cooking, the kind championed by native daughter Lidia Bastianich. In Banjole, there’s the rustic, family-run tavern Konoba Batelina (385-525/73767; $$$), known for its just-caught seafood. Thirty miles north, in Rovinj, the fêted Monte ($$$$) creates multicourse meals that might include scampi with beet risotto. Nearby, sample homey small bites such as goat-cheese-stuffed peppers paired with the region’s famous Malvasia white wine at Male Madlene (open June through September; 385-528/15905; $$), a harborside restaurant set right in the owner’s living room.

Video: Beach Destinations

Because you’ll find only authentic, handmade arts and crafts. Mass-produced is a foreign concept in Istria. On the cobblestoned streets of Rovinj’s old town, every second doorway houses a shop filled with jewelry, figurative miniature paintings, and rustic pottery. Gallery Zdenac (385-955/477-135) displays whimsical fish-shaped ceramics and teardrop pendant lamps. For naïve-style paintings and moody photos depicting street life, visit the whitewashed atelier Gallery Brek (385-981/710-297). In Pula, stock up on essential oils and natural beauty products at Aromatica, an apothecary where native botanical ingredients are used in everything from soaps spiked with fennel and rosemary to chestnut tinctures.

Because there’s finally a stylish hotel. There’s no missing Rovinj’s Hotel Lone ($$): the retro-futuristic property looms out of the Monte Mulini Forest like an ocean liner, all glossy white exterior and graceful curves. Croatian studio 3LHD is behind the sexy interiors, punctuated with a head-turning vertical garden and a filigree-like steel sculpture in the six-story atrium.

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