Venture beyond Dubrovnik, says Scott Dunn’s Croatia expert Alan Mandić, and you’ll find a wealth of culture and natural beauty
Remember when The Beach catapulted Thailand’s Koh Phi Phi to the top of every traveller’s bucket list? Now, it seems, it’s Dubrovnik’s turn in the spotlight – this time thanks to the ubiquitous HBO series, Game of Thrones. So much so that the local mayor plans to cap the number of visitors at 4,000 a day. Don’t let this put you off though – Dubrovnik is still one of Europe’s most charming historic cities, and you can combine a stay just along the coast with the odd day dipping into its charms.
“We want to try to encourage tourists to venture north, beyond Dubrovnik, to Split and further, where there’s so much to see and do,” says Alan Mandić, Scott Dunn’s representative in Croatia and one of the country’s leading experts on the beautiful, historic region of Dalmatia.
In recent years, Split has become the world’s leading destination for yacht charter. Hundreds of thousands of budding sailors descend on the Adriatic every summer, hopping between the region’s 1000+ islands (Hvar and Korkula are two of the prettiest). “Greece has amazing archipelagos but the islands are much further apart,” explains Mandić. “In Croatia, everything’s on a much smaller scale, making for a much friendlier environment for sailing novices and first-timers.” The beauty of cities like Split and Zadar, he adds, is that you have the beaches on your doorstep but within half an hour you’re in the mountains, kayaking or climbing: “Geographically, the country is so diverse. It combines the best of the East, the Balkans, and the best of the West – that enduring Italian charm. If you’ve done Italy five or six times, Croatia will be a refreshing change.”
At the north end of Dugi Otok (long island) in the Zadar archipelago is Saharun, a beautiful sandy beach far removed from any major cities. It’s never crowded. I usually stay away from beaches that have any infrastructure. I like my beaches as wild, bare and authentic as possible. From June to September there are two beach bars, but that’s the only civilisation you’ll find for miles around. Most people arrive by boat but otherwise you can get there by ferry, bus and bicycle.
Dolac market in Zagreb is a place where farmers from around the country come to sell their finest produce, under iconic red umbrellas. Pick up a bunch of mimosas, a loaf of corn bread and a bag of Zadar potatoes before sitting back to enjoy a glass of wine and a plate of grilled sardines. From mid-March to late April, be sure to look out for the wild asparagus – we forage it in spring and everyone goes crazy about it. It’s nothing like the big spears you get in the supermarket.
For four generations, the Kivljak family has been crafting Croatian filigree jewellery from an intimate workshop-cum-boutique on the edge of Diocletian’s Palace in Split. If you’re looking to pick up a holiday trinket or two, Viktor, the current master-jeweller, has been manipulating wire into intricate ornamental designs for the past 60 years, and his designs are incredible – everything from delicate bracelets and earrings to pendants and brooches.
Make your way to the top of the hill on the north side of Vransko, Croatia’s largest lake, from where the panoramic view of Kamenjak Natural Park and the scattering of islands that makes up the Medulin archipelago is utterly breathtaking. On a really clear day you can see all the way to the Italian coast.
Despite having been voted Croatia’s best restaurant for the past three years, Pelegrini in Šibenik still hasn’t received much press, which means it’s mainly locals who eat there. Chef Rudolf Štefan takes local ingredients and dishes and puts a modern twist on them. Every year I go there I have to shake his hand because every year he is so much better than the year before. He’ll definitely get a star or two next time Michelin comes to Croatia.
BIKE AND DINE IN THE DALMATIAN HINTERLAND
Go off the beaten track with Domagoj, an exuberant guide and expert on all things Dalmatian. You’ll cycle through the dramatic scenery of the Cetina River Gorge and Peruga Lake, en route to a beautiful, shady picnic spot. It’s near to Split but feels like you’re miles away. Domagoj will forage local delicacies along the way and then rustle up a brilliant lunch in glorious surroundings.
SINJ ALKA MUSEUM
Some 302 years ago, the small town of Sinj successfully defended itself against a 10,000 strong Ottoman army. Ever since then, on the first weekend of August, the town celebrates this victory with a tournament that sees knights on horseback competing to joust a metal hoop off a rope. It’s all quite complicated, but fortunately the town has opened a new museum to educate tourists on the history and traditions of the occasion.
KORNATI NATIONAL PARK
The best place for a sailing holiday is Kornati National Park, a maze of 89 islands, rocks and reefs. Everyone can find their own private beach and the cliffs are amazing. There are lots of taverns on the islands so people can eat fresh fish, lobster and lamb. Farmers still keep sheep on the islands, and because the land is so dry, the meat is very different to the rest of Croatia. Delicious.
One of Croatia’s oldest towns, Skradin lies next to the Krka river. It has a great restaurant scene and great traditions. Not many people visit the main street, which is still very charming, full of 200-year-old houses where everything is still intact. It represents the real Dalmatia. The village upholds lots of food and folklore traditions and has great vintage wine cellars nearby. It has a lovely tradition of Skradin risotto where every family has a different recipe – they cook it for hours until the meat becomes a mushy paste and then it’s mixed with rice.
PARADOX WINE AND CHEESE BAR, SPLIT
Croatian wine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. Head to Paradox Wine and Cheese Bar, the very first wine bar to open in Split, and you can sample some of the finest bottles in the country. There’s always a lively atmosphere inside, and on balmy evenings you can sit on small tables outside too, and spend a happy few hours picking at small plates and working your way through the wine list.