Two Gorgeous Islands on Croatia’s Exclusive Dalmatian Coast

October 15, 2018

As a New Englander, I’ve been collecting islands all my life. The ones I first fell for were close to home. We went as a family to Nantucket, a misty, sail-shaped, moor- covered patch of sand some 14 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. We also vacationed on smaller, quieter islands like Block Island (off the coast of Rhode Island) and Swan’s Island and Isle en Haut, both adrift in Maine’s island-speckled coast.

Thirty-some years ago, I did my junior year of college abroad and lived in London, the vibrant capital of an island nation and also a jumping-off point for getaways to nearby islands like the Isle of Wight, the Scilly Islands, and the Channel Islands. That January, trying to escape the gray skies and damp of London’s winter, two friends and I set out for islands farther afield—Greek islands in the Mediterranean Sea. We expected to find sunshine, wear T-shirts, and maybe even take a swim. But it turns out Greece in winter was barely warmer than Scotland. Broke and chastened by our mistake, we sullenly boarded a train back to London. Thankfully we weren’t so sullen we didn’t talk to fellow passengers.

A pair of Yugoslav Australians on the train were traveling to Split, Croatia. Split, on the Adriatic Sea, they told us, was a fascinating city—Roman ruins, constant sunshine, and good wine. And warmth. The Aussies were getting off the train in Novska and driving to Split in a Volkswagen van borrowed from an aunt. Did we want to come? We could stay with them at a relative’s house, a big place by the sea with beautiful views. Of course we said yes. Walking around Split a couple of days later, the sun so relentlessly toasted the town’s old streets that we were in T-shirts by noon.

Another day, an uncle of our generous new friends said he’d take us to the island of Hvar (pronounced Hwahr) on his fishing boat. He described it simply: “It’s so beautiful it will take your breath away.” We only got to see Hvar from a distance though. Marshal Josep Broz Tito, President for Life of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, was vacationing on a nearby island and the country’s coast guard wasn’t letting boats through. They turned us around. The back- up plan was the best consolation prize I’ve ever gotten: We spent the day in the delightful town of Primošten, some 35 miles up the coast from Split. Here we picked up a chicken and several bottles of Babić, a hearty red produced nearby in stone-walled vineyards (that are currently being considered for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site). After a swim at Mala Raduča, one of the best beaches in Croatia, we found a quiet cove, put ashore, and had a picnic. We ate fat olives, sharp ewe’s milk cheese, just-baked bread, Croatian ham, and, over a driftwood fire, spit-roasted the chicken and grilled the sardines we’d netted that morning.

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When we had to return to London for the start of the next semester, I left the southern Dalmatian Riviera amazed by the fuzzy, yellow mimosa bushes flowering around Split’s train station. I was determined to come back.

I was, of course, far from the first traveler to fall in love with this littoral. When the first rail lines opened from Vienna and Budapest to the Adriatic port towns of Rijeka and Opatija during the second half of the 19th century, the spectacular beauty of this craggy coastline quickly captured the sun-starved subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The cerulean waters and gentle climate were irresistible. The charm and history of handsome old cities like Split and Dubrovnik offered sophistication.

The most powerful testament to the allure of the Croatian coastline predates this first rush of modern popularity by more than a millennium, however. Roman emperor Diocletian had the vast and varied territories of the ancient world’s largest empire—including much of Britain, Spain, Egypt, and Greece—at his disposal, and chose to retire to what is today Split. Diocletian ordered his retirement villa built there on the water’s edge. (He was the first Roman emperor to abdicate the throne voluntarily.) Diocletian’s palace—“villa” doesn’t do it justice—was completed in 305 A.D. It survives today as one of the best- preserved Roman palaces in Europe and includes both Diocletian’s original residence as well as other structures added over the ensuing centuries like a cathedral, a baptistery created from one of the palace’s original temples, and three 3,500-year-old sphinxes brought to Split from Egypt for the emperor. (If time allows, Split’s Archaeological Museum displays a superb collection of Illyrian, Greek, and Roman artifacts—an elaborately carved, 1800-year-old Roman sarcophagus, a Greek sacrificial altar dating to the 4th century B.C., and gold Roman jewelry from the 4th-7th centuries A.D. Much of the collection was discovered during excavations at Salona just outside of the city.)

Split is also the hub of the ferry and catamaran network linking Croatia’s islands to the mainland. From the Italian border in the north to the Montenegrin border in the south, the Croatian coastline is more than 1,100 miles long.

Only seven months after my promise to return, I was back in Croatia exploring its more than 1,200 islands. An Italian couple taking a two-month-long yachting vacation along the coast hired me as an English tutor for their two children. We spent two weeks between the two islands the couple told me they liked best, Brač (“pronounced Bratch) and Hvar. “They go together like salt and pepper,” said Alessandra, the woman who hired me. These sister islands share a common history— Illyrian, then Greek, then Venetian rule—but are different in terms of their atmosphere, topography, and the visitors they attract. “Brač is primal, rough, and essential, while Hvar is lively, sexy, and fun,” Alessandra said. Both are relaxing in different ways. Brač’s relaxation is in its slow pace; Hvar’s in a day spent on the beach.

That summer I circumnavigated both of these islands by boat several times. With my 13- and 15-year-old charges as guides—they already knew these islands like the backs of their hands—we toured the islands by motor scooter and did long hikes. I helped them with the intricacies of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye; they taught me these two islands so well I still don’t need a map when I return today, which I regularly do. Both Brač and Hvar are reached by boat from Split. If you get an early start, you’ll have plenty of time to discover each in one day. Or both on two different days. Among the hundreds of inhabited islands off the Croatian coast, these two are true gems.

Brač, the third largest of the Croatian islands, is plump and leaf-shaped, rugged and rustic, and has always earned its keep from hard work. Archeological evidence shows humans lived here during the Paleolithic era. During Illyrian, Greek, Roman, and Venetian rule, Bračians were fishermen and sailors; tended olive groves; worked vineyards, at least until phylloxera destroyed most of them in the 19th century; and mined the beautiful, creamy white limestone the island is made of. At quarries, miners cut the stone into blocks and sent them to the mainland as building material. (Sixteen centuries after being used to build Diocletian’s palace, Brač limestone was used to build the White House. Nearly two centuries after that, Brač stone was used in the construction of the United Nations Secretariat Building in New York City.) Brač’s most famous beach, Zlatni Rat, is famous not for celebrity-spotting like Hvar’s beaches are, but for its geomorphology. Changes in tide, current, and wind transform the shape of the spit at the center of the beach.

Supetar, on Brač’s northern coast and the island’s biggest town (pop. about 3,500), rolls down and around gentle hills blanketed with pine trees and wild herbs like rosemary and thyme. It’s peaceful and idyllic. The intimate harbor front, where ferries from the mainland dock, is edged with the island’s creamy white stone and plump palms whose shaggy crowns are often filled with twittering starlings. It was often the cheerful chatter of these birds that woke me in the morning during my summer on the yacht teaching English. Awake, I’d have a quick coffee in one of the cafes overlooking the port and its small, colorful fleet of fishing boats before heading to a bakery for several loaves of fresh bread.

Bistro Palute (Put Pasike 16), one of the places I liked to linger with a novel when I had an occassional afternoon off, is still in business today. Much of Supetar looks the same as it did those many decades ago. The parish church of Mary Annunciation was built in the 18th century. Its pipe organ dates from 1737 and, with a little luck, you might show up during a service when it’s being used. Next to the church, there are some early Christian mosaics from the 6th century.

Konoba Vinotoka is the village’s best restaurant, whether you choose its cozy, whitewashed tavern with a wood-burning fireplace or the large, modern, airy dining room with views over the town. The same menu is served in both and the catch-of- the-day options are always impeccably fresh, because they’re what local fishermen brought in that morning. I’d start with a plate of Croatian prsut, the country’s rich, savory country ham, and then go for grilled dentex (crimson sea bream), served here with spinach and potatoes.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be served by Bubi, a young waiter who speaks perfect English and has an irrepressible desire to share his love of Brač. Most recently when I ate here, I almost missed my return ferry because of Bubi. When he insisted on serving a complimentary plate of pastries with my coffee at the end of the meal, I insisted on knowing more about the sweets and the conversation became very engrossing.

As cute as Supetar is, Bol, a village on the island’s southern coast that’s long been an artists’ colony, is an operetta set come to life. And the drive there—twisting through a rural, mountainous countryside dotted with small, stone bunje shelters dating back to prehistoric times, and tiny villages (the whole island only has 14,000 permanent residents)—is the stuff car commercials are made of. The landscape is a patchwork of silvery-green olive groves, vineyards, and scrub forest with live oaks and pines. Along the way are two stops, each with a serious sense of place: the village of Škrip and the Blaca Hermitage.

Škrip is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement on the island, and it’s a moody, mineral-hard place. Literally. The homes here are built entirely from stone—both walls and roofs. The Museum of the Island of Brač is in Škrip, and the whole village feels a bit like an open-air museum. Walk around, dodging the donkeys and sheep of the village’s contemporary residents, and see remnants of 5,000-year-old walls built by Illyrians and the island’s largest Roman cemetery. Archeologists believe that buried somewhere near the cemetery are the ruins of a Roman temple.

Compared to Škrip, Blaca Monastery is modern: it was founded in the mid-16th century by Glagolitic priests fleeing the Ottoman invasion of the Croatian mainland. For several years they lived in caves carved out of the cliffs here, but eventually began building the monastery still standing today. The last priest of the order died in 1963 and the monastery has been preserved as a museum since. Its library has more than 8,000 volumes, there is an impressive armory collection, and the monks’ cells and a schoolroom for local kids look like they were used only yesterday.

From Blaca, meat-lovers and adventurous eaters should head to the village of Donji Humac where Konoba Kopačina serves the best version of Brač’s signature dish: vitalac. Cooked over a wood fire in a big open hearth, vitalac is a spit-roasted preparation of lamb’s offal wrapped in caul fat. The restaurant also does less exotic grilled dishes like lamb chops, sausage, and fish, and its terrace has beautiful views over the countryside.

Just before the road begins a series of hairpin curves that zigzag down to Bol, keep your eyes peeled for a view of Zlatni Rat, the geomorphing beach. The cobalt-blue waters of the Adriatic lap at both sides of its arrowhead- shaped, white-sand spit. Just beyond it, built right up to the water’s edge, is Bol. If you want a swim before exploring Bol, look for the sign that indicates the Zlatni Rat parking lot. The beach is about a 10-minute walk.

Bol’s most interesting attraction, aside from Zlatni Rat and the town itself, is the Branislav Dešković Museum, housed in a Renaissance villa on the harbor-front. The museum is named for a Croatian sculptor, but displays more than 300 works by dozens of Croatian artists active in the 19th and 20th centuries. Dešković was best-known for capturing the expressions of animals, and there’s a bronze of a hunting dog just inside the front entrance to the museum. The English-speaking docents are friendly, but they’re no Bubi.

If plump and rugged Brač is a loving babushka, Hvar is a supermodel—long and thin and, thanks to its popularity with Dalmatian nobles in the 18th and 19th centuries, cultured with an aristocratic gloss. (In 1869, Empress Elisabeth of Austria visited and liked Hvar so much she helped finance the construction of the Hotel Palace.) In the island’s main port and biggest town, also named Hvar, buildings date to Venetian rule. Today, during the summer, yachts fill the harbor, and the café terraces around the port are packed with a glamorous, international crowd that has included Beyonce, Tom Cruise, and Oprah.

Depending on the season and the direction of the wind, it’s possible you’ll discover Hvar’s signature scent before you actually arrive on the island. The perfume of the lavender fields planted along the main road that runs from Hvar Town east sometimes wafts out to sea. Otherwise, the breeze coming into the harbor may be laced with the fragrances of pine trees or fig leaves. Whatever scent is in the air, the arrival of every ferry has an opulently festive feel. Passengers on foot and in cars, impeccably dressed, spill onto the stone-edged wharf and air kiss friends accessorized with bright silk scarves and oversized sunglasses, or quickly pop into one of the cafes that line the eastern edge of the port.

While Brač is an island to explore, Hvar is an island to be. To do this, you don’t have to leave Hvar Town, which is one of the most beautiful and best-preserved port towns in Croatia. If Bol is an operetta set, Hvar is an elegant open-air baroque salon perfect for wandering—there are boutiques, restaurants, and museums. The Venetians rebuilt the town—the earliest settlement of note in the area was Roman—in the early 1600s, adding the Pjaca, a rectangular stone-paved main square that is still the area’s heart, and in miniature, recalls some of the refinement of Venice’s Piazza San Marco. At one end of the Pjaca is the harbor and an old arsenal building whose second floor is one of the oldest Baroque playhouses in Europe. The main market and Saint Stephen’s church are at the other end of the Pjaca. You’d think St. Stephen’s Dalmatian Renaissance exterior its most remarkable asset, until you step inside and see artwork that predates Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Bahamas: the 13th-century icon The Madonna and Child and a 15th-century pieta.

Out of the square, wander the narrow lanes of Groda, old town, and make the hike up to the Fortica. Venetians built the Fortica with the help of Spanish engineers in the 1550s; today it has superb views over town. I never look down on the flotilla of yachts, each grander and more gilded than the next, without feeling an affectionate nostalgia for the handsome, white, mahogany-trimmed 1930s yacht that first brought me here more than three decades ago. Notwithstanding my New Englander’s preference for things both simple and plain- spun, I love gawking at this mid-summer magnificence. In both human and nautical terms, it’s one of the best shows to be found anywhere in Europe.

After looking at this show, become part of it. People come to Hvar for the same reason they go to Saint-Tropez—to be a part of one of the world’s most stylish beach scenes. As in Saint-Tropez, the owners of the extravagant craft anchored in the harbor spend their days at glamorous beach clubs.

Hula-Hula Hvar has a party vibe with piped music and a gorgeous young crowd tossing back Austrian sparkling wine. Built in 1927, Bonj les Bains was recently renovated and is more formal. Rent a cabana with chaise lounges and an umbrella here, swim off the pier, book a massage, and tuck into a plate of spaghetti with lobster sauce in its restaurant. Afterward, bring the best of Hvar and Brac together: punctuate the deliciously lazy hours of a long, nose-stuck- in-a-novel afternoon with a plunge into the Adriatic and a glass or two of Stina Winery’s Pošip, a white wine made in Bol of Bračian- grown grapes.