I love the knack the people of Croatia have for taking a humble stretch of craggy shoreline and turning it into a wildly romantic bar or café. In the coastal town of Rovinj, several bars and restaurants offer tables atop the town's rocky seawall, and some provide you with your own pillow — an invitation to find your own nook in the rocks overlooking the bay. As the sunset fades and the flames tealight candles seem to brighten, you realize just how easy it is to enjoy a luxurious moment on the Adriatic coast.
The eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea benefit from the Adriatic's counterclockwise prevaling current, which moves clear, warmer water from the central Mediterranean up along Croatia's coastline. And the craggy geology of the Dinaric Alps, which jut right up against Croatia's coast, mean that this stretch is sprinkled with islands. Not surprisingly, these shores have long been a popular destination for Slavic Europe. Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish this lively-but-easygoing area from Italy.
That's especially true in the northern peninsula of Istria, which borders Italy and where both Italian and Croatian are spoken on a daily basis. Instead of the sheer limestone cliffs found along the rest of the Croatian shoreline, the Istrian coast has gentle green slopes, giving it a more serene feel. Though Istria has its share of tacky touristy beach towns, it also hosts my favorite Adriatic town, Rovinj.
Surrounded by the sea on three sides, Rovinj is like a little hunk of Venice draped over a hill. It's simply romantic. Boats laden with kitschy shells for sale rock giddily in the harbor. The fountain on the main square celebrates the arrival of the water system — which happened in 1959. A bell tower with a rickety staircase requires an enduring faith in the strength of wood. From the top a patron-saint weathervane boldly faces each menacing cloud front that blows in from sea.
Walking through the market, I feel like Marilyn Monroe singing to a bunch of sex-starved GIs. Women push grappa and homemade fruit brandies on me. Their sample walnuts are curiously flavorful. Ducking away from the affluent Croatian chic on the main drag, I walk up a back street and step into a smoky bar filled with town fishermen and alcoholics (these seem to be largely the same group).
Though Istria has become something of a hot spot, it's still not as famous as its southern rival, the Dalmatian coast, home to Croatia's top tourist town, Dubrovnik. Its most remarkable feature is the mighty wall that's surrounded the city for centuries, and walking along its ramparts — which offer unforgettably scenic views across a landscape of tiled rooftops, down into narrow cobbled lanes, and out to the blue Adriatic Sea — is its single best activity.
Sun worshippers can easily find a pebbly patch along one of Dubrovnik's beaches, but to truly appreciate the coast, it's best to head out to one of the islands. My two favorites are Korčula, with its "mini-Dubrovnik" vibe, and Hvar, a largely sleepy isle but for the chic crowds that converge in its main town to see and be seen.
That main town, also named Hvar, has become a big draw for celebrities and yachters, making it one of the most expensive places to stay in Croatia. But aside from the nightlife scene, activities there are low energy. The main square is a relaxing people zone surrounded by inviting cafés filled with deliriously sun-baked tourists. The formidable fortress hovering above town rewards hikers with stunning views. At the Benedictine convent, 13 cloistered sisters make lace using fibers from the cactuslike agave plant. Some yellowed samples of their work date from the late 19th century.
Beyond town lies a dramatically mountainous landscape that's been carefully worked over the centuries to produce deservedly famous wines and, more recently, lavender.
Korčula, on the other hand, is generally ignored by the jet set. There's no "scene" here — just an atmospheric medieval town filling a small peninsula on one of Croatia's most beautiful islands.
Like other Croatian coastal towns, Korčula has two parts: The functional side — where most people park, eat, and sleep — and the time-warp Old Town. Four centuries of Venetian rule left Korčula with a quirky Gothic-Renaissance mix and a strong siesta tradition. The historic gate is a reminder that Korčula was once a mighty little place. Facades recall its 14th-century trading heyday, each one contributing to the evocative medieval townscape and dripping with drying laundry and local character.
Every Thursday in summer (and some Mondays), lazy Korčula snaps to life when locals perform a folk dance called the "Moreška." The dance dates back at least to the mid-17th century, and the current troupe has been performing it since the 1960s. With local dancers all dressed up in traditional costume and accompanied by an amateur band, it's a fun evening out…and so endearingly small-town.
When visiting the Croatian coast, seafood is a must, as hardworking restaurants seem to abide by the local creed: Eating meat is food; eating fish, that's pleasure. One waiter reminds me that a fish should swim three times: first in the sea, then in olive oil, and finally in wine. Red wines, which Croatians actually call "black wine" (crno vino), are a specialty along the southern coast.
With succulent seafood, sunny beaches, and a carefree attitude, Croatia's coast offers Slavic Europe's own twist on la dolce vita.