You could make a pretty strong case that Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is paradise, and you’d get no argument from me. A thousand thanks to the beautiful Croatian friend I made here in Florence who convinced me to visit her country, because I had an incredible time! Croatia is outside of the Schengen Territories, so it’s a good stop if you’re worried about overstaying your welcome. American citizens can stay for 90 days without a visa; I was there for a week, and I sincerely wish that I could have made it two.
My first stop was in Split. If you’re arriving by plane, just head out of the airport and you’ll see signs for the city buses. They’ll take you to the main bus station, and there’s a tourist office in the same strip that can help you find your way. Be ready for crowds because Split a big party city with a gorgeous seaside promenade called the Riva, and in the summer it definitely caters to young beachgoers. I stayed in Hostel Ana, which is right next door to Diocletian’s Palace and less than a ten minute walk from the ferry port. It was perfect for my needs, but if you prefer to stay in fancy hotels or luxurious hostels, it’s not for you. It’s cheap, cozy, and ideally situated with a fantastic open-air sitting area where you can lounge and meet other travelers. Next door is Split’s main attraction: Diocletian’s Palace, a sprawling complex full of shops, restaurants, squares, and ruins. It was originally the retirement home of Diocletian, a Roman Emperor who was in power from 284 to 305. I had a great time wandering around the streets, and I discovered little gems like an older couple dancing to live music in the middle of a square, and a guitar player camped out in a particularly beautiful area full of toppled pillars. In fact, I ate my first Croatian meal against one of those pillars, just listening to him play in the soft evening air. I fell in love with almost everything that I ate in Croatia, but that first night I had hot and simple street food in the form of a crocup, this gorgeous creation that consisted of a bread bowl filled with garlic sauce, the meat of my choice, and vegetables, which was then covered in cheese and baked to perfection. While we’re on the subject of food, I also highly recommend a really cool restaurant in the palace complex called Figa. It has indoor and outdoor seating options and sports a colorful vibe, friendly staff, and the best shrimp risotto I have ever eaten.
A quick word on currency: some places do accept euros, but the kuna is the national currency of Croatia. The exchange rate for the American dollar right now is 5.68 kuna for $1; for example, my crocup cost 40 kuna, which only comes to about $7. I like to keep my calculations simple, so I just mentally divided everything by five. It’s easier, and you’re actually paying less than your original estimate. Win-win, in my book.
Anyway, Diocletian’s Palace was wonderful. I really enjoyed exploring it in depth, especially the parts that haven’t been as well maintained because I’m weird like that. I love the sight of all that crumbling white marble, though walking on it is seriously a chore. I don’t know if I just picked the two most slippery cities in Croatia, but any time it rained I took my shoes off and walked barefoot because my feet had better traction, so keep that in mind when picking shoes for this location. One of the best things about Split this time of year is that there are constantly festivals. The cultural music festival was going on when I visited, and the day I came home Ultra started. That means live music every night on the Riva, and I had a great time relaxing on a bench with the sea at my back and a fun band rocking out onstage. If you’re not a fan of big crowds and crazy parties, however, I would avoid Split during Ultra because it’s one of the biggest house music festivals in the world. Honestly, if I had to do it over again, I would stay in Split for one night and then go to Hvar Island for the rest of the time because I personally wasn’t there to party.
Hvar Island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I ended up spending most of my time there, which cost me quite a chunk in ferry tickets. Another quick word: the fastest way from Split to Hvar is by catamaran (http://www.hvarinfo.com/travel-to-island-hvar/), and while they’re usually pretty easy to use from the mainland, the ones leaving Hvar are infrequent and often sell out. The second option is the car ferry, which leaves from Stari Grad on the other side of the island. Here’s how you catch it:
- Go to the main ticket office in Hvar Town, which is very close to where the catamaran dropped you off, and buy a ticket for the car ferry. You have to take a bus to reach Stari Grad, and there will be a list of bus times that match the ferry you need.
- Once you have your ticket, leave the office and turn right. Go towards the main square in front of the church, and keep walking to the left of the church (there’s a public bathroom right there if you need it). You’ll see taxi stands by a building, and if you go towards that building on your left you’ll see the buses. You want the one that says “Stari Grad” in the front window.
- Buy a ticket for Stari Grad, but you’re not actually getting off there. The bus may stop a few times on the way to pick up people, but the first major stop will be the ferry port, and that’s where you’ll get off. The car ferry should be the giant ship on the left side of the port, and while the ride is exceedingly smooth, it will take about two hours to get back to Split. The absolute best thing about the car ferry is that it runs late; the last one leaves some time after 11:00 pm.
Hvar Island just….defies words. If you walk around the port and keep going, you’ll find all sorts of public beaches. Walk far enough and there are resort-style places with sand and drinks and fancy changing areas, but the first ones you come to are rocky, free, and much more interesting in my opinion. Navigating them is a little tricky, but slow going should see you through. I lucked out and found a perfect spot that was tucked into the rock face a bit, so I could lay my things out and gently make my way into the water. There are plenty of sunbathers around, but since I am a delicate British flower (and I’m secretly ten years old, don’t let me tell you any differently), I went straight for the water.
The Adriatic Sea is absolutely ridiculous. That water is the most incredibly clear shade of blue, and it’s so salty that if you let it dry on your skin, you can actually brush the residual salt off. I highly recommend taking goggles, and if you elect not to, at least take a lesson from me and don’t grab sh*t off the seabed that you can’t see clearly. I saw what looked like a white seashell below me and I wanted it, but my contacts made the water blurry. I dove down anyway and reached for it and, as you can probably guess, it definitely was not a seashell. It was a hollowed out sea urchin. WHICH REMINDS ME: Sea urchins. Sea urchins everywhere, so watch out. They’re pretty easy to see, but be careful. I ended up stepping on one as well the next day while walking in the water. But I digress; I survived the sea urchins and frolicked sufficiently in that ridiculous water, and then I thought it would be a good idea to sit up on the rocks, half in and half out of the water. As with the “seashell,” I was sorely mistaken because the water entranced me so much that I sat there for an hour without applying more sunscreen, just staring out at the waves like a dodo. And then I decided to rinse and repeat. I mean, come on; can you blame me?
Hvar Town itself is gorgeous, and definitely worth exploring. It’s a party place like Split, but there’s so much more to do in addition to drinking and dancing. Hvar is famous for its lavendar fields, and you can hire all sorts of excursions to take you across the island or, even better, to entirely different islands. On Vis, there is a magical place called the Blue Grotto, not to be confused with a place of the same name in Capri. If you walk around the harbor in Hvar Town, you’ll find loads of tours available. I found one such tour that promised the Blue Grotto, the Green Grotto, and a few private beaches on Vis, so I booked it for the next day. Unfortunately the sea was too rough to visit the grottos, but we made for Vis anyway on a small sailboat crewed by two very attractive Croatian sailors whose names I never caught. I’d like to dub the beefcake with long curly hair Tarzan, and the slimmer blond Terk because he was the one scrambling all over the boat like a monkey (yes, I’m aware that Terk is a gorilla, hush). The trip to Vis wasn’t that bouncy, but by the end most of us landlubbers were queasy to one degree or another, especially the poor Malaysian girls. PRO TIP: if you get seasick, stare at something steady like the horizon or an approaching island, and whatever you do, DO NOT go belowdeck.
We pulled in to this tiny cove full of moored boats and dropped anchor, and then most of us proceeded to jump right off the boat and into that glorious water. I’m not going to lie to you, I hesitated for about twenty seconds. The water was so clear that I could see all the way to the bottom, but something about taking that plunge gave me pause. In the end, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and just—stepped off. It really was as easy as all that. Except then I hit the water and came up cursing a blue streak because it was so cold, thereby cementing my status as a true Southern lady to all my nice new foreign friends. Someone tossed goggles down, and I had a fantastic time snorkeling along the edge of the bay. The middle parts were sandy and boring, but the edges held reefs. They weren’t tropical by any means, but it was amazing to explore such a diverse ecosystem filled with fish, crabs, sea slugs, and plantlife. That’s how I amused myself while most of the others were sunbathing and napping on the boat. Eventually Tarzan and Terk brought out lunch, most of which was delicious (tuna and corn, who wouldda thunk?), though the sardines were a mistake on my part. After lunch the boys seriously tossed all of the plates overboard, explaining that the fish would eat the leftovers and all they would need afterwards would be a swish under fresh water. It was a lot of fun to watch Tarzan and Janja dive for them, especially when they told the British tourist to throw some of the silverware in as well and he threw all of it, so they had to dive down at least twenty feet to pick two dozen forks and knifes off the seabed.
Our next stop was at the Laganini Lounge Bar on a different part of Hvar Island. It wasn’t as much fun as the cove on Vis, but it seems like a fantastic place to relax with friends or a loved one. It’s basically a private bay with different levels cut into the rockface, and all of the furniture is made of white driftwood and softened burlap. There are several bars, and a few perches in the trees that you can reserve. As my family can tell you, I don’t do “relaxation” very well when I’m in a new place, so I preferred the journey across the water to sitting still. I let my legs dangle over the side of the boat and watched the sapphire water pass underneath me, and I had a lot of deep thoughts about the open sea and how amazing/terrifying it would be to swim in it. Thankfully, my higher brain functions prevented me from toppling overboard, no matter how curious I was. A stunning sunset was the perfect cherry on the decadent sundae that was my day on the water.
That’s it for my island adventures; tune in next time to read all about the real King’s Landing and how I dodged a surprise wedding. There will also be guest appearances by the Storm God, three Vikings and their boss, a metric sh*t ton of cats, and James.