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In need of a sun fix but don't want to miss out on some prize culture? DAMIAN NOWICKI suggests a trip to Croatia.

In need of a sun fix but don't want to miss out on some prize culture? DAMIAN NOWICKI suggests a trip to Croatia.

The intrepid travel writer can't spend all his time hiking round Kathmandu, hunting with the Kalahari Bushmen or kayaking through uncharted tributaries of the Amazon River. Sometimes, after all that vigorous adventuring, there's no better way to recharge your batteries than a relaxing coastal holiday, lazing on some sunny beach with a trashy novel and a succession of cocktails.

Croatia's credentials as a sun-lover's paradise are beyond question - indeed, this 2000km stretch of beaches, harbours and islands has been eastern Europe's summer playground since the end of World War II. Yet one key advantage of this beautiful stretch of coastline is its sheer variety; if you do become tired of speculating whether the water is more turquoise or azure or if, God forbid, the weather should turn bad there is plenty to see and do beyond the confines of your sun lounger.

At any time of year you can take in the sights at any one of the numerous walled cities that stretch down this part of the Adriatic, not least of all the famed Dubrovnik in the country's south, whose impressive fortifications helped the residents to survive attacks from raiders and enabled the trading outpost to become a powerful city-state back in the days when Venice was the economic capital of the world.

There are numerous ways to explore the Dalmatian coast, with its coastal towns and more than 1000 islands. Ferry and bus services operate frequently during the tourist season (May-September) and you'll save if you buy a return ticket. Arrive at one of the island towns by ferry and you're likely to find yourself immediately facing a throng of locals all eagerly offering to rent you an apartment.

The coastal road is breathtaking, particularly throughout the windy four-hour stretch between Split and Dubrovnik. Hewn into the side of vast mountains that overhang the Adriatic, the road's hairpin turns and sheer cliff face offers dramatic views of the coastline's startling ranges. The sheer size of the peaks - Croatia's highest, Sveti Jure (1762m), is on the coastal road south of Split and opposite the island of Brac - dwarfs the quaint towns at their feet. If even the thought of taking this busy single carriageway is a little daunting, you might prefer the increasingly popular option of exploring the islands by sailboat. If you lease a boat and captain with a group it can be an affordable and idyllic way to travel, with your accommodation guaranteed.
On our visit, we hired a car in Split and mixed trips down along the coast with ferry rides out to the islands. First stop was Split, Croatia's second city and a rapidly growing centre on the coast. Here we visited the palace of the original resort-lover, Roman Emperor Diocletian, who built himself a magnificent retirement home by the water in 295AD. We also took time to enjoy the al fresco culture at the 'riva' (harbourside promenade) which, with its numerous bars and cafés, has become the busy centre of social life.

Like many Mediterranean towns, tourism has become the sole reason for the existence of much of the Dalmatian coast. The sheer scale of tourism in these parts means the locals can seem brash when you first meet them, but any chance you have to go beyond a basic transaction and it's soon obvious they are a warm, friendly people. The close connections these parts have with Australia and New Zealand means that if you're from those countries, everyone you meet will soon be telling you about their daughter or nephew who's now living Down Under.

From Split we take a ferry to the nearby island of Brac, which is renowned for its beaches and coastline activities. On the ferry we discover a pair of American women with more serious intentions that sunbathing. They're keen to get their hands on a piece of the island's famous marble, which was used to build Diocletian's Palace and, more recently, the White House in Washington. We want some of the marble so we can put a curse on George W Bush," one explains.

If you're hoping to catch Goran Ivanisevic on holiday, or want to be seen, Zlatini Rat (Golden Cape), a remarkable shingle beach that juts straight out from the shoreline near the town of Bol, is the beach to be at. But if you prefer a little privacy, you can always head off for a hidden cove. The Dalmatian coast is dotted with villages, which were barely small fishing outposts 50 years ago, but have grown rapidly since. Large concrete block hotels on the mainland are reminders of communism, but the rivas are also packed with Italian-style restaurants and cafés. These towns experience two very distinct times of the year, the hot and sunny tourist season and the wet off-season when you'll have no trouble finding a seat near the water.

No trip to the Croatian coast is complete without a day in Dubrovnik, the marvellous walled city at the southern tip of the country. The immense popularity of the old fortress means you're likely to find cruise liners anchored off the coast and accompanying package tourists at almost any time of year. You'll never entirely escape the hordes, but climb up onto the city walls and the crowds seem to melt away. The thick fortifications with their distinctive chesspiece-shaped fortresses on the corners show just how important architecture was to the cosmopolitan city-state, even in the midst of external threats. Within the walls are a series of church spires and a layer of identical red-tile roofs, unchanged in style over hundreds of years. The newer tiles are a subtle reminder of the damage sustained on the city during the 1991-92 siege of Dubrovnik.

On our final night we take the ferry out to Hvar, and as dusk falls the elegant medieval town has a delightful vibrancy. The gentle light reveals every worn line of the limestone houses and cobblestone streets, like the friendly face of your favourite grandmother. Fishing boats sidle in the harbour while the gentle mix of cafés, restaurants and bars around the town square begin to fill. We strike up a conversation with the locals sitting at the next table, who insist we share some of their large plate of fish. "London, how can you live there?" one asks. "Such a big city, so crowded, so many people?" Sitting in what seems like the most romantic place on earth, I struggle to find a decent answer."

Visit TNT's Croatia Travel Guide.


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