The islands are the main draw, with something for everyone from busy resorts through to strips of rock where you are the only visitor. In the northern Kvarner Gulf region Krk is a big and brash resort island linked to the mainland by a bridge. It is also handy for easyJet flights to Rijeka as the city’s airport is on Krk. The island is a fun place to lay out a towel and do nothing, but further south Cres and Losinj are far more appealing for independent travellers.
Cres and Losinj boast a strong Venetian heritage, which unfurls in the chocolate box beauties of Cres Town and both Mali and Veli Losinj. Here you can explore the cobbled streets, kick back for an afternoon on a boat trip and still make it back in time for a slap up seafood feast on the waterfront. There is not much in the way of nightlife, but most visitors to Cres and Losinj are too chilled out to notice.
Moving still further down the coast the island of Pag forms the boundary between the Kvarner Gulf and Dalmatia. This barren sinew of rock is famous for three things: sheep cheese, salty lamb and slamming nightlife. This is the rather unlikely location for ‘Croatia’s Ibiza’ with three huge nightclubs banging away right through the summer season in the north of the island by the resort of Novalja.
Dalmatia is my favourite region with a great choice of islands from glitzy resort isles to tiny uninhabited islets. Many can be reached from ports on the littoral with the city of Split the main hub. The most popular are Hvar, Brac and Korcula.
Hvar is awash with wild lavender and its eponymous capital has become popular with the international jet set in recent years. Base yourself in Hvar Town, with its sprinkling of restaurants, web of pavement cafés and two of Croatia’s trendiest bars, and you can also make trips by bus and boat around the rest of the island.
Brac, meanwhile, is a rocky escape with the highest point of all the Croatian islands and quarries that supplied the marble that built both Split’s Diocletian’s Palace and the White House in Washington. If you’re up for a spot of hiking, this is the place for you, though it is also home to the country’s most famous beach, Zlatni Rat, great for sunbathing and windsurfing.
Korcula is an island renowned for its vineyards and the impossibly pretty capital of Korcula Town, a mini-Dubrovnik. Reputed to be the birthplace of Marco Polo, Korcula Town is the main draw. Drift among the ramparts, cobbled streets and old churches, before surveying the scene from the comfort of Massimo Bar, which has perhaps the finest view of any bar in the islands, perched up high in a watchtower above the old town.
Coastal towns and cities
With so many islands to choose from, many travellers plan a trip that doesn’t allow much time for the urban centres of the littoral. This is a travesty as the coastline offers some of Europe’s most attractive and engaging towns and cities.
In the north, the Istria region gives away its proximity to Italy with traces of both Venetian and Roman culture. The only city of boasts one of the most impressive Roman amphitheatres in the world, where today pop concerts have replaced gladiatorial battles. It is a working port, but dotted around town are indelible links to its Roman past such as triumphal arches and looming columns.
Heading north, next up is Rovinj, the most attractive settlement in Istria. Set spectacularly on its own peninsula, this orange-rooftiled gem adorns a million postcards. Its lively bars and great value restaurants make it a good base too, though hotel rates are rising fast. If you spend time in only one town in Istria, make it Rovinj.
A short journey further north is Porec, the region’s busiest tourist resort, with all the facilities you would expect as well as Roman relics and sturdy streets that were once smoothed by legionnaires’ sandals. Porec can be inundated with families in summer, though a trip here is nigh essential for its UNESCO World Heritage-listed Basilica of St Euphrasius.
Dropping south into Northern Dalmatia the main attraction is Zadar. The Venetian and Roman influences are writ large in an old quarter that is set dramatically on its own peninsula. With new budget flights for 2007 and a flurry of chic bars this buzzing Adriatic city seems on an inexorable rise. It is still something of a travel secret so get in there before everyone else does.
A short trip to the south is Sibenik, perhaps the most authentically Croatian – rather than Venetian or Roman – city on the coast, worth visiting for its vaulting Renaissance cathedral alone. The cathedral lies at the heart of the old town, which stretches up from the Adriatic in a ramble of stone houses to the city’s fortifications. At night the action moves back to the waterfront where the local hipsters come to pose in the pavement cafés.
In Central Dalmatia UNESCO World Heritage listed Trogir (well worth a visit in its own right) vies with Dalmatia’s largest city, Split, for attention. Split is the real star, a raffish and sultry Mediterranean port city whose heart is built around Emperor Diocletian’s old Roman palace, a UNESCO World Heritage. The Splicani still eke out a living within the palace, which offers a truly unique urban experience. The chances are you will only come to Split to catch a ferry, but I recommend giving this intoxicating city at least a night or two. Split is handy as a base for exploring the Dalmatian islands too.
In the far south Dubrovnik, Lord Byron’s much eulogised ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, is easily the country’s most striking and architecturally homogenous city. You won’t forget your first sighting of the old core. Tucked between the shimmering waters of the Adriatic on one side and rugged limestone cliffs on the other, it is the most perfectly preserved city-state in Europe. A pedestrianised baroque oasis, awash with church spires, relaxed cafés and rich museums, this is the place to head if you only have time to visit one place in Croatia. I struggled in 1992 during the war to get here; I guarantee you won’t want to leave.
• Robin McKelvie is the author of the Insight, Berlitz and Globetrotter guides to Croatia
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