I had the good fortune recently to spend a week floating among the islands of Croatia as a guest of Fresh Eire Adventures, an Irish outfit that runs bespoke bike tours throughout the world. The company’s owner, Padraic Doorey, led this “Bike and Sail” trip and brought his trove of knowledge about food and wine with him. (You can check out Flung’s Instagram for more images from the trip itself, including the exquisite Tajna Mora sailboat that served as home base.)
We made our way from Split to Brac, Hvar, Korcula, and a number of other islands before ending up in Dubrovnik. It’s hard to go wrong in this part of the world, with its see-through waters, its ancient villages, its practical people, and with rosemary and lavender and grapes growing every which way. When I list the best, I’m really talking here about degrees of perfection. With that in mind, here are five standout spots among a slew of them in the Adriatic Sea of Croatia:
the western end of this island just off the mainland from Dubrovnik holds Mljet National Park, a wonderland of forest, sea and salt lakes. I rode my Fresh Eire bike from the small village of Pomena to the town of Polace. At the top of the hill between the two towns, a 12th-century monastery becomes visible through the trees, perched on an islet in one of the lakes. This has become my definitive image of Croatia as a place of fairytale beauty.
The daily tourist stampede to this walled city leaves an impression, but it’s not half as suffocating as the crowds in Dubrovnik. Likewise, the Korcula party scene bumps into the night, but hasn’t overtaken the place like the nightlife in Hvar. In other words, Korcula is a more manageable–and more enjoyable–version of Croatia’s most famous destinations. And it’s a stunner. I snuck away from the Fresh Eire group one night and spent a good hour or two wandering, to my endless delight.
Stari Grad, Hvar
The island of Hvar is best known for the town of the same name, which has become a mecca for nightlife and celebrities from Beyonce to Tom Cruise to Prince Harry. Stari Grad offers a different kind of charm, perfectly nestled as it is at the end of a long protected bay. Stari Grad means “old town,” and that it is, one of the oldest in Europe, perfectly worn and perfectly engaging. My memories of the place have a lavender essence–the herb is ubiquitous on the island.
We sat at a thatched-hut beach bar in this town, nursing a beer and waiting for a storm to arrive. In fact the storm never did, and soon enough we had a wander through the streets, where the locals dictate the pace. In the courtyard pictured above, a woman of a certain age opened her second-floor shutters to lean out speak with the woman in the frame. Soon enough, a second set of shutters swung open, and a third woman joined the chorus of Croatian gossip. The theater of life presents itself without any to-do here.
Back on Croatia’s mainland, the town of Cavtat sits just down the coast from Dubrovnik. I discovered it after bailing on Duborvnik after just a day of the maddening crowds there. Cavtat offers an irresistible alternative: A sloping old town that meets a languorous harbor, and a walking path that leads away from town and to a rocky coastline that’s heaven for sunbathing and swimming. I came upon the bar pictured above, hanging off the rocks, then headed down to the water and carved out a little nook for myself on the rocks. My swim here was one of the best of the trip.