Sunday, January 29, 2006

Monday Column - Croatia Destinations 1: Which Destination and When?

Best and Worst For…?
Like many countries, Croatia can provide a wide variety of different choices, depending on what you want from your holiday. It must be very high on the list for a Mediterranean sailing holiday but possibly nearer the bottom for a high rolling “entertain me” type holiday. Why?

High Rollers?
You’ll find it very hard to spend your millions in Croatia since the tourism infrastructure is just not ready to take it from you yet. There are few golf courses, limited facilities for Superyachts, just a smattering of low key casinos, not much in the way of celebrity night clubs, and why offer French Champagne when the local version is ok and, more importantly, Croatian? There are exceptions of course: Hvar town on Hvar Island is attracting ever increasing numbers of the rich and famous and increasing its prices accordingly, Kastela Marina, near Split, is the first marina to specifically aim to cater for Superyachts, Zagreb, the capital city, is a buzzing cosmopolitan café society and Zadar and Split are beginning to develop a more sophisticated entertainment offering. However, none of them are much of a match for Monaco or Monte Carlo yet, though keep a watchful eye on Cavtat, Jelsa (Hvar Island) and Korcula (Korcula Island).

For sailing, Croatia has much to recommend it, particularly its 1,185 islands and islets and the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic. Chartering is a subject we’ll be looking at, in detail, in a few weeks time, in the Tuesday Tourism column. Bringing your boat to Croatia is a hot topic, in view of confusing and changing legislation, and that’s high on the list for the Thursday Lifestyle column. However, for the purposes of today’s posting, we’re focusing on a review of destinations. So, if you’re a sailor or want to try your hand at it, where’s the best place to start? The answer is almost anywhere, depending on the length of time available and what your preferences are. I’d pick Trogir, Kastela or Split as being best situated for travel by air and offering the most varied sailing routes and stopovers, all within easy sailing distance. Biograd would be a good choice for exploring the untamed wilderness of the Kornati Islands, though the town itself doesn’t have a lot to offer. Sibenik is still a little industrialised but has a great heart and is close to some enchanting small islands, and not far from Kornati. Zadar gives you easy access to Pasman and Ugljan Islands and the sailing conditions are great in the Pasman Canal. Dubrovnik town offers plenty to the land based tourist, has its own international airport and is in easy reach of Mljet and Korcula islands. Last but by know means least, the Istrian Peninsula, in the north, has its own distinctive character and some more great destinations to discover such as Pula and Opatija.

Land Based Tourism
If you’re a land based tourist, looking for a traditional beach holiday, then there are plenty of package style destinations to choose from. There are some sandy beaches in Croatia, but pebble beaches are more common, so bring your jelly shoes with you. Also be prepared to accept a little less local character in return for more readily available entertainment and facilities. The Makarska Riviera, south of Split, is somewhat dominated by large hotels and campsites though it’s still very beautiful. Biograd has a similar style and the Istrian Penisula has some enormous holiday villages offering most conceivable sports.

Do It Yourself Favourites - The Mainland
If you want to see the real Croatia then organise your own holiday, probably in rented holiday accommodation, and pick your destination according to your preferences. Trogir is one of my all time favourites for a number of reasons and we’ll be covering it in more detail in next Monday’s report. It’s self contained, has a buzz all year round and is steeped in history and the architecture that tells its story. Logistically it’s close to Split airport and the ferry port, which will connect you to the nearby popular islands of Brac, Hvar and Vis. You can also take a ferry from Trogir itself, to the small islands of Veli Drvenik and Mali Drvenik.

Elsewhere on the mainland, the medieval walled town of Dubrovnik is a spectacular destination with a more sophisticated tourist infrastructure, nearby Cavtat is less developed with a relaxed feel and, further north, the towns of Zadar and Rovinj are perfect examples of the eclectic architecture that tells the story of Croatia’s rich and varied past.

The Islands
If an island holiday is for you, Brac is one of the larger islands and was the source of the white stone used to build The White House. Its size and proximity to Split makes it popular with tourists but there are plenty of villages and beaches to choose from. Brac is also the home of Croatia’s most photographed beach – near Bol – a jutting narrow pebble peninsula that changes shape with the tides and currents and is popular with windsurfers.

Hvar island enjoys the sunniest climate and we’ve mentioned Hvar town above. For a quieter life, Vrboska may suit you better, known as Little Venice on account of the number of stone bridges. Within walking distance of Vrboska is Jelsa, tipped to become the next Hvar.

The island of Vis was once a military stronghold for both the British and the Yugoslavians and has only relatively recently opened up to tourists. The towns of Vis and Komiza are therefore havens for visitors that want to get away from the madding crowds.

Rab Island is special for its sandy beaches and Korcula Island for the cobbled Venetian streets in the town of the same name, as well as its claim to be the birthplace of Marco Polo. Mljet Island boasts lush greenery and natural lakes, and the islands and islets of the Kornati Nature Park provide an unbelievably stunning vista.

Special Interests?
There's windsurfing at Bol, on Brac Island, and Viganje, on the Peljesac Peninsula, plenty of naturist beaches, mountaineering in a number of places, fishing and diving almost everywhere, white water rafting on the Cetina and Neretva rivers, and an ever increasing number of grape and olive growing tours. Croatia is slowly escaping from its traditional tourism past and we’ll be looking at special interest holidays in more detail as the weeks progress.

Hotels or Rented Accommodation?
The large older hotels predominate but there are an increasing number of smaller family hotels being built. Trogir has a couple of good ones – Concordia and Villa Sikaa - either side of the channel separating Trogir centre from the mainland and Ciovo Island. Enterprising locals on some of the smaller islands see boutique style hotels as a way of attracting new tourism and these are worth looking out for. However don’t expect any of the hotels to be that much cheaper than English equivalents and, if travelling on a budget, you’ll do much better in rented accommodation, particularly if you stay in the same place for a week or more. A few words of caution though. Firstly, many apartment owners just can’t be bothered with one or two day lets, particularly in July and August, so if you are on an “explorer” holiday, staying a day here or there, you may have to use hotels. Secondly, the owners don’t tend to ask for deposits and are frequently let down by people who have booked but then find something better en route and don’t turn up. If they’ve had enough of this then you may well find they’ve adopted a similar approach and double booked your apartment before you turn up. It’s unusual but it’s well worth making contact with the owner again, a few days before you arrive, so they know you’re definitely coming. Finally, especially in the smaller towns and villages, don’t expect to find an apartment outside the high season, even early June and late September. Croatia still works on a very short “season”.

For a beach holiday, if your circumstances permit, as near to the school summer holidays as possible but not during them. That way the sea is warm, the restaurants are open and the weather should be good but you won’t be overwhelmed by the deluge of package tour holidaymakers or the locals going down to their summer houses.

Sailors will experience less traffic, better winds and less pressure on moorings, outside July and August. The sea is still very warm in September and warming up in June and July.

Croatia is not a destination for winter sun. Yes, there are a few lovely days when you can take a coffee outside but there are more days when the Bora, a cold north east wind, will have you wishing you’d bought your thermals with you. Many hotels and restaurants, and most apartments, will be closed up for the winter and if you do manage to find someone willing to let accommodation to you, it may well be missing any form of heating. November to February are the wintry months and you will be taking your chances in October, March and April. As with anywhere, the weather is not to be relied upon, but May and September are good months for exploring with a reasonable chance of classic Mediterranean warm weather.

Hopefully this posting has whetted your appetite for Croatia and given you an idea of what’s on offer. Future Monday postings will focus on specific destinations, starting with Trogir, and the Tuesday postings will cover various aspects of tourism, tomorrow’s theme being travelling to and from Croatia.


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