We finally made it! Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast has been on our bucket list for years. While we were working, we never made it because it was a little too far out of the way and took a little too long to get to. We could only take one week off at a time, so tended to visit places accessible by direct flight from our hometown of Toronto, Canada.
The Dalmatian coast technically begins in Zadar and the Island of Pag (which we covered in a previous blog post here). However, to most tourists, it refers to the stretch of Croatia along the Adriatic from Split to Dubrovnik, including the many islands off the coast.
After visiting Istria (see our post here) and the Zadar region, we drove on to Split, dropped off our rental car, and proceeded down the coast by ferry.
The lessor known cousin to more famous Dubrovnik, Split is a tourist destination in and of itself. Home to the main airport in the region, many tourists transit through Split harbour on their way to the islands of Vis, Brac, Hvar and Korcula. However, we think the city itself is worth a look.
Split’s ‘sights’ are largely located in the Palace of Emperor Diocletian, dating from over 1,700 years ago, and the adjacent Old Town. Both are very interesting areas to wander around, and we recommend the Palace Cellars to learn about the history of the city. The Palace is less of a castle, and more just a walled part of the Old Town filled with shops, cafes, and apartments.
For a bit of exercise, it is beautiful to walk along the Riva (waterfront) or to climb up to Park Suma Marjan for great views back over the city and harbour.
Unfortunately, Split is also very crowded. With Dubrovnik turning away many cruise ships due to capacity constraints, many cruise itineraries now include Split instead. Even without a cruise ship in port, we were amazed at how many tour groups were being led through the Palace and Old Town. Many streets are very narrow, so it can be frustrating when tour groups block entire intersections, or take up entire alleyways. We can only imagine how much worse it gets when there are cruise ships in port that day.
A great place to visit is the smaller coastal town of Trogir, which is about 30 minutes up the coast towards Zadar. We stayed there for a night on the way, but it would also make for a good day trip to get out of Split, or as an alternative place to stay before jumping on a ferry in Split to see the islands. Trogir Old Town is made up of several small islands with plenty of restaurants, beautiful beaches, and great accommodation. But it’s all on a smaller scale than Split, and considerably less crowded.
One of the challenges of visiting the Dalmatian Coast is deciding which islands to see. Popular islands easily accessible from Split are Brac (known for Zlatni Rat beach), Vis (known for being a romantic island) and Hvar (the party island). All are possible as day trips from Split, or can be destinations in themselves.
The best way to visit Hvar is to board your private or chartered yacht, and tell your captain to take you to Hvar. Then relax with a glass of Dom or Krug and some fine canapes as you blissfully glide across the sparkling Adriatic in pure luxury and comfort.
Or you can do what we did and take the public ferry, only a 1hr ride from Split for HRK120 each.
Hvar is where you come to see or be seen, and is known as the flashiest island. The harbour is lined with restaurants and cafes, and there are plenty of shops. For our money (i.e. free), you can also climb up a hill above town to get spectacular views over the town. To escape the yacht crowd, wander along the waterfront in either direction to find secluded swimming spots and less busy patios where you can relax without being asked how big your [yacht] is. Or just buy some radlers at the supermarket like we did, sit on a rock over the Adriatic and chill, thinking to yourself how much better this is than sitting behind a desk. But we digress…
If we had to do it again, we probably would have stayed on Hvar for one night before moving on to Korcula, rather than visiting as a day trip. Live and learn.
Korcula is an extra hour by ferry from Split, and is overall calmer and more laid back than Hvar. If you’re wearing more than shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops, you’re overdressed. With the rugged mountains of the Peljesac peninsula as a backdrop, we found that Korcula was even more beautiful than Hvar.
The island itself is 47km long, with Korcula Town at the far end (coming from Split). The town itself is small and manageable, but with plenty of dining options and both boat and bike rentals. One of the things we love about Croatia is that you can literally swim anywhere, and people do. Our rental apartment was slightly out of town, but we passed many swimming areas as we walked to and from town, and were amazed at how clear the water was.
Friends told us 3 nights on Korcula was about 2 too many. But we went for some rest and relaxation after almost 3 months of traveling. Tough life, we know. For what we wanted, Korcula was perfect.
On our first day, we joined a Walk & Wine tour with Korcula Explorer. Starting at 3pm, we went on a 1-1.5hr walk through vineyards and olive groves near the town of Lumbarda. At our first stop, the appropriately named Grk winery, we tasted some wine made from local grapes (including Grk, a local grape famous on the island and only available in Korcula), as well as some homemade grappa, paired with local appetizers. We moved on to the Konoba Feral restaurant on the harbour, which fed us with great seafood and some of its own wines. The last stop on the tour was a beach bar for a nightcap cocktail. We can’t recommend this tour highly enough. While Korculan wine isn’t about to set the oenophile world on fire, the tour was really fun. The co-owner/ guide Rachael (a British expat) was great, the food and wine was plentiful, and we lucked out by having four amazingly fun and friendly American boaters on the tour with us. What else do you need?
The rest of our time on the island was spent wandering around the town and debating what beach we were going to swim at that afternoon. There was a great beach just down the hill from our apartment, but on the second day we rented bikes and headed back to Lumbarda. Lumbarda has the only sandy beaches on the island, and since they’re a bit shallower, we were told the water was warmer. We weren’t convinced, but we tried it anyway. It made for a great day trip.
Ahh, Dubrovnik, the so-called “Pearl of the Adriatic” that we’ve heard so much about for years, and finally visited. Did it live up to the hype? Yes. Dubrovnik is a really cool city filled with beaches, fantastic sea views, and of course the amazing old town.
The Old Town
Our first perspective of the city was from climbing up to Mount Srd, to get views over the entire city from above (something we like to do in every place we visit). The day was perfectly clear, but the path was pretty rough as it has never been repaired since the war in the 1990s. It is possible to take a cable car up from just outside the old town, but it’s pricey and plus we needed to offset some of the wine and cheese we consumed while in Korcula. One of the things that makes the old town of Dubrovnik amazing is the city walls. You really need to be looking down on the town to fully appreciate them.
The old town itself is fun to wander around, with many small alleys leading off the main thoroughfares, all filled with restaurants and shops. The old town is big enough to justify a few hours of wandering, but is best if you can time your visit for a day with fewer cruise ships in port (Dubrovnik sometimes hosts as many as 10 cruise ships in a single day). You can do what we did and check the port schedule online in advance and plan around the peak crowds.
We did not walk the city walls, which is considered one of the “must do” attractions in Dubrovnik. It is also priced accordingly (120hkn or C$24 per person, 20% more than it was just one year ago!). We think the walls are part of what makes the city so unique, and you don’t see them if you’re walking on them!
Outside Dubrovnik’s Old Town
There’s so much more to Dubrovnik than the old town. We stayed in a rental apartment near the main port Gruz area. Being a 30 minute walk away from the old town (or a short bus ride) meant that it wasn’t nearly as busy. The area has more affordable accommodation, a bustling open air food market, and plenty of patios and restaurants. Plus, the beaches of Lapad (highly recommend) and Boninovo are easily walkable and less crowded than the popular Banje beach near the old town.
In our opinion, one day is plenty of time to see the old town of Dubrovnik, as it’s crowded and not that big. Since we had an extra day, we took the 50-minute boat ride from the old port to the town of Cavtat. It’s much smaller in scale than Dubrovnik, but also much more relaxed. You can take seaside walks around the peninsula the town is on, then eat on a waterfront patio – all without the crowds and high prices of Dubrovnik. Plus, Roman Abramovich (one of the Russian oligarchs, and owner of the Chelsea football club) was in town when we visited, or at least his $500 million yacht was anchored near town. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for us! Unfortunately, our invitation to party with him on his mega yacht must have gotten lost.
How do we sum it all up?
Croatia was amazing. What else is there to say? We loved all of it. The scenery is amazing. The weather is great (at least it was for us, we were very lucky). Along the Dalmatian Coast alone, there are mountains, ocean, beaches, historic towns, and wineries. Granted, we found the food was very “meh” (other than the amazing Pag island cheese of course), overall prices were higher than expected (but still below Western Europe), and this part of Croatia is no longer off the beaten path – it is very much “discovered” and dead centre of the tourist highway. But don’t let that dissuade you. We’ll say it again…Croatia is amazing!