1. Stari Grad
While many visitors are attracted by the (relatively) bright lights of Hvar Town, those looking for a more gentle and authentic experience of Croatian island life should head to the north of Hvar Island to Stari Grad, one of the oldest towns in Europe.
Get your bearings by walking along the palm-lined waterfront. It’s home to old Venetian buildings and it’s here you’ll find al fresco bars and restaurants and gelateria, the perfect spot for a cocktail– or a scoop of lavender ice cream – as you watch fishing boats bobbing in the harbour.
Lose yourself in the jumble of old cobbled lanes leading away from the harbour. Srinjo Kola (Middle Street) is the main thoroughfare, but there are plenty of picture-perfect churches and squares, like Škor Square, surrounded by nobles' buildings, waiting to be discovered by taking a turn or two.
Stari Grad plains, one of the oldest cultivated plains in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, starts just behind the town and is a great place to go cycling. Expect stone walls, olive trees and lavender fields. Agriculture has been the lifeblood here for over 2,400 years.
2. Šipanska Luka
Šipanska Luka on the island of Šipan is only 90 minutes from Dubrovnik but feels a million miles away. It has long been a place of shelter and calm, both for ancient mariners, looking for a safe harbour, and Dubrovnik’s nobility, who built 44 villas across the island to escape the cut and thrust of big city politics.
Life continues here as it always has. Fishermen haul in the daily catch each morning, much to the delight of the local cat population. Locals work the olive fields – the island has the largest number of trees per square metre in the world. And the daily passeggiata along the waterfront is the social event of the day.
Should you feel the urge to get active, there’s a popular trail to the top of Velji Vrh, the highest point on the island. You’ll also find remains of a Roman villa Rustica near the bay and a host of tiny chapels dotted around the area that once provided sanctuary during pirate raids.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head back to the waterfront. Here you’ll find a host of rustic restaurants, tapas and ready to serve deliciously fresh seafood, lovingly prepared following traditional recipes.
With its palm-lined streets and ancient surrounding walls, Korčula town rivals nearby Dubrovnik for ancient beauty and charm. This secret isn’t out yet, so Marco Polo’s hometown remains uncrowded, allowing you to soak up the town’s laidback, Mediterranean lifestyle.
Wandering the narrow streets here is a delight. You’ll stumble upon tiny cafes and bars, as well as the Gothic-Renaissance of the Cathedral of Saint Mark. Drop by the house where Marco Polo supposedly lived and visit the museum dedicated to his legend. Seek out the excellent restaurants here, many of which are regarded among the best in Croatia.
If you hear a clash of swords, fear not. It’s just the moreška, a traditional sword dance that dates back centuries. It’s a confrontation between the Black King, who kidnaps a girl known as the Bula, and the White King, whose job it is to win her back. It is performed every Monday and Thursday in the open-air theatre beside the Old Town's main gate.
Sitting at the apex of a deep bay and backed by steep cliffs, Komiža is an enchanting port with a long nautical tradition. It looks like it’s straight out of a story book, a colourful jumble of stone houses and fishing boats, and is the oldest fishermen’s village in the entire Adriatic.
Life is agreeably slow here. Wander the cosy little streets of Komiža, known locally as kalete. Visit the local marketplace and fish market. Step back through time with a visit to the impressive Church of St. Nicholas on the hill, the Church of Our Lady of the Pirates on the town’s beach or the Fisherman’s Museum housed in the old Venetian tower.
The town faces west and taking dips in the ocean from one of the two small beaches in the town as the sun sets is magical. Keep an eye out for the Gajeta falkuša, a traditional vessel with oars that was used to reach the tiny island of Palagruža. Don't leave without trying the lobster. Komiža is famous for it.
Skradin is one of the oldest towns in Croatia, a charming place that sits on the banks of the Krka River and close to the entrance to the Krka National Park. It is surrounded by vineyards and topped by an imposing fortress and is allegedly Bill Gates' favourite place in the world.
Bill was probably seduced by the town’s legendary Skradin cake, a sumptuous chocolate dessert made to a recipe that gets passed on from grandmothers to daughters and on to granddaughters. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble upon a celebration and get to try it ‘in situ’. Otherwise, most bakeries and restaurants will sell you a slice.
Skradin Risotto is equally revered. It is cooked for several hours, with the local men drafted in to help. They make it taste better apparently, although some say that was a ruse created by the local women to get the men to do the monotonous stirring.
Next, climb Skradin Clock Tower, dating to 1872. Drop by Old Timer Antique Car Museum. Or make your way into Krka National Park to see the waterfalls.
The town of Susak on the island of Susak is a Croatian time capsule. Tucked up in the north of the Adriatic it has preserved its unusual dialect, original folk costumes, and traditions and customs.
Occasional archaeological discoveries suggest that the island may have been settled for at least 2,000 years by Illyrians, Greek sailors and Romans. The Italians called the island Sansego, from the Greek word sansegus meaning oregano, which grows in abundance on the island.
People come here to listen to the sound of nature and enjoy the warmth of the sandy beaches. But they also come to experience the enchanting island culture. You’ll see it in the ornate and elaborate costumes that come out especially for weddings and feast days. And taste it in the food, a magical blend of Italian, Croatian, Austrian, and Mediterranean cuisines.
Seafood like sardines, mackerel, and grouper is popular fare. Lamb and pork cooked on an open fire is also popular but usually reserved for special occasions. For dessert, try pancakes filled with jam or fruit and strudel, a throwback from when the island was under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
For more information and inspiration about this incredible country, head over to the official Croatia website.