Welcome to the Croatian geography section of Jeopardy! The clue is number of islands. What is 1,244? No? What is 1,233? Still no? Well ok fine. It’s a moot question anyway, so we’ll let the tourist boards and hydrographical experts battle it out on that one.
Whatever the answer based on nuances between island, islet, reef, and skerry, the Croatian waters are bejewelled with over a thousand islands. I would be a liar if I said I’ve been to all of them, but I’ve seen my fair share of Croatian islands over the years. Deserted islands await your discovery, but for now, here are five best in their categories (inhabited) to get you started on your travel shortlist.
Brač for: Adventure & Sports
One annual festival sums up the adrenaline up for grabs on Brač – Vanka Regule. The event, held since 1999, features outdoor adventure sports with a film festival angle. Sports including mountain biking, kitesurfing, windsurfing, and sea kayaking and although the festival only runs for a week in July, visitors to the island can partake in the outdoor fun any month of the year. Mountain bike or hike up Vidova Gora, at 778 metres the highest you can get away from the ocean in the Adriatic Islands, or climb up a rock face in Lozisca village to admire the views of the rolling hills out to the clear bays from up high. For water sports, head down to Bol, whose iconic triangular Zlatni Rat beach is one of the most photographed and recognisable of them all. From there, hit the waters on a kite board, windsurfer, parasail, sea kayak, paddle board or wakeboard, or throw on a wet suit and explore the underwater caves on a SCUBA adventure. The best thing about all these energy-expending activities? The islands boast amazing après-adventure culinary delights of locally-sourced lamb, cheese, and Plavac Mali red wine.
Korčula for: Culture & Architecture
The Travels of Marco Polo is supposedly the third best-selling book in the world after the Bible and the Quran. And did you know? The globe-trotting Venetian merchant was reportedly born on the island of Korčula? The main historical attractions are held within the medieval walls of the cobblestone-paved Korčula Old Town, including the birthplace of Marco Polo. Only recently, the Marco Polo House was transformed into a museum with silicon figures and seven distinct scenes depicting the merchant traveller’s adventures. Architectural highlights in the old town include the anchor of the town, the Gothic-Renaissance Cathedral of St. Mark (with stunning views from the bell tower), while 14th century stone walls, towers, ornate palaces, monasteries, and churches all tell a story of the island’s past. In September 2013, the island hosts the second annual Korkyra Baroque Festival, a series of Baroque solo and ensemble concerts held at churches and other historical venues in town. Other than the heritage attractions, Korčula is known for its traditional sword dance — Moreška — a dance originating on the island hundreds of years ago recalling battles fought in the Middle Ages. Originally performed (solely by locals) on St. Theodore’s Day in late July, a shortened version of the dance can be enjoyed by tourists once or twice weekly (during summer seasons).
Vis for: Romance & Cuisine
Whoever said “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” must not know women very well. Vis is speckled with casual taverns – called konoba – serving fresh seafood and Italian-leaning dishes of pasta and pizza. The former army island base is blanketed with vineyards and olive groves (is anyone hearing the Croatian tourism board’s tagline yet?). The appreciation of the wine found on the island is nothing new. In fact, in 200 BC, Greek writer Agatarhid supposedly penned, “The wine from Issa [former Hellenistic city on Vis] …compared with all others is better”. The first grapevine planted by the ancient Greeks in Dalmatia is said to have been on Vis. Fast forward to today, and still waving the wine banner proudly amongst many others are Vis Vugava (rich white), Mali Plavac (dry red), and rogačica, a carob brandy aperitif. To top up the romance factor, pick a restaurant that overlooks one of the island’s many scenic bays.
Hvar for: the Glamorous & Restless
Let me just pick up some names – Steven Spielberg, David Beckham, Kevin Spacey, Eva Longoria, Bernie Ecclestone, Sean Connery, Prince Harry – do excuse me I must have dropped them. Woops, there goes Bill Gates & Roman Abramovich, both of whom have brought their megayachts to the coastal steps of Hvar harbour. Perhaps celebs beget celebs when it comes to travel, but Hvar’s tourism appeal has actually been evolving since 4 to 6 BC, when well-to-do romans built rustic villas along the island’s bay. Since then, the island became a popular pitstop on a religious pilgrimage route in the 15th century, and then a biology and botany tourism destination during the 18th and 19th century. Hvar was then formally established as a health destination in 1868, renowned for its ideal recuperative environment to treat lung illnesses and other ailments. Maybe it’s the scent of the lavender fields? To escape the summer yachties and hotties thronging the seafront promenade and the large Venetian piazza in Hvar town, head to Stari Grad (the old town anchored by the Tvdalj castle), or spend a day exploring the nearby Pakleni islets on kayaks.
Pag for: Beach Club Days & Party Nights
As the only place in Croatia to be granted around-the-clock booze licenses, it’s not hard to see why Zrće Beach is being compared to the ravers’ mecca of Ibiza. Foam parties, beach parties, boat parties, international DJ parties, the clubs and bars here definitely keep up the vibe to deserve the 24-hour party zone label. Luckily for partygoers, the island’s indigenous Paski lamb and Paski Sir (sheep milk cheese) are said to be some of the best around, perfect either as party fuel or recuperation food. Twice yearly, in February and toward the end of July, visitors can enjoy the island’s cultural and entertainment offerings at the carnivals. Meanwhile, on an off-party day, bicycling around the countryside or hiking through the interiors are both good ways to see the other facets of the island. For a not-just-reef-and-fish diving excursion, head to the bay of Vlaška Mala where approximately 100 ancient amphoras (protected by a cage) dating back some two millennia, are lay completely intact on the the sea bed and were only re-discovered about a decade ago.
Know your lace
Other than its natural beauty, historical architecture and culinary treasures, Croatia is also known for its lacemaking traditions. Here are some facts you can put on the card to accompany those lace souvenirs:
- Lacemaking is recognised in Croatia as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage of humanity (inscribed in 2009).
- The three centres of lacemaking in Croatia are the Pag and Hvar islands, and Lepoglava town in northern county of Varaždin.
- Lace from Pag is made by needle-point and washable.
- The thread used to make Hvar lace is made from the island’s agave plants, hence their name Agave Lace or Aloe Lace.
- Lepoglava’s bobbin lace features floral and geometric motifs.
- An annual International Lace Festival is held in Lepoglava every September.