Viewed from a mile above the Adriatic, the Makarska Riviera is barely a terracotta thread stitching the silk-smooth sea to the pines and rock of the Dalmatian Coast. The bathers on its pebbly beaches have disappeared in the early summer haze. So, too, has Italy. On a clear day, they say, the ankle of its boot is visible more than 150 miles out, far beyond the green islands of Hvar and Brac.
I was sweating as I reached the summit of Sveti Jure (1,762m) the highest peak in the Biokovo National Park. And I had driven up, albeit via a pot-holed road that got steeper and narrower as it wound through forests and alpine meadows. I'm told the even more precipitous hike up is stunning, but I had the wrong shoes and a sun lounger to get back to.
A stone chapel with medieval foundations looks out over a country braced for change. On Monday, Croatia shifts, politically at least, closer to Italy and its continental neighbours when it becomes part of the European Union. As suits descend on Zagreb, the capital, for fireworks and glad-handing, a debate still rages about the sense in joining a troubled club. Twenty years after it shook off the dust of war and the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia is in deep recessionary trouble – and not everyone sees salvation alongside bedfellows such as Greece.
Tourism, though, long ago emerged as a big earner here, and now accounts for 15 per cent of Croatia's GDP. In seaside towns such as Makarska, hulking Soviet-era hotel blocks loomed over beaches to offer cheap packages. The war of independence in the early 1990s blew away much of that trade but Croatia has cannily planted its flag back on the map, luring visitors with beaches but also food, wine, architecture and a more sophisticated hotel scene.
There is fear of further economic decline (Croatia is not adopting the euro for now) and red tape. Wine growers are spitting corks about plans to ban the word "prosek", a delicious dessert wine, because of its nominal likeness to Italian prosecco. But many others welcome membership if it brings more outside investment, a challenge to corruption and, ultimately, more tourists.
The number of Brits coming to Croatia has almost recovered to pre-war levels. To find out what any new visitors can expect, I travelled last week to "the Mediterranean as it once was", to quote the tourist board posters. The drive up "sweaty" Jure (seriously, stay on the beach if you're scared of heights) came on the last day in a week of wine, islands, seafood, factor 20 and a strange encounter with a pig hunter.
I started in Split, for good reason among the biggest tourist centres here along with Dubrovnik (I didn't go there – you probably will). At its heart lies Diocletian's Palace, named after the Roman emperor who built it in around AD300. Pretty old, then, but it could not be more alive. There are no locked gates or closing times: the palace is the city, its marble columns and gleaming white stone enclosing museums, the Cathedral of St Domnius, about 3,000 residents and multiplying restaurants and bars. If it's hot, go in late afternoon and get lost until your hotel room beckons.
Croatia is arguably an unlikely seaside destination, despite its 1,000 miles of coastline. Minimal tides and geology make beaches narrow and almost always pebbly, creating a thriving micro-industry built on jelly-soled shoes (perhaps the lack of sand appeals to the large number of nudists who like to hang out on certain strips of coast here).
First impressions were poor at Bacvice beach, a few minutes east of the Palace. It boasts a Blue Flag to denote cleanliness but I encountered several fag ends floating in a Piz Buin slick as I lowered myself from a concrete wall. My tip: save beaches for after Split – they do turn out to be wonderful.
Millions of visitors here still do the resort thing – same sun lounger, empty suitcase, forget about life – but a network of car ferries linking the islands and mainland of the Dalmatian Coast make it a joy to explore at your own pace (apart from anything, the air-conditioned boats weirdly do the best coffee I found here). My first departure was to Supetar, the biggest town on Brac, the largest island in the region. Its quarries produced the white stone used to build the Diocletian Palace and, the literature falsely claims, the White House in Washington DC.
The island is best known for Zlatni Rat, a bizarre double-edged beach that hangs like a sun-bleached tonsil from the south coast near the town of Bol. An old Roman cistern lies ruined in the shade of pines at the base of the pebbled protuberance, lapped on both sides by cool azure waters. I realised three things as I wallowed: beaches here are stunning after all; Croatia is good value but not cheap (we paid 50 Kuna (£6) to park near Zlatni and £17 to sit on plastic sun loungers with a parasol); and you must have a strange fondness for crowds and the heat tolerance of a lizard to even think about coming here in July or August (if you can, stick to mid-June or September).
Next island: Korcula. I went the long way round to reach it, taking the ferry off Brac to Makarska for the stunning mainland drive towards Dubrovnik. It winds through a five-mile stretch of Bosnia and Herzegovina that hits the coast, a reminder of the region's complicated history. I turned right for Ston, a town known for its great wall with Chinese characteristics – and plentiful seafood. Here, I realised a fourth thing: good food in Croatia comes to those who do a bit of research. After several disappointing dishes, I found Stagnum Restaurant, a hidden delight with a terrace shaded by vines. After a delicious lunch of mussels in boozy breadcrumbs and a jet-black seafood risotto cooked in cuttlefish ink, I continued to the end of the Peljesac peninsula – big wine country here – for the short ferry hop to Korcula.
A coastal citadel crammed within palm trees and thick defensive walls, Korcula Town rises to a peak at the cupola of St Mark's Cathedral (climb it for a fee via a dizzying staircase). Below, a museum claims Marco Polo as the town's son and a medieval maze of restaurants teem with tourists. A cocktail bar occupied by Australian students notwithstanding, the crowds were again totally bearable. I got tables easily at two more restaurants worth seeking out, the pricey Lesic Dimitri with its sea views and tasting menu, and the family-run Adio Mare, which boasts a charming roof terrace.
Despite its booming popularity and bewitching coastline, Croatia remains in places quaintly underdeveloped. In Lumbarda, a village at the eastern edge of Korcula, I asked a local if there were anything worth seeing other than the beach (a rare sandy one). She couldn't have been less enthusiastic, which would have been fine had she not been managing the tourist office. Previously, in Brac, we repaired from the heat to Vidova Gora, a rocky outcrop with wonderful views south and down to Zlatni Rat. Anywhere else, it would house cafés and gift shops. I arrived alone to find flies circling animal skins drying in the sun at a spooky farmhouse. Nervously sipping on a Coke, I asked the woman serving me who the skins had belonged to. "The wild pig," she replied, while scrubbing a plastic tub I imagined had been used to collect blood. "Yesterday, my boss, she shoot more than 100kg." I didn't hang around.
Makarska, my last stop, lies at the opposite end of the development spectrum. But even there, for all the resort hotels, tacky wares and puce Germans of a certain age, there is charm – and none of the worst excesses that have so transformed other bits of the Med. In the morning, I swam alone before breakfast in sea so calm that scullers sliced through it far beyond the shore. And anyway, I thought later on my sun lounger at the ritzy Park Hotel, easy access to ice cream, half-decent wine and pedalos with built-in slides is no bad thing.
On my last night, at a table perched at the end of a stone pier, I ordered the grilled seabream and a bottle of Peljesac rosé at Il Golfo Restaurant. Elsewhere I had learned about concern over what EU membership would do to those who depend on Croatia's tight tourist season. At Stagnum, the owner said business had picked up every year since he set up following the war and a 1996 earthquake that severely damaged the town. While stoking the fire for that night's grill, he said he worried that membership might end up costing him more in tax. But, he hoped, it might also compel curious visitors to discover a new member. If Croatia navigates an EU tourist map as smartly as the one that unfolded after the war, no one will be disappointed.
Simon Usborne travelled with Essentially Prestige (01425 480400; prestigeholidays.co.uk/croatia), which is offering a week's fly-drive departing on 27 September with easyJet flights from Gatwick, car hire (collecting and returning to Split airport) and B&B at the Hotel Park in Split, the Villa Adriatica in Brac, the Hotel Marko Polo in Korcula, and the Hotel Park in Makarska for £663pp.
Croatian National Tourist Board (croatia.hr).