Croatia: The coast with the most

With isolated islands, beautiful beaches, watersport hotspots and historic ports, Adriatic Croatia is a shore thing for a great seaside break

What's the attraction?

Croatia's 1,800km coastline, with its islands and turquoise Adriatic, is well established on the holiday scene. Except on the west coast of Istria and the Makarska Riviera, it has few purpose-built resorts.

Access is via five airports, starting in the north with Pula (served from the UK by Jet2, Thomson Airlines and Ryanair) for the Istrian Peninsula and Rijeka (served by Croatia Airlines and Ryanair) – the launch pad for the lovely islands of the Kvarner Gulf. For the Dalmatian region, choose from Zadar (Ryanair), Split (Croatia Airlines, easyJet, Wizzair, Jet2), and Dubrovnik (BA, easyJet, Thomson Airways, Wizz Air and Flybe).

Best beaches

Officially recognised as Europe's second-cleanest (after Cyprus), Croatia's shores tend to be pebbly rather than sandy. The best are on the islands: Rab boasts a lovely bay at Lopar, Korcula has two sandy beaches near Lumbarda, while tiny Susak island is entirely composed of fine, compacted sand.

The most photogenic beach is the constantly changing spit of white pebbles called Zlatni Rat on the island of Brac (ferries from Split). Direct Line Holidays (0800 408 6327; directline-holidays.co.uk) offers a week at the nearby Blue Sun Borak Hotel for £779 per person, including return Croatia Airlines flights from Heathrow on 25 August, half-board accommodation and transfers.

Island hopping

There's an island to suit every taste: green Mljet (reached via Dubrovnik) is best for nature, Vis (via Split) for food, Brac for watersports and Hvar for relaxation and celebrity spotting. The best approach to hopping between islands is to focus on well-connected groups. It's easy to move between Krk, Rab and "party island" Pag; or Brac, Hvar and Vis. Ferry timetables are available on jadrolinija.hr. An escorted eight-day cruise between several of the major islands is offered by Travelsphere (0844 567 9961; travelsphere.co.uk). Starting from Dubrovnik, it costs from £839 per person half- board, including flights on 14 October.

Take a break

Dubrovnik is essential viewing, but it's only one of many attractive coastal cities. Consider Pula, with its Roman remains, or Sibenik, which has undergone a makeover including a new town beach. Best of all is Split, with its vibrant Saturday market, excellent beaches, and the Riva esplanade lined with cafés and bars. The newest central hotel is the boutique Marmont (00 385 21 308 060; marmonthotel.com), where a double room with breakfast starts at €105. Hvar, the most beautiful and upmarket of the towns built by the Venetians, which lies on the island of the same name, is just a day trip away.

Ride on

The Istrian peninsula at the very northern end of the coastline is dotted with vineyards, villages and Roman remains, as rural accompaniments to its Italianate coastal towns (Porec, Pula and Rovinj) and its succession of coves and beaches. The region's network of cycle routes makes the bike a good way of seeing the sights as well as sampling the sea. New for 2012 is the "Coastal Croatia" cycling tour offered by Headwater (0845 154 5301; headwater.com). The eight-day holiday costs from £1,418 per person with Thomson flights from Gatwick to Pula, transfers, hotel accommodation and some meals.

Total immersion

Watersports of all kinds are readily available along the coast: windsurfing and kitesurfing are particularly good at Viganj on the Peljesac peninsula near Korcula, while the best diving spots are Rovinj in Istria and the Kornati islands.

Alternatively, this year SwimTrek (01273 739713; swimtrek.com) is offering a one week short-swim trip, departing 15 September. It blends coastal swims around the islands near Sibenik with walking. The holiday starts from the island of Krapanj (get there from Zadar or Split airports) and costs £810 per person, based on two sharing. Included are bed, breakfast and lunch in hotels. Excluded is travel to Krapanj and evening meals.

Sail away

A sailing holiday is an ideal way to see some of the more remote and uninhabited islands such as the beautiful Kornati archipelago of 130 islands, scattered off the coast between Zadar and Sibenik.

Sail Dalmatia (0800 124 4176; saildalmatia.com) has a Sun Odyssey 379 (three double cabins) for charter from Sibenik. The cost of a week's bareboat hire in late August/early September is €2,420. If you need a skipper, it will cost an extra €150 per day. You also need to supply your own food (and the skipper's) as well as find your own way to Sibenik (flights to Split or Zadar).

Insider information

"Most visitors head for the Dalmatia region as there around 60 flights a week in summer from the UK to Split and Dubrovnik. But to do so is to miss two of my favourite places in the north of Croatia: the amazing Brijuni islands. They are 15 minutes by boat from the fishing village of Fazana and you can wander by the sea and find your own little bay for the day with Roman ruins as a backdrop. Then there's the island of Cres in the Kvarner region. It's the biggest island in the Croatian Adriatic with gorgeous hidden beaches and walking trails through the Tramuntana forest." Julia Berg, compiler of Prestige Holidays' 2012 "Love Croatia" brochure (01425 480400; prestige holidays.co.uk). She has a home in Lovran

Who said that?

"If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik. Because the beauty there will leave anyone breathless." George Bernard Shaw

"Dalmatia possesses one of Europe's most dramatic shorelines, as the stark, grey wall of coastal mountains sweeps down to a lush seaboard dotted with palm trees and olive plantations." Rough Guide to Croatia

"Listening to the sea at night, studying the stars, seeing how people interact when they are not sitting on computers all day – these are things that are being lost elsewhere. In Dalmatia, we can talk about the temperature of the sea and how many fish we have caught that day."Writer James Hopkin, discussing his 'Dalmatian Trilogy'

A taste of Dubrovnik

Most visitors stay in rented apartments, costing from around €60 per night for two people in the district of Lapad (which also has the best local beach and is a 20-minute bus ride from the city's main Pile Gate). For more information, see the tourist board website tzdubrovnik.hr. A reasonably priced hotel (by Dubrovnik standards) within the city walls is the three-star Stari Grad (00 385 20 322 244; hotelstarigrad.com). Doubles with breakfast start at €140.

No other European city boasts such complete and spectacular walls. You can walk around them and enjoy great views. The entrance is just inside the Pile gate (60 kuna/£7; summer opening 8am-7pm). Al fresco dining is the order of the day, with seafood a staple on most menus. Kamenice, at Gunduliceva polijana 8 (the market square) provides simple fare such as mussels in a wine, garlic and tomato sauce for 56 kuna/£8 (00 385 20 323 682).

The most interesting of the historical museums is in the striking Dominican Monastery near the Ploce Gate. Admire its beautiful 15th-century cloister and the collection of medieval and renaissance religious paintings (20 kuna/£2.20; 00 385 20 322 200).

Escape from the tourist hordes with a 15-minute trip by taxi-boat from the old harbour to the wooded island of Lokrum (return ticket 50 kuna/£5.50).

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