David Ryan discovers an affordable way to explore Istria's beautiful coast and medieval towns

Every holiday has a defining moment, a mental snapshot which recalls the mood, be it eye-glazingly good or teeth-grindingly bad. In Croatia, it came on the final evening.

Replete with excellent local seafood and Istrian wine, we sat and watched the promenaders on the quayside in Fazana. The sun had plunged behind the Brijuni Islands, trailing a palette of bright pinks and sombre blues; the water lapped against the harbour wall and the fishing boats bobbed. The town square was bathed in amber light and, from beneath the campanile of the 14th-century church of St Cosmas and St Damian, a male folk choir began crooning into the balmy night.

"Are they local?" I asked a waiter. "No," he shrugged. "They come from further up there," motioning to a point several hundred yards to the north.

Let's be candid, Croatia is no secret tourist haven. Britons are rediscovering Istria's sharp, blue waters and craggy coastline as well as exploring inland where cycling, walking and fishing are popular amid the lush woodland and farms with blood-red soil. The old, fortified hilltop towns and ice-cream coloured buildings draw comparisons with Tuscany ... then there are the truffles.

Visitor numbers from the UK are edging closer to the pre-war highs of 1990, but Italians, Germans, Austrians and the Dutch were quick to return and they are now joined by sunseekers from the former Eastern bloc.

Fazana, just north of Pula, the main Istrian port, is no stranger to exotic visitors. For decades, the Brijuni archipelago was the secluded presidential retreat of Josip Broz, aka Tito, the Communist partisan who made Yugoslavia a beacon for the non-aligned after defying Joseph Stalin over the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Until Tito's death in 1980, the villagers of Fazana saw a procession of monarchs, presidents and movie stars ferried by luxury speedboat across the three kilometres to the president's villa on Veli Brijun, the largest of the 14 islands. Fidel Castro, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Leonid Brezhnev, Gina Lollobrigida, Ho Chi Minh; and Sophia Loren– they all came through here, though not necessarily together.

Tito loved Fazana. He spent six months here every year and left Belgrade to run itself. And the locals loved having him. They still tell, with spadefuls of nostalgia, of how this giant of the cold war would give his security men the slip and slope off in the small hours to join the fishermen at work.

Today, you can stay at two hotels on Veli or rent a villa. Otherwise, public access to the National Park is restricted to guided tours or anyone who can pay €800 (£724) a day to moor a yacht. You can even hire Marshal Tito's official 1950s Cadillac (for €700 an hour). One group of Russians took it for the whole day. It's nice to see how the oligarchs live.

There's a golf course, bicycle hire, museum, and a declining safari park where two elephants, given as babies to Tito by Indira Gandhi, still live. It became customary for dignitaries to bring animals for Tito's burgeoning personal zoo. Princess Margaret brought him some Shetland ponies.

Our mainland base, on the Bi Village campsite, had simpler charms. Its three swimming pools can get crowded but it has more than half a mile of beach with pedalo hire, scuba diving and windsurfing. Thomson Al Fresco mobile homes are comfortable, well designed and have air-conditioning that is a godsend as temperatures climb through the thirties Celsius. It is a woodland site, so there's some shade, but the risk of fire means only gas and electric barbecues are allowed. The mobiles have good ovens and microwaves but there's nothing like the whiff of charcoal for once-a-year campers like myself.

Bi Village does have two excellent beachside restaurants with live music in the evening. And there's a pizzeria, coffee bar and gelateria. The on-site shop is too pricey for anything but staples and emergencies but there are plenty of large supermarkets a short drive away.

The best day trips include Pula, with good shopping in narrow, shaded, cobbled streets and the sixth-largest surviving Roman amphitheatre. Despite the big, metal stage and lighting gantries for the regular concerts held there, it's still possible to conjure an image of 23,000 people roaring on the gladiatorial strife as well as the less competitive spectacle of Christians taking on the big cats.

Drive north for 30 minutes and you come to Rovinj, a picturesque port with hilltop town of 13th and 14th-century streets packed with artists' studios and craft shops. They wind up to the church of St Euphemia. Her remains were brought here when invaders threatened Constantinople where she was martyred by the Emperor Diocletian – a tough soldier, prodigious killer of Christians, and a local boy made good (he was born in Solin in modern Croatia).

The Venetians were here for 400 years and have left a deep imprint on the culture. The Lion of St Mark is to be seen wherever you go. At Motovun, a delightful medieval fortress town raised high in the middle of a sweeping valley, that influence was everywhere right down to the Italian names in the tiny graveyard. This place hosts an annual film festival which attracts 50,000 visitors, but the people here are used to invaders.

Driving inland through Istria in the summer is surprisingly relaxing. The roads are good, if high and winding. These verdant forested hills are proof indeed that when it does rain in Istria it must do so with gusto. As well as a defining moment, every holiday should also throw up a killer fact that you'll never forget. So, here goes, there is no word in Croatian for "drizzle".

Compact facts

How to get there

Thomson Al Fresco (0871 231 3293; www.thomsonalfresco.co.uk) offers seven nights at Bi Village in Croatia from a total of £492 in May for two adults and up to four children sharing a Rossini mobile home. Fourteen nights, from 16 June, cost a total of £1,595, with flights from Gatwick.

Further Information

Croatia National Tourist Board (020-8563 7979; www.croatia.hr).