The complete guide to the Dalmatian coast

Gorgeous beaches, idyllic islands, mountains and scented pine forests. It's time to visit Croatia before everyone else catches on, says Aoife O'Riordain

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The Independent Travel

Nowadays, in Croatia. Over the centuries the region known as Dalmatia was settled by the Illyrians, Romans, Slavs, Austro-Hungarians and Venetians, who all left their mark and contributed to the architectural and cultural heritage of the region. It was christened by the Romans, who arrived after the Greeks at the beginning of the 4th century bc – Dalmatia comes from the Illyrian delmat, which means proud brave man.

Where is Dalmatia?

Nowadays, in Croatia. Over the centuries the region known as Dalmatia was settled by the Illyrians, Romans, Slavs, Austro-Hungarians and Venetians, who all left their mark and contributed to the architectural and cultural heritage of the region. It was christened by the Romans, who arrived after the Greeks at the beginning of the 4th century bc ­ Dalmatia comes from the Illyrian delmat, which means proud brave man.

Dalmatia stretches from the town of Zadar in the north to the Bay of Kotor on the border with Montenegro in the south. Since the disintegration of Yugoslavia and Croatia's new-found independence, the region is now more or less defined as ending at Dubrovnik.

Its dramatic coast, around 350km long, encompasses the historic cities of Split and Dubrovnik. Inland the region includes the white peaks of the Biokovo mountains and the lowland plains of the Neretva Riviera. In the azure waters of the Adriatic, hundreds of islands float tantalisingly in the distance like jewels in the sun.

How do I get there?

Croatia Airlines (020-8563 0022, www.croatiaairlines.hr) operates the only direct service between the UK and the Dalmatian Coast, flying to both Split and Dubrovnik from Gatwick. Return fares start from around £230 in June. Holiday Options (0870 0130 540, www.holidayoptions.co.uk) offers seat-only fares on charter flights to Dubrovnik from Norwich and Birmingham in June from £219. To save cash, fly with Ryanair (0870 1569569, www.ryanair.com) from Stansted to Ancona in Italy from around £40 return and take one of the overnight ferries to Split. For further information about ferry services contact Jadrolinija (00 385 51 666 111, www.jadrolinija.hr), Sem Maritime (00 385 21 338 219, www.smc-ferry.com ) and SNAV (00 39 071 207 6116, www.snav.it).

Alternatively, the UK-based company Dalmatian and Istrian Travel (020-8749 5255) offers private transfers to Rijeka from Trieste (also served by Ryanair) from £29 return.

How do I get around?

The ferry company Jadrolinija operates the main network of modern ferries that link 41 coastal resorts in Croatia to 30 of the islands. There are also several inter-island ferries and small boat services. Dalmatian and Istrian Travel (020-8749 5255) is an agent for Jadrolinija and can arrange car hire, ferry tickets and Island Hopping Flexipasses ­ these allow unlimited voyages on the Jadrolinija network for periods of 10, 20 or 30 days. A 10-day pass costs £53 per person.

The coastal highway that skirts the entire length of the Croatian seaboard is called the Magistrala or Adriatic Road. It twists and turns dramatically on its route, passing Split and Dubrovnik. The views rival anything in the South of France, but you will need nerves of steel to cope with Croatian driving. There is also a fairly frequent coach service up and down the coast.

Where should I stay?

There are lots of different types of accommodation available, ranging from campsites and resorts to pensione-style accommodation and villa rentals. Some regions, such as the Makarska Riviera on the mainland, and Supertar on the island of Brac, are more dominated by package holidays than others, their hotels owing more to the reign of Communism than aesthetics. UK-based tour operators which can arrange both package holidays and more independent travel in Croatia include: Holiday Options (0870 0130 540, www.holidayoptions.co.uk); Transun Holidays (0870 4444 747, www.transun.co.uk); Balkan Holidays (020-7543 5555, www.balkanholidays.co.uk); Bond Tours (01372 745 300); and Captivating Croatia (0870 887 0121, www.captivating-croatia.co.uk).

Some smaller companies also specialise in trips to the lesser-visited islands, staying in village rooms and hotels not featured by larger operators. Croatia for Travellers (020-8226 4460, www.croatiafortravellers.co.uk) offers trips to the Kornati islands and Vis. Bosmere Travel (01473 831 518) specialises mainly in the islands of Sipan, Lopud, Mljet and the Peljesac peninsula near Dubrovnik, and can also arrange the rental of several lighthouses that dot the coast. The website www.adriatica.net also offers an extensive booking service for villas, apartments, hotels, guest-houses and lighthouses. For example, an apartment sleeping four, within the Struga lighthouse on the island of Latsovo costs from ¤675 (£420) per week in June and July. Or you could stay on the island of St Klement near Hvar at the idyllic 300-year-old Meneghello Estate (00 385 91 478 3110, www.palmizana.hr). Accommodation in one of the estate's pretty stone cottages costs from £15 per person per night.

When should I go?

Almost anytime, although June and September are particularly pleasant. If you don't like crowds steer clear of the last week of July and the first two weeks of August, as this sees the annual deluge of predominately Italian holidaymakers from across the Adriatic. Ferries are jammed, the islands are overrun and the marinas are packed to capacity with yachts. Last year, there were reports of shops selling out of bread by 8am and ferries diverting to different islands for apparently no reason, stranding passengers.

Where should I start?

On the mainland. At the northern end of Dalmatia lie the attractive towns of Zadar and Sibenik. Sibenik boasts the beautiful 15th-century Cathedral of St Jacob. Further down the coast, between Trogir and Split, lie the historic string of seven small towns known as Kastela. These developed from forts built in the 15th and 16th centuries by noblemen to protect their rich agricultural land from the marauding Turks. Split, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the best-known places in Dalmatia. The city grew up around the vast site of Diocletian's Palace, started in ad295, which once occupied the eastern part of the old city. And lest we forget, it is also home to the reigning 2001 Wimbledon champion, Goran Ivanisevic.

Just over an hour's drive from Split on the road to Dubrovnik is the Makarska Riviera, shrouded by the towering white Biokovo Mountains, a protected nature park, which is a great place for walking. The Riviera starts at Omis and finishes at Gradac, and while the road is spectacular, the resorts are generally fairly ugly. The old part of Makarska itself is atmospheric.

In southern Dalmatia the road heads inland and the landscape turns into the marshy delta of the Neretva river. The surrounding lands are fertile, and stalls selling fruits, vegetables and olive oil line the road. Close to Dubrovnik is the Peljesac peninsula, a long sliver of land predominately covered in pine forest. Peljesac is known for its wine production and, besides being a good place to jump off to the island of Korcula, it's also a relatively undiscovered and therefore quiet place to stay.

So many islands, which are the most popular?

With hidden coves, olive groves and perfectly formed white stone villages, each one possesses its own special charm. The mood of the islands is even more laid back than that of the coast and is referred to as "fjaka" in the native tongue, roughly translating as "lazy mood".

Brac, Hvar and Korcula are probably the most popular, and with good reason. Brac is a picturesque patchwork of olive groves and lemon trees. It is also home to a white limestone, which is still quarried and has been used in the palazzos of Venice and the White House in Washington. The main town is the resorty Supertar, but the pretty town of Bol on the other side of the island is quieter.

Alongside Anguilla and Zanzibar, the nearby island of Hvar has been ranked by Condé Nast Traveller magazine as one of the world's most idyllic islands. In the summer, it is awash with the heady scent of lavender that seems to grow almost everywhere. In the 13th century Hvar was governed by the Venetian doge. The main town of the same name owes much to Italian influences and is centred around a beautiful Baroque-style harbour built in the mid-16th century. This is flanked by the Renaissance-style cathedral of St Stephen and a labyrinth of tiny medieval streets known as kala. Holiday Options (0870 0130 450, www.holidayoptions.co.uk) offers seven nights staying at the Hotel Palace in Hvar from £385 per person sharing, at the beginning of June, which includes flights from Gatwick to Split, transfers and half-board accommodation.

Korcula is a short ferry ride from Peljesac peninsula and is covered by a thick blanket of coniferous forest. The island is also reputedly the birthplace of the explorer Marco Polo and is full of vineyard terraces and pretty villages. The Illyrians, Greeks and Romans settled on Korcula down the centuries and left palaces and towers expertly carved by the local stonemasons. Transun (0870 444 747) offers seven nights staying on Korcula from £249.

Where can I get away from it all?

Stay on the islands. The Zadar archipelago in northern Dalmatia includes the quiet and sleepy islands of Pasman and Ugljan that have yet to be colonised by tourists. The nearby Kornati islands comprise a small archipelago of 125 uninhabited dots in the Adriatic, and constitute a protected national park. The island of Vis near Hvar is furthest from the mainland of all the inhabited islands and can claim to be the Croatian equivalent of Capri, minus the prices and the crowds. It even boasts a blue grotto, the Modra Spilja on the neighbouring small island of Bisevo. During the Second World War Tito set up his headquarters in a cave on Vis.

Lastovo is the furthest island off southern Dalmatia and is home to the traditional Pokland Festival, celebrated on the island for four centuries. On the Monday and Tuesday before Lent, a puppet is taken through the streets and burned in an elaborate ceremony to mark the narrow escape the island had from Catalan pirates.

Mljet, another island in southern Dalmatia, is home to the largest pine forest in the Adriatic, large salt-water lakes and a national park. According to legend, Mljet was visited by Ulysses, who stayed there with the nymph Calypso. The Elephite (or Deer) islands comprise a string of small islands close to Dubrovnik that formed part of the Republic in the 14th century. Only three are populated: Kolocep, Lupd and Sipan and were once favoured haunts of the aristocracy from Dubrovnik.

If splendid isolation is what you are after, Palagruza is the most remote of all the Adriatic islands, almost halfway between Croatia and Italy. Recent archaeological excavations revealed that the island was first visited by man in the 6th century bc. The lighthouse, built in 1875, is the largest on the Adriatic ­ and you can stay there. One week in an apartment sleeping four in the lighthouse costs ¤675 (£420) in June with www.adriatica.net, although you may be stuck there for longer if the weather turns nasty.

Where will I find the best beaches?

One of the pleasures of the islands is renting a small boat and discovering hidden coves for yourself. Stinivia, on the southern tip of the island of Vis is one such cove, accessible only by boat. A narrow entrance, to what looks like a cave, widens out and opens on a small but perfectly formed beach.

Probably one of the most famous beaches is Zlatni Rat (the Golden Cape) near the town of Bol on the island of Brac. This is an elongated cape of golden sand, sheltered by a forest of pine trees. Punta Rata, near Brela, looking out towards the island of Brac, is on the Makarska Riviera and is one of 30 beaches in Croatia to be awarded a European blue flag. The tiny Pakleni islands are situated off the coast near Hvar town. The largest, St Klement, has a sandy beach. The north-western side of Peljasic peninsula is a long sliver of coast dotted with plenty of beaches such as those near Loviste and Vignanj.

What will I eat?

The surrounding waters are some of the most bountiful in Europe. Consequently there is an abundance of seafood, such as crab, white fish, octopus, lobster and the delicious jirice ­ tiny deep-fried fish.

The cuisine of Dalmatia is essentially Mediterranean. Many of the islands produce their own cheeses such as the delicious Livanjksi Sir made on Hvar from ewes' milk. Dalmatian smoked ham, called Prsut, is believed by many to be superior to its Italian rival, Parma ham. Vines, lemon groves and olive trees grow in abundance on the majority of the developed islands.

Almost all the islands produce wine and olive oil. Some of the wines produced on the Peljesac peninsula are particularly good, although often you will find yourself drinking young raspberry-hued wines from the local vineyard.

One thing to steer clear of is travarica, a supposedly medicinal herbal brandy often sold in unassuming plastic bottles by old ladies. It tastes like rocket fuel.

Can I go sailing by?

Absolutely. Dalmatia's large number of islands, coupled with reliable winds and a surprisingly good network of marinas, make it an ideal destination for sailing. Several operators offer holidays afloat ranging from flotillas to private skippered yacht charters. Sailing Holidays (020-8459 8787, www.sailingholidays.com) offers flotilla holidays to the Kornati Islands, the central Dalmatian islands and Dubrovnik. A two-week holiday visiting the islands of Brac, Korcula and Hvar starts from £395 per person based on four sharing including return scheduled flights from London.

Seafarer (01732 229 900, www.seafarercruises.com) operates yacht charters or, for those without experience, skippered charters on private yachts starting from £609 per week for a yacht accommodating up to six people in June. Nautilus Yachting (01732 867 445, www.nautilus-yachting.co.uk) offers flotilla and bareboat charters and cruises from several locations along the coast.

A week's flotilla holiday costs £545 per person until mid-June including flights and transfers. For something a little more old-fashioned, Bosmere Travel can arrange a cruise on board an old fashioned gullet from Split to Dubrovnik from ¤320 (£200) per person for seven days in June (flights extra).

Is Dalmatia safe?

Mostly. "The Croatian authorities attach a high priority to protecting visitors," says the Foreign Office. The US State Department, though, warns that: "Displays of wealth increase chances of becoming the victim of a pickpocket or mugger. Such crimes are more likely to occur in bus or railroad stations." The Americans also warn that the effects of the war still linger in parts of Croatia: "Mine clearance work often leads to the closure of major roads, including roads to the coast."

Will I see 101 spotty dogs?

Funnily enough, the Dalmatian Coast is not overrun with polka-dotted pooches. The origins of the Dalmatian dog are shrouded in mystery but it is widely believed they originated somewhere in the region.

What is certain is that the first known painting of a Dalmatian, dating from 1724, hangs in a monastery near Zaostrog on the Makarska Riviera.

Where can I find out more?

The Croatian National Tourist Board (020-8563 7979, www.croatia.hr) can send out information packs about Croatia and Dalmatia. The Dalmatian province websites www.dalmacija.net and www.adriatica.net also offer comprehensive information about the region.

What's so special about Dubrovnik?

The walled city of Dubrovnik was described by George Bernard Shaw as "paradise on earth". The old city is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site and is surrounded by spectacular fortified walls up to 25m high and 6m thick. Founded in the 7th century on a rocky islet called Laus, it later became known as Ragusa. The Venetians gained control of the city at the beginning of the 13th century but, by the end of the 14th century, Dubrovnik had essentially become an independent city state and had established a lucrative trading position with the Ottoman Empire. In 1808its status was dissolved by Napoleon, and in 1815 it was handed over to the Austrians by order of the Congress of Vienna and incorporated into the province of Dalmatia.

The city is accessed by three gates, the Pile Gate and the Ploce Gate on land, and the Ponta Gate, which is the entrance to the harbour. In summer, the main street, the Stradun, is lined with people sitting outside cafés. The roofs of the city were pounded by Serbian and Montenegrin guns in 1991, but an almost seamless restoration followed and the only remaining signs are the tell-tale bright tiles of newly repaired roofs.

The charm of Dubrovnik lies not just in the many sights, but in simply walking along the top of the city walls and visiting the morning food market held each day.

Bond Tours (01372 745 300) offers seven nights, staying in a one-bedroom apartment near Dubrovnik, for £325 per person for departures before 23 June.

Click here to view Croatian tours and holidays, with Independent Holidays.

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