The fragrant island of Hvar is a microcosm of the very best that Croatia has to offer, writes, Ellie O’Byrne.
The chirp of crickets, the sweet smell of figs ripened to bursting in the heavy midday heat, a glimpse of the azure Adriatic Sea through pine trees: the island of Hvar is a microcosm of the best that Croatia has to offer, from remote villages slumbering through siesta time to trendy bars frequented by golden-skinned jetsetters.
It’s been a popular holiday destination since the mid-19th century, when the establishment of the “Hygienic society of Hvar” made it a genteel spa location for a recuperative rest-cure, and inhabitants of the 68km-long island are justifiably proud of its illustrious, Venetian-influenced past and reputation as one of the most beautiful Croatian islands.
Watching the throng of tourists disperse from the evening ferry into Hvar town from Split is quite the disappearing act; while some of the towns can feel inundated, and some of the beaches have busy neighbouring resorts, there are still plenty of quiet spots and isolated rural areas and the island’s pristine environment and 10,000 residents cope admirably with an annual influx of over 150,000 foreign visitors each year.
There’s a wealth of diversions on Hvar’s narrow, mountainous ridge, stretched out alongside neighbouring Brac, the largest Croatian island. If bars and clubs are your thing, there are several well-known spots in Hvar town, although as a clubber’s destination it’s more sophisticated and caters to an older, wealthier crowd than some of Croatia’s party towns.
But if getting away from it all is your goal, renting your own transport and escaping the busiest spots is a matter of minutes away because of the island’s geography.
That’s partly because most of the action is centred around the three largest towns: Hvar, the capital, Stari Grad, the 2,400-year-old UNESCO word heritage site town, and Jelsa, a picture-perfect little town with red-tiled roofs and church steeples nestled against a backdrop of hills and pine forests.
They are clustered within a few kilometres of each other on the widest part of the island, to the west. The island tapers away along its length, with Sucuraj, at the easternmost tip, the only significantly sized settlement for 50km.
All the towns are worth exploring, but Stari Grad (literally “Old Town”) has an unparalleled history and atmosphere; the diminutive museum at the Dominican monastery of St Peter the Martyr contains the “Lamentation of Christ” by Venetian old master Tintoretto.
Prosperous into antiquity, under Greek rule the town thrived so much that it minted its own coins, and although the symbols of affluence are different today - large luxury yachts docked along the ancient stone quays, glamourous couples strolling arm-in-arm through the winding laneways - the confidence and aesthetic is still unique and commanding.
In nearby Vrboska, Vrboska Bota rents cars, bikes, scooters and kayaks and the affable owner does deals for longer rentals. Cycling is a great way to get around the island. If you want to take things easy, a spin through Stari Grad plain, the oldest continually cultivated land in Europe, is peaceful, beautiful and punctuated by signs explaining the history of the region: Mathios’ Path is named for the 4th century BC Greek farmer whose name was found carved into a boundary stone on the land. The same timeless techniques of cultivating vines and olives are still practiced today.
Truly escape the crowd by heading for the hills along the main road towards Sucuraj. Along the way, views back towards the mainland’s coast and mountains to the north vie with the deep blue Adriatic and undulating, forested Korcula island to the south.
From the vantage point of the road, the tranquil villages and secluded coves of the northern coast of the island are revealed and, by car or scooter, spontaneous detours are appealing, although on a bike the hills you face to return to the main road make it less so. You need a reasonable fitness level to cycle the main road, so scooter or car rental may be better options for those in search of relaxation.
Halfway between Jelsa and Sucuraj, Konoba Humac (Konoba translates as tavern) serves simple food based on locally produced delicacies such as Prut, the Dalmatian air-cured ham, and goat’s cheese, in the surroundings of Humac, often described as an “abandoned village”, but which really evolved from a collection of seasonally occupied shepherds’ huts.
With its outstanding views, it would make a memorable lunch-stop for a drive or cycle down the island, but be warned; it’s not well-signposted. Look for a single sign at the right-hand turn from the main road leading to the village.
Hvar is a feast for all the senses, not least for its balmy smells, with pine trees reaching down to pebble beaches and in the uplands, bay forests interspersed with wild lavender, thyme and sage, all competing to exude the headiest aromas.
Aer Lingus flies Dublin-Dubrovnik and Ryanair flies Dublin- Zadar; either will mean a connecting journey to Split or Drvenik, the departure points from the mainland for Hvar.
Jadrolinija run car ferries and catamarans from Split and Drvenik to Sucuraj, Hvar, Jelsa and Stari Grad with prices starting at 40 Croatian Kuna (€5.35) on the cheapest routes: www.jadrolinija.hr
European Coastal Airlines run a seaplane service from Split to Jelsa, departing four times daily. There’s a maximum 15kg luggage allowance and the 20 minute flight costs 350 Croatian Kuna (€46). Online bookings at: www.ec-air.eu
Most of the better hotels are in Hvar town. At the higher end of the scale, the Adriana Spa Hotel, with its top-floor seawater pool, in-house spa treatments and views over the water from the sun terrace, is popular and fairly priced for the excellent service it provides.
But with Hvar being something of a foodie’s paradise, a self-catering holiday in one of Stari Grad’s historic townhouses, with early morning visits to the hubbub of the fish and vegetable market located by the harbour, and perhaps a forage for wild figs and herbs, will make for a happy holiday chef and even happier diners. Supermarket prices for basics compare very favourably with Ireland so if one of your party is happy to cook on holidays, self-catering is an excellent option.
Airbnb list several original refurbished houses in the streets of Stari Grad.
What to see:
A day trip to the Paklenski Islands from Hvar town is a popular way to visit some remoter beaches. Take your pick from one of the many companies advertising trips to the islands.
If you fancy an all-over tan, Glavica naturist beach, close to Vrboska, or the well-established naturist hang-out of Jerolim on Pakleni might be for you, but if you’d rather step on a sea urchin than bare all, there are glorious pebble beaches on the southern side of the island and between Jelsa and Vrboska, where tan lines are still the norm.
“Hvar and Adventure” arranges kayaks, hikes, climbing for beginners and cycling expeditions Tel: 00385 0912280089
Hvar Tours arrange everything from wine tastings to trips by speedboat to the sea caves on the rugged south coast of the island. www.hvartours.com
Lavender, Agave lace produced by Benedictine nuns, olive oil, chestnut honey; Hvar islanders have an abundance of produce available in small, tasteful and expensive boutiques in the towns. Stopping spontaneously at roadside stalls to buy direct from the producer is cheaper and more fun, and many villages have signs directing passers-by to samplings of olive oil or wine.
The local red wine, Plavac, is grown on the south side of the island and certainly worth trying as is Proek, a sweet desert wine.
Hvar has many artisan and craft shops, like The Coral Shop, located behind the post office in Hvar town centre, where proprietors Lukrecjia and Aron Schwartz make hand-crafted jewellery from silver and corals.
Shops and galleries are worth a browse, but don’t expect prices any cheaper than you’d find in similar Irish outfits.
Stari Grad is good for trendy quay-side eateries, but wander the winding cobbled streets and you’ll stumble on a more atmospheric setting for dinner, not least at Antika, where owner Boko holds court, seating patrons in the courtyard, in tables lining a narrow street or in the restaurant amidst the clatter of the open kitchen.
The restaurant serves robust fare like grilled tuna steak and pork with plums for prices comparable to mid-range Irish restaurants.
At night tourists and locals throng to Antika; it may be worth booking to avoid disappointment. Tel: 00385 21765479
Nearby Jurin Podrum seats most of its customers outside at tables on Donja Kola, a ridiculously quaint little cobbled alleyway. Their menu is perhaps a little more ambitious and trendy than Antika, with smoked tuna that is an exceptional treat as a starter and salads that come with their own home-grown wild rocket.
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