The Mediterranean has more than its fair share of beautiful coastlines, but few are as stupendously scenic as the coast of Croatia. There, rugged limestone mountains, lined with terraced vineyards and olive groves (some thousands of years old), plunge into the sea. Green archipelagoes stand just offshore for most of its length, and defensible peninsulas and islands shelter well-preserved medieval towns.
Split contains some of the most impressive Roman ruins outside Rome itself, and Dubrovnik retains all of its old protective walls.
Many of the more important buildings on the coast display Venetian-Gothic flourishes, a reminder of when Venice ruled the Adriatic.
The most glamorous way to explore Croatia’s coast continues to be by yacht charter, because true luxury hideaways are still rare. But for those who prefer staying in hotels, it’s possible to construct a memorable itinerary between Split and Dubrovnik, staying in comfort throughout. Both cities have air connections to several major European gateway cities, making them easier to reach than ever.
I flew into Split, rented a car and drove to Trogir, a small medieval city on an island 10 minutes from the airport. From there I crossed over onto the larger island of Čiovo. The Brown Beach House is a 42-room hotel set within a refurbished stone tobacco warehouse and a modern annex. The location is ideal, both for exploring charming Trogir and for making excursions farther afield to the waterfalls of Krka National Park, the historic city of Šibenik and nearby wineries such as Rak and Bibich.
The property’s youthful energy was immediately evident at check-in, which was conducted at the bar rather than a desk. I settled into an armchair with a flute of complimentary French sparkling wine to complete the formalities. The chic, purposefully mismatched midcentury-modern décor by Saar Zafrir would have been right at home in a Soho House.
Striking as the bar was, my reception was rather more casual than I prefer. The front desk clerk opened the door to my suite and simply handed me the key. I had to halt her departure in order to inquire about climate control and Wi-Fi access. Since no bellman or valet was in evidence when I arrived, I returned to the car, unloaded the bags, placed them in the hotel’s vestibule and parked. By the time I returned, the front desk clerk, to her credit, had taken the luggage up to the room.
I had been upgraded from a Deluxe Suite to a two-bedroom Family Suite, the corner location of which provided views of the channel between Čiovo and the mainland, as well as the old center of Trogir, with its Venetian-style bell tower. The spacious living room had simple but stylish décor, with wood floors, white beamed ceilings and two daybeds. The faux-marble tile in the bath was less than convincing, and little ants kept emerging, either from the single vanity or the shower-tub combination. Had the suite’s second bedroom been full, the bath would have likely felt inadequate.
In need of fresh air, I requested some cushions for a lounger beside the large checkerboard-tile outdoor pool, set into a broad terrace overlooking the channel. Because the hotel had just opened for the season, the pool area had yet to be fully set up, and across the street, the beach terrace was empty. I liked having the pretty pool terrace entirely to myself, but traffic noise from the road below disturbed its tranquility. Feeling chilly as the sun began to set, I decamped to the small spa, bubbling away the tension of travel in the hot tub before reclining in the relaxation lounge.
Since it was too chilly to dine outdoors, I headed to the hotel’s large and attractive main lounge, with its baby grand piano and a small library. My salad of red and gold beets with tiny olives and creamy burrata tasted refreshing, and I also liked my sea bass fillets with charred zucchini pearls and beet purée, though the portion was quite small. A glass of fruity and lively Debit by Bibich made for a fine introduction to Croatian wine.
The Brown Beach House has much to recommend it, notably its chic but comfortable décor, its seaside location and its cheerful staff. But the small problems added up. In addition to those noted above, it was irritating not to be able to use the air-conditioning (the whole hotel has to be set for either A/C or heating), and on the last morning, the front desk clerk didn’t believe me when I complained that the water was only lukewarm. At checkout, she told me a maintenance man had finally been called. “But a cooler shower is healthier,” she joked, “so we actually helped you!” Thanks so much.
The stylish midcentury-modern décor; the attractive location overlooking the water and old Trogir; the friendly staff; the fine restaurant.
The lack of a bellman or valet; the lack of climate control; the road noise.
This summer, a new bridge to Čiovo Island is set for completion, relieving the traffic bottleneck around Trogir’s old center.
En route to Split I detoured to the ruins of Salona, capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia. Its most memorable section is the Manastirine, a basilica and cemetery filled with despoiled sarcophagi. Noise from a nearby freeway and the sight of factory towers detract from the atmosphere of much of the site. Fortunately, nearby Split has no shortage of impressive Roman ruins.
The immense palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian forms the downtown core of Split. Gradually, a medieval city grew up in and among the temples, barracks and palace halls. Diocletian’s mausoleum became Split’s cathedral, and the nearby Temple of Jupiter, which still retains its barrel-vaulted roof, became the cathedral’s baptistery. Observant visitors will note that many buildings incorporate ancient columns, capitals and other salvage. My guide pointed out one façade that included the head of an Egyptian sphinx.
In between the cathedral and the baptistery is the peristyle, a jewel of a plaza framed by a Roman colonnade, and the vestibule, the domed entry hall to the emperor’s residence, originally clad in gold mosaics. Adjacent to the vestibule is my favorite hideaway in town, the Hotel Vestibul Palace. Because this property stands in the middle of a pedestrian-only quarter, I met a porter at a parking lot just outside the old palace walls. He gathered the luggage and headed through the cavernous substructures of the residence, the shortest route to the hotel.
“Palace” seems a misleading word for a property consisting of seven small accommodations, a tiny bar and compact indoor and outdoor restaurant spaces. Nevertheless, it offers personable and attentive service, attractive modern design and well-maintained rooms (which often incorporate Roman stone walls). I had booked the Junior Suite, which came with two ancient walls of stone and brick, wood floors and a small bath with one vanity and a combined shower and deep tub. The windows lacked views, but when I opened them, I could sometimes hear performances of klapa, Croatian a cappella music, performed by male quartets in the acoustically rich vestibule.
I appreciate the central location of the Hotel Vestibul Palace, within walking distance of numerous stylish restaurants and wine bars, as well as its ever-helpful staff. But even the largest accommodations are not especially large. Book only a Junior Suite or a Luxury Suite.
The peerless central location; the incorporation of ancient walls into the modern design; the helpful staff; the well-stocked breakfast buffet.
The small size of most accommodations; the compact and uninspiring baths; the stratospheric price.
The hotel has no elevator, and all accommodations are up at least one flight of stairs; guests staying in the Villa Dobrić annex nearby can breakfast at the Vestibul Palace; if arriving by car, arrange in advance to meet the valet.
I switched to the 72-room Hotel Park, hoping it would give the Hotel Vestibul Palace some competition. Dating from 1921, this property underwent a $12 million renovation in 2015, and it has a fine location across the street from a beach, 10 minutes by foot from the entrance to Diocletian’s Palace.
Despite its high price, the Hotel Park was disappointing on several fronts. Most frustrating was the concierge, with whom I began corresponding a month before my arrival to request some guidance and a lunch reservation. Told that it was too early to confirm anything, I waited until a week before my scheduled arrival to resubmit my requests. This time, the concierge offered to confirm everything when I checked in. Following a face-to-face conversation, it then took three more phone calls to confirm the arrangements I had requested a month earlier. That’s not how I like to spend my time while traveling.
Service elsewhere in the hotel was friendly but similarly ineffective. When I arrived at the pool terrace, a waiter greeted me and showed me to a lounger but never inquired if I needed a beverage or snack. And in the restaurant, when I asked the waiter to see the list of wines by the glass, he responded, “We have red or white.” I’ve been to bowling alleys with better wine lists. Nor did I relish my overpriced sea bass, allegedly “baked on an open fire.” It might as well have been steamed. The breakfast menu was more memorable, offering to “enlighten [my] experience” with quail eggs, snails and donkey milk.
My corner Junior Suite didn’t compensate for the clumsy service, with its cheap-looking light fixtures, small closet and scratchy towels. I did like its high ceilings, the complimentary wine and chocolates, and its view over the pool and a stretch of the sea beyond. But at almost $900 a night — in shoulder season — I’d expected more.
The leafy location near a beach and walking distance from the old center; the inviting terrace; the complimentary wine and snacks in the suite; the friendly staff.
The poor concierge service; the risible wines-by-the-glass list; the cheesy live synthesizer music at dinner; the high price; the generally nouveau-riche atmosphere.
There is easy parking by the main entrance; the hotel has an elevator and ramps, making it an appropriate choice for guests with mobility difficulties.
From Split, I took a car ferry about three hours to the south, passing by dramatic coastal cliffs and picturesque archipelagoes, some with lighthouses and crumbling stone fortifications. I alighted in the town of Vela Luka on the gloriously scenic island of Korčula. The drive to the opposite end of the island wound around limestone mountains, ancient stone terraces and strikingly sited hill towns. The lapis-blue Adriatic would suddenly appear from time to time, far below the road. Olive trees and vineyards eke out an existence in the poor, stony soil, producing small amounts of deeply flavored oil and wine.
After about an hour, I reached the old Venetian city of Korčula itself, across a channel from the mainland’s Pelješac Peninsula. Towers still guard the pedestrianized center, but the defensive wall is mostly gone, replaced by a seaside promenade lined with the patios of wine bars and restaurants. A porter awaited me near one of the defensive towers. Having showed me where to park, he then carried my luggage to the nearby Lešić Dimitri Palace.
This hideaway centers on an 18th-century bishop’s palace, as well as smaller townhouses containing reception and a restaurant. It may have only five rooms, but the hotel occupies much of Don Pavla Poše Street, which slopes down to the water. I chose Arabia, the larger of the two one-bedroom “residences,” as the Marco Polo-themed accommodations are called. I also liked the two-bedroom China, with its panoramic roof terrace, and Venice, a grand three-bedroom residence on the piano nobile.
Arabia occupies the top floor of the palace, with windows in every wall overlooking the Pelješac channel and the red-tile rooftops of Korčula. The suite’s open-plan layout was unorthodox, in that the elements of the bath — dual vanities, freestanding tub, cylindrical shower stall — mixed freely with the rest of the furnishings. Intricate white geometric lattices helped delineate the space and added to the Middle Eastern character, as did the cream-colored tentlike canvas covering parts of the ceiling. Arabia may be designed for two guests, but its barlike kitchenette made me want to have a party. Note that this suite is not appropriate for those with mobility issues, because accessing it requires climbing a few flights of stairs and because both the sectional sofa and the king bed are low to the floor.
On the ground floor of the palace is a plush spa, with extravagantly furnished wood-beamed lounges and treatment rooms, as well as a private dining room. I didn’t indulge in a treatment, which I regret, but I did dine in the superb restaurant, which has a splendid seaside terrace and indoor seating in a second-floor room overlooking the water. I enjoyed an aperitif of classy Tomac Millennium Brut with the hotel’s gracious manager, Ivana Pačić Unković, as the sun turned the Pelješac channel to gold. Our personable waiter, Andrija Kovač, also serves as the restaurant’s assistant sommelier, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of Croatian wine. He recommended excellent pairings for my “sushi” of sea bass-wrapped prawns topped with fresh-grated horseradish and tobiko, a decadent quenelle of foie gras mousse with crunchy brioche crumbs and apple purée, and rich, slow-cooked quail ragu and rare quail breast with gnudi-like egg yolks cured in salt and sugar.
The staff arranged a visit to one of the island’s leading wineries — Krajančić is among the best in the country, for that matter — followed by an unforgettable lunch in a family restaurant in a nearby village.
On the last evening, I splurged on a private sunset cruise in the hotel’s gorgeous wooden sailboat. The skipper served glasses of well-balanced Grgić Pošip (a local white) while we cruised the Korčula archipelago. Just in time for the sunset, we circled the perimeter of the old town, where people on the restaurant terraces raised their glasses as we glided past. It was difficult to imagine wanting to be anywhere else.
The unique and spacious accommodations; the memorable views; the highly attentive service; the excellent restaurant by the sea; the jewel of a spa; the hotel’s beautiful sailboat.
The historic buildings prevent the installation of an elevator; the small size of the Arabia residence’s shower stall.
If arriving by car, alert the hotel in advance so that a porter can be arranged to lower the old city’s parking barrier and help with luggage; after arrival, guests with cars receive their own remote controls for the parking barrier.