The bigger cruise liners are yet to cotton on to Korcula, an island that spent its fair share of time under the rule of the Venetian republic. Korcula town is another gorgeous red-roofed, walled arrangement, while elsewhere on the island slopes are dense with oak and pine (the ancient Greeks named it Black Corfu).
The beaches worth hiring a car for. Pupnatska Luka Beach is pearl white. Samograd, near Racisce, is uncrowded. Plaza Przina, near Lumbarda, is a long arc of fine sand — a rarity in Croatia — with shallows safe for tots. My favourite, though, is Bacva. The hairpins down are a test of resolve; god forbid you meet another car. At their end is a smooth-pebbled cove made for lazy snorkelling, with a konoba (taverna) that sells octopus salad for a fiver.
What brings Bill Gates to the end of a bumpy lane on Korcula? It’s a rustic restaurant called Ranch Maha, which is at its most magical at dusk, when lamps twinkle on the terraces jammed between stone walls. Dinner is all organic, direct from the farm, grilled in two open fireplaces (mains from £17; konoba-maha.com).
The distinctive red roofs of Korcula town
Stay at Tara’s Lodge, a new place on a sparkling bay, five minutes’ drive from Korcula town: crisp, minimalist decor, large balconies, a pool, a beach right there and 30 staff for 40 guests (doubles from £145; taraslodge.com). If you share an accountant with Bill Gates, there’s the boutiquey Lesic Dimitri Palace, which has an excellent spa and its own yacht for hire (doubles from £273, B&B; relaischateaux.com).
If you can persuade someone else to do the driving, there’s a wine-soaked day out to be had back on the Peljesac peninsula — a 20-minute ride on the car ferry from Korcula town (car and two passengers £20 return). Its 44 vineyards are informal, family affairs. Head to Potomje village to meet the most talented growers, at Matusko (matusko-vina.hr) and Dingac (vinarija-dingac.hr). Afterwards, drive through the Dingac tunnel for the best view in Dalmatia — a sweeping panorama of islands in the silvery Adriatic — and finish with a swim at the mellow village of Zuljana.
- Come on in, the water’s the clearest in the Med — but watch out for sea urchins on rocky shores. Don’t be too cool to pack shoes for swimming
The beach at Komiza village
It’s the furthest island from the mainland we’re visiting (it’s two hours from Split), but the extra nautical miles are worth it for the cleanest seas in the Med (the diving’s ace) and — I’ll say it — the nation’s best beaches. Vis is mercifully free of the flashier side of Croatian tourism, partly because the Yugoslav navy kept it to itself until 1989. Not much in the way of a clock-oriented sense of time, either: get up late, idle by the harbour in Italianate Komiza village, siesta, then drive up Mount Hum to watch the sun sizzle into the Adriatic.
Stivica is the beach for your Instagram account, a natural amphitheatre ringed by cliffs, with just a narrow channel giving you access to the open sea. The pebbles are smooth, the water calm and lunch is in a fisherman’s shack. Boat tours from Hvar will be pulling up later, so get there by 10am, then push on to pebbly Srebrna for further tanning.
The classic Vis day trip is to Bisevo island and its Blue Cave, where the sea glows a mysterious shade of lapis lazuli (it’s a refraction thing). Bog-standard operators take you in a motorboat. We’re sending you in a falkusa, the traditional sailing boat of Komiza fishermen, one of only three still afloat (£50pp, including lunch; alternatura.hr).
I’d stay at the low-key, 10-room Hotel San Giorgio, along the bay from Vis town, where you’ll fall asleep in its refurbished stone house to the sound of the sea (doubles from £90; hotelsangiorgiovis.com).
For lunch, the fish restaurant Bako has tables inches from the sea and views of Komiza’s harbour (mains from £12; konobabako.hr). Inland, Roki’s makes a virtue of its rusticity, forging its reputation on organic peka dishes — lamb or octopus slow-cooked beneath a lid heaped with embers — and homemade wine. One of the Roki family will pick you up from your hotel if there are four or more of you (mains from £16; rokis.hr).
Split and Brac
The golden triangle on the island of Brac
Split is Dalmatia at its sexiest: it has the best shopping, the best bars and the best-dressed, most beautiful locals. It brings insouciant metropolitan sass to two millennia of history. The city’s mazy centre was once the palace of Diocletian, who built the place in AD295 as his retirement hangout. The cathedral with the octagonal bell tower you can climb (£2) was the emperor’s mausoleum. That bar over there, O’zlata? It used to be a Venetian Renaissance palace.
Do dinner right at Uje Oil Bar, equal parts olive-oil shop and bistro (mains from £7; 00 385 95 200 8008). Order the pasticada, if it’s on: marinated beef with a prune sauce, served with gnocchi glistening in oil. The place is tiny, so book ahead, or wait your turn next door at its sister bars, Uje Wine Bar and the tapas bar Pikulece.
Don’t come to Split for the beaches, though. Too pebbly, too concretey. Luckily, an hour away by ferry is the island of Brac, on whose south coast lies Zlatni Rat — stupid name, beach of dreams. It’s the triangle of fine golden shingle (the name means “golden horn”) poking into the azure sea that you’ll have seen on countless tourist-board posters. Touts will try to charge you £18 a day for a parasol, but the pines at the back provide plenty of shade. It’s a plonk-and-laze classic, but what few people mention are the perfect windsurfing conditions when the afternoon mistral blows. Hire the requisite kit from Big Blue Windsurfing, from £20 (bigbluesport.com).
Your Brac-based lunch is inland at Kopacina tavern: spit-roast lamb with spuds, owner Ivo’s homemade wine and Adriatic views (mains from £10; konoba-kopacina.com).
If you’d like to loiter on Brac after the day-trippers have gone, the 35-room Lemongarden opened last July in a 300-year-old mansion and instantly became the island’s hippest getaway. Beyond the back door is a manicured garden, a pool and a private beach (doubles from £212, B&B; lemongardenhotel.com).
Back in Split, rooms at the Judita Palace, a Venetian noble’s house on the central square, are a lucky dip of Renaissance beams and gothic fireplaces (doubles from £110, B&B; juditapalace.com).
- Siestas are standard practice in Dalmatia: sights and museums generally close from midday to about 5pm
A beach with a Franciscan monastery attached, also in Hvar town
It’s Bardot-era St Tropez meets Ibiza: the dressed-down rich stepping from yachts to dine on Hvar town’s waterfront prom; sassy youngsters topping up their tans at Hula Hula Hvar Beach Club (hulahulahvar.com), then necking sundowners at Carpe Diem bar, before shuttling to an island beach party (carpe-diem-hvar.com). If that’s not your style, there’s a lovely Venetian town ready for lazy mornings in cafes on the Renaissance main square and strolls up through the cat’s-cradle of lanes to a 16th-century castle.
Hvar town’s summer sizzle masks older truths of island life. In the interior, Velo Grablje village clings on through sales of lavender and honey. Down the hill, Malo Grablje is a ghost town redefined as an ethno-eco village. Visit both on an off-road day trip (£80pp, including lunch; secrethvar.com).
White-shingle bays hide among the sawtooth-shaped Pakleni Islands, which dangle into the bay off Hvar town like a bunch of grapes. Take a water taxi (£5 return) to the least posey island, Marinkovac, and follow the path to Mlini Bay. After 10 minutes, you’ll pop out of the pines to a quiet beach with calm, sapphire water.
To be near the nightlife, the Adriana Hvar Spa hotel sits on the harbour in Hvar town. It’s a glossy resort, where they’ll pour you a glass of fizz when you arrive. The standard rooms are a mite poky, so it’s worth upgrading to a suite (doubles from £108, suites from £184, B&B; suncanihvar.com).
Or stay in Stari Grad, 20 minutes away by car and 20 years away in atmosphere. Here, Hidden House, a B&B in a traditional Dalmatian house, feels more like a homestay with your new best pals, owners Chris and Amanda (from £70, B&B; hidden-house.com).
When in Hvar… boat over to Palmizana island (£7 return) for a glitzy dinner at Laganini, where the fish, priced by weight, has a habit of leaving a nasty surprise on your bill. Go for the gregada, a stew of seafood and spuds, to keep costs sensible — or stuff it and get the lobster brodetto stew. Bono came here last year. Loved it, apparently (mains from £25; laganini-novak.com).
Ferries, flights & villas
Lesic Dimitri Palace hotel, on Korcula
At its best, riding the ferry through Dalmatia is like taking a series of mini-cruises for the price of a pint. But there are pitfalls.
Though a car gives you greater freedom once you make landfall, it limits your ferry options. Most car-ferry routes are out of Split, meaning you’ll often have to double back. Costs mount — Split to Hvar one way costs £4.50pp, plus £30 for a car — and demand exceeds supply in summer. Reserve or arrive early, and prepare to queue (jadrolinija.hr).
On foot, you’re guaranteed passage on (slower) car ferries, though (faster) passenger-only catamarans can sell out. You can also take advantage of inter-island ferries. The private operator Kapetan Luka runs daily services from Split to Dubrovnik via Brac, Hvar and Korcula, and also from Split to Vis via Hvar. Split to Hvar costs £9 one way (krilo.hr).
Local buses and taxis greet most ferry arrivals, and hiring a scooter is a simple way to explore further afield.
Don’t be too ambitious. Three destinations is about right. My favourite tour is culture in Split, hedonism on Hvar, then relaxation on Vis. Dubrovnik to Split via Korcula and Hvar is also a winner.
The villa market is at the fledgling stage in southern Dalmatia, but there is good stuff out there. Expect a minimum one-week stay for July and August. Some operators allow three nights during other months.
Croatian Villa Holidays has more than 450 properties, including Dream Villa, a solar-powered two-bedroom place above its own beach, near Zlatni Rat, on Brac (from £1,610 a week in June; croatianvillaholidays.com). Croatian Villas has an airy four-bedroom pad on Vis, with a roof terrace overlooking the harbour (£179 a night in June; croatianvillas.com). Croatia Gems has a good spread of cheaper stays (croatiagems.com).
In summer, between British Airways, easyJet, Flybe, Jet2, Monarch, Norwegian and Thomson Airways, dozens of flights a day go to Dubrovnik. You’ll want Split for Brac, Hvar and Vis, served by British Airways, Croatia Airlines, easyJet, Norwegian, Thomas Cook, Thomson Airways and Wizzair.