SEATTLE, July 14, 2015 — The smell of the fresh air from the Adriatic Sea, smells of food filling the harbor, sounds of people shopping, eating and conversing. It’s an atmosphere to whet the whistle of any foodie or socialite and it’s what you will experience in the harbor area of Split, Croatia.
Croatia is a very young country, having gained its independence in 1991. It is a fascinating place that’s filled with enchanted vistas, over 1,000 islands off its coast, fresh food and people who are proud, resilient and eager to share their culture with visitors and make them feel welcomed.
A few inventions from this relatively small country include the necktie, parachute, alternating current and the mechanical / fountain pen. Fast forward to today and you’ll find the show, Game of Thrones being filmed here as well.
Positioned 255 miles (by car) from the capital city of Zagreb, which has over 1 million people, is the city of Split.
One of its crown jewels is the bustling waterfront that features some amazing shopping, a historic fortress to venture through and of course ferry boats to neighboring islands. What you’ll find in Split is a cornucopia of classy accommodations, entertainment as well as rustic, authentic foods.
Also on the waterfront is Diocletian’s Palace. Originally built in the fourth century AD as a retirement palace for the Roman emperor, Diocletian, it’s now home to amazing places to shop and eat as well as many alleyways to explore and ancient ruins.
It’s a beautiful blend of ancient history and top-notch shopping plaza.
Just a few blocks away, you’ll want to curb your appetite at Konoba (Tavern) Varos. The setting is a very cozy, dimly lit dining area that caters well for group dinners or for just two.
For lodging, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better venue than Hotel Split. With several floors to choose from, it offers its own beach access, views into the harbor and has very modern rooms that are well appointed.
Beds are comfortable, the bathtub is huge – can easily fit two – and the décor helps make it feel relaxing.
Its staff are very friendly and were always courteous in offering any kind of help one may need. Additionally, there is a free breakfast available that offers more than simply cereal, dried-out scrambled eggs and waffles out of a box.
It’s definitely more upscale than what you’ll find in most American hotels.
A 45 minute ferry ride will land you on the island of Solta and it’s here where you can easily feel more of a “country-folk” vibe by those who live here. It’s much more rustic, down-home than what you find in city. It’s nearly like taking a bit of a time-warp back as even its villages have a quaintness to them that’s inviting, warm – you’ll likely not want to leave.
A popular restaurant on Solta is Nevera in the village of Stomorska. It’s near the harbor so the views while dining outside are simply gorgeous. The food here is rustic, authentic Croatian that’s served with a smile and top-notch service. What’s profound is simply how fresh the seafood is – we’re talking amazing octopus, squid, sardines and other delights.
If you’re in the mood for wine, you can – by appointment – setup a private tasting with the Agroturizam Kaštelanac family winery. They own vineyards on the island which, among other grapes, grows Crjenak which is the original grape we now refer to in the west as Zinfandel. Vicko and Sanja Kastelanac also produce out of this world olive oils, many of which are infused.
The historic city of Trogir, situated on a small island between the mainland of Croatia and the isle of Ciovo, is also home to an amazing waterfront that’s bustling with action. Within its castle walls are what seem like endless amounts of alleys that provide an excellent shopping experience, eating and exploration – including the cathedral.
For an amazing dinner or lunch, be sure to stop at restaurant Monika located inside the hotel by the same name. Its staff, courtyard setting and food are simply divine. Make sure to try the fresh sardines and fish soup, however, it’s a diverse enough menu that can accommodate most any palate and budget.
Krka National Park:
For those feeling a bit more adventurous and ready to see more of Croatia’s natural beauty, then drive out to the Krka National Park is worth it. It takes up 109 square-kilometers along the Krka River and features one of the most beautiful, multi-tiered waterfalls you’ll ever see. Its trails allow visitors to do a nice hike around the falls and makes for a great way to nature-watch. Over 222 species of birds, bats and its pristine natural settings make for a memorable visit.
Depending on which entrance to the park you use, there’s a 30 minute boat ride you can take that go from an area of gift shops, restaurants and a museum up to near the base of the falls. You can drive up a road as well but the boat trip allows you to slow down and take-in all of the beauty of the river.
It was Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show taped from Croatia that has inspired many to visit and one of the most memorable places he stopped at was Bibich Winery. This small, family-owned winery not only makes incredible wines at ultra-affordable prices, it also happens to host private dinners that are on an epic scale.
Think of Micheline Star quality of food in a small, intimate setting where the staff of the winery serve you with the utmost of care. The chef is classically trained in French cuisine and turns out amazing food that incorporates gastronomy – each course carefully paired with a Bibich wine.
Its wines are – as with most old-world wines – very food friendly, retain stellar acidity and do a remarkable job of showcasing the unique terroir of the region. They do have distribution here in the United States so finding the wines at your favorite wine retailer shouldn’t be too difficult.
A final city worth checking out is the amazing Sibenik which sits at the mouth of the Krka River. It’s a maze-like city with the amazing Saint James Cathedral, teeming with life that’s riddled with culture and a sense of flair. It’s one of the few cities along the Adriatic coast that was actually founded by Croats, whereas most were started by Romans, Greeks or Illyrians.
You could easily spend one or two full days wondering the narrow, alley-like streets as it presents on onslaught of shops, restaurants and four fortresses to check out, including; Saint Nicholas Fortress, Tvrdava SV. Mihovila, Tvrdava SV. Ivana and Tvrdava Subicevac. It’s not uncommon to see live music or dance here as well as we had the opportunity to witness.
While in the area of Sibenik, check out the Solaris Resort Hotel for your stay. It has absolutely world-class accommodations, a great swimming pool and an amazing view of the Adriadic Sea. Additionally, it has a water park, an indoor Dalmation Village, two beach clubs, private beaches and a pirate adventure minigolf.
One last place you’ll want to consider is the small island of Krapanj; the birthplace of the modern sponge. Its history started with natural sea sponges where divers would labor in heavy suits that required a two-man-operated air pump on a boat above them. In very low-light conditions, these divers of yesteryear would harvest sponges that brought a great deal of money into the local economy.
Fast forward to day and you won’t find them doing this anymore on a commercial level but what you will find is a nice hotel to stay at Hotel Spongiola that has a small museum in its basement that’s dedicated to the history of sponge harvesting.
Additionally you’ll have the opportunity to eat at what is perhaps the best place to eat-out on the planet. Konoba Ronilac-Krapanj is an ultra-small, family-operated restaurant that has very limited seating. In fact, it’s actually at the family’s home – in the lower courtyard area.
The food here is easily the best around as it’s made with love and care with all of the ingredients coming from the island and its surrounding waters. It’s more than just food, it’s an extension of love and passion that nourishes one’s soul.
It’s not completely easy to summarize how great of a place Croatia is as few can offer its brilliance of food, culture and experience at value that’s hard to pass-up. While it’s not a common name that comes to mind when thinking of tourist destinations, it should be and one would be hard-pressed to not have the time of their life there.
Editor’s Note: This story was first published on July 14, 2015.