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Dotty about the Dalmatian coast!

Croatia is fast becoming a tourist favourite – but you can still find unspoilt spots on these two charming islands


You meet people who say Croatia is the new Italy. It used to be a part of the Venetian Republic, so there is logic here. And Diocletian’s Palace in Split is one of the greatest Roman monuments. There are suggestion­s of Italy everywhere. You find spageti bolonjeze on menus and it’s not too hard to fathom the Italian influence there. But you also find Hrskava riblji zalogaji (Croatian crunchy fishbites), which reminds you how satisfying­ly foreign this country is.

Croatia may be the least known, certainly the least understood, country in Europe. As a result, in just two hours from London, it offers an escape sensation that is exciting and profound. The more so if you visit nearly secret islands. And even more so if you find unusually comfortabl­e places to stay when you get there.

Mainland Dubrovnik may be Croatia’s gift to package trippers, but a few days on the islands of Hvar or Dugi otok are an experience of terra incognita.

Judith Schalansky’s surprise bestseller, Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands, proved the popular appeal of quiet and isolation in our busy world. Magic counts for a lot. Hvar and Dugi otok have it.

Croatia achieved independen­ce only in 1991, after several millennia of battles, invasions, compromise­s and miscellane­ous predations from Greeks, ottomans, Corsairs and, lately, Serbs.

It is now a country that belongs to the Eu but it includes less precise, almost mythic, territorie­s including Istria and Illyria (which features in Shakespear­e’s

Twelfth Night, although it is unlikely he ever visited). Or Dalmatia: my destinatio­n. Dalmatia is a vanished kingdom like Litva, Sabaudia, Tsernagora and Etruria. Thus, doubly romantic. And it’s still there.

The plane to Split, a fine modern airport with unusual efficiency, begins its descent near Venice. This reminds you how close Italy is, at least geographic­ally speaking.

Ancona to the west is just 180 miles away. But Italy’s Adriatic coast comprises fine, long beaches while Croatia’s is an astonishin­g spectacle of rugged islands. Seen from the plane, an endless necklace of brown and green in all sizes is strung across a vividly blue sea.

Once, these islands were tips of mountains because in Flintstone days you could walk from Croatia to Italy without getting your felt-bound feet wet.

The sight lets the mind wander to the lyrical and whimsical: Prospero’s island in Shakespear­e’s The Tempest, William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies, H.G. Wells’ The Island Of Dr Moreau, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. They could all be here.

The precise number of islands is a matter of pride and competitiv­e bragging. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by ‘island’. Accordingl­y, estimates differ wildly but, in pursuit of clarity, I got advicee from the cartograph­ic department of thehe UK Hydrograph­ic Office. The answer is:s: any landform surrounded by water withh an area greater than a squaree kilometre is an island.

If it’s less than a tenth of a squaree

isa kilometre, what you are seeing is merely a rock. By this method, Croatia has 1,246 islands.

HVAR is one of the biggest andnd was one of the Ancients’ Isleses of The Blessed. The eponymousu­s capital is now a notoriousu­s party town, a reinventio­n which beganan when Edward VIII and Wallislis Simpson visited.

Its status as a venue for royalyal renegades was confirmed when Princence Harry was photograph­ed jumping intonto a nightclub’s pool in 2011. There wass a tradition of hoteliers giving the moneyney back if the weather was bad thoughh I think Harry and the boys may have put an end to that nice gesture.

However, my destinatio­n is on the other side of Hvar island, somewhere much less visited than Harry’s town, nightclubf­ree and reached from Split by the hotel’s launch, driven by impossibly handsome, tanned young men in startling whites who serve champagne as we clatter over a roiling, navy blue sea whose consistenc­y looks like oil.

Stari Grad Na Hvaru, the Old Town of Hvar, the Pharos of the Greeks, is where you disembark. It looks as if communist stage designers had been briefed to replicate Portofino. There’s a pretty old town, but prettiness cannot eliminate an undertow of Balkan darkness, even menace.

Saturday morning, feckless boys in the Hemingway Bar do glum Djokovic impression­s. A nasty-looking communist- era supermarke­t threatens. In ample compensati­on, there is a distinctiv­e strain of Croatian woman as handsome as the boys on the boat: tall, slim, high cheekbones and open-faced with superb posture.

Maslina Resort, a project by a French financier, is on a perfect bay a few moments out of Stari Grad. It is very much a ‘concept’, designed by local architect

Tomislav Alujevic. His concept is that accommodat­ion dti isi ini ‘scatteredt­td pavilions’ ili ’ while services are buried undergroun­d.

These pavilions are, essentiall­y, concrete boxes but integrate nicely into the astonishin­gly green landscape because they are surrounded by timber slats which muddle light and shade and disguise the brutal structure. As a reminder of the forces of nature, the reception desk is a 14ton cyclopean lump of stone from the neighbouri­ng island of Brac.

Maslina offers guests wobbly wooden bikes and quotes from Thoreau on the theme of isolation on room keys. The elegant and friendly staff are in chic uniforms and are always willing to engage.

At Maslina Resort they like to say ‘time stands still’. Certainly, the isolation is superb. But that word ‘resort’ is a warning: something ambitious is planned here. ‘Residences’ are coming soon, witness the cranes.

The pioneering travel writer Norman Lewis lived on the Costa Brava in 1948 and, remembered the changes he witnessed in Voices Of The Old Sea (1984). The first developers arrived from Barcelona and a

Mainlander­s call the island folk ‘ boduli’, a word suggestive of their primitivis­m, which is exactly what visitors are seeking

process bebeganega­n wwhere fishermen’s wives bbecomech amber maidshbidi in hi high-h riseih ho te ls.tl An invasion of money destroyed the sanctity that made the area popular. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen here.

To reach Dugi Otok, we returned to Split by a lumbering and tired ferry, a theatre of bad-tempered diesel harmonics, then drove to Zadar, via Sibenik, names that would not be out-of-place in Ruritania.

Lunch en route was at Maskovica han in Pakostane, a fine place to savour Dalmatia’s collision of cultures. Winston churchill said the Balkans ‘ produce more history than they can consume’. han was a holiday home fortress built in 1644 by a high dignitary of the sultan’s court who had a side hustle as an admiral of the Turkish fleet.

Perhaps the western-most Ottoman building, it has been meticulous­ly restored and converted into a deluxe, if somewhat austere, hotel. Blasphemou­sly, the mosque is a restaurant where I ate an excellent pasta with tomato sauce and shredded lamb

sausage,sa drinking a fine white madem of Posip, a local grape. The bestbe croatian wines are very gogood but production is so small, almalmost none are exported.

FromF Zadar, an empty catamaran rancatamar­an took us to Bozava, which oveover-enthusiast­ic tourist authoritie­s tiesauthor­ities describe as a yachting haven. ‘haven’ha is too lively a word to desdescrib­e its unreal quietness.

DugiDu Otok means Long Island and if there are police, they are not obvious and road manners are freefreefo­rm. half an hour from BozBozava, there is Villa nai 3.3, socalled callesocal­led because in this mild climate therthere are usually no more than 3.3 daysday of snow a year. In the well-lliinforme­dfd 1968 companion Guide To Jugoslavia by J.A. cuddon, Dugi Otok is not even mentioned.

Villa nai is not so much built into the landscape as constructe­d out of it. Spoil from the excavation­s is the structural substance of its eight rooms, each with private access to a saltwater infinity pool.

It is the personal project of Goran Mucovic, a prosperous civil engineer who has now become an olive oil evangelist. There are olive trees as far as you can see in every direction, except the direction that points to the startlingl­y blue sea. The structure of polyphenol­s, Mucovic explained in his olive mill, is identical to ibuprofen. his oil wins internatio­nal awards.

In the best possible way, there is nothing to do. So you get on Tomas’s boat for a trip around the Kornati Islands. These are inland waters but lively even in good weather.

After an infinity of archipelag­o, the skipper, muscular in shades, turns into the tiny harbour of Vrulje. never have I been anywhere so remote. Accessible only by donkey or boat, the little village is a primal experience. There was just the gentle putt-putt of the rubbish collector’s boat, the snuffling of a dog constraine­d (from I don’t know what) by baler twine. Silence. Sea.

A long, battering speedboat ride returning to Zadar gave an opportunit­y to reflect. Villa nai 3.3 could not be bettered for isolation, relaxed sophistica­tion and a credible eco philosophy. It is in its way perfect, but be warned that perfection can be boring. Especially in bad weather.

croatian mainlander­s call the island folk boduli, a word suggestive of their primitivis­m which, of course, is exactly what visitors are seeking. This, despite Dalmatian prosciutto, is not the new Italy, it is the old croatia. Therefore, marvellous and strange. It is not primitive, it is unspoilt, which is not quite the same thing.

But will an invasion of money make these islands better or worse? There’s a fine line, easily crossed, between developmen­t and ruination. As the Dalmatian boduli look at a future of high-value tourism while wanting to retain the quiet mystery of their fabled past, some absurditie­s arise.

On a building site at Villa nai 3.3, spoil was being conscienti­ously re-used to create a helipad. It seemed rude to ask if it was an organic helipad.

It’s so fascinatin­g weighing the evidence about the future of hvar and Dugi Otok, I’m in no hurry to make a judgment.

But go now. Secret Dalmatia might not be a secret for much longer.

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 ?? ?? Island life: The port of Sali on Dugi Otok and, inset, local delicacy grilled squid
Island life: The port of Sali on Dugi Otok and, inset, local delicacy grilled squid
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 ?? ?? Tranquil: Hvar and, inset far left, le Maslina Resort and local lo lavender. Top left: Islanders Is take it easy
Tranquil: Hvar and, inset far left, le Maslina Resort and local lo lavender. Top left: Islanders Is take it easy

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