Enjoy island hopping and exploring old towns, writes Stephanie Holmes

Sail

With more than 1000 islands along the Croatian coastline, you'd be a fool not to get out on the water. You can take a cruise — liners big and small call at the major ports along the coast: Split, Korcula, Dubrovnik, Hvar; you can charter a yacht, or even hire a boat by the hour. I travelled with Peregrine Adventures on a small-ship cruise — fewer than 30 passengers on a 30m-boat — and it was a fantastic way to see a range of Croatia's highlights.

For those with less time, UberBOAT has launched in Split, Hvar and Dubrovnik, allowing users to hire a speedboat through a smartphone app. You can book either an airport transfer from Split or Divulje airports over to the island of Hvar (Independent.co.uk reported the service would cost €352 for an eight-person boat), or half or full day trips out on the water to explore nearby islands.

Swim

If you've seen photos of Croatia's coastal waters on social media, you've probably scrolled past them in a fit of jealousy. The country is world-renowned for its water, and this year 99 beaches were awarded Blue Flag status by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). Blue Flags are awarded only to beaches that meet and maintain strict environmental, educational, safety-related and access criteria. Croatia is in the top 10 European countries for number of Blue Flag beaches. You won't believe your eyes when you see the colour and clarity of the sea — it's truly a natural wonder.

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Eat

Track down a traditional Konoba (tavern) for an authentic Croatian meal. There are plenty of places claiming to be true Konobas, but some are better than others — your best bet is to find something away from the main tourist drag in any of the towns you're visiting. The best meal I had on my recent trip was at Konoba Mate in the tiny village of Pupnat (population 500) on Korcula Island. It's a family-run restaurant, tucked up in the hills about 15 minutes from Korcula town, and has been in business for close to 20 years.

Massimo Cocktail Bar, Korcula, Croatia. Photo / Cocktailbar Massimo
Massimo Cocktail Bar, Korcula, Croatia. Photo / Cocktailbar Massimo

Mirjana Farac still runs the kitchen, husband Mate looks after the farm that provides much of the restaurant's produce, their son and daughter wait tables, while their golden labrador lies lazily under tables shaded by the overhanging vines. We ate fresh figs stuffed with goats cheese, wrapped in prosciutto made by Mate, and cooked on the grill, followed by rich homemade pastas, grilled lamb and chicken, all washed down with locally distilled rakija.

Another delicacy to try is peka — a slow-cooked dry stew of meat and potatoes, traditionally made for festivals, saints days and special occasions. It's rich and heavy but tasty and satisfying.

Drink

Every town square and waterfront riva (promenade) will have rows of restaurants and bars, where patrons can sit outside enjoying the fresh air, warm breezes and people-watching for which the Mediterranean is famed. If you look a bit harder, however, you'll find some options off the beaten track.

In Korcula, Massimo is at the top of the turret of Zakerjan Tower. You'll have to climb a steep rickety ladder to get up there, but once at the top you'll be able to drink cocktails while you look down on the old city and the harbour. Drinks are delivered by basket-and-pulley system over the turret walls. Cocktails are strong, and remember you have to climb back down that ladder again when you want to leave. Sadly, the basket isn't big enough for humans.

Dubrovnik's Old City. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
Dubrovnik's Old City. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

As well as the potent fruit brandy rakija, Croatia is well known for its wine, something that New Zealanders should be thankful for — many Croatians settled in New Zealand in the early 20th century and helped establish some of our earliest vineyards. To sample some great Croatian wines in a peaceful setting, visit Saints Hills winery in the village of Oskorusno on the Peljesac peninsula. The shady outdoor patio overlooks rolling hills of vines, which are all harvested by hand, and you can try varietals from regions that have been growing wine since the Middle Ages.

Wander the Old City streets in Dubrovnik and you'll come across a wooden sign saying simply "Cold drinks and the best views". Who can argue with that? Follow the sign and duck through a nondescript doorway and you'll find yourself at Buza, an outdoor bar clinging to the cliffs under the city walls. By day you'll watch the boats weave in and out of the harbour; in the evening you'll get epic sunsets behind the majestic walls; by night there's a buzz in the air as visitors of countless nationalities drink a cold beer and celebrate another glorious Croatian day.

History lessons

There's no escaping history in Croatia — it's under foot as you walk the limestone-cobbled streets; it's behind the city walls of Sibenik, Split, Trogir, Hvar, Korcula and Dubrovnik; it's in the shrapnel marks on the historic buildings from the Yugoslav war that ended less than 20 years ago. Take a walking tour with a knowledgeable guide, and pay attention — you're going to be learning hundreds and hundreds of years of history. It's rich and mind-blowing.

A beautiful beach near Split, Croatia. Photo / 123RF
A beautiful beach near Split, Croatia. Photo / 123RF

Love lavender

Croatia is famous for its lavender farms and the handmade products from the fragrant flowering plant. We visited a farm in the village of Stari Grad on Hvar island, where you can buy a variety of lavender-infused creams and oils, which are recommended as all kinds of remedies. Apparently it's good for headaches, sleeping, to ward off mosquitoes and to soothe burns. We're sadly not able to bring lavender and sage honey back into the country with us, but try some on your toast while you're there — it's delicious.

Climb the walls

Game of Thrones fans will no doubt already have this on their wish lists, but whether or not the name King's Landing means anything to you, you'll still want to walk Dubrovnik's Old City walls. For 150 kuna (NZ$34) you can walk high above the Old City, along the entirety of the ancient fortress walls that span more than 2km. The walk takes you between the gates and fortresses that make up this imposing city boundary, including Bokar Fortress, which dates back to the 15th century, and Minceta Fortress, the highest point of the walls. Expect to be taking more of a shuffle than a brisk walk — this is one of Dubrovnik's most popular tourist attractions and some parts of the path are narrow, so at times you'll be stuck in queues. All the better to take in the views out to the Adriatic Sea and to get a bird's-eye perspective on the mad-scramble of terracotta tiled limestone buildings down below.

Get your balance

When you're in Stradun, the main promenade in Dubrovnik's Old City, you may see people trying to take a running jump at a wall, or perched on a small gargoyle head protruding from the stone, attempting to cling on for dear life. No, they're not auditioning for a Harry Potter remake; they're attempting to fulfill an old legend. The owl-faced gargoyle outside the Franciscan monastery near Pile Gate — also know as a maskeron — is one of many throughout the Old City that were originally used as downpipes to drain rainwater. But the story goes that there was once a young man who was unlucky in love, who made a vow that if he could balance on the maskeron, remove his shirt and put it back on again, his romantic fortunes would change. The myth became legend and many have tried the same trick over the years. It's not as easy as it sounds — the ledge is only 15cm deep and the wall has nothing to hold on to. Have a go or just delight in watching others' attempts. While you watch, take a closer look at the wall — there's a patch of discolouration from the eons that bodies that have tried to hug the stones. It's almost heart-shaped . . . maybe the legend has something in it after all.

IF YOU GO

Getting there:

flies from Auckland to 40 European cities, via its hub in Doha. Connecting flights to Split, Dubrovnik and Zagreb are available with partner airlines.

Playing there: Peregrine Adventures Coastal Croatia Cruising holidays take in all these highlights and more, with eight-day cruises from Sibenik to Dubrovnik or back again, part of their newly released 2018 Adventure Cruising itineraries.

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