Traveling to Croatias Dalmatian coast has never been easier

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If you want to see something really unusual, go to Dubrovnik, Croatia, where a solitary ship is floating within spitting distance of the city’s wonderfully well-persevered late medieval Old Town.

That the ship is a 533-foot private megayacht, the property of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, or that it boasts a missile detection system and is worth some $400 million, is not what makes it so unusual in the well-heeled Adriatic.

It’s that it is so conspicuously alone.

For decades, Dubrovnik has boomed thanks to armadas of cruise ships that tender throngs of tourists to shore, through its famous 16th-century walls, down the Stradun, the city’s foot-slicked limestone esplanade and into “Game of Thrones” souvenir shops. In 2019, almost 1.4 million foreign tourists visited the city.

But with the largest cruise ships just beginning to take sail again, Dubrovnik is still largely unspoiled by large tour groups, which in every place in the world have the preternatural ability to stand in your way.

Not only is Dubrovnik wonderfully open — it welcomed foreign travelers back last summer — it’s suddenly easier to access than ever before.

United Airlines unveiled the only direct flight for New York to Dubrovnik (via Newark) in July. Accessing Croatia’s Dalmatian coast had previously required unpleasant airport hopping. United also debuted a new “travel-ready” center within the airline’s app that allows visitors to upload their COVID-19 test or vaccination card ahead of their journey for a speedy check-in.  A negative test or a vaccine card are good enough for the officials in Zagreb.

While most tourists stay in the busy Old Town — where affordable, no-frills Airbnbs are the standard — New Yorkers with an appetite for amenities will appreciate Dubrovnik’s top hotels, which lie just beyond the tourist zone. Like Manhattan, Dubrovnik is best viewed from the outside. 

A celebrity haven for the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Mike Bloomberg, Christopher Walken, Orson Welles and Woody Harrelson, the city’s swishiest stay is the 158-room, ultra-modern Hotel Excelsior, owned by 5-star local operator Adriatic Luxury Hotels (ALH).

The Excelsior powered through the doldrums of the pandemic without shutting down and is now in full swing with seaside deckchairs occupied and a refreshing Mediterranean menu by chef Peter Obad drawing diners to its restaurants.

August rates for a “Deluxe sea view balcony room” at the hotel start at $826 per night.

For a more private experience, high rollers need only look next door of the Excelsior, where ALH reopened the historic 13-room Orsula in July. Built in the 1930s with Ottoman flourishes, the villa turned hotel is a favorite for superrich families, who often buy it out for weeks at a time. If you are lucky enough to snag a single room in August, it will cost roughly $1,650 per night.

But Dubrovnik is a two-night town and once you’ve walked the city walls, seen the Titian in the Assumption Cathedral and poked around the Rector’s Palace, it’s time to make like Abramovich and go a sea.

Croatia has some 1,200 islands, many of which are only an hour or two away via ferries or private charters. Those near isles, known as the Elaphiti Islands, are where southern Croatia’s Balkan-meets-Italian culture shines — especially after a shot of travarica (Croatia’s ubiquitous herbal rakija). The islands also give the best views of the dramatic, Dinara peaks, which soar along to Bosnian border, and its eponymous 6,000-foot mountain, Croatia’s highest.

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Sail first to Šipan, the third major island north of the Dubrovnik — your captain will cruise you towards famous swimming spots, like the blue cave, along the way — and stop for lunch at Bowa. Hidden away in a natural harbor and accessible only by boat, this upscale Mediterranean restaurant is a slice of Instagram-influencer heaven with tables and deck chairs built into private cabanas that are bookable for the day (they’ll set you back at least $770 for a group of four). Drink local white wine. East fresh fish. Take selfies.

If a livelier and boozier atmosphere is on the menu, check your shame, don your speedo and sail on to Moro Beach, on the tiny, unpopulated island of Stupa Vela in the Korčula archipelago. This dockside bar is a local favorite, where colorful Croatian characters will happily drink under the table.

Rather than return to Dubrovnik, stay the night at Lešić Dimitri Palace, a Relias & Chateau endorsed luxury hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Old Town of the island of Korčula. Prices for one of its internationally-themed accommodations ranges from $587 to $1,774 per night.

With a Venetian past, Korčula is like a mini Dubrovnik. It’s relaxed, seaside and extremely personal. Even when the cruise ships return, you won’t find their be-fanny-packed, “can I pay in US dollars?” citizens here.

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There are literally hundreds of other island treasures to explore — including Vrnik, where Jay-Z and Bey couldn’t resist a making a splash — all the way up to tony Hvar near Split. So, hire a good captain (or take the wheel) and choose your own adventure. Stop buy a vineyard (they’ve genetically proven that zinfandel is Croatian), try fresh European flat oysters or do some agritourism.

There is never going to be a less obnoxious time to go.

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