The Croatian island of Hvar is one of the hottest destinations in the Mediterranean right now. Up there with the likes of Sicily, Sardinia and Mykonos. It has a reputation as the place to party when visiting the Dalmatian coast, with celebs charting a course for its picture-perfect harbours, and the Instacrowd snapping pics of themselves on pricey sun lounges, but the island has so much more to offer than superyachts, beach clubs and Negroni cocktails. In many ways, it is the ultimate holiday destination. With hilltop forts, medieval towns, great seafood and endless opportunities to swim in absurdly picturesque coves, Hvar has something for everyone. We spent a week on the island, exploring by car, boat and by foot. Here are just a few reasons to put Hvar on the top of your Euro summer bucket list.
The beaches on Hvar, and other islands along the coast of Croatia, tend to be pebbly. They require tough feet or reef shoes to negotiate. Sometimes a steel ladder affixed to a rocky outcrop is the best place to enter the water. But what they lack in fine white sand, they make up for in other ways. Hvar’s best swimming spots are framed by cypress-covered mountains, stone villas and historic towns. They feature quaint konobas serving traditional meals, or little beach bars for afternoon refreshments. Then, there’s the sea – delicious turquoise water with nothing more than the occasional sea urchin to be wary of. Picture-perfect, and so, so inviting, you’ll want to dive right in.
Hvar Town boulevard and Bonj
The shoreline just to the west of Hvar Town offers countless places to cool off, all accessible from the lovely promenade. Bonj has a pebbly beach and a beach club, other areas are dotted with pay-to-use sunlounges, or you can plonk your towel on a rock for free. Dive into thecrystal-clear water and enjoy a view of historic Hvar as you bob along.
My family’s favourite beach lies just outside Hvar Town on the road to Stari Grad. It’s actually two spectacular coves, set either side of the T-shaped rock formation. On one side is a pebbly beach with the cutest little restaurant overlooking the water. Gego serves great seafood, grilled meat and vegetables, has two cute cats, and a car park. Peel off the main road, head down a steep street, and you’ll find it on the left. If you go to the right, you’ll reach another rocky bay. Access to the beach is via a set of metal steps. Absolutely worth the effort!
For pure jaw-dropping beauty, Dubovica probably takes the award. A stone villa at one end of the cove, a small restaurant tucked away behind a passionfruit vine, and gentle waves lapping on the stones complete the dreamy picture. The downside: it gets very busy and there’s no parking here. You need to find a spot on the main road (not easy after 11am) and walk down a rough dirt track. But that makes the water so much more amazing when you finally jump in!
If you’re feeling adventurous, and need a break from the crowds, Srhov Dolac is a great option. Head out along the main road, towards the eastern end of the island, and turn off at the town of Gdinj. You’ll find yourself on a steep dirt road, certain you’ve misunderstood the directions. Eventually you’ll reach the bottom of the mountain and get to a cluster of holiday cottages around a tiny turquoise harbour. The swimming is superb. When you are well and truly water logged, head back to Gdinj, and make for Jelovnik kastell grill. Great pizzas in an authentic atmosphere.
Perfect Boating Conditions
Many people come to Croatia to cruise its beautiful waters, but even if you haven’t secured an invite for a super yacht, or a berth on a catamaran, you can still get a taste of boating life. There are countless operators in Hvar Town who can take you to the nearby Pakleni islands, or one of the beaches on Hvar. We pre-booked a day tour to the Blue caves and Pakleni islands. Weather conditions were against us, and we were unable to get to the caves, but we did visit several incredibly picturesque coves, many of them packed with yachts, and lined with beach bars – much more crowded than I had expected. Palmizana was the prettiest bay, but also the busiest. Prices at beach bars and restaurants frequented by the yachting crowd are generally much higher than elsewhere on Hvar, but the setting is incredible.
Well-preserved historic towns
Hvar’s strategic position in the eastern Adriatic Sea has seen it occupied by all of the Mediterranean heavy weights over the centuries, and each one has left a mark on the architecture and the culture of the island.
Ionian Greeks had the run of the island from the 4 th century BC, founding the city of Pharos, where Stari Grad now stands. You can see the remains of Pharos at a UNESCO heritage site in the old town and on the agricultural plain that is still in use today. The Greeks were overthrown by the Romans in 219BC and ruled the island for several centuries. Remnants of luxury villas, mosaics and pottery have been uncovered by archaeologists in Stari Grad and Jelsa.
It was the Venetians who really made a mark on the island. Taking control in the 15 th century, they moved the main port to the south side of the island, built fortifications, churches and a grand piazza in Hvar Town, which is the biggest on the Dalmatian coast. The Turks did their best to destroy the place, but the three centuries of Venetian rule were mostly a prosperous time on the island. Wine, lavender, olive and fishing industries all thrived.
Tourism was officially launched in Hvar in 1868 after the island came under Austrian rule. The island was successfully marketed as a wellness retreat for affluent Europeans, eager to escape the cold, and enjoy sunny days and sparkling seas. Two World Wars plus Croatia’s fierce battle for independence from Yugoslavia in the early nineties put an end to that, but over the past two decades, Hvar has well and truly bounced back – now a favourite with the mega wealthy, twenty-somethings and everyone in between.
In summer, crowds pack the main square, warfront bars and restaurants, while yachts raft up in the harbour, but Hvar Town still manages to retain an old-world charm. It is picturesque, rather than ritzy, and isn't nearly as busy as nearby Dubrovnik, which gets completely swamped by tourists in the summer months. To see Hvar at its magical best, get up early and head for the medieval Fortica, perched on a hilltop above the town. The walk starts at the main gate, just off the pjaca (central square), with a long set of steps that takes you through the old town – past a Gothic palace and a Benedictine nunnery. From the top of the steps, the path winds through cypress trees, gardens and city walls to the Venetian fort. The fort opens at 9am, but the magnificent views of the town and the nearby Pakleni islands are available all day, and are especially good at dawn and dusk.
After an early morning hike to the Fortica, nothing beats sitting at a café on the main square, ordering a coffee and watching the town come to life. Forget your takeaway flat white. You are in the Mediterranean, and a morning coffee is a ritual, not something to rush. The square is still the hub of life, (well, tourist life) centuries after it was first built by the Venetians, and a great spot to people watch. No sign of celebs while we were visiting. I guess they stick to the safety of their yachts, but I loved seeing the mix of backpackers and boaties enjoying breakfast on the pjaca.
Beautiful Stari Grad is a gem for anyone interested in history. With ancient Greek and Roman settlements, it is considered one of the oldest towns in Europe. It offers a more relaxed alternative to staying in Hvar Town, with a mix of grand buildings, winding medieval streets, historic churches and a beautiful harbour. Don’t miss the 15 th century Dominican monastery, the bell tower of St Stephens, and the church of St John which was erected on the site of an ancient Greek temple.
The pretty town of Jelsa, just a short drive away, is another charming and relaxed port town. Stroll through the cobblestone streets of the old town to see pretty baroque churches, bougainvillea covered stone walls and lavender-themed souvenir shops. Stop on the harbour front at Eiss Café for an ice cream or the best fresh orange juice on the island.
There are endless options for eating out on Hvar with restaurants crammed around waterfront promenades, main squares and side streets. The emphasis is on seafood, with meals reflecting a heavy Italian influence. Expect risotto, pasta and wood-fired pizzas, along with grilled fish, meat and vegetables, plus a smattering of Hvar speciality dishes like gregada (fish stew) and
pasticada (braised beef). Restaurants tend to be small, and get very busy, so it is definitely worth booking a table for dinner. My pick for great food, a lively atmosphere, a fab view of the harbour, and reasonable prices is Dva Ribara in Hvar Town. You’ll find it on the western side of the harbour. Look for the fishing kitsch and the queue of hopeful tourists waiting for a table. The octopus is outstanding. After dinner, head to aROMA for a gelati, then stroll along the promenade enjoying the view. With the Fortica twinkling at the top of the hill, and yachts festooned with party lights bobbing in the harbour, Hvar is a pretty special sight.
If you are young enough to carry on late into the night, Hula Hula beach club is the place to be. From sunset until 11pm, the Instacrowd abandon their sunlounges to groove to the DJ sounds. As Hvar closes down for the night, the party heads off shore to Carpe Diem, a ten-minute ferry ride from town on one of the Pakleni islands. Drinks are overpriced, but I am reliably informed that the music is good.
Anti-social behaviour is not tolerated
Hvar Town has strict laws to stamp out inappropriate behaviour. Walk around town in just your speedos or bikini and you are likely to get slapped with a 600 euro fine. It might seem harsh, but this isn’t a beach resort, it’s a town with important religious and historic monuments. A bit of modesty is respectful, and isn't a lot to ask. Also banned: picnicking, partying and sleeping in the piazza. Tough, maybe, but the laws mean there’s a lot less rubbish left lying around, as well as fewer obnoxious drunken tourists. And that has to be a good thing! Authorities across Europe are cracking down on anti-social behaviour. It’s worth checking out local laws to avoid hefty fines.
Hvar town is a one-hour ferry ride from the Croatian port city of Split, and three hours from Dubrovnik. We rented a villa with Orvas. Our spacious accommodation was a twenty-minute walk into Hvar town: close enough to enjoy access to restaurants, but far enough away to avoid the crowds. We had filtered views of the sea, and a very short walk to a pebbly beach and easy access to a beautiful rocky shore to enjoy sunsets.
Julie Fison is a Brisbane author and travel lover. Her debut novel for adults, One Punch, is a compelling contemporary drama that tells the story of two mothers facing impossible decisions after one life-changing night. Julie has also written books for children and young adults, including the Hazard River series, stories in the Choose Your Own Ever After series, and a play for high schools, As the Crow Flies. When not at her desk, you can find Julie hiking a bush trail with her energetic border collie, exploring the outback, or chasing the perfect sunset. She is a committed traveller and enjoys sharing tips for midlife adventure. www.juliefison.com