Pictured: Hotel Vestibul Palace used to be the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s apartment, and some of the exposed walls date to the third century.
In Croatia, forested hills spill down to a crystalline sea; warm winds carry the scent of lavender and wild herbs and restaurants showcase the region’s incredible natural bounty.
Many U.S. travelers first discover Croatia’s virtues on a Mediterranean cruise, so smitten with the landscapes and cuisine that they itch to return. Islands such as Hvar have emerged as the “St. Tropez of the Adriatic,” attracting celebrities and international jetsetters, whose yachts ply the waters between these Eden-like isles, each more beautiful than the next.
Fresh from a trip to Croatia, Luxury Travel Advisor has the skinny on some of the finest hotels the country has to offer.
First Stop: Dubrovnik, the “pearl of the Adriatic,” whose fortified city walls—a UNESCO World Heritage site—ring the Old Town’s marbled alleyways. Here, the place to stay is the Villa Dubrovnik, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Built into the rocky cliffs facing Lokrum island, the boutique hotel has a unique vantage point overlooking the sea and the ancient walled city. The hotel’s contemporary design takes advantage of its magnificent natural setting with walls of glass framing the views. Tall cypress and pine trees shade the Mediterranean gardens planted with bougainvillea, oleander, orange and lemon trees. The location, a 15-minute walk from the Old Town, is a distinct advantage, as the hotel offers a lovely respite after navigating the many tourists packed into the pedestrianized city-center. (When night falls, the crowds evaporate.) Nice Touch: Villa Dubrovnik offers complimentary transfers to Old Town via its Venetian Vaporetto speedboat.
The Sunčani Hvar Hotels’ Adriana Hotel has a rooftopbar offering a wrap-around view of the ancient city.
All 56 rooms are equipped with free Wi-Fi, uber-comfortable beds draped in luxurious linens, and balconies or terraces. The best room in the house is the Royal Suite, which has a large teakwood terrace and an outdoor Jacuzzi. Of the seven suites, the Duke’s Suite and Romance Suite also have fabulous terraces. For the ultimate in privacy and exclusivity, book the stand-alone Villa Kolin, which has a separate entrance. Contact Sales & Marketing Manager Paula Franic ([email protected], 011-385-20-500-301) for VIP bookings.
Start your day with a dip in the sea directly from the hotel’s beach. (Note that most of Croatia’s beaches are comprised of pebbles or slabs of rock.) Flanked with chaise lounges, the beach is serviced by attendants who dote on guests with fluffy towels and drinks. The pool’s indoor/outdoor deck also offers prime real estate for sun-seekers. For a leisurely lunch (think skewers of grilled monkfish), head upstairs to the restaurant terrace and sigh over the views. If you’re feeling more adventurous, Head Concierge Martina Jovic ([email protected]) can arrange a host of activities—from kayaking and private cruises to guided cultural tours. There’s also a two-level spa, and a rooftop bar for sunset aperitifs and plates of prosciutto.
Deluxe Rooms at Villa Dubrovnik come with a terrace overlooking the Adriatic sea.
Next Stop: The dreamy island of Korčula, where—according to local legend—Marco Polo was born. Fringed with pristine coves, Korčula has the most vegetation of any island on the Adriatic. It also has a fascinating history at the crossroads of civilizations, and Korčula town is one of the best-preserved medieval towns on the Med. Here, the Lešić Dimitri Palace, which opened in 2009 and was one of Croatia’s first members of Relais & Chateaux, is among our favorite hideaways in the world. Lešić Dimitri Palace is full of soul and personality, anchored to its setting next to Marco Polo’s house (the great explorer’s alleged birthplace).
Composed of six medieval buildings that were restored over a period of eight years, the hotel was decorated by Attayut Piravinich, one of the leading interior designers in Thailand. There are only five suites, all resembling private apartments because of their state-of-the-art kitchens. Each is designed after a particular stop on Marco Polo’s journeys on the Silk Road. “Venice” is the biggest suite, housing up to six guests, while “China” (our favorite) is the only one with a terrace.
The project was a true labor of love. The hotel’s owners recruited a team from both East and West, with local Croatian artisans responsible for the stone masonry. Piravinich custom designed most of the hotel’s furniture in a contemporary style. “We felt that the partnership of team members worked really well and enhanced the idea of connecting these parts of the world,” explains Tania Unsworth, the co-managing director.
The Sunčani Hvar Hotels’ Riva Hotel has rooms featuring contemporary amenities and portraits of Hollywood icons.
The Marco Polo theme continues in the spa, where treatments (from “Ceylon” to “Arabia”) are a blend of the cultures and techniques from along the Silk Road. Organic products are specially made for the hotel with herbs grown in Dalmatia and Asia. There are highly trained Thai therapists on staff for traditional Thai massages.
Then there’s the restaurant, which is the best on the island. Our divine lunch started with an LD signature, cuttlefish served with ink and truffles in a martini glass, and the homemade pasta and fresh fish were paired with local Pošip and Grk wines. But perhaps the hotel’s biggest asset is Manager and Concierge Toni Lozica ([email protected]; 011-385-912-626-218). Lozica’s family has been on Korčula for generations and he tells colorful tales about its history, sharing the best of the island with passion and humor. In sum, a stay at the Lešić Dimitri Palace promises an unrivaled glimpse into local life on the island.
Directly north lies the island of Hvar, a.k.a. the nightlife capital of the Adriatic. Hvar has a lot to brag about: it gets the most sunshine of anywhere in Croatia, and proud residents will also claim it to be Croatia’s prettiest island. Little wonder that it’s a requisite stop for the yachts sailing the Dalmatian coast, and for vacationing Hollywood celebrities. (Beyoncé and Jay-Z are rumored to have named their baby “Blue Ivy” after a plant native to the island.) Nightclubs like Carpe Diem have been going strong here for over a decade. That’s not to say that Hvar is limited to evening revelry. Head inland from Hvar Town, the island’s swanky capital, and you’ll find dreamy landscapes: fields of lavender dotted with ancient villages and pristine beaches edged by the turquoise sea.
The Lešić Dimitri Palace’s Arabia suite. The hotel’s suites are inspired by Marco Polo’s travels along the Silk Road.
Thanks to Sunčani Hvar Hotels, the group behind 80 percent of the hotel capacity, the island has developed high quality tourism infrastructure. In fact, the hotel group doubles as the island’s unflagging PR agency worldwide, spreading the word about the island’s magnificence. The group also focuses on providing guests with authentic local experiences; Head Concierge Ana Štambuk ([email protected]) can arrange cooking classes on farms, wine-tasting itineraries at local vineyards and workshops with Hvar’s artisans.
Of their three upscale hotels, we loved the Adriana because of its spacious Sensorí spa and glam rooftop terrace overlooking the harbor. Next door to Carpe Diem on the waterfront promenade, the four-star Riva Yacht Harbour Hotel is a favorite of young professionals and Millennials for its trendy rooms decorated with pops of color and black-and-white photos of movie stars. (Insiders tell us that Kevin Spacey booked the Riva Marina Suite, which comes with a terrace.) We saw a lot of families at the Amfora Grand Beach Resort, which also hosts business meetings and conferences. We hear the resort—which has 324 rooms and a cascading pool complex—will be upgrading its facilities soon. While in Hvar, we highly recommend spending the day at the Bonj “les bains” beach club, which commands a heavenly spot overlooking the crystal-clear waters.
The easiest way to access Hvar and the surrounding isles is by boat from Split, which became the coast’s transportation hub in the former Yugoslavia. Today, Split has experienced a renaissance, as it’s morphed from a transit town to an absolute must-visit destination. In the third century, Roman Emperor Diocletian built a glorious fortified palace facing the harbor. To this day, the palace is the heart and soul of the city, still inhabited by some 800 residents. The summer season is particularly vibrant, with open-air opera performances and happening cafes that are packed every night. Split isn’t just an open-air museum, it’s where visitors are privy to the city’s “living culture.”
The best hotel in town—and the only one in the palace walls—is the Hotel Vestibul Palace, which has been a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World since 2010. After an incredible restoration project, the hotel has a deep sense of place. This used to be the emperor’s apartment, and some of the exposed walls date to the third century (including the bathroom in room No. 4). The hotel’s contemporary design—showcasing simple materials like wood, steel and leather—works harmoniously with these period features. There are only seven rooms, including a duplex suite equipped with all the contemporary comforts (like free Wi-Fi and luxurious bath products). An additional four rooms can be found in the Villa Dobrić nearby. For VIP bookings, contact Sales Manager Boris Dusa ([email protected]; 011-385-21-329-329).
You won’t find a pool or a spa here, but the service quality is what distinguishes the hotel. No request is too small for the staff, who can arrange a chauffeured luxury car, excursions, sailing trips and city tours with the in-the-know local guides. Because of our early morning flight, the staff even packed us a lovely take-away breakfast. Note that there is no elevator in the hotel because of building restrictions in a UNESCO World Heritage site. Cars cannot enter into the pedestrianized palace area, so staff will greet guests with an electric trolley to transport luggage a few minutes’ walk to the hotel.
Maja Gudelj, a travel and Yacht Charter consultant at Select Croatia, is a fount of information about her native country. We caught up with her while she was leading a fam trip in Istria with U.S.-based Virtuoso agents. “My favorite site has to be Split; besides the fact that it is beautiful and vibrant, it’s also my hometown. Also, Sibenik has been overlooked for a long time because of war damage but now it’s being rebuilt and it’s a filming site for the new season of ‘Game of Thrones’. I believe we will see many more visitors soon.
“When it comes to hotels, Villa Dubrovnik is simply stunning with its location, design and impeccable service. Hotel Vestibul Palace connects the new and the old in such a magnificent way. Judita Palace in Split is also set in a historical building, but the period furnishings and stupendous views of the ‘Pjaca’ square make it extraordinary. Hotel Monte Mulini and Hotel Lone would be top choices in Istria. While Monte Mulini is the top level of luxury with stunning views, a wine vault, and a wonderful spa and beach area, Hotel Lone wins my heart. As the first design hotel in Croatia, everything in it was produced in the country; Jazz Rooms with mini infinity tub-pools add a special touch. Esplanade in Zagreb also has a wonderful story, as it was built for Orient Express passengers.
“The number of American tourists is increasing each year, as they love the blend of history, architecture, cuisine and the beautiful sea. The best part is that you can create a vacation for many different tastes: foodies will love truffle hunting in Istria and fresh oyster tasting in Ston; historians will love the abundance of UNESCO World Heritage sites; wine enthusiasts can discover the homeland of Zinfandel, while the sailors claim there is not a better sea in which to sail. Adventure travel is also quite popular and Croatia has plenty to offer.”