Idyllic Istria: The Archetypal Mediterranean Vacation

Sunny beaches, crystalline sea, verdant vineyards and olive groves…Croatia is the archetypal Mediterranean vacation destination. The country’s reputation as a summer playground has led to soaring interest among American travelers. Here’s a tip: In the northern Adriatic Sea, next to Italy and Slovenia, the region of Istria offers the best of Croatia, with a thrilling culinary scene, to boot. Tap into the good life in Istria with these hotel recommendations. (Note: The nearby port city of Rijeka will be  the European Capital of Culture 2020 with a packed program of events.)

One of the hottest new places to stay is the Grand Park Hotel in Rovinj, a stunning seaside town that’s the pride of the peninsula. The five-star hotel is the result of the conversion of a dated three-star hotel into an architectural landmark on the newly revamped waterfront promenade. The Adris Group, a prominent Croatian hospitality company, invested more than $100 million in the project, which is part of the Maistra Collection. The celebratory inauguration in May 2019 was a star-studded bash; a highlight was the performance by famed tenor Andrea Bocelli on a floating stage. Some of the hotel’s first guests were actors Salma Hayek, Samuel Jackson and Ryan Reynolds, who stayed for more than a month during the shooting of The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard.

The Viva Eufemia Lobby Bar at Grand Park Hotel has a bar in the center, a private cigar lounge and a large terrace.

The Maistra Collection has been instrumental in transitioning the Istrian hotel sector toward a high quality luxury product. Following the launch of the Hotel Monte Mulini in 2009, Maistra opened Hotel Lone in 2011 as the first Croatian member of Design Hotels. Renowned Croatian architecture studio 3LHD reworked a formerly lackluster hotel into a contemporary landmark that blends into the surrounding landscape. It quickly became a favorite Croatian film set, even serving as a stand-in for the Sydney Opera House. Along with the recently renovated Hotel Eden, these properties are part of the Monte Mulini complex, a hospitality hub surrounded by a protected nature park facing the sea. (Note that the Maistra portfolio also includes the Hotel Adriatic, a 102-year-old property in the heart of Rovinj’s Old Town. Popular among American clientele, this boutique hotel has an excellent brasserie and 18 rooms directly on the main square.)

The Island View Executive Suite at Grand Park Hotel has a wrap-around deck and a pool overlooking Katarina Island. 

The Adris Group isn’t limiting their portfolio investment to Istria. Other strategic destinations include Zagreb and Dubrovnik, and Adris is also planning to invest in Split, where the group just acquired the Marjan Hotel.  

From dining to design, the Grand Park Hotel is a showcase for the destination in every aspect. Also conceived by 3LHD Studio, the building is a cascade of green rooftops that blends into the surrounding terrain. You’ll be bowled over by the views from every vantage point in the hotel. From the infinity pool or your guestroom, you can admire Rovinj, Katarina Island and the sparkling sea. The work of local artists decorates the public areas, and in the Albaro Wellness & Spa, local scents are used to perfume the steam rooms, while foraged botanicals, seaweed and prized local olive oil are used in the treatments.

Rovinj was the first destination in Croatia to have a Michelin-starred restaurant (Monte) and the Grand Park Hotel takes gastronomy very seriously. At Cap Aureo, the signature gourmet restaurant, the menu was created by chef Jeffrey Vella as a “journey.” Istria is famed for produce like truffles and asparagus, and these ingredients are given pride of place in creative dishes like scallops served with Krka river caviar and local kohlrabi; cauliflower prepared in three ways with early harvest truffles; and risotto topped with fermented black garlic. For some courses, the bar mixologist wheels a drink cart to your table to make a cocktail to pair with the dish. You’re also encouraged to taste the delicious wine varietals from Istria. Young wait staff bring a great energy and vibe to the dining experience. (Other hotel restaurants include Laurel & Berry, the main restaurant with a beautiful breakfast terrace; Cissa Pool Bar; the lobby bar; and Primi Terreni on the Lungomare Plaza for grilled items and DJ sets in the evenings.)

A Duplex Suite at Grand Park Hotel has the entrance, a seating lounge and a guest toilet at the upper level, while the lower level has a bedroom and a bathroom. 

A member of Leading Hotels of the World, the Grand Park Hotel has 198 rooms and 11 suites spread across six floors. Many rooms have landscaped terraces, and 53 have plunge pools overlooking the sea. Creative amenities affirm a deep sense of place. Guests are encouraged to use the in-room polaroid camera and leather travel journal to record their Rovinj experience. Booking Tips: The top suite is No. 348, which comes with a furnished terrace, kitchen / bar area, enormous rain shower and walk-in closet. We also recommend No. 102, a light-flooded Executive Suite with island views, situated at the very end of the building with a wall of windows. There’s a wrap-around deck and a pool overlooking Katarina Island. The hotel also has seven duplex suites, situated on the third floor. Note that the bigger suites come with additional perks like in-room PlayStations. For VIP reservations, contact Ivan Filipić ([email protected]), head of front desk.

Head concierge Velibor Brkić ([email protected]) is happy to assist with transfers, activities and restaurant recommendations, including the most popular eateries in Istria, as he has direct contacts with the restaurant owners, and can assure attentive service for clients even on the busiest nights. Personalized excursions highlight the best of Istria: Discover family wineries, meet famous olive oil producers, go truffle hunting or sail on a yacht to nearby islands. Brkić will hook you up with the insider addresses only known to locals. There’s also plenty to keep you entertained directly at the hotel. A beach area is stocked with complimentary parasols, loungers and towels, and a boat service departs every half-hour to take guests to another complimentary beach area on Katarina Island. The sports team can also set you up with a complimentary bike to explore the seaside cycling paths. 

At San Canzian’s Noel Bar guests can savor the creations of bartender Karlo Ferencak, who has worked with a botanist to find wild edibles to put in his recipes.

In the north of Istria, near the Slovenian border, another new hotel offers a luxurious hospitality experience in a bucolic setting. San Canzian Village & Hotel opened in August near Buje, a village that’s renowned for its olive oil production. This is the gateway to the rural countryside of medieval hilltop villages, rolling vineyards and forests. You’re never far from the sea in Istria, but San Canzian showcases the magic of the hinterlands. The hotel is set in what was an ancient village, newly restored and surrounded by fragrant lavender and olive groves. 

The San Canzian Villa is spread over 646 square feet of space and has its own plunge pool and terrace

The owners, friends who are entrepreneurs, sought to create a high-end boutique hotel offering an authentic slice of Istria for those who want to immerse themselves in its culture. They were inspired by Meneghetti Wine Hotel & Winery, a Relais & Châteaux property in a different part of Istria (to the south near Pula). San Canzian has 25 guestrooms, designed by Boris Ruzic to reflect the region’s traditional colors and style. Spread throughout various village buildings, the rooms are individually decorated and come with Nespresso machines, Molton Brown bath amenities and Smeg fridges stocked with local products like San Servolo beer. Note that the rooms in the older buildings have low ceilings; the newer building offers rooms with a more contemporary look. We recommend the junior suites with outside terraces, like Room Nos. 21 and 22. The best room is No. 25, the San Canzian Villa, with its own plunge pool, outdoor shower and fireplace. For VIP reservations, contact Sara Brenner ([email protected]), director of sales and marketing.

Noel, which was the first Michelin-starred restaurant in Zagreb, has opened at San Canzian to celebrate Istrian cuisine. 

A meal at the restaurant is reason enough to come to the hotel. Noel was the first Michelin-starred restaurant in Zagreb, and the team opened a second location here as a celebration of Istrian cuisine. Head sommelier Ivan Jug, certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers, developed a wine list featuring local Istrian winemakers, while the cocktail menu is equally as enticing. Bartender Karlo Ferenčak has developed a following at Noel Zagreb for his cocktails served with a theatrical flourish. At San Canzian, he worked with a botanist to go through the woods and find wild edibles to put in his recipes. Enjoy your drink on the terrace overlooking the infinity pool and you can see all the way to the Adriatic — the best of Istria’s surf and turf right in front of your eyes.

Accessing Istria

Expanding European flight connections with airlines like easyJet and Transavia have made it easier to access Istria via the airport in Pula. Note that instead of flying to Zagreb or Dubrovnik, it’s actually faster to fly to Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, or nearby Trieste, Italy, and rent a car for your Istrian adventure. The Trieste airport is about an hour-and-a-half’s drive to the northern part of the peninsula. Istria makes a natural add-on for cruise vacations beginning or ending in Venice, and many Americans fly directly from the U.S. into Venice (the drive is about two-and-a-half hours).

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