We’re just back from Istria, a mix of rural hilltop villages, pretty seaside towns, and islands to explore. Thanks to a microclimate that can grow everything from olives to grapes, Istria has also become a haven for foodies. In 2017, its Monte restaurant was the first in Croatia to earn a Michelin star, putting the area on the gastronomy map. Since then, the dining scene has grown from there. Here’s our report.
We stayed at the five-star Grand Park Hotel Rovinj, a chic 209-room property comprising six floors—a series of graduated, foliage-filled terraced levels that rise from the marina to the highest elevation. Fun Fact: Five centuries-old Aleppo pine trees have been incorporated into the first-floor terrace, while another 33,000 plants blend in naturally with the natural environment.
As a result, all the rooms here have lushly planted balconies, creating lots of privacy. Our accommodation, No. 252, a Premium Sea View room, had a large balcony with marina views. We loved the minimalist interiors, cleverly designed with built-in bench seating. Note: The bathroom has a beautiful four-fixture bath, rain shower, and a double sink, great for families.
Good to know: Rooms on the first floor have plunge pools on the balconies; the downside is you lose the sea view. For VIPs, the ideal choice is the Rovinj Signature Suite, a nearly 900-square-foot duplex stunner with an extra-large terrace overlooking the water and Old Town. It has a gorgeous living space with a kitchen, and a large dining and seating area. An open staircase connects to another deck below with a private plunge pool, a master bedroom, a large bathroom, and dressing area. This suite is on a corner and can connect to two additional bedrooms (room Nos. 351/352). Sending your A-list clients? Contact Vesna Korda ([email protected]), market manager for assistance.
The hotel has six restaurants. Book at least one dinner at Cap Aureo, run by Jeffrey Vella, who has worked with Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse. The menu is literally a book, offering five-, seven-, 10-, or 20-course meals plus wine pairings—everything is based on seasonality and locality. The wines are mostly Croatian. Each dish looks like a delicate work of art, yet bursts with flavor, featuring local fish, rabbit and pork. Or, opt to eat entirely vegetarian; the menu changes monthly. We’ve dined at many Michelin-star restaurants, and this meal was our favorite despite it not having a star (yet).
Good to know: The restaurant is on the top floor and the sunsets are incredible. Last year, the hotel added an outpost of the two-Michelin-star Agli Amici restaurant from Udine, Italy. Run by Italian chef Emanuele Scarello, it earned a Michelin star within a year of opening. Booking well ahead is essential; contact head concierge, Kristina Omerović (kristina.omerović@maistra.hr).
Also worth noting, the hotel serves the most amazing buffet breakfast: tables upon tables of thinly sliced meats, cheeses, olives, smoked fish, pastries, and fresh juices, all sourced locally. Smartly dressed English, German and Croatian couples and families seemed to while away mornings enjoying this meal on the large terrace overlooking the marina and Old Town.
The 41,000-square-foot spa at the hotel is a series of steam rooms, saunas, heated Jacuzzis, and cold plunge pools. Signature treatments take a foodie slant, with scrubs using local sugars and olives to exfoliate and then hydrate skin. We loved the Batana Bodywork, a massage treatment inspired by the traditional Rovinj boat, which uses hemp balm and rowing movements using a real batana oar. For special bookings, contact Dijana Oletić (dijana.oletić@maistra.hr), spa manager.
Note: Adjoining the spa on the top floor is an indoor/outdoor infinity pool, which had guests relaxing pre- and post-treatment.
Our family enjoyed the complimentary bikes through the forest park to explore the choice of eight beautiful beaches, equipped with umbrellas and comfy loungers, bars, and restaurants plus a choice of kayaks, SUP and boat rentals. Take a short boat ride across to St. Catherine island for a change of scene. Maistra, which operates the Grand Park Hotel Rovinj, operates another hotel there (as well as a few properties in the forest park) so charging food and drink to the hotel room is a breeze anywhere. Good to know: Guests of the Grand Hotel Rovinj get their own VIP beach.
There is a well-outfitted kids club and games room for teens with massive screens and lots of consoles. There are eight tennis courts, plus bowling a five-minute walk from the hotel.
At the base of the hotel is a promenade along the water with boutiques of resortwear, jewelry, and homeware mixing Croatian and Italian brands, plus a café, and a beauty salon. Old Town also has interesting Croatian crafts and local foods to buy—honey, local, sweet fortified liqueurs, rakija and medica, which are used as an aperitif. There’s also wines, olive oil, truffles, meats and cheeses—as fine in taste and quality to what you buy in Italy but at a fraction of the price.
The five-star Meneghetti Hotel and Winery is a half-hour drive from Rovinj. It provides a great sense of arrival: Behind an imposing wrought-iron gate, a white pebble drive leads up to a cluster of Istrian stone farmhouse-style buildings with red pantile roofs and painted wooden shutters surrounding tranquil outdoor pools and tree-lined walkways.
Meneghetti is a 50-room property, with 10 hotel rooms and suites in the main building, plus 40 one-, two-, and three-bedroom residences and villas with private terraces and gardens. For larger groups or families, several villas can be joined by interconnecting doors. We stayed in room No.14, a one-bedroom duplex. The décor is farmhouse chic: Exposed beams, stone floors, white sofas with soothing blue and beige accents. Each unit has a private grass backyard surrounded by tall shrubs for privacy, ours overlooked the vineyards; 17 of them have private pools. For VIPs: Ask for room No. 17, which is the most private, completely detached three-bedroom villa facing olive groves. The contact for luxury travel advisors is Sandra Juric ([email protected]), director of sales and marketing. Juric wouldn’t confirm or deny, but the actor Matthew McConaughey, was photographed staying on property this past summer. She did tell us most guests are well-heeled Americans or Europeans, looking for a countryside vibe without sacrificing any luxuries.
Grape expectations are more than met at Meneghetti, as the 12 acres of vineyards produce 11 varieties of red, rose, white, and even some bubbly. We toured the new winery, added in 2021, and learned about the production of some 200,000 liters of wine, followed by a tasting on the terrace overlooking the vineyards, sampling local meat, cheese and olive oil along with the wines. Everything is available for purchase, including rare vintages not sold elsewhere.
The Meneghetti restaurant is a farm-to-fork affair, where weather permitting, meals are enjoyed outdoors under covered terraces surrounding the lush courtyard. The focus of the menu is hyper-local—they actually aim for a zero-mile policy in sourcing food—using home grown herbs, vegetables, and meat and fish. The tasting menu is a slow, delicious journey through Istrian cuisine—our favorite dish was the earthy double ravioli with Motovun Black truffle. During the day, the Oliveto restaurant and bar offers lunch al fresco by the pool. Andrea Ravnic ([email protected]), the head concierge, will arrange meals and any excursions.
In summer, grab bikes or take a shuttle to the beach, which is a little more than a mile from the wine estate, on a beautiful cove set up with sun loungers, umbrellas, and hanging chairs. The bar serves great cocktails and gets lively at happy hour with a DJ.
Or, relax in the spa, which naturally has a wine theme. The signature treatment is vinotherapy: a wine-focused body treatment using every part of the grape. It starts with a grape body scrub, and continues with a massage, at the beginning with a red wine serum, enriched with antioxidants and polyphenols, and then with cold pressed, organic grape oil. The spa manager is Marica Welsh ([email protected]).
In the center of Rovinj’s pretty Old Town is the innovative Monte restaurant, which got the foodie scene started after it became the first in Croatia to earn a Michelin star back in 2017. This elevated the Istrian dining scene overall—there are now 19 Michelin guide restaurants in Istria complemented with various food festivals. You also can’t go too wrong enjoying seafood at any of the seaside villages, we loved the pretty little town of Fazana. On the central square, get the whole fish at Sapore di Mare, then walk around the corner for ice cream at Gelatoria Leone. In the countryside, head just outside of Motovun to Zigante for meat dishes enhanced with black and white truffles.
Must Dos: Go truffle hunting with dogs at Karlic Tartufi, learn about the different types of truffle, find your own, and enjoy lunch of eggs with truffle. Explore the Brijuni islands, an archipelago of 14 small islands just off the coast, hire a private boat, or try a kayak tour through the sea caves, there is also golf and a nature reserve. Pula is the biggest city in Istria. Though still small and mainly industrial, it is home to one of the largest and the only remaining Roman amphitheater to have four side towers entirely preserved.