Travel review: A voyage of discovery to the many delights of Croatia

The view from Hvar's fortress.
The view from Hvar's fortress.
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If it’s good enough for Beyoncé, it’s good enough for me, decides Susan Stephenson as she heads off on a voyage of discovery to Croatia.

Telling someone you’re going to Croatia seems to elicit two very different kinds of response. On one hand, you are met with a curious look, suspicion almost, and a question which is sometimes left unspoken – “why?”

And on the other, you are faced with a person eager to tell you it’s the most beautiful place they’ve ever been.

That’s the difference – people who have visited this stunning country are eager to spread the word, because, sadly, the image still fixed in many people’s minds is the one of war, seen through television screens in the 1990s.

The Balkan wars were a dark time in this amazing country’s history, but Croatia has emerged as an incredible world-class destination. And with it being just a two-and-a-half hour flight away from the UK, it is the perfect place for a mini break.

My expectations were high and I was not disappointed – even the view from the plane as we hugged the coast en route to Split airport took my breath away. The brightest blue sea was punctuated with teardrops of green and white, as island after island appeared before my eyes.

Split is an ideal first stop and a wonderful place to spend a few days. The centre is just half an hour’s taxi or shuttle bus ride from the airport and the city, though it’s the largest in Dalmatia, is the perfect size to negotiate on foot.

Backed by snow-capped mountains, this dazzling destination is home to Diocletian’s Palace, a Unesco World Heritage Site which forms the heart of the city.

A walled palace complex, many of the original buildings have long since gone, but the elegant Cathedral of St Dominius remains and visitors can climb the bell tower for bird’s eye views.

The real joy here, however, is to just wander through the labyrinth of cobbled streets in the shadow of the protective outer walls.

The best time to visit is in the evening, when the maze filled with bars, cafes, restaurants and shops really comes to life. Bakeries are on every corner, offering a mouth-watering array of treats, such as pastry swirls filled with cheese and spinach and fritule, a Dalmatian fried sweet dumpling, often flavoured with rum and raisins.

And when you tire of this mystical pastry-paved kingdom, there is plenty more on its doorstep. A wonderful market welcomes you just outside the city walls. A bustling riot of colour, it’s a perfect spot for Instagram-worthy photos.

Just a few minutes’ walk away is Baviche beach, when you can hire a sunlounger (or be tough like a local and unfurl your towel on the nearby rocks) and soak up the sun within sight of those snow-capped mountains.

Sandy beaches are uncommon, but many take a dip in the clear azure waters via the swimming ladders, which are built into walkways and rocky outcrops along the coastline.

And further afield, but doable as a day trip, is the natural wonderland of Krka National Park, famous for its waterfalls and also home to a Franciscan monastery set in the midst of Lake Visovac.

After sampling the delights of Split for three days, it was time to move on – not in one of the multi-million pound superyachts moored along the promenade (one can always dream) – but on the catamaran which was to whisk us off to nearby Hvar.

Island hopping is one of the things Croatia has become known for – and for good reason. Ferry services are plentiful and affordable, with the journey to Hvar taking just over an hour and costing around £13 each way.

The island is stunning – take the ferry to Hvar Town and you step off the jetty just a stone’s throw from the elegant main square, which is lined with cafes and restaurants.

A promenade runs along the harbour, where water taxis and fishing boats are moored alongside amazing yachts which could well be owned by celebrity fans of the island – such as Tom Cruise, Beyoncé and Michael Schumacher.

The island left a big impression on Beyoncé – her daughter Blue Ivy has been granted honorary citizenship of Hvar Town as she was reportedly named after a local tree.

It is a destination that oozes glamour, with prices to match (expect to pay around £12 for a cocktail), but it doesn’t feel exclusive or elitist.

Despite the recent spotlight thrown on Hvar during the latest series of Made in Chelsea, which was filmed on the island, it retains a relaxed if somewhat well-heeled vibe.

Bars such as Hula Hula and Carpe Diem, which featured in the series, were packed with relatively well-behaved stag and hen groups, whereas within the winding streets of the old town, there are plenty of lower-key, more relaxed venues. Central Park Club is great for live music and head to Seven afterwards for a dance – and to marvel at the fire-breathing barman.

The days just disappear on this sun-soaked island, but if you do want to venture further afield, take a water taxi (around £12 return) to nearby Palmizana.

You may be underwhelmed at first, as the harbour is unremarkable, but make your way through the forest paths and you will be rewarded on the other side of the island by a little slice of paradise – and not a stag do in sight.

GETTING THERE

Jet2 offers direct flights to Split, Dubrovnik and Pula from Leeds Bradford Airport. The flight time is around two-and-a-half hours. Go to www.jet2.com

Check ferry times and book tickets to Hvar island online at www.jadrolinija.hr. You can also buy tickets on the day, but beware queues and sold-out journeys in high season.

There is a wealth of information to help you plan your trip at www.croatia.hr – the country’s tourist board website.