Exploring Hvar: Croatia's Version of the French Riviera

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About 20 miles from Split, Hvar is a relaxing island getaway in the middle of the Adriatic.

It’s late summer, the tail-end of tourist season in the coastal Croatian town of Split, and a storm is blowing in just as the sun sets. As the wind starts whipping the awning above the terrace I’m sitting on, everyone around me whispers the same word: bora. “Bora is coming,” the tavern owner declares, as he refills my glass of red house wine. Bora is to the Adriatic as the mistral wind is to Provence. The winds can be hurricane-like, which would make the two-hour ferry ride to Hvar that evening not the most pleasant. But wind has long played a role for the island of Hvar, first settled by the Greeks 2,400 years ago. “Fortuna vitra,” or “fortune of the wind,” is a local saying that nods to the island’s past, when it was a safe harbor for ships and home to a thriving fishing fleet during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


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 Game of Thrones may have made the Roman-era palaces and walled cities of Dubrovnik and Split a favorite backdrop for Instagram pictures, but Hvar (population 11,000), with its tucked-away villas and yacht-filled harbors, is considered more of a jetset spot that has drawn everyone from Jackie O and Prince Harry to Beyoncé and Bono. Now, as the island celebrates its 150th anniversary of tourism, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s former Riviera-like winter retreat is drawing travelers away from Croatia’s overcrowded coastal towns to its secluded coves and archipelago of adjacent islands home only to solar-powered konobas (taverns) and hiking trails. Boat is still the main mode of transport to the island, which sits in the center of the Adriatic. During high season (April through Nov. 1), 16 catamaran lines run from neighboring islands and coastal cities like Dubrovnik, and this year, American Airlines is launching a direct flight from Philadelphia to Dubrovnik.


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 The first time I visited Hvar nearly a decade ago, the options for hotels were slim—a three-star spot along the port or a villa rental, pre-Airbnb. Despite its haute reputation, the island was lacking luxury hotels. It wasn’t until this past September that the first five-star hotel, Sunčani Hvar’s Palace Elisabeth, debuted in Hvar Town, on the largest main square in Dalmatia. A former duke’s palace during Venetian times, the 13th-century heritage building was rebuilt by Austrian Empress Elisabeth (aka Sisi) in the 1800s. Hvar is the sunniest island in the Adriatic, with over 300 days of sunlight per year, and the empire planned to transform the town into a health resort.

 Over the past two years, the shell of the spa hotel was restored during the course of an extensive renovation. Inside tells a completely different story from Sisi’s original vision, although the spa—which features luxe Parisian brands Codage and KOS—is still a focal point. Rooms are decorated with hand-painted murals by Czech interior designer, Oto Blaha; headboards mimic the Venetian limestone porticos in the piazza below; and décor like shadowboxes and hand fans nod to the namesake empress. Surrounded by the old city walls, you can still see cannon holes as you step through the entrance of the 45-room boutique hotel that’s guarded by two of the duke’s stone lions. From the Venetian terraces, you can glance out at the glittering yachts and Pakleni Islands in the distance.


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 The best way to get your bearings in Hvar Town is from the hilltop Spanish Fortress, built by the Venetians 400 years ago. Here, you can get a brief glimpse of the city’s history, admiring the collection of artifacts and amphora from antiquity and the Middle Ages. Time your trek around sunset, when the skyline of limestone medieval churches and bell towers take on a golden glow. For a view of the fortress itself, head to rooftop Teraca Bar, which hovers over the main square. Kick off the evening in Croatian fashion with a shot of fruit-flavored rakija, the national spirit of the Balkans, before heading down to dinner at one of the buzzy eateries like Giaxa, housed in a 15th-century, Gothic-style palace on the pedestrian-only marble streets.

 Every time I’m on Hvar, it’s become a ritual for me to visit Restaurant Robinson, an al fresco eatery hidden away on one of the island’s many secluded coves. Accessible by boat or a 45-minute hike through the woods, it’s not the easiest to find, but you’ll immediately get why it’s called Robinson. Picnic tables sit under shaded pines on the sandy slopes leading down to the sea. It’s the kind of place you could easily linger all day, alternating between dips in the water and glasses of crisp Croatian wine served alongside freshly grilled squid or scampi stew.


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 Winemaking on the island dates back to when the Greeks colonized Hvar in the 4th century B.C., and islanders are still farming the land the same way thousands of years later. Sip on some of Hvar’s best bottles at 3 Pršuta, a den-like wine bar furnished with mismatched antiques and leather sofas. If you’d rather a view of the water, stroll along the riva, or seaside promenade, and take a seat on the terrace of popular seafood eatery Kod Kapetana. Hvar’s Mediterranean diet has earned a place on UNESCO’s list of protected Mediterranean cuisine, and this waterfront spot serves up a few of the island’s famous dishes, like Hvarska gregada, a fish and potato stew, which pairs beautifully with a glass of local bogdanuša white wine.

 Carpe Diem is perhaps the most famous club along the port, but if you continue around the riva, you’ll come to Hula-Hula, a beach bar built over the rugged coastline. Rent your own private stretch of beach or, better yet, a boat and spend the day cruising around the 14, pine-covered Pakleni Islands, which sit across the mouth of the Hvar harbor. This is where the real party unfolds. Think: a less flashy version of a Mykonos beach club, where sunbeds stretch over the rocks. The two best spots to post up, Laganini on the island of Palmižana and Carpe Diem Beach in Stipanska bay.

 You can dock your yacht across from practically any of the islands, but if you want to squeeze through some of the smaller inlets, sea kayak is your best bet. The morning after I arrived, the wind had died down and the sea returned to its tie-dye shade of Majorelle blue and jade green. I arranged a tour with local company AndAdventure Croatia and met my guide at Krizna luka bay, on the eastern edge of the harbor.


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 As we started paddling, the weather slowly shifted and the wind pushed us fiercely toward the Pakleni Islands. We passed between the first two islands and made our way around to one of the smaller, protected bays. The lagoons were deserted, except for a few other stray kayakers, and the 45-minute journey was soon stretching longer than an hour. “Let’s stop for a coffee,” suggested my guide, Kristian. Coffee, or kava, is to Croatians what wine is to the French: a daily ritual. When we reached one of the more popular konobas, Mlini beach, on the second-largest island in the chain, it was like lost sailors finally spotting shore. We hauled the kayaks up on the beach, where a few sunbathers braved the wind’s chilly caress.

 As the sun forced its way out from behind the clouds, I could see why Empress Sisi chose Hvar as her winter haven. While the lavender fields may be in bloom in summer, boats are docked like sardines in the harbor. When fall approaches and the island starts to clear out, that’s when you can really appreciate its natural beauty. Even on the handful of days like today, when the bora is blowing and the sea is too rough for a swim, the secluded coves and forested shorelines couldn’t be a more inviting place to spend the afternoon sipping coffee.