Who knows why a travel destination becomes the place to go? When I was in my twenties, Reykjavik was a one-hour fueling stop on cheapo flights to Europe. Now, it is on every millennial's playlist. Ibiza was buzzed about, followed by the topless and tony St. Tropez. San Miguel Allende hit number one in a Conde Nast issue, and immediately became a haven for ex-pats eager to rewrite their second and third acts.
It may be an unexpected appearance on just that kind of list that propels a place's popularity. It may be the fact that Jay Z and Beyonce were spotted, or a film was shot, there. Now, for a variety of reasons, Croatia is all the rage. According to a study for the U.S. Tours Operators, it is just behind Cuba among emerging destinations. "I have had more clients in Croatia this year than ever before," says Beverly Hills travel agent Suzy Nevins.
The travelers come in every stripe: the Senior cruise set, who pour out of those seafaring monstrosities for a few hours; the yachters who pull up, and occasionally come ashore; the curious celebs, such as Steven Spielberg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Eva Longoria, (who honeymooned there) Tom Cruise, Kevin Spacey and yes, Beyonce; the post-grads seeking an affordable hip music and bar scene.
Then there are the academic travelers, who relish the history of this relatively "new" country. (Two years ago, it became the 28th to be accepted into the EU) Croatia has been conquered, divided, war-torn and attacked by everyone from the Turks to the Hungarians to the Venetians to the neighboring Serbs. It is still known by many as the former Yugoslavia, from which it won final independence in the 1990s.
And now it is being invaded by Americans.
Despite the need for complicated connections, and usually sea travel, to get there, U.S. citizens go for the famed Dalmatian coast, (named not for the Disney film, but for an old tribe in Illyrian times) the dazzling Adriatic, uninhabited forested islands, the smell of lavender, (the country is one of its top producers) and the rugged Dinaric Mountains. Many make their way to Dubrovnik, the walled city along the Adriatic -- where Game of Thrones is filmed -- and Split, a city that resembles a gigantic mall inside a still-standing palace erected by the Romans in the 4th century. The country's rather blah capital, Zagreb, is even getting some press lately.
But it is the island of Hvar, and specifically its southernmost corner, Hvar Town, that is the Croatian place to see and be seen. Here, some 3500 residents live full time and during the high season, from May to October, endure 20,000 visitors a day. Rather than resent the influx, the locals want and need us -- but they are not going to change for us. Don't expect to find a Starbucks or anything with the name Trump attached. This hotspot is determined to stay cool by remaining true to itself.
And what is it exactly? Hvar Town boasts the largest town square, St. Stephen, in Croatia. Here in this piazza, surrounded by 13th century walls, stands a Renaissance cathedral and bell tower, alongside delightful outdoor eateries. One can traverse horizontally to marble streets replete with more restaurants, wine bars and jewelry artisans. There is an unremarkable fortress the visitors can reach by stairs, as well as the harbor and a number of rocky beaches.
What makes Hvar Town so appealing is what it does NOT have: cars, for one thing. You can rent bikes for $15 a day, though virtually every part of town can be reached by foot. Movable Type
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Refreshingly, there are relatively few tchotchke shops. (Unlike 200 miles away in Dubrovnik which is plastered with "winter is coming" T-shirts and mugs) Neither does Hvar get the fog so many seaside locations do, claiming to have more sunny days of the year than any other place in the country. When I visited earlier this month, there were a few fast moving rainstorms, usually overnight, but not a day that didn't boast blue skies, sunshine and the glistening Adriatic. The ideal time to go is late May through mid-June, when temperatures hover in the 80s and the throngs have not quite kicked in.
Refreshingly, Hvar Town does not have chain hotels. The few places that are relatively high-end -- the Adriana, Amfora and Palace -- fit perfectly into the landscape. Well-heeled visitors can also rent terra-cotta roofed villas, (Average weekly price about $6000) and there are some small inns and hostels neatly tucked behind the bougainvillea and oleander. There is an intoxicating sense of equality, as you spend hours watching the boats go in and out.
As for the food, the restaurants are fairly similar in menu, your basic Mediterranean diet, starring that day's catch. The ones not to miss are Gariful, a friendly and lovely spot, and the first you see as you step ashore. Dalmatino, on a side street, offers what is arguably the most serious cuisine in Hvar. The two nightspots you hear about are Carpe Diem, along the harbor, and Hula Hula, about a half-mile walk along the water and up a slight hill. Here is where the young, trendy and beautiful congregate from about four to ten, drinking, snacking and dancing to loud music.
You might think the locals would be bothered by the increasing number of tourists, but it is quite the opposite. "The last few years, maybe the promotion is stronger than before, because we see more and more from your country," says Ana Omasic, who manages several apartments and villas. "But we are happy because tourism is what we live by." Indeed, Hvar virtually shuts down from November to April, when the locals do their lavender harvesting and grape growing. "Hvar is the island of wine," says Luca Lezovic, who opened the Red Red Wine Bar a year ago with his son, Bruno. They offer local favorites along with recorded jazz. "We notice more and more Americans," says Bruno, "but when they get here, everyone seems alike."
The personal reviews are deliriously positive. New York writer and publisher James Atlas just returned from a week in Hvar Town and says, "what enchanted me the most was the way it effortlessly melds ancient history with the pleasures of a gorgeous resort that could be the French Riviera -- without cars. The layers of history enthrall visitors from the New World, who can then retire to a café to enjoy the great European tradition of lingering over an Expresso."
No doubt the trendsetters will eventually look for the next new place, but for now, they keep coming: people like Dr. Leslie Michelson, CEO of Private Health Mgt. in Los Angeles, who was about to head there late June. "We decided to go to Croatia because of the beauty of the coastline, the interesting history, the quality of the heritage sites and the climate," says Michelson. "We also hear the people are among the most welcoming in the world."
He will not be disappointed.