Croatia’s off-season secret

WT Writer
Feb 7, 2018
For Med island-hopping without the crowds, Dalmatia’s spectacular coast knocks the spots off anywhere else, you just have to time it right, says Alex Robinson

I‘m still panting from the stand-on-the-pedals climb, when I cycle round a bend and, finally, see the view. If I’d any breath left it would be taken away. The town is framed by the moving branches of breeze-blown pines: terracotta roofs jumble around the Baroque belltower of a Venetian building and tumble through tiny streets, over battlements, to a sheet of Adriatic shaded Matisse blue. A dragonfly lands on the handlebars, its wings rainbow-coloured in the light.

Daria, my guide, pulls up alongside and holds out a flask of water. I take a long, cool swig, still mesmerised by the landscape. This is my first day on Korcula, one stop on an island-hopping trip I’m making among Croatia’s pine-crested Dalmatian islands in early May. Already I’m in love with its bays and coves, its timeless good looks.

Odysseus, falling under their spell on his voyages, found it a wrench to take leave of their lonely beauty. Today – certainly in season – he’d be knocking hulls with thousands of European yachties. As for me, I’ve barely seen another tourist.

I owe my solitude to Daria, a Croatian friend-of-a-friend with whom I got chatty via texts and Facebook. Soon she was singing the praises of her home idyll and she was having none of it when I told her I didn’t like hordes and heat. “Dalmatia is all about timing,” she fired back. “And the right time is spring.

There’s lots of warm sunshine, no crowds, and the wild flowers are coming into bloom. It’s really beautiful

As I’m discovering, the Dalmatian coast is one vast scenic landscape, shattered into thousands of islands sprinkled across the clear, inviting waters. Scattered with photogenic villages, scented with wafts of wild herbs and aromas of pan-fried fish, they are every bit as varied and beautiful as those further east in Greece. And while holidaymakers are absent outside summer, ferries are frequent and cheap. Which is how I managed to get three of its biggest high-season stars – Korcula, Hvar and Mljet – all to myself.

Bicycles on the harbourside promendae in Hvar Town

Bicycles on the harbourside promendae in Hvar Town

My spring fling began on Hvar, the June-to-September playground of celebrities and rowdy partygoers. I coasted in on an exhilarating seaplane flight from the international airport on the mainland at Split. Below, through the window, Dalmatia’s capital sprawled briefly, a muddle of red roofs and suburbs that clambered up hillsides to the coastal mountains. We banked and were over a wavy sea, dark as velvet. After about 15 minutes, the water colour faded to lapis lazuli and we skimmed into Hvar.

If in summer there’s barely space to swing a sarong in the capital’s handsome Renaissance piazza, for now everything was as drowsily Dalmatian as I could have wished – peopled by locals sipping coffee at café tables beneath belltowers. Red-tailed hawks soared over the fortress walls, built on the steep hills to defend the town when the port was a wealthy stopping point between Byzantium and Venice, and re-fortified during the wars against the Ottoman Turks. Wandering the quays, I could picture Venetian silk merchants stepping off their brigantines 300 years before me. Their purses had been fat enough to build palaces and bring the artistic likes of Tintoretto to Dalmatia.

Back in Hvar Town, I watched the few bars and restaurants that were open cast rippling reflections on the water, under a lilac evening sky. I dropped in at one to down a cold beverage and, hopefully, to glean some tips from the locals – a virtual impossibility in summer. I couldn’t have struck luckier. Berti, an off-duty tour guide, was clearly surprised to see a foreigner. But he had all the time in the world. He also had an unlikely name for a Croatian.

Local legend states that the population of Malo Grablje descended from Henry-VIII

Local legend states that the population of Malo Grablje descended from Henry-VIII

When I told him I was from London, he grinned: “England!” He slapped a bottle between us and filled two glasses. His family was English, too. “Tudor,” he told me. “You know, like king.” Tall and as gaunt as a stork, Berti had a family story straight out of the Who Do You Think You Are? television show. Henry VIII, he said, had an illegitimate son who was shipwrecked on Hvar while gallivanting around the Mediterranean. He loved it so much he refused to leave, marrying a local woman and siring an entire village, Malo Grablje.

“Tomorrow I will show you,” Berti insisted. “We will take a boat ride and swim, before I cook dinner there.” And so, next day, we cruised Hvar’s crenellated coast in dazzling sunshine. Stepped vineyards, cut into the grey granite, stretched above to distant hamlets. We stopped to snorkel and, in the late afternoon, swapped the boat for Berti’s rickety car, to travel to Malo Grablje.

As the light thickened into gold, a nightjar scissored past the windscreen. For 15 minutes we rumbled up a mountain track through boulder-strewn hills. The village, lit by the red afterglow of the setting sun, was little more than a few cottages around a lichen-spotted church. It looked deserted – so tranquil that birds of prey perched unperturbed on garden walls, and I could hear the distant tinkle of a mountain stream.

“It’s a local secret. Even in summer,” said Berti. “No-one lives in the island centre nowadays. Everyone moved to Hvar Town. Closer to the sea. But here is the best place on the island for a barbecue – beautiful at night.” The sky was now full of stars. Berti grilled the fish over an open fire, which wafted scented wood smoke into the warm air. Moths fluttered. An owl hooted in the wood. I sat in a wicker chair, glass of fruity grape in hand, thinking, surely Croatia can’t get any better than this? It could, as it turned out – although things would not be so indolent again. Korcula, my second port of call, was quieter than Hvar – the Dalmatia of decades ago, where locals have time to stop and chat, and where piazzas and ports are uncrowded. The island is celebrated for its fresh seafood and fine grape, so I’d hoped to eat, drink and put my feet up. Daria had other plans. I guessed as much when she handed me a bike and pointed us to the hills.

But that ascent was a high point in more ways than one, as we quenched our thirst and gazed down from the summit of the hill. The sea was lake-calm, stippled white with resting gulls, the dark crags of the snowcapped Dinaric Alps hunched on the distant mainland beyond, warm with yellow light.

The sea was lake-calm, stippled white with resting gulls

When I woke the following morning, I found Korcula Old Town perfect for wandering in solitude. On an early walk, I could hear my footfalls echo on the stone streets. In the museum, I traced the history of the island’s most famous son, Marco Polo. He was, I learned, born Marko Pilic in Korcula, when it was under Venetian rule.

Croatians claim him as one of their own, much to the fury of Italians. I strolled hilly trails in the south, past turquoise coves and terraced olive groves. A drive to the heart of the island revealed only sleepy villages, where, as if hired from Central Casting, widows wore black and men in cloth caps led donkeys down lanes.

The serene island of Mijet is carpeted in lush pine forests

The serene island of Mijet is carpeted in lush pine forests

The evening before setting sail for my next (and last) island stop, I had oysters for supper at a quayside restaurant as the waves lapped on the harbour walls. A wave of contentment washed over me – Dalmatia was surpassing my expectations. Yet Mljet, the island I headed to on an almost empty ferry after waving goodbye to Daria, was even more remote and romantic. Much of it lay carpeted in Illyrian pine forest. I spotted dolphins at play in a bay. Something primeval hung about the place.

There was only one person on the dock as the ferry pulled in: Jana, the guide I’d pre-booked. As we drove up into the crags that ran along the spine of the island, she told me that Mljet has more wild boar than people. We dropped into a steep valley where the woods were broken by patches of wild meadow, coloured orange, pink and red with thousands of early flowers.

The air was confetti-filled with butterflies. There was not another soul in sight. The road passed ponds busy with kingfishers and ducks

Eventually, around a bend, a huge lake came into view: Veliko Jezero, Mljet’s watery heart. On an island in the middle stood the medieval monastery of St Mary. It looked like a Dalmatian Camelot against the verdant hills and mirror waters. I admired it from a quiet cove, for the first time in days with company – a lone distant tourist, soaking up the sun.

Finally, the spell was broken. When I stepped off the ferry from Mljet the next morning, Dubrovnik felt hectic. Luckily there was time, before my flight home, to take the cable car up Mount Srd, behind the city, for a final view. In the summit café, Panorama, as I sipped a last glass of Croatian grape, suddenly I became aware of English being spoken all around me. I’d barely heard any for a week.

It seemed odd, foreign – the soundtrack of a season yet to come. In summer, I reflected, there would be more tourists on Hvar, Korcula and Mljet than wild boars or locals. The flower-filled valleys would be dry, the air hot rather than balmy. What a difference a month makes. I’d been privileged to know another Dalmatia. Another time, and another place.

Alex Robinson/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing