From super-yachts and terracotta lighthouses to elusive deities, Karen Bowerman explores Croatia’s sparkling shoreline.
All I can assume, as I spot the closed doors of the Convent of St Nicholas in Trogir, is that Kairos has flown off on holiday, since the building I want to visit is shut. Kairos is the Greek god of an opportune moment (the irony isn’t lost on me); according to mythology, if you don’t seize him as he shoots by on his winged feet, your lucky chance is gone.
The town of Trogir, 12 miles west of Split on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, hosts a festival to honour the god every year. Its convent also has a famed bas-relief of him, carved out of orange marble in the 3rd century.
But it seems I’m not going to see it. I can, however, buy a “happy moment” ice cream from a local stall. A poster pinned above the price list depicts Kairos flying over mounds of branded peach gelato.
Luckily, Trogir’s Old Town, set on an island and surrounded by medieval walls, has other attractions too. I wander through its cobbled streets, explore the main square with its Romanesque-Gothic cathedral and enjoy a traditional lunch of grilled sea bass and boiled potatoes, served with a glass of Croatian plavac mali, a wonderfully fruity red wine.
The restaurant is in an ancient courtyard, its ruined stone walls seemingly held together by vines. Afterwards, the family’s son, Yerko, shows me their old wine cellar; its rafters, lit with lamps, are hung with prsut or dry-cured ham. He explains the region’s Bura (gusty north wind) helps speed the year-long drying process. “But this is ready,” he says, gesturing to the slabs overhead. “All we need now, is to slice and serve.”
That afternoon, I visit Split, Croatia’s second city. It’s a tangle of Roman and medieval alleyways, born out of the ruins of Emperor Diocletian’s palace built around AD 300. The enormous vaulted cellars, constructed largely to raise the emperor’s living quarters above those of his subjects, are filled with stalls selling scarlet coral jewellery and natural sponge.
We cut through what was once the entrance to the royal apartments. Four men are performing klapa, a style of a cappella, typical of the region of Dalmatia.
From Split, it’s an hour’s drive south-east to our hotel, Thomson’s adult-only Sensimar Adriatic Beach, situated 12 miles south of the town of Makarska. We follow the coast road, which winds through maquis (scrubland) at the foot of the barren Biokovo mountains.
Offshore, hump-shaped islands – Croatia has more than a thousand of them – clutter the Adriatic, as if a deep green Nessie is wallowing in the bay. The four-star, all-inclusive Sensimar Adriatic, which sparkles after a recent refurbishment, seems to celebrate the sea; most rooms overlook it, as does the sweeping infinity pool, just down from the spa.
Every evening, the sun sets over the water in full view of the Mojito bar. I watch the tangerine ball slip slowly behind the headland with every sip of my cocktail.
On my final day, I’m up early. House martins swoop and chirrup round my balcony; a warm Bura blows outside. I cut through the hotel grounds to the shore and follow a trail along the shingle beach to the neighbouring village of Igrane, a mile away.
As I approach, the path becomes a promenade lined with stone houses and squat palm trees that resemble giant pineapples. A man tends his fishing boat in the tiny harbour while, at an upstairs window, a woman throws open the shutters to welcome the day.
Gradually, the Adriatic turns turquoise with the brightening sun. In the distance, the islands of Brac and Hvar glint across the water. Brac is known for its milky-coloured limestone which was used to build the White House; Hvar is often described as Croatia’s St Tropez.
Later, I take a ferry from Drvenik, a 10-minute drive from Makarska, to Sucuraj on Hvar’s eastern tip. It’s a blustery 40-minute crossing under a brilliantly blue sky. Sucuraj lighthouse, with its square tower and terracotta tiled roof, heralds my arrival from a rocky peninsula.
Hvar island is long and thin, with olive groves and lavender fields either side of a steep, central ridge. In the south, vineyards produce the renowned plavac mali grape.
The main settlement, Hvar Town, lies below a colossal citadel whose crenellated walls straddle the hillside. The central square has a Venetian arsenal where war galleys were once repaired.
Stepped, cobbled streets lead off the plaza in all directions. I take my pick and come across the 17th century Benedictine Convent, founded by the daughter-in-law of Hanibal Lucic, a poet and playwright.
The convent’s museum has a display of intricately-patterned lace. It’s made by the nuns using fibres from agave cacti; pieces the size of small place mats sell for the equivalent of £100.
Down on the seafront, ferries offloading day trippers jostle for space among shiny super-yachts. Celebrity visitors include Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Keira Knightley and Prince Harry, who is said to have enjoyed an impromptu dip during a party at one of the nightclubs.
Beyonce’s daughter, Blue Ivy, is even an honorary citizen, after the singer tweeted she named her baby after a beautiful, ivy-clad tree she spotted while on holiday.
We may not need to dodge the paparazzi ourselves, but that doesn’t deter us from a celeb-style lunch. Towards the headland, in the direction of the Franciscan Monastery, is DiVino, with tables on a beautifully planted terrace.
Dishes include marinated octopus, sea bass and lamb crepinette. We sit overlooking the Pakleni islands as yachts cruise round the bay. It’s chic, classy and away from the crowds; Kairos may have escaped me earlier, but I’ve now found my happy moment.