With Croatia having recently joined the EU, Laura Binder takes a trip to its star-studded port before the crowds catch on.
There’s no disputing it: Hvar has glossy good looks. At its pretty harbour, sleek yachts and twee fishing boats bob on turquoise waters, while a palm-flanked promenade gives way to modern hotels, chic restaurants and open-air bars that throb with wealth.
A decade ago, people had hardly heard of Hvar, now it’s tipped as “Croatia’s St Tropez”, a jet set playground that’s seen A-list celebrities flock to its shores a Prince Harry was papped in 2011 diving, fully-clothed, into a hotel pool, while Beyoncé revealed her baby bump for the first time at a Hvar beach club.
But, what few realise, is that we’ve all been a bit slow on the uptake: Hvar town is home to the oldest organised tourism in Europe. It started in the late 1800s with Hapsburg Emperor Franz Josef I being the first revered guest to arrive in 1875.
If you want to be in the thick of things today, Rvar, Hvar Yacht Harbour Hotel will take you there: modern, pristine and playful with red Perspex finishes and monochrome prints of Fifties superstars (in my room, Veronica Lake) it placed us right on the yacht-lined harbour. Alternatively, its glamorous five-star sister hotel, Adriana, Hvar Spa Hotel, poses right across the water.
In peak season (July to August) the promenade is jam-packed with pleasure-seekers (so pack your ear plugs). The upside is a stylish Med vibe (Hvar’s visitors appeared olive-skinned and svelte rather than sunburnt and beer-bellied) and a host of quality restaurants, diVino and Gariful among them. At the latter we spent a long, lazy lunch beneath huge white parasols, savouring the likes of seafood carpaccio, Saint Jacobs scallops and a mammoth sea bass (all nine kilos of it), barbecued before our eyes.
But, it is possible to escape the crowds – you just have to be willing to hit the road or hop on a boat. Our first port of call was one of Europe’s oldest towns, founded by the ancient Greeks in 384BC: Stari Grad. To reach it, we took a scenic 15 mile drive high into the hilltops, taking in wavy coastlines and passing by almost-abandoned stone villages (one, Velo Grablje, is home to the annual Lavender Festival).
Jackie Kennedy was photographed water skiing in Stari Grad in the Sixties, but since then it’s been vastly overlooked by the jet set – a fact that could be down to a serious lack of quality hotels (just four operate on a peninsula across the harbour and none in the old town itself). Still, it’s good news for day-trippers: we whiled away hours in its crowd-free harbour, winding our way through its ancient stone alleyways and stopping off at street cafes for Dalmatian bites - salt-cured fish and meat is a specialty, as is wine.
The Ancient Greeks planted the first vines in 384BC and Hvar’s wine making has flourished ever since, with a few grape varieties (Bogdanusa, Prc and Drnekusa) being grown only in these parts. If you want a quick taste of the region’s 2,400 year wine history, then, Bastijna (www.bastijana.hr) is the place.
Headed by the award-winning Andro Tomic – a grape god in these parts – Bastijna gave way to Romanesque wine tasting rooms where we sat beneath the arched ceilings of a beautiful travertine stone cellar, and spent a couple of giddy hours sampling the four red, two white and one rose wines to come from one of the country’s most famous wine makers.
We polished them off with Prošek, a centuries-old dessert wine that (much to the Croatians’ dismay) is set to lose its name when Croatia joins the EU for being too similar to Italy’s “Prosecco”. (For the record, the two wines are nothing alike.)
If it’s sun and sea that attracts you to Hvar, hopping on a taxi boat from the main port is the way to go. Which is exactly how I came to uncover an archipelago of 16 untapped islets just 20 minutes away. Known as Palenki Otoci, we made for the largest islet of Sveti Klement in search of a boho retreat called Palmižana.
If you want to escape the Hvar hoards, this is the place – in recent times it’s attracted a more camera-shy ilk of celeb (Gwyneth Paltrow and Ed Norton) who moor their yachts nearby and slink in unnoticed. Happy to follow in their footsteps, we wandered in to what looked like a modern-day Garden of Eden: lush fauna, palms, bold blooms, secluded pebbled shores and baby-blue bays.
Originally founded in 1906 by Professor Eugen Meneghello, he turned the land into a botanical garden, and three generations of Meneghellos later, Palmizana is now in the artistic hands of Dagmar Meneghello (flame-haired and, when I saw her, dressed top-to-toe in mermaid green) who’s added a Croatian art gallery, plus seven stone villas and six bungalows, each of which is painted in a different colour, from purple to pea-green.
But, there’s no chance of it succumbing to Hvar’s level of tourism: construction on the island is otherwise forbidden.
Even if you don’t take up a villa, it’s well worth the short boat ride to dine on the flamboyant restaurant terrace where the walls are hot pink, the sculptures animalistic and the artworks abstract.
But it’s not just a pretty face; we tucked into delicious authentic dishes, including Hvarska gregada – a superb casserole swimming with lobster, potatoes and shellfish and served from a cauldron-like pot.
So, whether you head off into the hilltops to sample time-honoured tipples or retreat to Palmizana like Paltrow, there’s plenty of ways to keep the Hvar hoards at bay, for the time at least...
Fly from London to Split, Croatia, with EasyJet from £40.99 each way, and travel via a daily catamaran service from Split to Hvar town.
Rvar, Hvar Yacht Harbour Hotel, www.suncanihvar.com; 00 385 21 750 100, from £109 per room, per night, including breakfast and VAT.
Palmižana, www.palmizana.hr; 00 385 21 717 27, self-catering bungalows from £67 per night.