Croatia continues to top summer holiday hot lists. Since their war of independence to leave the former Republic of Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995, the country has embraced a booming tourist economy and seriously bounced back. Dubrovnik alone sees two million visitors each year. And no wonder, when the country has so much to offer. Regions from Istria in the north to Pelješac further south serve up an array of specialities, from wine and olive oil, to oysters and the freshest fish. The Adriatic also hosts some of the clearest waters in the world, sparkling in the brightest shades of aqua marine and sapphire - when it's 35 degrees and the sun beats down, those crystal currents are irresistible.
The Old Town in Dubrovnik is one of the prettiest urban spaces I've ever seen. With the best-preserved city walls in Europe, shining white-marble streets (scrubbed clean each night), striking historic buildings and ornate drinking fountains from the 15th century, this mini city is astoundingly beautiful. Buy a Dubrovnik Card and you can make the most of the sights while avoiding hefty queues. Just before sunset is the perfect time to walk the city walls, when the terracotta rooftops glow ember and the sun is less intense.
When I first entered the town through Ploče Gate, I was near-blinded by that dazzling marble. My priority was to grab a coffee from Cogito Coffee, an import from Croatia's hip capital, Zagreb and well worth the not-so-straightforward route to find it. Baristas blast indie music through windows looking out onto an arched tunnel outside, so you can sip your drink with a breeze and a soundtrack. There's also a sort of outdoor "cat sanctuary" just next door, complete with plants for shade, beds and food. You'll easily lose an hour watching the fat, lazy felines stalk past in search of some TLC.
Satisfyingly caffeinated, I headed to the port to take a 15-minute boat ride to Lokrum. This uninhabited, forested island is known for its peacocks and wild rabbits and makes the perfect escape from tourist-heavy Dubrovnik. Locals and travellers come here to swim in the gorgeous sea and relax under in the dappled shade. While basking on the slanted rocks that lead down to the Adriatic, a brown bunny nonchalantly hopped past; Lokrum is wild and unspoilt - and hard to tear yourself away from.
In the evening, I drove out to Srebreno to stay at One Suite Hotel. I ate mini doughnut-like bread with melty lardo draped across it. I tried Dalmatian soparnik, a homemade pastry filled with swiss chard, and drank mala mevina wine from one of Croatia's finest vineyards. The hotel oozes style with its sparkling exterior, latte art and extensive drinks list. In the evening, I lazed in the glass-sided rooftop pool and drank a cocktail as the sun went down. The staff, like all Croatians, were exceptionally friendly and by the end of the night we were sharing drinks and stories at the bar. Away from Dubrovnik, there are fewer people, free parking and prices are lower.
I'd heard that Hotel Villa Dubrovnik was the finest place to stay in the city, so I decided to stop by for lunch on their beautiful, bleacher-like beach spot. Having descended in a Bond-style elevator from the road above, I was welcomed by futuristic water features and staff in chic white uniforms. The food was impeccable; baked octopus salad followed by the daily catch, a huge sea bass. The octopus was succulent; the sea bass, soft and fluffy with skin grilled to crispy perfection. Croatia has very few sandy beaches and the hotel's all-white seaside made a welcome change from the burning rocks I'd lain on the day before, and a pleasant place to digest .
That evening I drove to Pasjača, a "secret beach" next to the rustic village of Popoviči. I had ordered a picnic from Dubrovnik's cleverest foodie enterprise, Piknik. Alex Cram, the company's Canadian owner, set it up three years ago and runs it from her home near the Old Town. Having built strong relationships with local suppliers, Alex curates the most spectacular feasts. Croatian cheese, sweets, fruit, fresh bread, wine, herbs and vegetables from her garden, and Italian hams with sweet melon were all tightly packed into a hiking bag, complete with cutlery, wine glasses, plates, place mats and a blanket. Three scented tea lights added a special touch.
Alex's bespoke service includes asking you what sort of picnic experience you're looking for. Brunch? Romance? Adventure? Sunset? I asked for the latter and, boy, did I get it. I was given directions to Pasjača and, while hiking down to the steep path to it, had to stop, jaw touching the ground. Swallows darted in and out of the cliff-face; the horizon was the deepest shade of blush fading to mauve; the water was more turquoise than I thought possible in Europe. We were the only people there and it was magical.
I decided it was time to visit a vineyard. Just an hour-and-a-half's drive from Dubrovnik is the Pelješac peninsular, famous for wine and oysters. We booked a tour at one of Croatia's best wineries, Saints Hills. When I arrived, the sun was setting just behind the valley. All around it was practically silent. The surrounding countryside was lush. That night I ate a fabulous meal paired with wine. Cheese from the island of Pag, where animals eat herbaceous grasses coated in salt from strong winds coming off the sea; the creamiest risotto I've ever tasted, topped off with chocolate soufflé. The chef at Saints Hills interned at Noma - and you can tell.
The next day I made my way to Mokalo beach. The sea was so clear against the dove-grey stones, it looked like someone had filled it with Evian. Pelješac is a popular holiday destination among Croatians and the nearby caravan lot was filled with the laughter of family and friends. On my way back to Dubrovnik, I voiced a desire for a glass of white wine and some local oysters. As if by magic, a shack appeared in the road ahead. "Fresh Shellfish" was written on its side and a dappled roof was being attached above the decking that jutted out over the water. We were in Ston Bay, the place where Dubrovnik gets its oysters. Having asked for eight of them and a carafe of local white, I watched 15-year-old Nikolas hurry down to the water to quite literally fish our order out. He brought bread that had just been baked and charged us less than a pound per oyster. The men on the table next to us had their fill then lazily strolled down to the pier's edge and flopped in. That is life in Croatia.