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 all 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 Old Town through Ploče Gate, I was near-blinded by that dazzling white marble. It’s a sight to behold. My priority that morning was to grab a coffee from recently opened Cogito Coffee, an import from Croatia’s cool capital, Zagreb. And the quality of its coffee is well worth the not-so-straightforward route required 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. So, be sure to say hello to the fat, lazy felines stalking past in search of some TLC.

Satisfyingly caffeinated, I headed to the Old Town’s 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-dense Dubrovnik. Locals and travellers alike love to come here to swim in the gorgeous sea and relax under plenty of dappled shade. While basking on the slanted rocks that led down to the Adriatic, a little brown bunny bounced past. Lokrum is wild and unspoilt – and hard to tear yourself away from.

In the evening, I drove out to Srebreno to stay at brand new One Suite Hotel. I ate mini doughnut-like bread with melt-in-the-mouth 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 cool with its sparkling exterior, latte art and extensive drinks list (the hotel bar’s designer is also a trained sommelier). The staff, like all Croatians, were exceptionally friendly and, by the end of the night, we were sharing drinks and stories at the bar. In the evening, I lazed in the glass-sided rooftop pool and drank a cocktail as the sun went down. 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 and relax 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 suits. The food was impeccable. I ordered 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. Satiated and happy, I wandered down to a comfy sun bed which looked out at Lokrum straight ahead and the Old Town’s walls on my right. A fabulous spot. Croatia has very few sandy beaches and the hotel’s all-white seaside area made a welcome change from the burning rocks I’d lain on the day before, when I’d stumbled across a quiet plateau. It had the same spectacular view without the price tag. You can just follow the path down from Ul. Vlaha Bukovca to the slabs of smooth rock and enjoy a swim against that fantastic backdrop.

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 bubbly 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 juicy melon were all tightly packed into a hiking bag, complete with cutlery, wine glasses, plates, place mats and the softest blanket I’ve ever laid my head on. 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.

Having sampled so much Croatian wine 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 the most fabulous meal with my wine tasting. Cheese from the island of Pag, where animals eat herbaceous grasses coated in salt from strong winds coming off the sea; the most fantastic risotto I’ve ever tasted, washed down with a chocolate soufflé. The chef at Saints Hills interned at Noma – and you can tell. With the wines he has to complement, it’s no surprise. Our favourite was the Dingač, a premium quality wine that can only be made on the slopes of a village of the same name.

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 amongst Croatians and the nearby caravan lot was filled with happy families, friends and puppies. On my way back to Dubrovnik, wishing that I never had to leave this beautiful country, 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 at that moment being attached above the decking that jutted out over the water. We were in Ston Bay – where Dubrovnik itself 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 fish our order out. It cannot get fresher than that. He brought bread that had clearly just been baked and charged us less than a pound per oyster. The men on the table next to us, having finished their fare, strolled down to the pier’s edge and flopped in. That is life in Croatia.

Photos: krissyoshea.com

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