10 Photos: Exploring Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast
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Our “10 Photos” essays include tips on exploring destinations, redeeming for hotels and flights and more. After a week-long trip island hopping in Croatia this summer, France-based TPG Contributor Lane Nieset takes us for a tour of the country's food, wine and beach scene starting in the coastal city of Dubrovnik. (All photos by the author.)
I'm not sure if it's the popularity of HBO's Game of Thrones or the strength of the dollar against the Croatian kuna, but this summer my Facebook newsfeed was filled with friends' photos from Croatia. I first visited Croatia in 2012, starting in the capital of Zagreb and working my way down the coast to Split and the island of Hvar, and after that brief trip I was hooked. The cobblestone-paved old towns, medieval buildings, beautiful beaches — what's not to love?
I had wanted to visit Dubrovnik, a common port of call on Mediterranean cruises, but it's a bit of a mission from Split because trains don't connect the two cities. This summer, though, I snagged a last-minute ticket on Croatia Airlines (a member of Star Alliance) and flew direct from Nice (NCE) to Dubrovnik (DBV), where I started my tour of the coastline and nearby islands over the course of a week, taking high-speed ferries and renting multiple cars, boats and bikes.
Tucked into the wall of the Old Town, the cliffside Buža Bar draws locals and visitors any time of the day for a drink and/or a dip in the sea, but it really pops come sunset when a crowd gathers for a cocktail or glass of wine at tables. This was the perfect spot to end my first evening in Dubrovnik, sampling Croatian wine and watching the sun reflect off the limestone buildings that have made more than one appearance as the setting for HBO's Game of Thrones.
From the Old Town, it's only a 15-minute boat ride to Lokrum Island, which has plenty of great spots for swimming. But if you don't have time, take a 20-minute walk along the coastline and head down to one of the private coves. Quieter than the private beaches, these spots are prime for picnics and swimming within view of the Old Town (a.k.a. King's Landing, for GOT fans).
A foodie friend of mine who runs a gourmet picnic company in Dubrovnik recommended Lokanda on the old port for dinner. Tables stretch across the cobblestone terrace along the harbor with great views of St. John's fortress. The fisherman-style cuisine is simple but delicious, with traditional seafood dishes like cuttlefish risotto and grilled shrimp served in metal pots.
When credit cards are accepted at the Croatian restaurants you visit, remember that using the foreign-transaction-fee-free Chase Sapphire Preferred Card will earn you two Ultimate Rewards for each dollar spent on dining. For more ideas on what to see and eat in Dubrovnik, see Destination of the Week: Dubrovnik.
We rented a car in Dubrovnik and drove about an hour away to the Pelješac Peninsula, known for its red Postup wine and fresh oysters served at oyster shacks in the villages of Ston and Mali Ston, which are linked by a three-mile-long stone wall. One favorite oyster shack is Bota Šare, a restaurant on the water in Mali Ston that's tucked into the walls of an old castle and serves these goodies grilled or with breadcrumbs or lemon.
When you charge your car rental to the Citi Premier® Card, you earn 3x points for each dollar you spend on this general travel purchase; using the Chase Sapphire Preferred will earn you 2x points per dollar.
While driving around the peninsula, stop for wine tastings at spots like the family-run Milos, which is not too far away from Ston, or at Grgic above Trsrenik overlooking the sea. A tunnel connects the village of Potomje with the beaches of Orebić and wraps around the coastal cliffs of the peninsula.
My travel companion and I arrived on the island of Korčula by ferry from Dubrovnik, which takes about two hours and costs 110 HRK ($16), one-way. Said to be the birthplace of explorer Marco Polo, the island is also known for its white wines like Pošip and Grk, which can be sampled at vineyards or in local restaurants. We started our stay with a sunset meal overlooking the harbor at Nonno, an open-air restaurant known for its hand-rolled pasta.
While driving across the island, we saw a sign for a konoba, or tavern, in Žrnovo near the village of Vela Luka. A dirt path led up to Maha, a ranch and rustic restaurant that's family-run and serves organic food and veggies grown in their own garden. We sampled the chef's special, homemade Žrnovo macaroni, and he whipped up a platter of lamb for us cooked on the outdoor grill.
Not far from the old town in Korčula, Zrnovska Banja is a bay lined with summer homes and pebble beaches that was a great spot for a quick dip in the crystal-clear water before continuing our drive across the island. If you keep on going past the town of Pupnat, you'll come across one of the most famous beaches on the island, Pupnatska luka.
The island of Hvar gets mixed reviews as a tourist destination, since it's a favorite for jetsetters and Ultra partygoers. You're likely to see people partying at (almost) all hours at the island's high-end lounges (like Carpe Diem) and laid-back beach bars (like Hula Hula Hvar). However, you'll also come across secluded coves where the locals escape the crowds and take a morning dip — so it's worth a visit.
Rent a boat and explore the islands just off of Hvar's coast, or pull up for lunch in one of the secluded bays like Mekićevica Beach, nicknamed Robinson after its beachside grill. Picnic tables line the sand, shaded by trees, and family-style dining is encouraged since space fills up quickly in high summer. The menu is big on seafood, which is no surprise since you're in one of the best places to eat it, with fish and squid dishes all grilled right on site.
Getting Here on Points and Miles
Unfortunately, there aren't any direct flights from the US to Dubrovnik Airport (DBV), but Star Alliance members like Croatia Airlines and Turkish Airlines fly to Dubrovnik via Zagreb (ZAG). Here are a few other options with major carriers:
American AAdvantage: One-way from 20,000 miles (economy), 50,000 miles (business) and 62,500 miles (first) on British Airways [via Rome (FCO)], Iberia and American Airlines [via Madrid (MAD)].
Delta SkyMiles: Round-trip from 67,500 miles (economy) and 272,500 miles (business) on Alitalia [via FCO or ZAG].
United MileagePlus: One-way from 30,000 miles (economy), 57,500 miles (business) and 70,000 miles (first) on United [via Frankfurt (FRA)] with intra-Europe flights on Lufthansa, Austrian, Germanwings, Swiss or Turkish. One-way from 30,000 miles (economy), 70,000 miles (business) and 110,000 miles (first) when flying a United partner across the Atlantic.
Near Dubrovnik's Old Town, the HHonors category 8 Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik overlooks the sea and is a quick walk to the city's nightlife and restaurants. Rates start at 70,000 Hilton HHonors Points or 392 euros ($443) per night.
The five-star cliffside Villa Dubrovnik is also a short walk from the Old Town, with 56 residences overlooking the Adriatic. Rates start at 565 euros or $638 per night, but since the property is listed with American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts, cardholders of the Platinum Card and the Business Platinum Card® from American Express version can book through the Amex FHR travel portal to receive perks like a room upgrade (when available), late check-out, complimentary daily breakfast for two and an 85 euro ($95) property credit for your stay.
Have you visited coastal Croatia or its islands? What are your favorite parts and places to stay?