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Hot for Hvar

Storybook lanes and magical cavesthis party town on Croatia's Dalmatian coast is full of surprises

Non-touristy Krizna Luka seemed self-sufficient, with the biggest beach in Hvar, a market square, a football field, and cafés by the waterfront.
Non-touristy Krizna Luka seemed self-sufficient, with the biggest beach in Hvar, a market square, a football field, and cafés by the waterfront.

Not one to normally seek out parties, I wondered what I would make of the “Ibiza of Croatia", as the ferry made its way from Dubrovnik to Hvar. I was on a trip through sunny Croatia with my two sisters. We had wondered whether to strike Hvar off the itinerary, but online reviews insisted it must be part of any Croatian trip.

As we dragged our luggage along the marina, the zesty vibe in the air was unmistakable. Cafés and restaurants were buzzing, and tour guides vied for attention. Even at 10.30am, the island’s latest favourite, Carpe Diem bar, was packed with partygoers. Along the marina, big and small boats bobbed softly on the clear water, and sunbathers lounged on the small pebbly beach. The sight was invigorating after the quiet of historic Dubrovnik.

Our hostel, a 5-minute walk from the marina, turned out to be in a tranquil residential bay, Krizna Luka, with an enviable view of Hvar. Looking out from the terrace, we soaked in the panorama: The hillside teemed with the captivating orange-tiled roofs typical of Croatia. Shimmering under the summer sun, the inviting water of the Adriatic was dotted with boats and islands stretching far into the horizon. Hvar was queen of the Croatian Dalmatian islands indeed, just like the online reviews said. I gave my sister a pat on the back for the find.

Non-touristy Krizna Luka seemed self-sufficient, with the biggest beach in Hvar, a market square, a football field, and cafés by the waterfront. Looking for a lunch spot, we walked its narrow lanes, some taking us through (and not just past) houses! More than once, I found myself facing someone sitting in their courtyard—reading, sunbathing—and felt like a trespasser. But the smile I got in return for my wide-eyed look told me they were used to this. It was an experience right out of Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree, where it was possible to see into the tree-people’s houses while clambering up and down the tree. The grapes, berries, apricots and pomegranates hung in huge bunches from creepers and bushes growing along walls and fences added to that image.

Sketches of the harbour and the cobble-stoned lanes. Photo: Nidhi Dhingra

The bustle at the town’s main piazza, St Stephen’s Square, was a contrast to this quietude. The stately square shows off Hvar’s Venetian-era splendour, with 13th century walls surrounding ornamented Gothic palaces and marble streets. Named after the Baroque-style cathedral standing at its far end, the square extends till the harbour, making it one of the largest in Dalmatia at 4,500 sq. m. It teemed with visitors. And on a pub crawl the same night, we discovered that it is as lively at 1am as it is at noon. Even though parties weren’t the biggest draw for us, it was something to experience the town’s energy at night. After 11pm, we had to elbow our way through the crowds to enter any bar. After closing time (about 2am), the parties continue on nearby yachts.

Next day, we lost ourselves in the magical, stone-paved lanes surrounding the square, pausing in our rambles to sip coffee in a quaint café or shop for locally-grown and organic olives and lavender products.

One of Hvar’s great advantages is the access it provides to several islands nearby, with options to explore the majestic and craggy Dalmatian cliffs with their hidden coves and caves on kayaks, rented boats, or speedboat tours. We opted for the day-long Blue Cave tour to the famous cave on Biševo island, about 40km from Hvar town, which is said to glow an iridescent blue in the sunlight streaming in through a small opening in the ceiling. We were eager to verify this claim for ourselves. On top of that, a day at sea just seemed like a bonus. The speedboat sped upon the waves, whipping our hair back in the wind, while country music played on the boat’s radio. As we hopped to islands like Brač, Sveti Klement and Vis, which were all part of the tour, skipper Louis occasionally stopped in the middle of the sea, letting the group of 10 on board cool off with a swim or a cliff-dive into the blue water. There were beaches and caves to swim into, some of them too narrow for boats to enter.

When we reached the Blue Cave, we ducked as our boat slid in through the low and narrow entrance. Once inside, I looked up, gaping at what I saw. The cave was just as it had been described. All of it—the walls, the roof, and the water—glowed a neon silver-blue, breathtakingly beautiful. Looking down, I gazed at the fish through the crystal-clear water. For a moment, time seemed to stop and the only sound was the gentle lapping of the waters. Then, as our guide rambled on about the discovery of the grotto, I looked around transfixed, soaking in the magic.

It had been a perfect day.

And then, on the way back, we found ourselves in the middle of a school of dolphins. Louis shut the engines as they frolicked around us. It was past 7pm when we got back, exhausted and sunburnt but smiling from ear-to-ear.

The friendly hostel staff gave us some great tips. And the following afternoon, we took a bus to Stari Grad, the old part of the island, and the oldest town in Croatia (circa 380 BC). The small town seemed to end right where it began, at its little harbour. Sweltering in the 37 degrees Celsius August heat, we wondered if it was a wasted trip. Then we found the town’s well-preserved and inhabited historical centre, a Unesco World Heritage site. Its narrow, cobbled streets hid churches, monasteries and old-style houses built around open courtyards, many of them converted into museums, galleries and arty restaurants. The landmarks were clearly labelled, enabling us to take a self-guided walking tour of the town.

On our last evening in Hvar, we trudged up to its 16th century fortress Fortica, also known as Španjola, which towers above the revellers in St Stephen’s Square. Admiring the view from the top, I reflected on how this party island had surprised me with numerous experiences, giving me the best four days of my trip to Croatia. If I do return to the country, it’ll be for this Dalmatian island. Until then I’ll just capture it in my sketchpad and relive its wonders.

Plan a trip

■ Navigate: Rent a moped or bicycle to explore the island’s hillsides, lavender fields and olive groves. If you’re familiar with boats, it is easy to rent one to explore the island’s coves.

■ Eat: Have a drink at the Hula Hula beach club and Kiva bar; sip coffee at Nonica and Noche Azul, and try traditional Croatian fare at Konoba Menego.

■ Stay: To experience the real island vibe, book a youth hostel. If it’s quiet you prefer, Stari Grad and Jelsa, both an easy bus ride from Hvar town, offer great places to stay.

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