Story and Photos by Stephanie Levin.
If you’re traveling to Croatia, and have only time for one island, set sail to Hvar Island. The longest of the 1185 Croatian islands dotting the Adriatic Sea, Hvar Island is a feast for the senses. Vineyards abut ancient olive groves; scented pines and lavender blanket fertile hillsides; and fabled towns stake out history on limestone cliffs. Stone houses studded into the limestone hillsides, connected by small bridges that date back centuries, grace the entire island. No matter where you park yourself on the island, you’ll be enchanted by the cobalt-colored Adriatic Sea kissed by hours of sunshine. To fully appreciate the island give yourself what we have precious little of these days…time. Time on the island has two speeds: slow and slower. Forget nanoseconds and logging onto a cell phone 7/24. You’ll be out of sync here. Sure, you can check your email and make cell phone calls, but people arrive by ferry to relax, renew and escape the hassles of daily living.
While Hvar Island has no airport, Croatia’s ancient city of Split offers a slow bus from its airport to the dock where one casually purchases a ticket for the next ferry or hydrofoil. If you have time before the next boat, there is a place to check your luggage and you can wander around Split. The two-hour hydrofoil ride goes to Jelsa and the ferry docks at Stari Grad. The moment I step onto either the ferry or hydrofoil, life’s little stresses unzip and disappear. Perhaps it is the constant movement on the sea, the salty sea air caressing my face or the perspective of light on the water, but I always feel joyfully buoyant and free.
What is my connection to Hvar you may wonder. Why Hvar? Well, to be perfectly frank, I knew little of Hvar the first time I visited. A close friend, who is Croatian by birth, French by citizenship, Italian by marriage and resides in Switzerland invited me. I heard dozens of people conversing in all these language and more on the hydrofoil. Hvar, with its close proximity to Northern Europe, has become an international destination without all the glitter and glitz. Bring your flip flops and leave your high heels at home.
I always arrive in Jelsa because I stay a 15-minute walk from town, or a 5-minute bicycle ride, which I feel like enjoying for morning coffee. And while each day is filled with a new activity, I settle into a rather simple pattern: I’m lulled to sleep by the sound of the sea, I wake to a swim in the crystalline Adriatic, I eat, snorkel, sail, bicycle, venture to small stone villages and architectural treasures and spend an inordinate amount of time lounging, chatting and sipping late-afternoon drinks in seaside cafes. If you’re looking for night action, best to steer toward Stari Grad or Hvar town.
Hvar is a living museum. After all, geographically and historically, it has always been in the middle of the main sea routes, and history has left a myriad of cultural footprints on its landscape. No matter where you are on the island the influence of Greek, Sicilian, Venetian, Roman, Austrian, French and Turkish cultures link the past with present. A one-lane serpentine road circles the island while numerous dirt roads splinter off descending the steep hillsides to the sea. Everyone moves around the island by car, bike or on foot. Because Hvar has so much to offer, a car is optimal to get around. Nevertheless, many find nirvana in one town or village and just stay. Admittedly you could spend your entire time in one place on the island swimming in the Adriatic Sea, dining on delicious seafood and drinking local wines, but if you decide to explore Hvar, here are some great sites to see:
Hvar Town: Hvar is the island, but on the island is the medieval town of Hvar. The stone town walls were built in 1450, and the Hvar Cathedral’s tower dates back to the 16th Century. The Arsenal, built in 1612 by Venetians, is the oldest communal theater in Europe. It was the first theater to admit plebeians and aristocrats alike. If you go upstairs, visit the frescos on the wall. St. Stephen’s Square dominates the center of town and boasts one of the largest squares in Dalmatia. This vibrant town is home to waterfront nightlife, restaurants and bars. A favorite watering hole with the in crowd seems to be Carpe Diem, a good place to people watch and hangout.
Stari Grad at the foot of a deep bay is a collective name for several small towns and actually means Old Town. This ancient town mingles the past with modern tourist facilities and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. A main seaport on the island, all the car ferries arrive here. Stari Grad offers seaside cafés and restaurants overlooking a bay filled with beautiful boats.
Vrboska developed in the 15th Century. This magic town sits above inlets of small wooded bays and compact stone houses along two shores connected by bridges on the northern side of the island. It’s about a 45-minute walk to Jelsa. A quiet picturesque village, it is home to the most valuable paintings on the island.
Jelsa, on the northern side of the island, is well known for its production of red wines. The island has produced delicious wines for centuries, and there is a small local wine bodega in town where you go and choose your wine or wines of choice. Jelsa is an important maritime port, flanked by stunning inlets and soft -pebble beaches popular with families, yet the 13th-Century village remains quaint and vibrant. Numerous seaside cafes and restaurants as well as the 18th-Century Baroque church of St. John grace the town square. In the summer, a small open market sells local lavender and other island delicacies such as honey and herbs.
Sućuraj. on the eastern side of the island, is famous for its production of white wines and olive oil. Sucuraj is the most important port on the eastern side of the island.
Pakleni otociis a string of thimble size uninhabited islands covered in pines and beautiful pebble beaches. Catch boats or water taxis for Pakleni otoci from Hvar Town.
Brusje An interior village about six miles from Hvar. Brusje is known for its production of honey, wine, olive oil and aromatic herbs. The village was a temporary dwelling for shepherds in the early 16th-Century, but today is better known for its production of lavender and rosemary oils.
Pitve , surrounded by vineyards and fragrant rosemary plants, is one of the villages that has managed to preserve its century-old rural architecture, small village squares, narrow streets and households built around courtyards. Pitve offers one of the best views of the valley and surrounding islands.
Travel Trips: People speak many different languages, including English. Locals are incredibly hospitable and friendly. Croatian is the main language. Hvar has become extremely popular with tourists and summers can be crowded. The best times to go are in the spring and early fall to avoid the summer rush and less expensive prices. Even though Croatia joined the EU in July 2013, the main currency accepted is the Croatian Kuna. You should be able to pay hotels, transportation and some restaurants in Euros and credit cards.
IF YOU GO: If you are in Europe, there are numerous daily flights from all major cities to Split. Car ferries leave from the Adriatic Coast of Italy, and the US also flies to Croatia, but less frequently. If you are flying from the USA on a budget, consider a discount flight to London Heathrow and a less expensive connecting flight to Split, Croatia on Croatia Airlines. Visit the Hvar website for information on ferries and schedules from Split to Hvar Island and the surrounding islands.