Ever longed for the perfect European escape — complete with beaches, cliff diving, ancient charming towns full of history and romance? Well, forget Greece and the south of France — and look east to Dubrovnik, Croatia, the cheap, chic Adriatic Escape.
Over the years I have had the pleasure of visiting Cannes, Saint-Tropez, Nice, and other French towns along the Mediterranean — and experienced the changes firsthand: once sleepy, lovely places turned into expensive meccas for the obnoxiously rich and ill-tempered. (The ratio of locals and visitors in Saint-Tropez to beefy, Uzi-carrying bodyguards is practically one for one these days.) The harbors are clogged with mega-yachts; simple meals cost exorbitant prices; and the scene — formerly laid-back and chic — now thumps with club music.
And Greece is just … depressing. Overrun by tourists looking for a deal, the locals are wondering just when they will be able to withdraw more than $100 from their banks.
But across the Adriatic is the perfect getaway — the Medieval town of Dubrovnik. A UNESCO site since 1979, the city, surrounded by 1,940 meters of Medieval ramparts, is like stepping back in time. While fans of Game of Thrones will recognize it as the site of Kings Landing, others will revel in the almost thousand years of history, which, since people still live within the city walls, is still alive. Outside the city are small towns that dot the shore, cliffs to dive off into cerulean blue water, and hundreds of islands to explore.
It’s like the French Riviera circa 1965 — and, thanks to the strong dollar, with 1965 prices. Understated, elegant luxury doesn’t come cheaper or better than this.
Make sure to pick up a Dubrovnik Card for around $33 — which will give you free entrance into museums and the city walls, free transportation, and discounts of up to 40 percent at many restaurants and stores.
Where to stay:
The Bellevue is a chic seaside hotel with incredible views and a private beach. (Photo: Hotel Bellevue)
Villa Orsula: For a sweet splurge, book into this fully refurbished seaside 1930s mansion with views overlooking the entire city. It is understated luxury at its finest, with a private ocean swimming area and a romantic outside bar, and it’s just a five-minute walk from the walls of the old town.
Hotel Bellevue: Situated in the upscale section of the new city, the Bellevue is a 15-minute walk to the Pile Gate of the old town. A five-star hotel with midrange prices (around $250 a night), this great place has its own private beach, caves you can swim into, cliffs to dive off of, great seafood in its restaurant, and cliffside views of the Adriatic from most rooms.
The Hotel Excelsior. This landmarked hotel overlooking the old town was Elizabeth Taylor’s favorite spot for her trysts. It has it’s own private beach, and don’t miss out on dinner at Prora, located next to the hotel’s private beach. Set directly by the shore, Prora Offers “intimate views of picture-perfect Lokrum Island and the Old Town, Prora is Hotel Excelsior Dubrovnik’s signature à la carte restaurant.” It’s delicious and beautiful.
Airbnb: If you want to stay inside the city, full apartments (with air conditioning) go for as little as $50 a night. Not kidding.
Let’s go shopping:
For striking coral jewelry, Clara Stones is where you want to go. (Photo: Clara Stones Jewellery/Facebook)
Dubrovnik is full of trinket stores — as in, every other store is packed with tchotchkes, dolls, scarves, and jewelry. The city is renowned for its round, filigreed silver buttons and Adriatic red coral – prized not only for its color but also its rarity. Slow growing, the coral is said to turn a whitish color if the wearer has a fever. (The color can be restored by putting the coral back into the sea.)
For coral jewelry, go to Clara Stones, just off the Pile Gate, and for handmade silver designs, go to Beni — inside the old city at Od Puca 25 (telephone: 385 20 323 334).
Where to drink:
The incredible cliffside Buza Bar serves cold drinks and one heck of a view.
Dvino: Just inside the Pile Gate, at Palmotićeva ul. 4A, is this lovely wine bar that serves Croatian and other European wines as well as substantial antipasto platters.
Buza Bar: Located on the seaside wall of the city (literally, you go through a tiny tunnel, and the bar is attached to an outer wall of the city overlooking the ocean). Grab a beer, and if it gets too hot, do what the locals do and cliff-dive into the ocean.
Tinel: We had coffee at Tinel (Dubrovnik slang for living room), on Antuninska Alley, a bar and coffeehouse where locals hang out.
Where to eat:
Dine at Gusta Me for a taste of fresh local fare. (Photo: Gusta Me)
Gusta Me: Just outside the city’s gates, this lovely little restaurant serves fresh fish and pure Croatian food at reasonable prices.
Skola: For lunch, stop by the locals’ favorite sandwich shop, and for just a few dollars, pick up a prosciutto and cheese sandwich that could easily feed a family of three.
Victoria: For a splurge, try this Peruvian influenced restaurant at the Villa Orsula. Order the octopus and fresh fish, and sit outside overlooking the city at night. Seriously, it’s magical!
Bowa on Sipan Island: I love this restaurant so much it’s hard to put into words. The only way to get there is by private boat and you can relax in cabanas while eating freshly caught fish (what’s on the menu is only what the owners caught that day) and sipping rose. Be sure to call ahead a day in advance and order the sea urchin. Which will be cracked right in front of you.
Let’s take a walk:
Game of Thrones fans will geek out at the incredible Fort Lovrijenac.
The first thing you should do upon arrival in Dubrovnik is stroll the walls that surround the entire city — it’s a great way to get your bearings and get a lay of the land. Afterward, check out Fort Lovrijenac, which Game of Thrones fans will recognize as the Red Keep.
For a panoramic view, take the funicular up Mount Srd to the Napoleonic Fort Imperial, which overlooks the entire city.
Let’s take a drive:
One of the best ways to see the countryside around Dubrovnik is by motorcycle — and you don’t need to know how to ride. I hired Gulliver Easy Ride, which offers motorcycle tours around Dubrovnik — like the Napoleon, which takes you to the Medieval town of Ston, through the vineyards and hamlets of the Peljesac Peninsula. Trust me — if you don’t want to be stuck in hours of traffic, a motorcycle is the only way to go, and the drivers are very experienced.
For around $250 you can hire a boat and a captain to take you to the nearby Elafiti Islands of Lopud, Koločep and šipan. Cliff-dive, swim in isolated bays of smaller uninhabited islands, and stop and have lunch at the restaurant in Sudurad Bay. (I’m still dreaming of the fresh fish caught minutes before my arrival, octopus salad, and calamari and bean salad.) But make sure to call ahead if you want fresh sea urchin! If one day isn’t enough, book into one of the lovely hotels on Lopud, or get fancy for $120 a night at the four-star Lafodia Sea resort, which has a private beach, a pool, and a great restaurant.
Now go, before everyone else finds out — and have fun!
And just for giggles: heres some more amazing pics: