The Dalmatian Riviera offers sun, elegant resorts and stunning nature in one of Europe’s most charming island groups. Don your lycra and jump on your bike to experience the best of it
"This is my Vietnam..."
This slightly dramatic statement is accompanied by a great deal of huffing and puffing as we cycle up the third 700m peak of the day. We pass dainty wildflowers, tranquil views to turquoise water and anchored yachts, and an assortment of bemused locals, all of which is somewhat lost on us on this first day.
Around us helmets are bobbing up and down like buoys in stormy water, drinks are attacked with fervour, everyone is thinking of lunch and no-one has energy left to be worried that we have lost all semblance of elegance along the way.
We are on Brac, the first of four islands, and it is showing a brutal streak.
The Dalmatian Riviera
Brac and its neighbouring islands are located off Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, and are gaining a reputation as the next Cote d’Azur amongst the "in" crowd. Towns like Bol and Hvar attract island-hoppers and yachtsmen with their elegant resorts and stunning food, and sunshine is so much a given that many hotels offer a discount should you be unfortunate enough to experience rain.
Whilst cocktails and beaches are easily found on two feet, you really need a bike in order to truly experience the outstanding natural beauty of the islands.
The islands were largely unaffected by the war, unlike flanking cities Split and Dubrovnik on the mainland, and the atmosphere is relaxed, if not outright sleepy once you leave the main tourist spots. Cycling is popular, with roads frequented by everything from Scandinavian pensioners to Croatian triathletes, and there is little traffic, so a good map is all you need.
Brac – a baptism of fire
You may also need some fitness. The mainland rises from the beaches like an oversized loaf of bread, and the islands are not much better. Once we were past the initial shock, however, we learnt to appreciate Brac’s phenomenal views and began to cherish the challenge.
Brac is famous for marble, which was used in the Diocletian Palace in Split and in the White House. It is also the birthplace of tennis player Goran Ivanisevic, and we imagined ourselves following in young Goran’s footsteps in his search for tennis courts, as we set out from his home town Milna. Whatever Goran can do, we can do too, we thought, and so we attacked the hills with gusto.
As for our long-awaited lunch, we were well rewarded for our hard work. There are plenty of restaurants and farm houses serving quality home-made food in the villages, and often at a much better price than in the more frequently visited towns. Expect to pay around 50 kn for a meal of spit-roast lamb, served with home-made liqueur and fresh figs, such as the one which awaited us on top of the third peak.
Apart from marble, Brac’s other claim to fame is Croatia’s most photographed beach. We finished the day zigzagging down steep serpentines to the Zlatni Rat, a pebbled beach which juts out from the town of Bol like the prow of a ship. A promenade made of local marble winds its way back to Bol, where the bars serve cocktails on white cushions under large canvas parasols. For true glamour, however, Hvar is your island.
Hvar is known for sun and lavender, which infuses the island with its sweet scent, and has a coastline indented by coves and beaches. It is also known for frequent visits by Roman Abramovich, who tops a long list of rich and famous people regularly name-dropped in articles on Hvar.
Hvar town is marketed as the next Cannes, but it still has an inclusive atmosphere. Back-packers, families and random visitors mingle with Hollywood A-listers and the idle rich, making it possible for us to roll in, sweaty lycra and all, and settle for a cocktail at the Riva hotel, whilst yachting types and glamorous blondes were sipping Caipirinhas on rattan sofas around us.
Hvar town is not short of people-watching spots – follow Goran Ivanisovic to the Carpe Diem bar, for example – but few can be as romantic as the roof deck of upmarket Luna restaurant (1 Petar Hektorovića, Hvar town; +385 21 741 400), where we headed for a taste of their excellent seafood. Outside, night was descending on the elegant 17th-century piazza, terracotta-tiled rooftops disappearing up the steep hills we had descended a few hours before.
Korcula – the joys of the road
Korcula has a magnificent medieval old town, but it is also the one place on the islands which best fit the description ‘touristy’. Checked tablecloths and souvenir stalls are rife, and so the main joys of Korcula were found on the road instead.
Snaking our way up the steep hill hugging the cliffs towards Pupnat, we would stop to snack on figs bought in a local market. Far below, a yacht bobbed up and down in a bay, lush vegetation breaking up the chalky cliffs.
Starting in Vela Luka, we passed cypresses, terraced vineyards and stone houses, breathed in the fragrance from a wealth of wild flowers, lavender and herbs and visited Marco Polo’s alleged birth place.
Exquisite prsut (smoked ham), roasted aubergines and goats cheese ravioli awaited in family-run Konoba Mate in Pupnat (+385 20717 109; www.konobamate.hr/), served with a taste of the extensive local wine production. From there, we rolled down to the northern side and traced the coastline the last few miles in to Korcula.
Time magazine once placed Mljet among the ten most beautiful islands of the world, and it was my favourite. Mljet is small and undeveloped for tourism, bar a lone hotel on the waterfront of Pomena, a settlement with all of 37 inhabitants. A bathing area, a little grocery shop, where you can buy passes for the nature reserve, and a few adventurous daysailers complete the look.
Behind it lies a natural park of unrivalled beauty. A large lake, on which is an island with a 12th century Benedictine monastery, is circled by paths promising peace and rest for walkers and cyclists alike.
The monastery is reached by a boat, and so we ended our trip visiting an island on an island, as if Mljet was an oasis shielded from the world and the monastery its protected heart.
Our bikes were waiting peacefully on the shore.
To cycle or not to cycle?
With the exception of Mljet, both the islands and the mainland will present you with a challenge. Average to above average fitness is necessary. Having said that, the oldest member of our group was in his 80s, and he was far from the only octogenarian we met. The hills are unlikely to appeal to children, however.
There are several tour companies arranging cycling holidays in and around the islands, amongst them Exodus (www.exodus.co.uk).
Bike rentals are also easy to arrange on the islands, or from Split (try www.splitbiketour.tk/). Your hotel should also be able to help you.
The best time for a cycling holiday would be May/June or September, as the temperatures are more comfortable during these months.
Split and Dubrovnik are both excellent starting points, with easy access to the islands.
Ferries connect the islands with each other and with the mainland, with bikes incurring a small surcharge. The crew will sometimes help with storage, sometimes not, but there is always more than one cyclist, and transportation is easy and fast. We took early ferries and would begin the day in the saddle in the morning, after having started the day sunbathing from the deck.
Do take some time to plan your connections, as some routes run several times a day, whilst others only depart a few times a week. For ferry times and routes, visit www.jadrolinija.hr/.
Where to stay
(Prices given for summer months, per room)
Hotel Kastil, Bol - a small hotel situated in a baroque fortress overlooking the harbour. There is no swimming pool, but the beach is only a short walk away. Try the Italian restaurant on the terrace or visit the tropically-styled bar for cocktails and people-watching (double rooms from around 94 euros).
Bluesun Hotel Borak and Bluesun Hotel Elaphusa, Bol
Owned by the same chain and next to each other on the walkway towards the beach, the Borak and Elaphusa are both 4-star hotels offering a range of facilities between them, including tennis courts and a spa. The location and setting are unbeatable (double rooms from around €110).
Podstine, Hvar - a small, private and stylish hotel within walking distance of Hvar town. Ideal for honeymooners, Podstine has a private beach and an excellent restaurant (double rooms from around 151 euros).
Hotel Riva, Hvar - the Riva was Croatia’s first member of the Small Luxury of Hotels of the World, and is a sleek, stylish boutique hotel with a very impressive guest list. Choose a room overlooking the waterfront promenade for the true A-list experience (double rooms from around 180 euros).
Hotel Odisej, Mljet - with only one hotel, Mljet does not offer many options, but Odisej is a good choice nevertheless. It has a picturesque setting by the quay and offers a range of sports activities, as well as a wellness centre. The décor is on the functional side, but the surroundings more than make up for it (double rooms from around 100 euros).