There's more to Croatia's Istrian peninsula than a beautiful coastline - in the small town of Umag, you also get top-notch tennis facilities and a range of other sporting activities
A small town on the Idyllic Istrian coast (just a few kilometres from the Croatian border with Slovenia, and a short drive from Italy), Umag is Wimbledon-by-the-Sea, a tennis-lover's dream. For culture, head elsewhere in Istria - while nearby towns like Porec and Pula are noteworthy for their Roman ruins, Umag is known for its sporting and recreational facilities. Personally, I like the Roman stuff but I have sport-mad pre-teens and on a visit in July, they were extremely happy to swim, cycle and play tennis rather than be dragged around yet another (to me, stunning) amphitheatre.
Croatia has been a hot-bed for tennis talent for many years. Its Davis Cup team still beats nations many times its size and, of course, the country has produced a memorable Wimbledon champion in Goran Ivanišević, who beat Pat Rafter in 2001.
It may be small in size but Umag packs a punch on the world tennis circuit. The town has 60 tennis courts, most of them with competition-standard clay surfaces. Each July, the town is packed with VIPs, celebs and tennis stars when the 20-year-old ATP Croatia Open comes to town. Book well ahead if you want a hotel room during this globally-promoted tournament.
The regular venue for the Open is the International Tennis Centre at the Sol Stella Maris by the beach, close to Umag on the way to Katoro. This distinctive clam-shell stadium is one of the venues used for Tennis Camp Umag, a holiday school for tennis players that only started in 2008 but is already gaining recognition for its 'intensive' programme for talented players. There are junior as well as adult programmes.
As well as coaching, the Tennis Camp Umag programme involves match-play competitions. The coaches speak Croatian, Italian, German and Russian but lingua franca in the camp is English. For youngsters, group coaching is provided for 4-5-year-olds and 6-9-year-olds. Children aged 10 and above benefit from individual coaching sessions. Programmes last from two days to a week. The coaching sessions are held for a few hours each morning, with tournaments in the early afternoon, leaving late afternoons and evenings free for standard holiday activities.
A week-long intensive tennis programme costs about €300, for adults and juniors. Activity holiday company JST Holidays of Rochdale (www.jsttennis.com) offers tennis camp holidays in Umag. Alternatively, the programmes can be booked direct through Istratourist, a resort company that also owns most of the hotels in Katoro (www.istraturist.com/en).
The old town of Umag has cobbled streets, a large marina, and a traditional, imposing Istrian bell-tower, a flourish left to the region by Venetian overlords in the post-medieval period. But most of all, Umag is a sports town: as well as tennis, it has all-weather football pitches and ample Adriatic watersports on the 45km 'Umag Riviera' (think rocky beaches, not sand). There's an 18-hole championship golf course, opened in August 2009, a five-star, rainwater-capturing development by the upmarket Kempinski chain. And for family cyclists there's the Sustrans-style Parenzana former railway line, a 70km bike trail that rises from 0m to 293m above sea level near Groznjan. This is a somewhat overgrown trail and not up to UK standards but it's extremely quiet; and despite its steady climb, the gradients are never lung-bursting.
Where to stay
Umag itself has no large hotels; most are in Katoro, 3kms to the north. This tourist-only suburb is made up of campsites, studio apartments, and a number of three- to five-star hotels, hugging the sea's edge. The beaches are rocky but every hotel – and campsite – has its own swimming pool.
The four- and five-star hotels (most owned by the Istratourist/Sol Melia chain) have all been renovated recently. Hotels with fewer stars are tattier, with swimming pools to match. We stayed in the Sol Garden Istria, close to the (rocky) beach and with very friendly staff.
Not far from the Hotel Sol Polynesia is a strip of touristy cafes, ice-cream stands, mini-marts, flip-flop sellers and excursion booking businesses, which was clearly built in the 1970s and hasn't progressed much since. On the plus side, the ice-cream vendors vie for trade using unusual flavours (including Fanta and Red Bull), scoop-handling dexterity (ever seen cone juggling?) and entertaining verbal inducements.
Istria is Croatia's gourmet hotspot, famed for its extra virgin olive oil, truffles and wine, from the native Malvazija vine. Umag isn't the epicentre for Istria's gourmet specialities but the region's world-famous white truffles are found in the Motovun forest, less than 20kms away.
Istrian fare can be had at Konoba Buscina (+385-52-732-088; www.konoba-buscina.hr/aaa_En/onama.htm), the best gourmet restaurant in town, 4kms along the way to Kopar. Decor is posh farmhouse, with bare stone walls and waiting staff in toned-down regional dress. The house speciality is cooking food on hot coals under a baking lid, called a cripnja, or bell.
If truffles aren't quite your scene, there are any number of fast food outlets in Umag and Katoro, ranging from the cheekily-named McDony, Croatia's answer to McDonald's, through to dime-a-dozen pizza restaurants. Angelo's, in the middle of the ice-cream and flip-flop strip in Katoro, does a mean calzone pizza. No need to call to book.
Ryanair has flights three times a week from London Stansted to Pula airport, an hour and a half's drive from Umag.
Croatia Airlines have direct flights from London Gatwick once a week to Pula.
Thomsonfly have weekly flights from London Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester to Pula.
It's also possible to fly into Italy and get shuttles to Umag. Trieste airport is a two-hour drive from Umag; the two Venice aiports are a three-hour drive from Umag. FILS (www.fils.hr/home.php/-3-0-0-2-Lines) runs a daily coach from Venice to Pula. Brioni (www.brioni.hr/brioni.asp?m=&l=en) also run a service from both Trieste and Venice to Pula, which stops at Vodnjan and Rovinj, close to Umag. Both Brioni and FILS run domestic bus services, with buses to Umag.
Venezia Lines have fast catamaran services from Venice to Porec, Rovinj, Pula and Rabac.