As a wine writer and sommelier with 25+ years in the industry, it has been my privilege to travel to many remarkably beautiful places. From Tuscany’s rolling Sangiovese-clad hills to New Zealand’s moody Central Otago mountains to Champagne’s chalk-filled crayères, I’ve covered a lot of territory while covering grape juice.
Writing about wine necessarily means writing about culture, food and geography as well. As my travels have deepened and broadened, there’s always been a glaring gap on my European map: Croatia.
The buzz began to build around Croatia about 10 to 15 years ago, unsurprisingly aligned with the rise of social media. I’d see incredibly dazzling pics of the Adriatic coastline, of ancient vineyards with difficult-to-pronounce indigenous varieties that piqued my curiosity. An ex from college set up shop in Zagreb—one of the first of a wave of digital nomads who actually seemed to earn a decent living.
And then along came a little TV series called Game of Thrones. Many of the series’ pivotal Westeros scenes were filmed in picturesque Dubrovnik, an ancient coastal Croatian city that served as the fictional King’s Landing in addition to standing in for Qarth, Blackwater Bay and the infamous Red Keep.
The tourism bump from the GofT franchise is difficult to overstate, and I couldn’t help cringing a bit as I descended St. Dominic Street in Dubrovnik, where Cersei’s infamous walk of shame was filmed. (No one threw anything at me, and my long blond hair stayed attached to my head, thankfully.)
Dubrovnik’s charming Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built between the 11th and 17th centuries when this city-state rivaled Venice as a strategic trading outpost. Its labyrinthine medieval streets now hawk as much HBO merch as native wares. While the increased tourist traffic has been an economic boon, it feels a little bit like The Lord of the Rings effect in which New Zealand’s Wellington was overrun with expat Angelenos.
My first visit to Croatia will undoubtedly not be my last. I think more than any other wine-producing region I’ve ever visited, Croatia is correctly described as “breathtaking”—as in you find yourself gasping again at yet another panoramic view that causes you to stop and surrender to its beauty.
More than its incredible, Michelin-starred coastal cuisine … more than the warm welcome in luxe hotels as well as rustic tasting rooms … and more than its astonishingly complex geopolitical culture, I will most remember the color of the sea. I’ve struggled to think of the right word for its specific blue. In Croatia, the coastline and its archipelago of jewel-like islands sparkle in a warm bath of sapphire that crests in aquamarine waves. To swim in the Adriatic there is to immerse in liquid gems. It’s extraordinary.
Below are three suggested Croatian adventures centered in and around Dubrovnik and its surrounding wine-producing regions. If your time allows, Croatia is also a fantastic jumping-off point for other southeastern and central European cities. Travel here is safe, and approximately 50% of the population speaks English. With a 99% literacy rate, universal health care for its citizens and a stable democracy balanced with deep national pride, modern Croatia deserves its newfound status as a must-visit destination.
Historical Rambles in Old Town
Set up shop at Hotel Excelsior, which boasts breathtaking views of Dubrovnik. From its many terraces, you can watch the sun set against the medieval walls of Old Town while simultaneously watching the blue of the Adriatic come alive with white sails and rainbow-colored kayaks. Hotel Excelsior is just a five-minute walk to the town center, although once you see its iconic shorefront pool you may be hesitant to leave.
Dining options include the excellent on-site Sensus restaurant, which incorporates local seafood and has an extensive wine list with both indigenous wines and international bottles. I also loved Restaurant Dubrovnik in Luža Square. It’s located just off Stradun—the wide street that runs from Pile Gate to Ploče Gate, the two historic guarded entrances to the old city.
Fun daytime adventures include the don’t-miss cable car ride up to Mount Srđ for 360º views of Dubrovnik or a quick ferry ride from Old Town to Lokrum Island, which boasts an extraordinary botanical garden planted in the 19th century and the ruins of a Benedictine monastery from medieval times.
Above Hotel Bellevue
Elaphiti Islands Yacht Tour
Surely the world’s most Instagrammable boat tour is of the Elaphiti archipelago, comprised of 13 islands—only three of which are inhabited. That startling blue water shimmers against deep green woodlands and white rocky outcroppings. The islands provide an intricate network of secret coves and quiet bays, and insiders often moor just far enough away to swim in to the pristine white sand beaches. The staff at Hotel Bellevue can help you find the right boat captain to experience the Elaphiti as locals do.
The best day itinerary includes a casual seafood lunch at one of the inhabited fishing villages. Where we stopped, the bounty was provided fresh and wriggling on a platter for guests to select prior to cooking. The water around the Elaphiti Islands is as warm as the Caribbean but so deeply blue—almost purple. Charge your iPhone!
As an aside, the staff at Hotel Bellevue was incredibly warm and accommodating with some of the nicest, most sincere service this world traveler has experienced. Enjoying cocktails at Bellevue’s Spice Lounge, post-Elaphiti cruise, was a nice way to cap off a magical day
Hotel Supetar Cavtat
Pelješac Peninsula for Oysters and Wine
I have an allergy—a bivalve allergy—that I had never resented more than on the day I visited Ston and its legendary oyster beds. The Romans coveted Ston’s oysters as an ancient aphrodisiac, and its local salt mine is the oldest in Europe.
Ston is about an hour’s drive from Hotel Supetar Cavtat, the third hotel I visited while in Croatia. The drive to Ston from Dubrovnik along the Dalmatian Coast ranks with segments of Highway 1 in Big Sur for sheer, jaw-dropping vistas. Enjoy freshly shucked Ston oysters on a floating platform in the harbor while sipping crisp, local white wines.
There are many fantastic wineries where you can linger as well. A favorite of mine was Miloš Winery, where the ancient Croatian cultivar plavac mali thrives—the progenitor of California’s prized zinfandel grape.
After a day of tasting wines, the return to Hotel Supetar Cavtat was welcome. It’s a smaller, boutiquey hotel with a quiet, old-world charm and a waterfront location perfect for après-dinner strolling. Their on-site restaurant is also a perpetually award-winning dinner option with a harbor view that is, yep, breathtaking.