Croatia has been a country that I’ve been itching to get back to ever since my Eastern European college backpacking trip saw me in Split for three nights back in 2017. So when our Virtuoso partner, Leonidas Travel, invited me to explore the country further, I gladly packed my bags!
Leonidas Travel is our local DMC partner with their offices located in northern Croatia. They handle requests all around the Adriatic – from Croatia to Italy, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.
A 5 PM departure from Chicago ORD with a connection in Vienna had me arriving at Split Airport at 3 PM the next day. I was then greeted in the Arrivals Hall – if you can say that about an airport with only 8 gates! After connecting with the rest of the group, we took a quick site inspection of Le Meridien Lav – a 5* beachfront hotel that is about a 20-minute drive from Split’s Old Town. With spacious and bright rooms, this is a good alternative if you’d like to stay away from the hustle and bustle of Old Town.
Right in front of the hotel, there is a marina that houses yachts – here we jumped on our private speedboat for our one-hour transfer to Hvar. Hvar is the most visited Croatian island, the absolute “king” of all 1244 Croatian islands. Filled with Renaissance monuments, traffic-free marble streets, and surrounded with turquoise Adriatic waters – Hvar is considered a small St Tropez.
Our home for two nights was Adriana Hotel Spa – a 4* hotel that is situated along the main bay of Hvar. Perfect for walking around town. With more of a European size to the room, it features a rooftop bar and wonderful outdoor space. This is the view of the bay from my window. Pro Tip: Request to stay on the first or second floor as the third floor sits right beneath the bar and you can hear chairs being moved at times. In Europe, they go by Ground Floor, First Floor, and so on instead of our first, second, and third floor.
After a wonderful buffet breakfast the following morning, we took a two-minute walk to the 5* Palace Elisabeth which has the same owners as Adriana. Palace Elisabeth is the first full-service 5-star heritage hotel situated in the heart of Hvar, directly above the city hall overlooking the main square. The history of the palace dates back to the 13th century and in 1899 it was rebuilt under the name Spa Hotel Empress Elisabeth; after the famous Austrian Empress Sissi. It was said that Empress Elisabeth had enjoyed visiting Hvar to get the benefits of the fresh sea air.
Driving a short distance out of town, we stopped at two different local wineries. Croatia, as many don’t know (including myself), is starting to become internationally recognized for its winemakers. Although most producers only ship within the country or the EU – more and more are starting to reach the US. Drivers beware! The roads are narrow and similar to the Amalfi Coast so exercise caution if you are renting a car on the island.
Our next site inspection brought us to the other side of the island to the 5* Maslina Resort which is only about a 20-minute drive from town. The property was opened in 2020 and founded on the principles of ecologically responsible hotel management, and dedicated to preserving the pristine environment and cultural heritage of the island of Hvar. A spa retreat, the property uses natural materials to decorate the interior spaces and offers complimentary daily movement classes. With a large garden and sea view rooms, Maslina caters mostly to couples looking to relax and rejuvenate (while also being close to Hvar town and Stari Grad if you want to spend the evening in a lively setting). However, the property also has 3 villas to choose from – two with 4 bedrooms and one with 5-bedrooms. These are located right next to the water and offer a gorgeous stay to guests.
A 5-minute walk will bring you to the ferry pier, which will bring you back to Split in just under an hour by private boat, or 1.5 hours by public ferry. Our group was meant to take a private boat to Split but, once we got to the pier, the waves proved to be too strong due to the Bora winds – strong northeastern winds that usually hit the Adriatic Sea during the winter. Leonidas Travel proved they were flexible and fast acting when we had to switch from our private boat plans to purchase tickets for the public ferry.
Croatia is comprised of over 1200 islands but, despite this, has poor connections between islands. Most ferries have to go back to the mainland in order to go out to individual islands. We’re hoping the ferry routes improve over the next few years!
Arriving at Split, we unpacked our bags at Villa Harmony – a 4* property that offers large rooms, bathrooms, and a sea-facing terrace in each room. Just a 10-minute walk from Old Town, the property is situated next to the famous sandy public beach Bacvice and is a great option if you don’t want to be in the hustle and bustle of the tourist areas.
The next morning, our group headed out for a half-day tour of the Old Town. We wandered into the western entrance of Diocletian’s Palace. Built by Roman emperor Diocletian in the 4th century, it now forms about half of the old town. Much of the palace now holds apartment units on top of it – a very unique structure!
We then took a tour of the 4* Santa Lucia – located in the city center. This property is a good choice for families as they have rooms that accommodate more than 2 people.
A few buildings away is the 4* Judita Palace – with just 19 rooms this property is full of charm and history. The staff’s goal is to welcome you as a guest and see you off as a friend. If you can be lucky enough to get space here, it is well worth it.
That night, we enjoyed a private dinner with local musicians who sang and played instrumental music.
We started our 3-hour drive from Split to Dubrovnik with a couple of stops along the way. One of these stops was a tour and wine tasting at a local winery. The second stop was the show-stopper! Mali Ston (and the region Ston) is known for its oyster and mussel farms. A five-minute boat ride brings you out to a wood platform floating on the bay in which they are grown and extracted from the water. Mali Ston has a unique mix of freshwater and seawater making it the perfect place to grow Ston oysters. We witnessed as one of the farmers pulled the ropes and nets of oysters and mussels from the water and started cooking them up in a big pot. It was truly a delicious and unique experience!
We arrived at our final hotel during our trip – the 5* Villa Dubrovnik. Set into the cliffside, the property offers spacious rooms with sea-view balconies. Some even have a view of Dubrovnik’s old town – just a 10-minute walk down the road. There are plenty of lounge chairs set outside for sunbathing as well as access to the Adriatic down a handful of stone stairs. Known for its spa, it’s a great place to stay if you are looking to be close to Old Town without being near the crowds and noise.
Our first day in Dubrovnik saw us taking an off-road buggy ride along the coast and heading all the way up to Mount Srdj. With great viewpoints above the old town, it’s a great way to see the city from afar. We then took the cable car down which leaves you about a 5-minute walk to the eastern entrance to town.
Walkers beware, Dubrovnik has plenty of stairs to traverse if you are looking to get off the main pedestrian-only roads within the walled city. If you are up for the climb, getting off the main path is a great way to get away from the tourists. You can even buy a ticket to climb and walk along the city walls – a fantastic way to get an up-close and elevated view of the town while also getting great views of the sea.
Dubrovnik is said to be the best-preserved medieval town in the world. Even with the 1991/1992 bombings during the Yugoslav Wars, Dubrovnik has retained much of its integrity. A $22 million contribution from UNESCO also helped to restore the city. When walking up along the city walls, you can see which rooftops are from before the war vs. restored afterward. The newer rooftops are much more vibrant than the old ones.
The following day we went on a food and drink tour of the town, a great way to stop in the small local restaurants while also getting a tour of the town. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you’ll be excited to see different parts of the city that Kings Landing scenes were filmed!
We then stopped to have a short site inspection of hotel Pucic Palace (a 5* property), and the 4* Guest House Forty Four – owned by the Croatian NBA star Bojan Bogdanović. Both are wonderful boutique options in the center of the action.
With a full stomach and enough wine consumed to last me a lifetime – I reluctantly boarded the plane back home.