"IT'S NICE, NO?"
Tonci Lucic, my tall, scruffy, Game BoyÂ–addicted host on the Croatian island of Hvar, is a disembodied but smiling head bobbing to the rhythm of the surf as we tread the warm cobalt water of the Adriatic. Above us, a 16th-century castle watches over a medieval town whose flower-bedecked alleys were laid out centuries ago by Venetian nobles. Just offshore, the Pakleni Otoci ("Satanic Islands") are visible, green hills jutting up through the placid water like a partially submerged Jolly Green Giant asleep in a tepid bathtub of electric-blue Kool-Aid.
Yes, it's nice.
"We usually swim every day, sometimes two times a day," Tonci tells me.
The Dalmatian island of Hvar is the sparkliest star in the thousand-plus-island constellation that sits in fixed orbit off Croatia's 1,104-mile Adriatic coast, a thin sliver of lavender-covered hills tumbling down to secluded coves where swimming is less a choice than a pleasant obligation.
I first met Tonci, a 30-year-old martial-arts enthusiast, skateboarder, and sometime innkeeper, because his wife, Teja Dittmeyer, looks fantastic in spandex. Toward the end of my first trip to Croatia, a ten-day early-autumn barnstorming of the Dalmatian coast, I disembarked from the ferry in the town of Hvar to the welcoming sight of a woman I inferred, from her blond pigtails and shrink-wrapped jogging outfit, to be a Swedish yoga instructor. She was an oasis of hot amid the mob of kindly-looking old women who typically greet travelers at docks and bus stations, offering rooms for rent in their quaint homes. I had come to rely on such offers for lodging, but somehow, on that day, the spandex was a stronger sales pitch. It wasn't until Teja handed me off to Tonci and went in search of other customers to install in their tastefully renovated, centuries-old stone house that I realized I'd been the victim of a classic bait and switch, but one that would prove yet again how skillfully the fates of Croatia traffic in the happy accident.
Over the course of that first trip and a subsequent four-week journey, I traveled by boat, bus, train, scooter, bike, car, kayak, foot, and donkey. I spent a morning hiking in the hills above Dubrovnik and still made it back to the beach for a lazy afternoon swim. I walked through the remnants of Roman palaces and Napoleonic forts and visited cathedrals and museums and castles. I walked mountain trails and poked my head into limestone caves and gazed out over former minefields. I ate Italian food as good as any I've had in Italy and heard my voice echo through the empty concrete caverns of decommissioned Yugoslav missile silos.
By the time I emerged from my swim that day, Tonci was wearing boardshorts and a baseball cap and was already fiddling away on his Game Boy. His feet were propped up against a fading row of cinder-block cabanas, while his dog, Hajdi, lolled at his side in the warmth of one of the island's 300 or so days of annual sunshine. The whole tableau belied Tonci's true identity as a budding tourism mogul.