Balkan Surprise

Welcome to Croatia, the melting pot of hot. Where East meets West, the old is new, the young are worldly-wise, the wilds are pristine, and the 20th-century shadows of war are giving way to a hip and happening 21st-century place to find peace.

POSTMODERN MITTELEUROPA: The bell tower of Dubrovnik's Dominican Monastery, on the Dalmatian Coast; left, a 16th-century watchtower in Narodni Trg, Zadar's main square     Photo: Joshua Paul

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The domed Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin, in Dubrovnik's old town

croatia active travel

BEAUTY BEFORE AGE: High school girls on the loose in the courtyard of Diocletian's Palace, in Split

croatia active travel

SIREN SONG: A statue in a 16th-century garden on the island of Vis

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The northern end of Dubrovnik's city walls, facing the Adriatic Sea

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STROLL WITH IT: The promenade along the Zadarski Channel, outside Zadar; left, walking near the Temple of Jupiter, in Diocletian's Palace, Split

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LOOKING FOR THE ELUSIVE HONEYPOT: Dusk on Dubrovnik's Stradun, one of the city's main pedestrian thoroughfares

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SEA CHANGE: A 17th-century church and Benedictine monastary on the island of Vis

"IT'S NICE, NO?"

Tonci Lucic, my tall, scruffy, Game Boy–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.

"This year, we have two rooms and two boats to rent," he told me, pausing the game to elaborate his business plan. "Next year, maybe four rooms and four boats, and then little by little we grow bigger and save money and then maybe we build our dream place." As he described this solar-powered, self-sufficient lodge complete with organic farm, art gallery, and skateboard halfpipe, I entertained a small fantasy: I would pack up my life, move to Hvar, and help him build it—in exchange for my own hammock, perhaps.

"But for now," he said, putting down the Game Boy, flashing a big smile, and cutting my daydream short, "let's go for a swim."

GIVEN THE TENDENCY of disaster zones to be nudged off world television screens and into obscurity once the disaster abates, the average American might still have trouble finding this small, horseshoe-shaped Balkan nation of about 4.5 million people on a map. They would probably have more success conjuring a CNN-derived mental picture of the Balkan conflict of the early 1990s. Since the war ended, in 1995, Croatia has become increasingly democratic, moving toward economic recovery and integration with the rest of Europe.

The integration has been happening, on a more informal level, for the past decade as savvy European travelers have rediscovered this former playground of the Central European elite. In 2004, 7.9 million foreign visitors arrived in Croatia, an amazing rebound from the 1995 postwar nadir of 1.3 million. Tourism has become the golden-egg-laying goose of the sagging Croatian economy, accounting for 23 percent of Croatia's GDP and 27 percent of its total employment.

The first tourists to return were the Austrians, Germans, and Italians, the neighbors who had historically made up the bulk of the nudists and fashion plates who flocked to the resorts of the Adriatic coast. Lately there have been more Scandinavians, French, and Brits as word has spread that, for a country smaller than Maine, there's a hell of a lot more to do here than get a tan.

The obvious advantages of the Latin-infused coastal regions—most of the coast was once part of the Roman Empire and later fell under the sway of Venice—have long made it a favorite of sailors, divers, and fishermen, and that roster has grown to include sea kayakers, windsurfers, and paragliders. And from the Istrian Peninsula in the north through the Dalmatian coast and islands to Dubrovnik in the south, the region's karstic geology has produced a stunning array of cliffs, peaks, and caves. Northern Velebit, Paklenica, and Biokovo parks are all prime pieces of waterfront real estate, offering hiking, climbing, caving, and camping, while the Cetina River, one of several southern Dalmatian waterways, has become a popular Class III–IV whitewater run. Though the Germanic-tinged north is better known for its fairy-tale hilltop castles, there's plenty of hiking and biking to be had in the Zagorje region, north of Zagreb—plus a good lager or wurst is never far off. And almost everywhere, you'll be offered strong Turkish coffee, a reminder that during the 16th century the thin line between Western Europe and the expansionary tendencies of the Ottoman Empire ran through Croatia.

As the rediscovery of Croatia has gathered steam, the European press has dabbled in some selective rebranding. The coast has been called the "New Riviera" and Dubrovnik the "New St. Tropez"; the Istrian Peninsula, close to Italy, has been labeled a "New Tuscany"; and Zagreb has, like every other good-looking but peripheral Central or Eastern European capital, been dubbed a "New Prague." And all of this glamour is not without precedent: A little hype is nothing new on a coast that once hosted vacationing Hapsburgs and cultural luminaries such as Gustav Mahler, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and Anton Chekhov. The tabloid-worthy roster of recent visitors includes Steven Spielberg, John Malkovich, and Andre Agassi; Tom Cruise's yacht reportedly docked off of Hvar last year; and Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro are rumored to have shopped for their own private islands.

What's old, it seems, is new again.

THOUGH NOT COMMONLY recognized by economists as an index of affluence, sunglasses seem to me as able a barometer as any of a city's relative prosperity. Strolling the streets of Zagreb, Croatia's stately capital of 800,000 people, on a sunny Saturday morning, wearing normal prescription eyeglasses, I felt naked, exposed as a foreigner. Drawn toward a dull roar of eager conversation, yapping lap dogs, and laughing children, I wound up on Tkalciceva, the wide pedestrian thoroughfare between Kaptol and Gradec, the two ancient hills that flank the city's historic center. The outdoor café tables were filled with the sort of earnest capitalists, hip young people, and occasional slick-haired gangstrepreneur who constitute the new bourgeoisie of many post-communist cities, and at every table, evidence of the city's resurgent postwar fortunes sat astride their noses. These promenading locals viewed their lives through Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, and Prada lenses.

It's not just sunglasses: The BMWs, Audis, and Benzes, the cell phones, the iPods, and the new office blocks all bespoke a city on the rise. But even as I toured modern-art galleries, partied at swank clubs to records spun by Italian DJs, flipped through the Croatian translation of Bill Clinton's autobiography (Moj Zivot) at a local bookstore, and drank coffee with Croatian students eager to correct my misconceptions about their nation, the past was never far off. Colliding with all this newness, the city's grand buildings, wide boulevards, exquisite churches, and fine museums imbue it with the dignified feel of Vienna and the lost grandeur of Mitteleuropa.

That such cosmopolitan urbanity both exists in Croatia and mingles freely with the country's pastoral charm does not surprise Croatians; what surprises them is how slow the rest of the world has been to catch on. While the continuing reliance on small-scale fishing and agriculture is everywhere visible, any Croatian schoolchild can tell you that his country is the birthplace of various Roman emperors, inventor Nikola Tesla, the modern necktie, and the mechanical pencil. Lately, it has been their sporting heroes who have brought Croatia back to the world's attention, from Janica Kostelic tearing up the World Cup skiing circuit to Ivan Ljubicic leading a team of tennis upstarts in taking down the U.S. Davis Cup team this past winter.

And recently, eager males the world over have been heard uttering the same phrase: "I hear the women in Croatia are hot." Indeed.

Famed for its charming, set-piece beauty, Dubrovnik seemed an appropriate backdrop for testing this rumor. This seaside city of 30,000 people punctuates the coast and is centered around a historic walled core that's been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its car-free corridors and imposingly uniform stone buildings serve as reminders of the maritime-derived wealth amassed between the 15th and 17th centuries. Though besieged and shelled by Serb forces in 1991, the proud city has reclaimed its former role as a magnet for the chic and glamorous.

One night last fall, an English friend and I fell in with the crowd promenading along the Stradun, a pedestrianized artery occupying what was once a channel separating the island of Laus from the mainland. We eventually migrated to a narrow, cobbled alleyway, an archaic space crammed with smartly dressed young people, the overflow from several dimly lit bars. Choosing one at random, we squeezed into the small entryway just inside the door, only to be ambushed by an impenetrable wall of hotness—in front of us, packed like sardines in a can, was a sea of leggy, sharp-featured women whose glowing eyes sized up our disheveled exteriors and dismissed us in the same nanosecond. It is likely that these women spoke perfect English. Unfortunately, we never found out: Having embarrassed ourselves by doing everything short of rubbing our eyes in disbelief, we beat a retreat to the alley and ordered beers from a passing waiter.

"Wow. Stunning," said my friend, Howard, after we'd exited the unnamed bar and caught our breath. Later, in our numerous retellings of the incident, it would become known as "the Honeypot."

When I returned to Dubrovnik four months later, the seasonal crowds had mostly gone, and, with them, the nightlife. When I tried once again to locate the bar of plenty, I could not. But there were still gleaming BMWs alongside ailing Yugos, ancient rowboats berthed next to million-dollar yachts in the marina. And I did meet Esme, a soft-spoken middle-aged woman who rented me a beautiful studio apartment just off the Stradun for $15 a night. On my last evening, as I stood high above the city on top of the ruins of a fort built by Napoleon and watched the sun set over the red-tiled roofs and the Adriatic beyond, I didn't really miss the Honeypot.

But if I go back to Dubrovnik, I might try to find it again.

"THERE ARE NO new things on this island," declared Pino Vojkovic, 29, the ponytailed founder of an adventure travel agency called Alternatura, as we stood atop 1,926-foot Mount Hum, the highest point on his home island of Vis. Surveying this remote Croatian isle, about 15 miles west of Hvar, I thought it looked like a place that would make a fine hideout for a Bond villain—craggy, remote, mountainous, and riddled with caves.

"Everything here is a little... sleepy," Pino told me, and, after two days of being lulled by its slow-motion pace, I had to agree.

Still, he had just finished telling me that he and his paragliding friends liked to jump off the spot we were standing on, catch the rising thermal draft, and soar out over the water before gliding down to his hometown, the fishing village of Komiza. He had shown me a video of it that morning on his laptop, telling me that his agency organizes a paragliding festival every December and that he offers sea-kayaking, trekking, scuba-diving, and boat trips to nearby islets. Surely these things must qualify as novelties on an island of farmers and fishermen that was closed to outsiders until 1990 due to its strategic importance as a Yugoslav military base. And even Pino himself is the embodiment of something new.

"Another way of tourism is becoming more popular: outdoor trips, adventure, aromatherapy... and I don't know what," Pino told me, trailing off and chuckling to himself, seemingly over the prospect of aromatherapy. "But our government and bureaucracy are very afraid of new things. They are stuck in the old way, so they do not see this yet, but soon they will have to."

Zeljko Kelemen, 52, the elder statesman of the Croatian outdoor scene, has been instrumental in helping people understand the potential of adventure tourism in Croatia. A former competitive kayaker, he now owns Croatia's oldest and largest outdoor outfitter, Huck Finn Adventure Travel. In the early 1990s, Zeljko began offering a few rafting trips that drew a steady clientele of UN peacekeepers.

"The biggest problem we have is adventure illiteracy," Zeljko told me in his storefront office on the south side of Zagreb, his new VW van parked outside with two yellow kayaks on top. "Most people have no idea what is caving, kayaking, canoeing, rafting.

"When we first started with sea kayaking near Dubrovnik, the locals saw us and said, ‘These must be poor people who have no money to pay for a nice motorboat,' " he recalled, "but gradually they realized that even though our clients are in kayaks, they are eating at the best restaurants, they are spending money, and then it started changing their idea of adventure tourism. It just takes time."

And though it needs a little more time to ripen, the Croatian outdoor scene is coming of age. For example, visitation to Paklenica National Park, a popular rock-climbing and hiking area midway down the Dalmatian coast, has increased from 30,000 visitors in 1990 to 105,000 in 2004. While the first adventure race drew only blank stares five years ago, there are now ten or so annually. And the tourist board's adventure travel brochure listed 40 agencies offering outdoor trips in 2001; by 2004, that number had grown to 120. By virtue of his expertise, contacts, and experience, Zeljko sits at the apex of this nascent network of outdoor operators—but not everyone gets what the younger generation is trying to do.

On my final morning in Komiza, on the island of Vis, I sat in a smoke-filled café with Pino and his childhood friend and business partner Zvonko Brajcic, 29, known universally as Dado.

"Here, if you are young, the older generation thinks you don't know too much, and so they don't give you the opportunity, and the banks won't give you loans," Dado said. "So the only capital we have is our enthusiasm and our ability to work."

"Enthusiasm," interjected Pino with a snort, venting a bit of his frustration at having to turn his office into a video-rental shop during the winter months to make ends meet. "Now it is all enthusiasm and not enough doing, but we cannot eat enthusiasm."

As I was leaving to catch a ferry back to the mainland, Dado produced an apt parable.

"The boats in Komiza," he told me, "were always painted black. Then one guy a hundred years ago painted his white, and the others laughed. But then they saw that he sleeps well and is not so hot and they did the same. Now all the boats are painted white—and this is how new ideas go here: very slowly."

AFTER WEEKS OF GOING very slowly myself—lazily sipping espresso at café tables, lapping up the drowsy pace of island life, and too frequently accepting offers of home-brewed alcohols—I was in no shape for a hike.

Of course, by the time I realized that, I was following three fit Croatians up a stone path heading toward a mountain hut in 23,722-acre Paklenica National Park, whose 90 miles of hiking trails are less than an hour from the coastal city of Zadar. The path followed a sparkling stream overshadowed by Croatia's fourth-highest peak, Vaganski, a 5,767-foot limestone outcrop. We were sandwiched by soaring limestone walls spackled with the bolts of some of the 500-odd sport-climbing routes that drew 40,000 climbers last year.

As we walked, my three guides—Marijan Buzov, 30, a national-park ranger who recently started an outfitting business; his wife and business partner, Irena, 28; and their 33-year-old friend Jana Mijailovic—all members of the Paklenica Mountaineering Club of Zadar, explained the development of the Croatian outdoor scene while their dogs, Dingy and Frodo, flitted in and out of sight.

"Ecology was not a word we knew in the old system," Marijan explained, "but our natural environment is the one good thing we have left from communism: We didn't have the money to destroy our nature, so we have that—clear water, beautiful parks and mountains—and it makes us competitive with other Mediterranean countries."

When we arrived at the hut two hours later, my guides began to extract onions, potatoes, cheese, ham, salami, baguettes, a whole chicken, and two six-packs of beer from their packs. I was doubly shamed, as mine contained little more than a notebook, a camera, a sleeping bag they had lent me, and some lint. Luckily, the hut was a well-provisioned two-story affair of brown logs, gray stones, and red shutters, with a smoking chimney and laundry fluttering on a clothesline strung across the second-story porch.

Inside was a square card table in front of a woodstove where four men of varying ages sat and played dice while drinking a constant stream of dark coffee and smoking an equally steady supply of cigarettes rolled from a shoebox full of loose tobacco. The ringleader of their typically operatic Croatian conversation, who was also the hut's caretaker, resembled a cross between Walt Whitman and Charles Manson, a smallish man with a quick smile and a kindly face framed by a graying goatee and a rat's nest of shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair. He wore slippers even when venturing outside to fetch firewood or check on the water-wheel that powered the hut's few dangling lightbulbs. Occasionally, he took a moment out from the table to talk to his dog, and one could be forgiven for thinking he was asking her advice on some finer point.

"They look crazy," said Jana, nodding toward the table when she saw me looking at them. By then we were eating a delicious meal that she'd prepared for us by burying a Dutch-oven-like dish called a peka in the coals of the smokehouse outside for half an hour. "But they're really not."

As if on cue, the men broke into a chaotic song that mirrored their conversation, which was itself a well-practiced four-part harmony of shouting and laughing, gesticulating and knee slapping. It looked and sounded exhausting and seemed a validation of what I had come to see as the indivisible trinity of Croatian-male life: coffee, cigarettes, and conversation.

"What are they talking about?" I asked, expecting tales of sorrow, passion, ideals, politics, humor, or perhaps sports.

"Nothing, really," replied Irena.

The next morning, Marijan and I sat outside the hut at a picnic table, drinking coffee and discussing the past, present, and future of Croatia as the sun rose above us and illuminated the peaks higher in the valley. The dice players of the evening before had set to work clearing a nearby hillside of brush, stacking what they'd cut into big piles to be burned later. Their working pace seemed regulated by the same metronomic beat as their dice game: a few minutes of concentrated work followed by a cigarette break, during which they took their shirts off, sat in the sun on rocks and stumps, and resumed their conversation. I kept one ear on them as Marijan talked, but his purposeful English won out over their jolly mayhem.

"You know what's the really good thing about Croatia?" asked Marijan, surveying the scene while taking a long drag from his cigarette and offering me one. "People can still be surprised here."

Getting There \\ Fly from New York to Dubrovnik via Frankfurt on Lufthansa (from $1,510; 800-645-3880, www.lufthansa.com); or from New York to Dubrovnik via Vienna on Austrian Airlines (from $1,260; 800-843-0002, www.aua.com)

Prime Time \\ June, July, and August account for two-thirds of the annual visitor totals, and during those months you will want to reserve ahead of time, as there's nothing quite so disappointing as showing up on an island only to find all of its accommodations booked solid and no ferries back until the next day. Your best bet may be to opt for September, when the weather is just as nice and the water almost as warm, but the crowds are halved.

Getting Around \\ Trains, such a travel mainstay elsewhere in Europe, will do you little good in Croatia. Luckily, the bus service is reliable, well organized, and reasonably comfortable, connecting all the cities and ports of the coast with one another and with inland cities at regular intervals. You may have to pay about $1 per bag to check your luggage. Renting a car is also a good option, as the road system has been massively upgraded since the war, with a system of highways linking the major cities. (Yes, you'll have to pay a $10–$15 toll). Budget (www.budget.com) has rental locations throughout the country. But the highlight of any Croatian trip is the islands, so it's only fitting that the transportation highlight should be the vast ferry system; most ferry services are run by the state-owned Jadrolinija (www.jadrolinija.com), supplemented by a few small private operators in busier areas. The ferry journey from Rijeka down to Dubrovnik (daily during the summer), running the whole length of the coast, offers a hop-on, hop-off through-ticket, allowing you to explore islands along the way.

Exploring \\ Croatia Luxe: Live like a 19th-Century aristocrat: The Regent Esplanade (doubles from $276; 800-545-4000), in Zagreb, was once known as one of Europe's grandest hotels. These days it's the resting spot of choice for the steady stream of venture capitalists who come to test the Croatian waters. The Grand Hotel Kvarner (doubles from $84; 011-385-51-271-233, www.pro.hr/hotel/kvarner), in Opatija, opened in 1884 and once was the vacation spot of Austro-Hungarian emperors. The waterfront hotel has seen better days but retains an unmistakable grandeur, from the Crystal Ballroom to the expansive terrace. And in Dubrovnik, the recently renovated Pucic Palace hotel (doubles, $616; 011-385-20-326-222, www.thepucicpalace.com) occupies a swank 17th-century palace within the old city walls. \\ Sail the Adriatic: The most stylish way to appreciate the Adriatic is via sailboat. Nearly every town on the coast and islands has an equipped marina. If you find yourself yachtless, fear not: A number of companies rent yachts either bareboat or with a skipper. To find your own 26- to 54-foot floating fun hog, try Sail Croatia (www.sailcroatia.net), Nautilus Yachting (www.nautilus-yachting.com), or Seafarer (www.seafarercruises.com). Prices vary. For a more active twist on a yachting holiday, Huck Finn Adventure Travel ($900–$1,200; 011-385-16-183-333, www.huck-finn.hr) offers eight-day adventure-sailing trips, which incorporate hiking, biking, snorkeling, sea kayaking, and even whitewater rafting at island stops along the way \\ Paraglide on Vis: Vis is the perfect launching point for paragliding, and the favorable climate means 250-plus flying days annually. Beginners are welcome, and a local agency offers tandem jumps with professional instructors. ($76 per day; 011-385-21-717-239, www.alternatura.hr) \\ Cave and Climb: Climbers wishing to test their mettle on the limestone walls of Paklenica National Park should get info from the Croatian Mountaineering Association (hps.inet.hr/tr_eng/). Zara Adventure Agency (011-385-23-342-368, www.zara-adventure.hr), in Zadar, offers caving and climbing trips to some of the thousands of caves around Paklenica National Park and the Velebit range. \\ Hike the Velebit Mountain Trail: Though no agencies currently organize trips along this hundred-mile trail, it's worth seeking out. It follows the ridgeline of Velebit, the range that separates the northern coast from the hinterland, passing through Northern Velebit and Paklenica national parks. The huts are rustic, but the views more than make up for any discomfort. For maps and info, check with Northern Velebit National Park (www.np-sjeverni-velebit.hr/novi_web/Velebit_eng). \\ Raft the Kupa, Dobra, and Cetiina Rivers: It's not Class V, but the rivers of Croatia will provide plenty of fun for whitewater nuts. Huck Finn Adventure Travel runs trips to all these rivers. \\ Pretend You're in Tuscany: The Istrian Peninsula, at the north of Croatia's coastal region, is a mini- Tuscany without the crowds: farmhouse-style accommodations to go along with the fine wines, fresh olive oil, and savory cuisine. The regional tourism association (www.istra.com) keeps a pretty complete list of lodging offerings, and some companies, like Saddle Skedaddle (www.skedaddle.co.uk), offer eight-day mountain-bike tours through Istria.

Resources \\ The Croatian National Tourism Board (800-829-4416, www.croatia.hr) has a branch office in New York and a helpful Web site. Other useful sites to check out are www.findcroatia.com and www.adriatica.net.

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