Thursday, July 26, 2007

Summer 2007: Hvar, Croatia

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When I first arrived in Hvar Town, I almost wondered if the ferry from Split had taken a wrong turn and I’d ended up in EuroDisney. The small harbourfront town is almost too picturesque to be real; shiny cobbles, a central square dominated by elegant Venetian architecture lined with white-canopied cafes and a village of terracotta-roofed houses and tiny streets clustered up the hill behind.

It’s long been the hippest resort in Croatia – Roman Abramovich likes to cruise into town on his mega-yacht, and local hero Goran Ivanisevic is a regular at the Carpe Diem bar - but moves are afoot to create a glitzy five-star playground to rival the likes of St Tropez.

Most of this is down to one hotel chain, Suncani Hvar who have recently been taken over and are now investing massively in the nine hotels they own on the island. Gone (or going) are the simple two and three-star accommodations, to be replaced by sleek design hotels with cocktail bars and wi-fi internet access and Ibiza-esque soundtracks on a loop.

Two have opened this summer – the Riva and the Adriana – both members of Small Luxury Hotels of the World and already changing the profile of what had been a fairly egaliatarian tourist mix. Walking along the harbourfront I heard American backpackers, German families, clusters of mini-skirted Italians. But mostly I heard the sound of money; groups of bronzed young things knocking back Camparis and discussing their day’s sailing at the CafĂ© Plajca on the harbourfront.

Hvar is an evening town; as with most Croatia resorts, it does suffer from a lack of decent beaches. If you’re feeling lazy, you can stroll down, past the Riva and Carpe Diem and on round the harbour to a small shingle beach close to the Dalmacija hotel. But the best plan is to join the crowds of Croatian holidaymakers who hop on the regular boat taxis to the Pakleni islands – about 30 glorious minutes of drifting across a sea with the clarity of cut glass.

As the sun begins to set on Hvar Town, the real action begins. For many, supper is just a pitstop between early even cocktails and late-night drinks, but the vibe is laid-back and there’s little in the way of clubbing. The late night action centres around Carpe Diem which combines an elegant terrace with low, rattan sofas with a cosy lounge bar all housed in a beautiful Venetian mansion. It’s definitely worth a visit, but I preferred Zimmer Frei, to the right of the main square, smaller, cosier and offering the chance to lounge on white sofa cushions in the tiny street and sip excellent Caiprinhas away from the hordes.

But perhaps one of the simplest pleasures on Hvar is taking part in the evening passagiata – with that must-have accessory, an ice-cream. The Slasticarna (the Croatian equivalent of a gelateria) served me up a fantastic combination of pistachio and chocolate, which I ate strolling between lascivious Italian couples and groups of Croatian holidaymakers. Beautiful place, beautiful people, beautiful ice-cream. What more can you want from a holiday?

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