Never mind that the beaches are mostly made of pebbles and rocks, Croatia’s islands, off the coast of Dalmatia, make for a singular beach getaway that won’t wreck your budget. No matter what you need as a traveler - non-stop windsurfing, family-friendly outings, or topless sunbathing - your biggest problem likely will be picking which beach you ought to visit first.
5…Make Jelsa your home base.
Start by setting up shop in Jelsa, a former fishing village on the north side of the island of Hvar. Typically, you’ll arrive via catamaran ferry from the nearest coastal city, Split, about 1.5 hours away. Take time on the ride to savor your first impression: you’ll see the town’s orange-clay-tiled roofs and stately houses ringing the harbor, relics of the village’s fishing past, with some houses dating from the seventeenth century. Inlets, pine trees, hotels, hills and mountains fill the periphery, with numerous sunbathers always dotting the rough terrain just outside the harbor.
Jelsa’s seafaring history aside, today the town caters to the tourist trade, offering an array of accommodations, including campgrounds, pensions, hotels and resorts. No matter where you stay, request a sea view for the chance to see wonderful panoramas of the distant Dinaric Alps mountain ranges, but don’t expect stunning accommodations. That said, you’re here for the beaches, and Jelsa has several wonderful, semi-secluded ones that are easily reachable on foot. In the harbor, water taxis are always at the ready to help you explore beaches down the coast or on nearby islands.
4…Pack a foam mat.
Start the day with espresso and pastries at a café on the waterfront – such reminders that Italy is but a short hop over the water to the west are constant - while deciding which beach to visit. Stone beaches abound by the harbor, though most of these feature poured-concrete platforms, since there’s otherwise little in the way of flat surfaces useful for containing the French, Germans, Czechs, Croats, Brits and other Europeans who come here seeking sun. So if you didn’t pack a foam camping mat to soften things up, buy one at any of the beachwear and accessory shops in town. Regardless of beach location or target demographic, also know that topless bathing is common.
One of the best local beaches is along the coastline to the east. Just follow the winding coastal road, past campsites and Croatian vineyards, for about 30 minutes until you see the Zencisce inlet and beach, down a steep path from the road. Pass the omnipresent beach cabana - dispensing Macho chocolate ice cream bars, Segafredo Zanetti espresso, Fanta orange soda, beer and endless Bob Marley tunes - and walk another 10 steps to the sunbathing area, then another 10 to the shallow, warm water. In between songs, bliss out to the cicadas in the nearby pine trees.
3…Get your sand fix.
Craving sand? Catch the 9am ferry from Jelsa to Bol, on the island of Brac, for the best in Croatian beaches. Even though you can see Bol from Jelsa, the journey still takes about an hour. From the disembarkation point, walk about 30 minutes along the well-designed, paved-stone promenade - lined with numerous restaurants, resorts and myriad beach entertainments, including parachute-ride stands and jet-ski rentals - to Zlatni rat, aka the “golden horn,” a sandbar and pebble beach almost 600 yards long that slowly changes shape with the wind.
As with every other beach you’ll visit here, there aren’t any lifeguards. But floating, white-plastic ball and rope lines designate swimming zones - that is to say, boat-exclusion zones. In between swimming and sunning, refuel with snacks from the numerous shops and beach vendors. Actual restaurants, however, are in short supply. So after a full day of sun, catch the afternoon ferry back to Jelsa. While you plan dinner, refresh with a beer at one of the cafes on the harbor.
2…Who will you spot in a bathing suit? Bill Gates or Gywneth Paltrow?
To tour some of Hvar’s interior, ride the morning bus from the Jelsa bus station, located just west of the town, to Hvar Town, via Stari Grad. Hvar Town is the island’s tony see-and-be-seen epicenter, where Bill Gates reportedly docks his yacht and Gywneth Paltrow sightings are not uncommon. Unless you’re playing paparazzi, don’t linger now, except to make a dash up the old, twisting streets of the Old Town to reserve an outdoor table for dinner at Macondo. When you return, try the unpeeled shrimp in wine sauce or any of the fresh fish selections. The town’s bookshop, containing an abundance of English-language titles, is also an excellent place to restock your beach bag if you’ve been burning through the reading material while lazing away your days by the sea.
Next, catch a water taxi for the 15-minute ride to Zdrilca Island, with its pebble and sand beaches. The water is Mediterranean azure, enormous catamarans abound and no one seems to be in much of a hurry. For lunch, pack a picnic, or visit the bar or well-shaded restaurant located at the water-taxi drop-off point. Catch the last water taxi out by 7pm, for a late dinner back in Jelsa, which is easy since most restaurants remain open until midnight.
1…Make time to walk around town.
To mitigate your sun exposure, spend a quiet day in Jelsa, hopping between the bars and cafes in the town’s narrow, twisting back streets, and the hills, lined with stone walls and the occasional shrine. In town, visit the fourteenth-century St. Mary’s Church - fortified against Ottoman attack in the sixteenth century - with its wooden, Gothic Madonna brought by fleeing refugees, which now sits on the Baroque altar. Close to the town square, which is next to a natural spring, find the small, oddly octagonal Chapel of St. John, dating from the seventeenth century.
For dinner, try the super-fresh fried squid or grilled sea bass at Paradiso, located on the coastal road heading east and up the hill out of town. It’s actually a seaside restaurant row, all serving variations on seafood, pizza and pasta, heavy on the risotto and Dalmatian ham, plus wine and grappa, with outdoor tables perched relatively high above the water. Nearer the harbor, try Bistro Star for affordable spaghetti carbonara or massive wiener schnitzel with “garnishings” - fries, mayo and peas.
Finally, don’t forget the handy 24-hour bakery in the town center. Pastries and coffee aside, most of the food isn’t stellar, but it does meet the twin requirements for beach-friendly vacations: it’s plentiful and affordable. For dessert, grab a tiramisu gelato from one of the gelaterias in the town square, where everyone naturally gravitates when, sadly, it gets too dark to remain at the beach.