If the Croatian Adriatic has an increasing reputation for mixing Mediterranean tradition with modern chic, then it’s arguably on the southern Dalmatian islands that most people expect to find it. A few resort settlements apart, local tourism has avoided megalomaniac corporate development, and a contemporary boutique approach to hotels, restaurants and yachting marinas goes hand in hand with a much older holiday culture of private accommodation and local food and wine. The sense of insular uniqueness is enhanced by the fact that the vast majority of travellers have to cross at least part of the Adriatic Sea in order to get here – first impressions of arriving in ancient ports fringed by palms and overlooked by arid hills are not likely to be forgotten in a hurry.
Easiest to reach from the mainland is the island of Brač, boasting some good beaches at Supetar and a truly wonderful one at Bol, while lying off the northern coast of Brač is relatively unsung Šolta, with its quiet country lanes and yacht-sprinkled inlets. Further south is the long thin ridge of Hvar, whose capital, Hvar Town, rivals Dubrovnik in terms of stone-built architectural beauty. It’s also a fashionable hang-out for urbane travellers: chic bars rub shoulders with Gothic palaces and chapels, and water taxis convey bathers to idyllic offshore islets. Hvar Town’s hedonistic buzz contrasts with the rest of the island, where small-town destinations like Stari Grad and Jelsa offer a much more laid-back take on the Dalmatian island experience. Much the same can be said of the island of Korčula, south of Hvar, whose fascinating medieval capital, Korčula Town, offers a mixture of urban tourism and lazy beachcombing. Farther out, but still only a few hours by boat from Split, the island of Vis was only opened up to foreign tourists in 1989, after previously serving as a naval base. Wilder and less visited than Brač or Hvar, it’s an obligatory destination for travellers who want a piece of the Adriatic to themselves. Far-flung Lastovo is another favourite destination for the independent-minded, with a supremely relaxing main village ringed by unspoiled bays. You can rejoin the mainland from Korčula by a short ferry-ride to the Pelješac peninsula – virtually an island itself – which is joined to the coast by a slim neck of land at Ston, whose magnificent town walls were built to defend the northernmost frontiers of the Dubrovnik Republic.