Lying at the foot of the Biokovo mountains south of Omiš, the Makarska Riviera is Dalmatia’s most package-tourist-saturated stretch of coast. However it has much to offer independent travellers too, most notably its long pebble beaches and rugged unspoilt hinterland. The town of Makarska, roughly in the middle of the region, has the most to offer year-round, is a good base from which to tackle the ascent of the Biokovo range, and offers boisterous nightlife in the summer peak season. Many of the other coastal settlements are bland and packagey in comparison, although archaic hill villages above Makarska and Tučepi, and a quirky monastery at Zaostrog, provide the area with plenty of character.
The long grey streak of the Biokovo ridge hovers over the Makarska Riviera for some 50km, and its highest point – 1762m Sveti Jure, just above Makarska – is the highest point in Croatia. Much of the range falls within the boundaries of the Biokovo Nature Park (Park prirode Biokovo; w biokovo.com), which was formed in order to preserve the area’s unique combination of lush pine forests, Mediterranean scrub and arid, almost desert-like fields of stone. It takes five to six hours to climb Sveti Jure from Makarska: head uphill from St Mark’s Church, cross the Magistrala and continue to the village of Makar, from where a marked path leads to the 1422-metre-high subsidiary peak of Vošac (3–4hr). It’s a steep climb, but there’s a stunning panorama of Makarska and its beaches at the top. You can break your journey at the Vošac mountain hut (weekends only; t 021 615 422), or press on for a further two hours’ hike to Sveti Jure itself, where you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of the Dalmatian islands.
Be warned, however, that Biokovo is not suitable for occasional hikers, and ill-prepared tourists are more likely to come to grief on its slopes than anywhere else in Croatia. The ascent is strenuous, slippery and prone to swift weather changes, so you’ll need proper footwear, waterproofs, plenty to drink and a fully charged mobile phone. Get a weather forecast from the tourist office in Makarska beforehand – if there’s a chance of strong winds, don’t even think about setting out. The Makarska tourist office can also provide a free 1:20 000 map charting the Makarska-Vošac-Sveti Jure routes. A 1:25,000 hiking map of the whole Biokovo range is available from bookshops and newspaper kiosks.
You can drive to the top in summer by taking the road to Vrgorac and Mostar just south of Makarska, then turning left after 7km up a steeply ascending track which works its way up to the summit from the southeast – although you’ll require nerves of steel to negotiate the hairpins. Biokovo Active Holidays organizes guided walks up Sveti Jure and early morning jeep trips to watch the sunrise.