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Hvar, an island in the Adriatic Sea off Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, is in many ways a contradiction. As a visitor, you might wake up and hike across brambly hillsides to a medieval ghost town, and by sundown be drinking infused cocktails while dancing to techno music. It’s an island where opulent hotels continue to sprout up across the coastline, but the equivalent of $30 can still get you a room in the house of a local grandmother.
Filip Horvat for The New York Times
Walking past St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the town of Hvar.
When I was there last August, I watched as a barefoot boy, about 10, ran into a restaurant with two huge fish he’d just caught being greeted with shouts of “Opa!” (Croatian for “Wow!”) from the staff and diners. I saw three British girls in designer turbans, dark lipstick and gladiator sandals dancing on a bar ringed in flames. I visited a secluded artists’ colony and ate lobster behind a velvet rope.
Perhaps most paradoxically, Hvar (pronounced hwahr) has been a popular resort destination for over a century, and yet it seems permanently perched on the cusp of the-next-big-thing status. Beyoncé, Prince Harry and Tom Cruise have been among its recent visitors, and last year Time Out Croatia ran a cover article headlined “The Rise of Hvar.” Now that Croatia is a member of the European Union, Hvar is poised to gain even greater popularity.
Part of the appeal is environmental: Hvar has a mild Mediterranean climate and excellent beaches of pebble, smooth sun-bleached stone or white sand. The island is certainly one of the sunniest spots in Europe, with more than 2,720 hours of sunlight in an average year (Paris, by comparison, gets about 1,800).
Central to the Adriatic sailing routes, Hvar became a Venetian fortress island in the 16th century, and its largest town, also called Hvar, has pearly white limestone porticos to prove it. It’s there, in the marble marina, that yachts converge, pulling in at high tide and unloading their tipsy, suntanned cargo, who saunter across the main piazza and disappear into cobblestone alleyways.
On my first night on the island, I made my way down one of these alleyways to Konoba Luviji, a two-story tavern and winery tucked behind the Renaissance-style St. Stephen’s Cathedral at the east end of the main square. Luviji is owned by the Bracanovic family, which has been making wine for generations, and its posip (a crisp white, native to Dalmatia) is considered one of the country’s best. The upper terrace looks across the piazza at the hilltop Spanish Fortress and offers stunning views to the sea.
After finishing my meal, a satisfying dish of baked eggplant stuffed with fresh octopus, I decamped with my posip to the stone steps next to the entrance, where I met a group of Slovene artists who have been coming to Hvar every summer since the Yugoslav era, when the free-spirited younger generation helped give the island the cultural life that still thrives in its many galleries, artist colonies and musical associations.
The next day the Slovenes picked me up at the harbor, and we drove north across the island, past rolling, pine-ridged hillsides covered in olive groves, vineyards and silvery-purple lavender fields that have long been the country’s main source for the flowering herb. At the edge of Stari Grad, the island’s older, northern town, we crossed an ancient agricultural plain that received Unesco status in 2008. Founded by the Greeks in the fourth century B.C., Stari Grad is one of the oldest settlements in Europe and, with its simple stone houses and pleasantly yacht-free waterfront, offers a quietly timeworn counterpoint to the hubbub of Hvar Town.
We stopped in at the Dominican Monastery to see its stunning Tintoretto Pietà before heading to Tvrdalj Castle, the 16th-century summer residence of Petar Hektorovic, a local noble and poet. This well-preserved structure, which includes a vaulted seawater fish pool and a courtyard, still bears the lyrical mark of its Renaissance-era proprietor with carved Latin inscriptions like “Alas the days flow by like waves and do not return” and aptly, just above the lavatory, “Know what thou art, then why art thy proud?”
The next day, my American friend Rachel arrived on the island, and we decided to set out for one of Hvar’s many secluded coves, Mekicevica, which is better known by the name of the konoba, or tavern, that is its sole occupant: Robinson.
You can get there by only foot or sea — either the water taxi that makes stops along the shore or with a rental. We opted for the latter and, though neither of us had ever operated a watercraft bigger than an inner tube, we flashed an American driver’s license, handed over 500 kuna (about $85, at 5.8 kuna to the dollar) to a local boy no older than 11 and watched as he fueled up our own personal speedboat. He spoke to us just once: after inadvertently dousing the entire hull with gasoline, he looked up and said, “No smoking.”