It’s not uncommon for travelers heading to the Istria region of Croatia to be asked by well-meaning friends, “Why go there when Italy is so close?” But this region’s fascinating history—it has been claimed by France, Austria, Slovenia, and even Italy at various points in time—affects everything from its food and architecture to its locals’ attitudes, making it worth a visit.
Europeans are well acquainted with Istria, first flocking here after the end of the Serbo-Croatian War in 1995, as desperate tourism entrepreneurs were eager to rebuild their businesses. Though these early efforts were geared toward budget travelers, in later years, a number of luxury hotels, attractions, and restaurants sprung up in the region.
Start your own Croatian holiday in Rovinj, a charming medieval town midway up the western coast. Then head up to Savudrija in the northwest, where on a clear day, you can see the Slovenian and Italian coasts. In Istria, hotels serve as ground zero for high-end travel: food, wine, spas, and décor are on par with luxury hotels anywhere in the world.
Great wineries are a short drive inland, and sixth- and seventh-generation winemakers are happy to talk at length about their wine. (Malvasia, a light, crisp white, is popular in the region.) When it comes to food, Istria’s is as fresh as it gets: At a seaside café, it’s not unusual to place your order, only to have a cook grab a fish that’s still swimming in a bucket from that morning’s catch, prep it, and toss it on the grill for lunch.
Celebrities have also discovered the allure of Istria. In the last few years, Naomi Campbell, John Malkovich, and Prince Harry have all been spotted there. Rumor has it that Brad Pitt is behind a new luxury oceanfront resort set to open opposite the Brijuni islands in the next couple of years; Angelina Jolie has also visited, even meeting with Croatian president Ivo Josipovic.
If Istria appeals to your inner explorer, plan your visit now: Croatia celebrated its best tourism year ever in 2011 and is slated to become part of the European Union in 2013, which will undeniably further alter the flavor of its already unique culture.
1. Where to Stay
In the Golden Cape Natural Park, the Hotel Lone in Rovinj opened in spring 2011. Located on the edge of a network of walking trails and an easy stroll to the center of Rovinj, the ultramodern Lone resembles a Jetson-era cruise ship. Luje Adamovica 31, HR – 52210 Rovinj. 385-52-632-000; lonehotel.com/en.
The Kempinski Hotel Adriatic in Savudrija is the first five-star resort in Croatia and offers an 18-hole championship seaside golf course. Alberi 300 A, 52475 Savudrija; 385-52-707-000; kempinski.com.
2. Where to Eat
Italian restaurants are abundant, but so are truffles. Some of the best places to partake: Monte offers black noir risotto and cauliflower soup with truffles. Montalbano 75, Rovinj 52210, Rovinj; 385-052-830-203; monte.hr.
The L Restaurant at the Lone Hotel features cuisine and service that rivals any five-star American urban restaurant. Luje Adamovica 31, HR – 52210 Rovinj; 385-52-632-000; lonehotel.com/en.
3. What To Do Wander through the cobblestoned streets of Rovinj, dotted with farmers’ markets and cafes.
Visit the Kozlovic Winery in the tiny town of Momjan and taste the Malvasia from winemaker Gianfranco Kozlovic, whose family started making wine on this land in 1904. Vale 78, 52462 Momjan; 385-52-779-177; kozlovic.hr.