Why Croatia is the Chicest Spot on the Riviera

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Hvar (pronounced V-AR) is only the fourth-largest of the Croatian islands in the middle Adriatic, but it's the chicest to emerge on a new Riviera flush with luxury hotels and upscale nightlife for the global jet set.

The toughest part is getting there. Once you figure out the logistics (There's no airport, and access is by ferry from Split or Dubrovnik.), you realize why billionaires like Jeffrey Katzenberg and Bill Gates prefer to arrive in Hvar via yacht.

Welcome to Split

Hvar is best experienced as a five-day add-on to a trip to Dubrovnik, Montenegro or Southern Italy.

One way to get there is by taking a flight into Split's Soviet-era airline terminal.

Taxis are impossible to find and usually not air-conditioned, so spend the money for a decent rental car from an international chain. You'll drive 30 minutes into town, where you'll likely smell the harbor before you see it. Heed the city name and "split" on a ferry as fast as you can.

Hvar at First Sight

You'll likely catch your first glimpse of Hvar on the top deck of a rickety, smoke-spitting ferry, amid a crowd of elderly locals and teenage tourists carrying their weight in backpacks. The city surrounds a small harbor lined in regal yachts attended by deckhands in fresh white shirts.

The seafront is recently renovated and lined with nautical flags. There are polished marble streets, and a fresh coat of paint covers most of the renovated buildings in a rugged-stone spin on that iconic waterfront in St. Tropez.

Finding a Good Hotel

This isn't Hvar of 2005, which was the first time I visited the island: Then, I discovered weary communist hotels and filthy campers quite content without essentials like air conditioning or one good restaurant.

Hvar has cleaned up its act, and essentially recreated itself as a luxury beach destination, even though there are very few sand beaches. This year we can recommend three hotels, all owned by Suncani Hvar, which has single handedly renovated each of island's legendary historical hotels.

The best hotel on Hvar is the Adriana Hotel and Spa. Opened in 2007, it's the island's first true luxury hotel and is located in a historic waterfront building walking distance from the town center. The hotel is home to a glitzy in-house restaurant adjacent to a hip lobby lounge and the island's first Sensori Spa. It's also home to The Top, Croatia's first rooftop pool and lounge, which sizzles from May through September, hosting guests like Nicky Hilton.

Just across the harbor is the Riva Yacht Hotel, the island's first true boutique hotel. It's located next to the ferry pier at the edge of town.
The hotel's long outdoor lounge is a popular gathering point for yacht-hoppers looking for a quick food fix and the lively lounge scene at Roots Restaurant. The hotel lacks a pool or spa but allows guests to use the Adriana for all their splashy needs.

New for 2008 is the recently renovated Amfora Resort, along a tranquil bay and private beach a short 5-minute walk through town. Don't let the hotel's institutional façade put you off. The interior of the property, as well as all rooms and common areas, has been painstakingly stripped of socialist styling and invigorated with boutique-chic furnishings and a family-minded resort pool area.

For those who can wait, the grand dame of Hvar hotels is the Palace, on the main square. It will be fully renovated in time for 2009's high season.

Eating in Hvar

Of all the restaurants we tried, including Macondo and Gariful, we found the best food at the new Bonj Les Bains Beach Club.
Built in the 1930s as a boat- and bath-house, a dramatic stone colonnade along the seafront is now home to a hip beach club and spa under a dense sky of pine tress. Grab a cabana by day and work on that tan while listening to DJ house music and noshing on locally grown specialties and sandwiches.

The restaurant offers all-day dining with a healthy organic menu that's currently a grazing ground for the island's sexiest singles.
In the evening, Hvar mimics Italy as the town slowly comes alive with dressed-up locals making their pilgrimage to the various benches along the harbor's main promenade.

Octogenarians share gossip with lifelong neighbors and chat up tourists between rounds of chess. The yachts along the harbor slowly come to life as butlers ready the dining room tables and the rich come to eat lobster in full view of all who pass.
The eateries along the water are mostly pizza shops and bars disguised as restaurants. Make your way to Lucullus (021/742-498) off the main square for traditional Croatian slow-cooked food like Brodeto stew and grilled meat plates that take three hours to prepare.

St. Tropez Lite - Nightlife

Hvar knows how to have fun, which is obvious at the harborside Carpe Diem, a 2-story dance club and outdoor bar featuring well-sunned singles socializing to the beat of Mediterranean house music.

Late-summer parties in August and September last from midafternoon till the early hours of the morning. Buy a bottle and snuggle up in the quirky VIP area for the best people-watching. Carpe Diem is also launching a beach club in time for the 2008 summer season.

As night turns to early morning, head for Veneranda, Hvar's one late-night dance club. It lures a mixed crowd of all-night revelers to its hillside promontory above the main town.

Visitors arrive after 10 p.m. and ascend a stone staircase to a promenade that overlooks the lights of Hvar and moonlit seaside. A DJ stage and outdoor dance floor under a tented canopy attracts the legions vacating Carpe Diem around 2 a.m. The pool and clubby lounge are perfect for watching a Hvar sunrise.

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