As you approach Korčula from the mainland nearby, the crowded little houses on the edge of the island seem to be pushing each other out of the way to see if you are friend or foe. Holding them in, stern medieval walls centrepieced by the slim belltower of St Mark’s Cathedral stand guard over the narrow Pelješac Channel, protecting the riches contained on the sixth largest island in the Croatian Adriatic. So lush with dark pine forests, vineyards and olive groves the ancient Greek settlers called it Korkyra Melaina (‘Black Corfu’), Korčula has managed to avoid the tourist trap tendencies of its original Greek namesake 480km south.
No longer fought over by Turk or Venetian, by French or Austrian, by Partisan or German, Korčula is one of Dalmatia’s most relaxing getaways. The main town of the same name, set on the north-eastern tip of the island opposite the Pelješac peninsula, has one of the best-preserved medieval centres in the Adriatic. Historic Korčula is therefore the most popular south-Dalmatian destination after the more crowded Dubrovnik, with which it is often compared.
And Korčula is undoubtedly a beautiful place in which to get stuck for a week or two, its woolly green covering of evergreen holm oak and prickly maquis punctuated by dark-green spears of cypress. The main road from the ferry port at Vela Luka to Korčula town switches from one side of the island’s central spine to the other, offering majestic maritime views that take in the crisp grey-brown silhouettes of neighbouring islands Hvar and Lastovo. Throughout the interior, hillside-hugging villages hover above a patchwork of vineyards and vegetable plots.
The main attraction is Korčula town itself, with its historic centre of narrow alleys and crenellated walls. Superb beaches (including some genuinely sandy ones) are to be found at Lumbarda, and in the secluded coves of the south coast. The beautifully-situated port of Vela Luka is the island’s other major urban centre, although there’s a lot to be said for the sleepy villages inland – it’s here that the true heartland of Korčula’s distinctive cuisine and unique wines is to be found.
Tourists with modern-day demands are at last catered for at the Lešić-Dimitri Palace Korčula, a five-star luxury retreat with a spa and restaurant to match. The refurbishment of the four-star Marko Polo is another boon. Recent additions to the Korčula festival calendar include the Korkyra Baroque Music Festival (www.korkyrabaroque.com), which celebrated its inaugural edition in September 2012, and the Marco Polo Triathlon Challenge (http://marcopolotriathlon.com) held on the last weekend of April since its first, highly successful outing in 2011.