Outside of Dubrovnik, Hvar is the epicentre of the Dalmatian travel industry. Holidaymakers come to be around the yachts lined along the harbour of the namesake capital and among the revellers forking out more than top dollar (in Croatian terms) to party into the night. A massive overhaul of key hotels here in the Sunčani Hvar chain has been followed by a slower stage of development as the town comes to terms with its stardom.
The hub of it all is Hvar town harbour. In high season this pretty, petite Venetian capital of 3,000 locals on the island’s south-west tip overflows with 30,000 visitors every day. They swarm the attractive waterfront and adjoining main square, Pjaca, doing coffee, the nearby market and the modest sights by morning, the beach by day and the bars by night. Prices now match those of fashionable hotspots elsewhere on the Med. Sunčani Hvar’s Amfora Hotel broke new ground when it opened in 2008, its conference centre containing an outdoor meeting area and cascading pool area lined by bars, restaurants and gardens. Another new property, Villa Nora, provides Hotel Park with welcome competition.
The agricultural plain around Stari Grad was included on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008, throwing focus onto this hitherto sleepy but delightful town and surrounds. The plain is an almost unaltered and outstanding example of a Greek land parcel system (chora) dating back to the fourth century BC, and with its new status have come new walking and bike trails, and the likelihood of further investment in the infrastructure of a town which offers a complete contrast to its trendy neighbour.
A burgeoning café-and-gallery vibe fits well with the low-key attitudes of Stari Grad and Jelsa, further east along the coast. Both are fine examples of old neighbourhoods where stone houses, ornate colonnaded balconies and winding pedestrian promenades, polished by centuries of travellers, take top billing over discos and clubs. In Jelsa’s serpentine alleyways, for instance, quality eateries have sprouted up. Nearby Vrboska is also a delight with its tiny stone bridges, two marinas and just enough restaurants and bars to keep the yachties happy. There’s a sense in these towns that, except for a few mad weeks, it’s just you, the locals and ancient stone decor.
For a real insight into the complete history of this lavender-covered island, a thin strip extending east for 60km to the isolated but charming port of Sućuraj, go inland to Humac, Dol, Malo Grabje, Velo Grabje or Vrbanj. Now mostly uninhabited except for the odd konoba, the original islanders built their old stone houses safe from the pirates of Omiš and worked the land. In Humac you will find a delightful konoba of the same name; it runs tours of the nearby Grap±eva cave (099 577 1770).
In Dol you have Konoba Kokot, another gem of a traditional family restaurant and all around you will see the olives, grapes, lavender and Aloe plants that go into producing some of Croatia’s finest olive oil, wine and honey.
Stari Grad is also the point of entry for car ferries from Split. It was here that Greeks from Paros settled in 385 BC and named it Pharos – later bastardised to ‘Hvar’. Invading Venetians then shifted the centre of power (and the name) to the west coast port of today’s Hvar town. While the Venetians were building their capital, the island became the hub of an important Croatian cultural renaissance. The elegant loggias and main square in Hvar town owe their look to Venice.