Croatia’s Adriatic coast does not shy away from its beauty. Its homes are delightfully Mediterranean with their wind-polished stony walls and red-tiled roofs which vibrate with the summer sun.
While dishes from the blue-green waters of this sea are excellent, the fact that the islands in these waters are wine destinations in their own right is often overlooked.
These are islands that have been inhabited for thousands of years. Various waves of civilisation have come to pass – from the Greeks to the Romans, the Austro-Hungarian crown, two World Wars and ‘Communism lite’. For thirty years the Croatian republic has been a member of the European Union, the Eurozone and Schengen. Despite all the diverse history, the connective tissue has always been the wine.
Since Croatia declared independence in the 1990s, there’s been steady investment in private wineries at the cost of the old collective cooperatives which have nearly all collapsed. There’s also been consolidation around the main grape varieties of Plavac Mali along with a splash of Tribidrag (Croatian Zinfandel) for the reds, and Pošip, Prč, Bogdanuša and Vugava for the whites, depending upon the island.
The evolution of the wine industry has readily kept pace with the rise in visitors and the islands of Dalmatia now make for an excellent destination for any wine lover.
A destination within a destination, the island of Hvar has been the hottest point of travel for some time within both Dalmatia and also Croatia as a whole. Its slim profile seems small at first glance, but the fact that it stretches for 100km east to west and features a mountain ridge reaching 626m at Sveti Nikola peak makes the island a hulking bastion of stony slopes and natural harbours.
Winemaking is exceedingly historic here. So much so that the Stari Grad Plain, containing the ruins of old Roman villas as well as winemaking sites, was established as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. This is also where winery owners have their ‘cooler’ sites, especially for white wines made from Pošip, Prč and Bogdanuša.
The main wine growing area, however, is on the south side of the island, which is home to epic vineyards of Plavac Mali grapes splashing up the slopes while at the same time plunging into the waters of the Adriatic below. The main winery in this area is well-established Zlatan Otok founded by Zlatan Plenković.
Luviji winery is located just outside Hvar Town. Further towards the middle of the island is the main concentration of wineries with Vina Tomić seeing a wealth of visitors to the village of Jelsa. Also not to be missed in Jelsa is the new winery of Vina Carić which also has a tavern in neighbouring Vrboska.
While you can choose whether to buy into the claim of Korčula Town being Marco Polo’s birthplace, the island of Korčula is a fine destination regardless. The massive walls and towers of the old town provide a stunning view when arriving by boat, and the streets have been laid out in a fascinating ‘leaf’ pattern to allow for better air circulation.
Wineries here are all based towards the middle of the island and, as the post-World War II Yugoslavian authorities dubbed this a white-producing region, the white grape Pošip still reigns supreme, although several producers are working with Grk, believed to be an older grape.
Cooperative Pošip PZ Čara has not only managed to stay afloat in the conversion to the free market but also to make stellar wines from Pošip. Krajančić winery also makes Pošip wines of note and is located in the village of Zavalatica. Toreta in the central village of Smokvica makes great white wines as well as dabbling in a bit of red.
Elaphiti – Šipan
The Elaphiti are a series of three small islands that sit like a cluster of paint daubs running northwards from the main port of Dubrovnik. Each has its own attraction – be it the beach, hiking or small chapels – but it’s the largest island, Šipan, which has a more serious wine presence.
The wineries of Daničić and Goravica are both based in Suđurađ and are the only two wineries on Šipan. Both work with a mixture of local and foreign varieties and Mato, the owner of Goravica, also produces carob and olive oil.
Approaching by sea, the island of Brač’s gleaming white heights conceal its centre – a longstanding source of excellent marble that the quarries, both old and new, will attest to.
It’s a gorgeous island to travel across but most people stay along the more populated areas of the coast and the triangular, sandy beach of Zlatni Rat (often referred to as the Golden Horn) is a tremendous destination in the summer months.
Despite its size and favourable growing conditions due to altitude, there aren’t very many wineries on the island. Those of Senjković and Baković produce great wines from Plavac Mali. But, undeniably, the main draw is Stina which is based on Bol’s waterfront (right next to the famous beach) and took over the ailing Agricultural Cooperative of Bol in 2009. Since then, the winery has been producing some of the top Plavac Mali, Pošip and even Tribidrag wines in all of Dalmatia and as has a fine visitors’ centre.
Far-flung and remote despite being only 55km from the mainland, Vis feels like a world far removed. This is largely by design as it was a military base closed to outsiders until 1991 and while it sees plenty of visitors in the summer months, is a slightly more relaxed island of Dalmatia.
Wine production is rather recent due to the island being closed off for so long and it’s taken a long time to attract permanent residents who weren’t originally from the island. The main production is of red and rosé wines based on Plavac Mali and white wines from Vugava (or Bugava), thought to be potentially native to the island.
The main producer of note for some time was Lipanović, based in the old submarine bunker making for very photogenic tastings, but Senjanović and Vislander have since added to the mix.
My perfect day in the Dalmatian Islands
Given the development of services over the last few decades, a trip to any of the islands in Dalmatia is sure to be a fine experience. However, when you consider the fuller range of tourist services open for more of the year, my recommendation is Hvar, which happens to be the only island with its own wine association: Hvar Otok Vina (Hvar Island of Wine).
You will need a car no matter where you go and one of the best places to be based is in Hvar Town. It’s a compact, historical town that’s fully walkable on foot and has plenty of hotels, bars and restaurants as well as one of the two main ferry ports of the island (the other one being in Stari Grad).
In terms of accommodation, there are hotels of all sizes, styles and prices but my recommendation is the Hotel Villa Nora which is on the old cobblestone streets of the hill leading up to the fort.
Start the day with the excellent homemade breakfast served on the patio of Hotel Villa Nora, including the famous dried figs from the island.
From the centre of Hvar, either walk or drive up to the 16th-century Fortica to take in the view of the harbour in the morning light. From there, ramble down for a visit and tasting at Luviji just on the outskirts of the old town.
Take a slow trip out to Vrboska and Jelsa across the Stari Grad Plain, taking in the historical Roman sites which are marked via signage.
Have lunch at Me & Mrs Jones, a great restaurant right on the water serving well-crafted local dishes with modern touches and an excellent wine list.
Make plans for an afternoon visit to the new winery of Vina Carić and/or Vina Tomić which both produce excellent examples of modern Hvar wines using native grapes. Carić also offers a tasting option paired with chocolates from artisan shop Gamulin, which is located on the waterfront of Jelsa.
Later you can pay a visit to the viticulture museum in Pitve (see below). Then take the one-lane Pitve tunnel out to the south side of the island to see the tremendously sloped vineyards. Opt for a sunset stroll in Stari Grad or head back to Hvar Town on the new road (be advised that while new, this is a road that just barely clings to the slopes).
Hvar doesn’t lack restaurant offerings and in Jelsa, Vrboska and Stari Grad you’ll find fine food options, especially at the traditional konoba (tavern) restaurants, although many can be closed in the off-season – a concept that is rapidly changing as more people visit the island year-round.
A very solid recommendation for evening dining is Macondo in Hvar Town. While known for its seafood, it serves all kinds of dishes, offered up in classic style along with a lengthy list of local wines.
Your Dalmatian Islands address book
Donji Humac, Brač
+385 21 647 707
Located in the centre of Brač, the restaurant offers a mix of Dalmatian dishes with pleasant outdoor seating when weather permits.
+385 91 605 1207
Maha offers a chance to get out of the main tourist spots in Korčula Town. Experience the mix of dishes showcasing seafood, pasta, meat and more, all done Korčula style. Of special note is the peka, a dish of meat, potatoes and herbs baked on coals under a lidded bell.
+385 98 192 7120
Located on the canal of this village that locals half-jokingly call ‘little Venice’, this tavern serves traditional island dishes along with a healthy selection of local wines, including an emphasis on those of the owner.
Šipanska Luka, Šipan
+385 98 619 013
While there aren’t too many options on the small island of Šipan, thankfully there’s Tauris which has outstanding seafood and the ability to grill it to perfection. Make sure to call ahead as it is generally closed half the year and will only open for special bookings in the off-season.
Hvar Town, Hvar
+385 21 742 850
Fine seafood and other traditional Dalmatian fares. Macondo has a solid list of local wines and is right in the centre of the old town.
Me & Mrs Jones
+385 21 761 882
Situated on the harbour, the view would be reason enough to go, but the friendly atmosphere of the owner and host, Josipa, as well as the fine craft of the dishes, gives you a reason to never leave. The wine list is compact but well chosen and importantly, it’s one of the few restaurants open nearly the entire year.
Vis Town, Vis
+385 21 711 575
Known for its fresh-off-the-boat seafood offerings grilled with expertise. It’s a more traditional setting for the coast, but the outdoor seating is a fine option in the warm months.
+385 21 635 236
Located right on the waterfront of this port village of the island, the evening view is stupendous. Dishes are a mix fresh seafood as well as plenty of grilled meats, all with the option of the local island wines for pairing.
+385 20 325 400
Offering the tranquil setting of Šipan, this hotel looks down upon the harbour of the main village as the local fishermen of the island come in with their daily catches. A fine option for those looking for a calm, restful getaway.
Stari Grad, Hvar
+385 21 888 700
If looking for a higher-end option, this hotel in Stari Grad is a fine choice. Rooms are classy and finely appointed and the hotel is situated close to the yacht harbour.
Villa Nora Hotel
Hvar Town, Hvar
+385 92 217 7466
Set in a 14th-century palace, the rooms are spacious and modern without being over polished and the family who runs it is incredibly hospitable and serve an outstanding breakfast.
Za Pod Zub
Stari Grad, Hvar
+385 95 819 7792
A fine collection of local wines as well as other products, set in the heart of the old cobblestone streets of Stari Grad.
Hvar Town, Hvar
+385 95 399 8900
A very thorough selection of all the local wines as well as a great many from Dalmatia at large and, most importantly, at proper retail prices.
Things to do
A stunning 16th-century monastery that was built into a cliff which can be fully visited and has its own onsite museum.
The Viticulture Collection
This is the first public wine museum in all of Croatia which officially opened in February 2023. It features various historical exhibits and has an explanation of their terroirs on the island. There are also planned activities for tastings as well as the eventual addition of WSET classes.
Stari Grad Plain
Stretching between the villages of Stari Grad, Vrboska, and Jelsa, this historic, UNESCO World Heritage Site may initially not seem like much, but hidden within its stacked stone walls are two thousand years of history. If staying in Stari Grad, first make a stop at the historic house of Tvrdalj Petra Hektorovića.
In addition to Medieval traditions and tournaments in Korčula, the island also hosts the moreška. This is a traditional sword dance and accompanying drama from the 12th and 13th centuries which needs to be experienced in person.
How to get there
The starting point for any trip to the Dalmatian islands is to fly into either Split or Dubrovnik airports, which form the northern and southern gateways to Dalmatia, respectively.
While the islands are very well served by various ferry lines, the majority of regular routes run when there’s a peak of visitors in the summer. The main operator for all islands, throughout the year, is the state company of Jadrolinija, which has offices anywhere you find water where a boat can stop.
Beyond that, each island has something of its own peculiarities in terms of connections. The Elaphiti Islands have a daily, regular passenger ferry throughout the year.
The islands of Hvar and Korčula are served by both passenger and car ferries that run the Split-Dubrovnik route. Korčula can also be reached via a very short, 4km ferry hop from Orebić if you drive up the Pelješac peninsula from Dubrovnik.
Brač and Vis are destinations unto themselves with car ferries running throughout the year. You need your own vehicle on these islands.