It is true that there are few more picturesque places in the world than Croatia’s Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian coast. Here wherever you turn, towering limestone cliffs wed azure, crystal clear, clean waters, tossing in gorgeous islands and islets for dramatic measure. It’s geographic eye candy so intoxicating that it often seems impossible; much like the possibility of a long-lasting marriage following a runaway elopement to Las Vegas. However, unlike a wedding at Elvis’ Chapel of Love, Dubrovnik’s striking geographical marriage has lasted for centuries.
If all of that natural beauty were not enough to make one run to Dubrovnik, Game of Thrones fans will have a field day and will certainly recognize several sites, since from Season Two onward much of this blockbuster series was filmed in the region. For true GOT groupies, there are shops selling GOT memorabilia and tours dedicated to the series where one can engage their inner medieval drama character while traipsing the city walls, fortresses, and various other epic sites.
The Hotel Excelsior Dubrovnik, a member of the Adriatic Luxury Hotels and Small Luxury Hotels of the World, is perched hilltop and arguably has the city’s most dramatic views of the Adriatic Sea and Stari Grad, the Old City. With 150 rooms, it is large enough to possess all the bells and whistles luxury travelers would expect, yet retains an intimacy of a smaller property, no doubt due to its excellent, friendly staff. The location could not be more perfect, just a 10-minute stroll to the Old City’s Ploce Gate.
The lobby, decorated in a modernist color pallete with black and white photographic prints of local sites, has floor-to-ceiling west facing windows bringing into full view the breathtaking Adriatic Sea, verdant Lokrum island, and the awe-inspiring, meandering fortress city walls.
Rooms and suites are spacious with the same magical views, appointed with modern furnishings, incredibly comfortable bedding and high-count luxury sheets. My suite’s large bathroom with deep soaking bathtub and separate shower had the same magnificent views and probably the best in any hotel bathroom anywhere.
There is a small fitness center with Technogym treadmills, stairmasters and free weights overlooking the large indoor pool and jacuzzi opening to the Adriatic. Outside there’s a ladder to enter the sea, an outdoor seawater wading pool and Banje Beach Club is 50-yards away. The hotel’s Energy Clinic Spa’s menu has calming treatment rooms and a selection of massages, facials and nail services.
Dining in the Old City at night is a rather magical European affair. Lights of the Old City reflect the stones and outdoor seating permits an ambience second to none. Nowhere was this more the case than at Proto Fish Restaurant. The grilled foie gras on cinnamon-laced fregola pasta with currants and chopped apples was divine and the lobster in Dalmatian sauce reminded that the sea was near.
For a truly memorable seafront fine dining experience, the place to go is Sensus Restaurant under Chef Peter Obad’s direction. The view is intoxicating, and outdoor seating delivers a sense of suspended animation over the sea. Despite the view, Obad’s culinary creations steal the show. Mouthwatering sea bass with celery mousseline and gray mullet Bottarga, and grilled octopus arms with fermented garlic were swoon worthy and testament to Obad’s culinary skill. The meal was perfectly coupled with full-bodied 2019 Posip from Korta Katarina, a shining example of Croatia’s excellent wines
For a casual fare of mussels and fries, head to Arsenal Restaurant with views of the Old Port and watch sea faring life. The homemade Tiramisu at Kopun Restaurant was nearly a religious experience, perhaps inspired by its view of St. Ignatius Church.
Croatia in general has some of the best ice cream in the world, and happily plenty of it is in Dubrovnik. I’m fairly certain I consumed several gallons while traversing the city, often instead of lunch. While all were fantastic, my favorite was the Old Port’s Poklisar with mouth-watering flavors changing daily like double dark chocolate, Jaffa orange, and Mozart.
Walking the entirety of the Old City’s fortification walls – 1.25 miles – is a good way to get oriented, see stellar views from different vantage points and appreciate the remarkable feat in its creation. On the west side, climb up to St. Lawrence Fort, built on the apex of massive stones rising 120 feet above sea level. Photographers and view junkies will want to take the cable car to Mt. Srd. At 2,300 feet above Dubrovnik, it’s unforgettable.
Buza Bar, a cliffside watering hole, is tucked away near the outer city wall’s southside. A coffee or cocktail tastes better with these stellar views where locals often socialize and dip into the sea. Inside Fort St. John, Dubrovnik’s Maritime Museum brings to life its seafaring past and renown oceangoing merchantmen from antiquity to present. The Old City has several churches, but my perennial favorite was St. Ignatius for its modern art relief depictions, and Gaetano Garcia’s baroque frescoes.
The ornate Rector’s Palace with its Gothic portico houses a significant religious art collection and several opulent 18th-century sedan chairs and iron chests. In an atrium space, concerts are often performed in the evenings – nothing quite like hearing the Dubrovnik Symphony in such regal surrounds. Nearby, at War Photo Limited, world renowned photojournalists exhibit war and conflict photographs rendering viewers speechless and serving as a vivid reminder that humans rarely learn from history.
Just off Dubrovnik’s Stradun, is Europe’s second oldest (after Prague), continuously operating European synagogue. It’s small but has medieval Torah scrolls and 17th-century religious objects. When Jews were forced out of Spain in 1492 many stopped here en route to Turkey and remained. While there were once 25,000 Croatian Jews, only 4,000 survived the Holocaust. Today about 50 call Dubrovnik home.
Dubrovnik’s Modern Art Museum, housed in a former Neo-Renaissance/Gothic villa is steps away from Hotel Excelsior and has impressive pieces in its collection by Croatian painters Duro Seder and Branko Kovacevik. Some great photography, including a 2005 Jodhpur piece by world renowned Steve McCurry, also grace its walls.
A 15-minute ferry took us from the Old City to verdant Lokrum Island, a pedestrian only, ecological reserve with eight land, coastal and sea habitats. Amid glorious views, peacocks freely roam the island. A picturesque 30-foot-deep salt-water lake on the island’s southside called The Dead Sea resulted from tectonic movement and erosional activity. A terrific swimming spot, there’s also a great café a few feet away.
Thirty minutes from the Old City, with cypress, citrus and olive trees on one side and a vertigo-inducing mountainous backdrop on the other is Cavtat, a lovely seaside village. Croatian painter Vlaho Bukovac was born here and his childhood home, now a museum, houses some of his works, and the residence and studio’s original furnishings. Nearby, ascend several stone stair flights for the peninsula’s highest point and be rewarded by Ivan Mestrovic-designed, award-winning, white stone Racic Mausoleum.
The Elaphiti Islands also make for an excellent day trip from Dubrovnik. One can do all three – Lopud, Kolocep and Sipan on a full-day’s excursion, or simply pick one, stay and relax. We opted to visit the isolated Vrbova Bay on Sipan. Taken by private boat, Bowa – standing for best of what’s around – like a Phoenix rising, appears from the blue abyss with seven open-air casitas, comfortable loungers and an open-air restaurant serving the freshest seafood, great Croatian wines, and delectable deserts.
The Lessons Learned
One could race around Dubrovnik and see its main sites in two or three busy days, but Croatia with its physical beauty and hospitable locals, is a place to be discovered, savored, and enjoyed. Best to stay in the region at least a week, so there’s time to fully appreciate Dubrovnik and then experience additional areas along the island-dotted Dalmatian coast. Happy travels!