Inside Istria: A yachtie’s guide to Croatia’s hidden paradise
by Charlotte Hogarth-Jones
With gourmet cuisine, beautiful countryside, and a brand new marina, Charlotte Hogarth-Jones explores the jewel in Croatia’s crown...
Any clued-up yacht owner has Croatia down as a must-visit destination on their list. Crystal clear waters, plenty of islands to hop to and from, warm, welcoming locals and good infrastructure on land make it an accessible destination with plenty to love – and yet, the Istrian peninsula, which is shared by Croatia, Italy and Slovenia, is often somewhat overlooked.
Partly, the region is a victim of its own success – head to the towns of Porec or Umag in peak season, for example, and you’ll find crowds of holidaymakers flooding the pretty cobbled streets, with queues around the block for famous local restaurants and attractions driving many to seek solace further afield. Large-scale holiday resorts elsewhere on the coast have also not done the area many favours.
Enter Rovinj, a pretty little fishing town, with a newly restored marina that’s had over £18,000,000 invested in it and officially reopened in April, attracting an elegant, refined hotel to set up shop on its beautiful waterfront too. The port is a veritable treasure chest of a destination – one of those places that you’re tempted to keep all to yourself, rather than spread the word about. Combining spectacular sea views and bucolic rural scenery inland, a rich cultural heritage and world-class food and drink, it’s hard to think of a more idyllic destination to explore and enjoy a week’s r and r – even better, there’s not a selfie-stick in sight...
But first to Pula, another off-grid town, which you can easily get flights to from London, or access via the Marina Veruda. The grand amphitheatre here is the main attraction, and it’s well-worth making time for. One of the six largest Roman amphitheatres in the world, it’s incredibly well-preserved, and of those it’s the only one to have four side towers and all three Roman architectural orders (types of columns that form a gateway) entirely intact. It’s a good idea to hire a local guide here, as the museum in the underground tunnels beneath the building contains many brilliant artefacts that need explanation, plus you’ll want someone knowledgeable to point out certain fascinating historic details in the main structure too. The likes of Jarvis Cocker, Massive Attack and Sting have all performed here, and concerts regularly take place at the amphitheatre throughout the year, including classical as well as mainstream pop and dance music.
Military history buffs will also enjoy exploring the town, which has a chequered and complicated past, suffering numerous invasions and political unrest throughout the ages. One good thing to come from the Venetian period, which took place from 1331-1797, is that the city’s new Venetian inhabitants bought grapes with them from home, and planted them in Istria’s fertile soil. Today, the region produces many brilliant and unusual wines, which you can buy from small independent shops in town. Cultivated sorts include everything from Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc to Malvasia, Muscat and Trebbiano Toscano, and the local olive oil is particularly highly regarded too, beating many Italian competitors in worldwide blind tastings.
It’s a 45-minute drive from Pula to Rovinj, but there’s a must-do stop en route. Break your journey at Alla Beccaccia for a lunch you’ll never forget. This unassuming country kitchen is what’s known as a konoba, a restaurant serving traditional Dalmatian cuisine, where dishes are often cooked over an open hearth. The menu changes daily depending on what’s in season, what’s good in the restaurant’s on site vegetable garden, and what exciting produce local hunters and foragers have tracked down that day. It’s simple, hearty fare, but exquisitely cooked – think a flavoursome vegetable soup with homemade bread, fresh from the oven, and local butter, melt-in-the-mouth slow-roasted duck with crispy roast potatoes cooked in the fat, and fresh ricotta drizzled with floral honey. Cosy and informal, with the smell of woodsmoke filling the air, it feels like dining at your grandmother’s – that is, if she was an incredibly talented chef.
Rovinj itself is packed with equally tantalising restaurants – fresh seafood is the order of the day, and there are some excellent high-end Italian offerings, but you’ll also find plenty of higgledy piggledy small bars to enjoy a sundowner in overlooking the port. At the new Grand Hotel Park Rovinj, which is a ten-minute walk away from the hubbub of the main town, things are decidedly smarter.
With interiors by Piero Lissoni, who is known for his work with Sanlorenzo yachts amongst other acclaimed projects, the bedrooms are spacious, airy, and minimal, pairing contemporary furniture and exposed pipes with plenty of natural textures – think wood, stone and cotton – balanced by some great modern art pieces on the walls. The hotel’s signature restaurant, Cap Aureo, serves a tasting menu of innovative and sophisticated dishes, but this isn’t a case of style over substance. A special local bread filled with nuggets of warm cheese is fluffy and moreish; a simple beetroot risotto a triumph. The team here are all young, ambitious chefs, and they’ve got their sights set on obtaining a Michelin star, which don’t seem far-fetched when you experience the quality and confidence of their cooking.
The restaurant and rooms all share spectacular views over the marina, as does the hotel’s rooftop pool and the Laurel & Berry restaurant, which offers more relaxed fare and an enormous breakfast buffet. Although it only opened in April, Grand Hotel Park Rovinj is already attracting yacht owners from far and wide. With 416 berths, the marina is small but perfectly formed, and the hotel is on your doorstep. While many stop by for a gourmet dinner, a few cocktails while the sun sets, and a night’s sleep in a supremely comfortable bed, the hotel’s spa is also a main attraction.
Treatments include the very latest wellness techniques, and the variety on offer is quite incredible. You can have a massage and scrub using local olive oil and pulp, enjoy a 3-hour purifying seaweed ritual, or a Blue Diamond facial using products by the famous luxury brand Omorovicza, and have one-on-one coaching sessions on everything from meditation and mindfulness to rowing. You can even ask the spa to come to you and receive treatments in the comfort of your room. Even lounging around the spa’s “thermal zone” is a sublime experience, featuring an outdoor banya, absinthe and citrus steam rooms, experience showers, hot stones and cool plunge pools. For those for whom too much choice is a bad thing, the spa’s rooftop pool is also spectacular.
Lastly, a trip to Istria wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the famous local truffles up close. At Karlić tartufi in Buzet, you can visit three generations of truffle hunters, whose small shop and restaurant is set in the most beautiful local countryside. Here, you can feast on truffle cheese, truffle oil, truffle paté and cured meats with truffle or breakfast on an indulgent omelette covered in fresh truffle shavings. Set to rival Italian truffles, you’ll find the pungent white truffles from September through to December, and black truffles all year round – although their flavour is more intense during the winter months. You can even head out with the truffle hunter and his adorable puppies into the Motovun forest, to try and sniff out some of these world famous delicacies for yourself, before bringing them back to your chef on board.
With so much to experience nearby, and such a wonderful base to spend a few days on shore, the future for ACI Marina Rovinj and the rest of Istria is looking bright. Already, boats are beginning to make bookings for future trips, and the marina looks set to be incredibly full by peak season. Yacht owners would be wise, then, to get in early. This wonderful region won’t stay a well-kept secret for long…