High spots in Dalmatia: a guide to Dubrovnik

Words by
Lisa Barnard

14th March 2015

From its elevated spot on the Adriatic Coast, Dubrovnik is swiftly becoming one of summer’s smartest playgrounds

Engraved in Latin above one of the entries to the Lovrijenac Fortress, high on a crag above Dubrovnik, are the words “Liberty cannot be sold for all the gold in the world”. This proud statement reminds visitors of the tumultuous past of this one-time independent city state, evidence of whose ancient wealth is everywhere. Also known as the Republic of Ragusa, Dubrovnik has always captured hearts — Byron called it the “Pearl of the Adriatic”; for Bernard Shaw it was “paradise”. In the past few years, Croatia has risen, stealthily, from being the quieter, more affordable alternative to Italy to become the coveted destination for the superyacht set.

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For those who want to avoid the played-out stages of Saint-Tropez and Capri, Croatia is a much smarter choice. The coastline crumbles into a shimmering archipelago of 1,400 island gems, forming tiny dots on the mesmerising horizon.

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The Hotel Dubrovnik Palace

The Hotel Dubrovnik Palace

The silhouettes of gleaming white yachts in ports along the Dalmatian Coast bear testament to the pull of its pristine waters, unspoiled islands and magnificent architecture. Roman Abramovich, Bill Gates, Valentino and Middle Eastern royals have all dropped anchor here, taking advantage of the anti-clockwise currents running up from the Albanian coast, resulting in a crystal-clear sea. 

And when Anna Wintour asks Mario Testino to scout out the Croatian coastline for a fashion shoot you can be assured that it’s soaring to the top of the “hot list”. Testino visited Dubrovnik twice last year and the result was an incredible fashion shoot, featuring Dutch model Lara Stone, that ran in Vogue China. Dubrovnik passed the Testino test with its offering of hotels that have evolved with a certain panache, keeping pace with the world’s most discerning travellers. Testino chose the Hotel Excelsior and the exclusive Villa Agave as backdrops for the shoot.

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St Blasius’ church is a glorious example of the city’s baroque architecture

St Blasius’ church is a glorious example of the city’s baroque architecture

Both are owned by Adriatic Luxury Hotels, a Croatian group with a string of magnificent properties centred around Dubrovnik and the neighbouring islands, owned by the forward-thinking Luksic family who have made it their business to ensure Croatia caters to those with a taste for luxury and exclusivity. A recent transformation is the top-to-toe renovation of Hotel Dubrovnik Palace, which re-opened in 2014 showcasing super-sleek interiors and spacious bedrooms with balconies looking out to the spectacular Elaphiti Islands. A contemporary sense of chic prevails throughout, helping cement Dubrovnik’s spot on the map of coolness. The hotel is perched on the Lapad peninsula and is near enough to Dubrovnik to bask in the reflected glory of the Unesco World Heritage Site, but at a comfortable distance from the crowds of cruise-ship day trippers that populate the city in the summer. With its private beach, enticing swimming pools and a brand new spa, it’s hard to drag yourself away from the Dubrovnik Palace’s idyllic setting. 

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Lovrijenac Fortress

Lovrijenac Fortress

The Hotel Excelsior, its grande dame sister property, is proof that Dubrovnik has always held a special allure for the rich and famous, from heads of state to film stars and artists. After more than 100 years of hospitality, The Excelsior knows how to handle the great and the good with exquisitely soft kid gloves. The glamorous guest list has included Jacqueline Kennedy, Orson Welles, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1960s, and both the Queen and Princess Margaret in the 1970s. More recent visitors have included Princess Caroline of Monaco and Beyoncé.

In 2012, film director Francis Ford Coppola returned to The Excelsior after a 50-year absence. The Abakus Piano Bar at the Excelsior is the perfect spot for a sundowner. Where better to imagine the extraordinary conversations that must have taken place here, during its illustrious history? To celebrate the hotel’s centennial in 2013, Bryan Ferry took to the stage in front of 4,000 invited guests. Having borne the hardship of three wars, the hotel has played its own role in history — during the Croatian War of Independence, when Dubrovnik successfully resisted a nine-month siege mounted by Serbia and Montenegro in 1991-92, The Excelsior housed hundreds of refugees. This is a hotel that has spanned generations and survived. www.adriaticluxuryhotels.com

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Villa Orsula is one of the five-star properties owned by Adriatic Luxury Hotels

Villa Orsula is one of the five-star properties owned by Adriatic Luxury Hotels

Experiences in and around Dubrovnik

THE OLD TOWN As one of the world’s great medieval walled cities, the Old Town with its gleaming white stone walls, aristocratic palazzi and baroque churches is a must-see. Pedestrianised and with a labyrinth of narrow side streets and stairways, it is the perfect place to lose yourself. Navigate the two kilometres of 25-metre-high walls to see breathtaking views over the red-tiled rooftops and green-shuttered houses to where, in the distance, the sea and islands lie waiting. Game of Thrones fans can spot where scenes featuring the fictional King’s Landing were filmed and architectural buffs can reflect on how the town was reshaped by baroque planners after the disastrous earthquake of 1667. The 18th-century Dubrovnik Cathedral includes Titian’s polyptych The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, hanging behind the main altar. The Villa Orsula is a boutique hotel just steps from the city walls. 

ISLAND HOPPING The best way to explore nearby islands is on a yacht excursion, which can be arranged by most hotels. A short boat ride away is Lokrum, the beautiful getaway beloved by Dubrovnik’s residents. Its peaceful forests and picturesque beaches are just a few hundred metres offshore. Alternatively, hop on a boat trip to the Elaphiti Islands; Lopud was the favourite escape of Dubrovnik’s aristocracy in the 17th century and has recently been rediscovered as the place to get away from it all. This tiny car-free island has just 200 residents and a quaint harbour. Villa Ruža on the island of Koločep is another highlight, combining a wonderful setting with great food. Built in 1930 by a rich merchant from Dubrovnik as a symbol of his love for his wife, the Villa rises on a rock in the deep shade of the pine trees at the entrance to Donje Čelo bay.

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Villa Agave recently served as a backdrop for a Vogue shoot

Villa Agave recently served as a backdrop for a Vogue shoot

For those who want to avoid the played-out stages of Saint-Tropez and Capri, Croatia is the smart choice

This must be one of the most romantic places on the Adriatic Coast.

If you go to the island of Mljet, take your walking boots. Long and narrow, and harbouring Croatia’s beautiful Mljet National Park, the island is superb for trekking, lake swimming and cycling. It is easily accessible as a day trip from Dubrovnik, but for those who wish to wholly immerse themselves, the Hotel Odisej Mljet obliges. The Prince of Wales has been here twice and underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau was also a fan. Keen walkers will be in their element surrounded by Aleppo pine and holm oak, eulogised by Homer in The Odyssey. Keen swimmers and divers should head for Ulysses Cave, which is thought to have sheltered the mythical hero. The visibility underwater is still extraordinary. On the mainland, take a tour of Konavle, the serene hinterland of Dubrovnik, exploring the contrasts and beauty of the region, where the ancient farming traditions of the area have been preserved.

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Bask in the glorious sunshine and the reflected glory of the city’s fascinating, illustrious and starry past at Hotel Dubrovnik Palace

Bask in the glorious sunshine and the reflected glory of the city’s fascinating, illustrious and starry past at Hotel Dubrovnik Palace

Croatia is gaining recognition on the world wine stage and its best reds are produced on the Pelješac Peninsula, a short drive from Dubrovnik and a great area to explore – ask your hotel to hire a driver! It’s home to native wines and delicious oysters and is where the ancient Greeks began cultivating vines. An excellent day out can be spent meandering through vineyards and boutique wineries, where the famed Plavac Mali grape (a cousin of Zinfandel and Primitivo) is produced and the wine flows freely. A necessary stop is Ston, a medieval town famed for its oyster production: visit the Maskaric family of oyster growers, where the molluscs are taken straight out of the sea to be consumed on the spot.