- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

Ronald Van Den Huevel, a 22-year-old student from the Netherlands, scans the crystal blue waters dotted with green islands and looks back at me and our other travel companion, Dutch student Joris Steenbakkers. “I have not done enough good things for the world yet to deserve this,” he says, jokingly.

This may sound hyperbolic, but the overwhelming beauty of Croatia’s coast can leave a visitor feeling unworthy of its splendor.

There are 3,647 miles of coastal property and 1,185 islands luring visitors offshore and into the deep blue of the Adriatic Sea, and I decide to begin my journey in the coastal Dalmatian town of Split rather than the landlocked capital of Zagreb. Summer is a time for coasts.

Split earned distinction when the Roman Emperor built his retirement palace there in A.D. 300. The grandiose palace is at the nucleus of the town that it helped shape throughout history. The palace remained state property after ‘s death in 311, providing refuge to fallen emperors and eventually becoming the sanctuary to residents of the nearby town of Solona when they fled Slavic invaders in 630.

Along with a landscape and climate suited for a retired Roman emperor, the palace attracts tourists with its marble floors, aged columns, preserved cellars and protective walls and towers that speak of the grandeur that was Rome.

Surrounding the palace walls and even within are hordes of street vendors selling some of the sleekest of European trends. There is no doubt that Croatians like their clothes with a little bit of G and a whole lot of Q. Even the Split tourist booklet that I pick up from one of the vendors boasts that “there are not many places in the world where the good looks of the local youth are so well matched by their dress sense as is the case here.”

Anyone who resists the compulsion to purchase something on these streets certainly deserves a merit badge for thrift and self-discipline. Just to make sure everyone knows I’m a tourist, I purchase a floppy fisherman’s cap and enter the palace through one of its four gates.

Because history is not without a sense of irony, the most prominent feature of ‘s palace, and of the Split skyline, is the Romanesque bell tower of the Split cathedral. It is ironic because Diocletian was notorious for persecuting Christians. In the seventh century, however, the mausoleum that Diocletian had erected as a shrine to himself was converted to a cathedral dedicated to St. Dujam, the patron saint of the city. It is still a functioning place of worship in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.

For a small fee, I climb the steps to the top of the 15th-century cathedral tower and take in the sights of both the sea and town. On a typically beautiful day in this region rarely threatened by rain, I decide I have had enough history for the day and set out to walk up Marjan Hill, the forested hill on the peninsula that juts out west of the city. The hill offers a grand view of the city and ensures that all visitors who climb it can take home a postcard-quality photo of Split. I take mine and call it a day.

Split is a great starting point for a vacation not only because of its own charm, but also because its port allows visitors to island-hop their way down Dalmatia, from one sun-drenched island to the next, before returning to the coast to enjoy Dubrovnik. The first island that Ronald, Joris and I ferry to is Hvar Island, where we stay in the medieval town of Hvar.

The town’s most prominent features are its hilltop Venetian fortress, used to defend against the Turks in the 16th century; its Dominican and Franciscan monasteries; and, of coarse, plenty of beaches so beautiful that they dare you to concern yourself with monasteries, Turks or Venetians. We do not take the dare and opt, instead, to sit on the beach all day.

In the evening, we discover that Croatia is a hot spot for naturists. Translation: Naked people hang out there. We then discover that the small island of Jerolim, within plain sight of Hvar, is where they hang out. Our travel plans are set.

The next day, we contemplate how to get to the island. Small sailboats are available for rent, but they are essentially bathtubs rigged with one sail, and the last time I ventured out on the high seas, I ended up run aground at the end of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s runway.

I could imagine the pilot announcing, “Those in the right aisle can see some idiot stranded in the Potomac.” We abandon the idea of renting a sailboat but discover that water taxis transport people every hour to and from the beach.

The island, as promised, is full of naked people, but it is not, as fantasized, full of beautiful people. More out of politeness than modesty, I remain clothed. My derriere, which has yet to make acquaintance with the sun, could easily blind some of the beach’s patrons.

Regardless, the water is beautiful, and the setting is tranquil, so I rest under a tree and read. Joris and Ronald head for the water, but I advise them to leave their snorkels and goggles behind. You don’t know what kind of marine life you may encounter in the waters of a nudist beach.

The next island on our tour is Korcula, where we stay in the namesake town on the eastern end of the island.

The flora on the sloping hills and even on the balconies of homes is so colorful that it would make Joseph develop an inferiority complex about his dream coat.

At the center of this fortified medieval town, held under Venetian rule from the 14th to 18th centuries, rises a tower from what is believed to have been Marco Polo’s home.

When I climb the tower and look out over the sea, I realize why Marco Polo became a sailor. In a place like this, there could be no other calling. It would be like growing up in England’s Lake District and not being moved to be a poet.

After descending the tower, I walk around the town’s walls and see other towers, converted into pubs and shops. From one of them emanates Britney Spears music. No matter how fortified a city is, there are certain things it just can’t fight off.

Our final destination is Dubrovnik, the southernmost town of Dalmatia. Dubrovnik is a fortified town of white marble and whitewashed walls that rests on a rocky peninsula of the Adriatic. At night, its luminous white makes it look almost like a giant pearl resting on the water’s edge. It definitely is the jewel of Dalmatia.

I enter the town at night through the Pile Gate, originally a drawbridge at the western end that controlled entrance to this strongly fortified town. Once enclosed in its grand walls (they reach 82 feet at some points), I am almost blinded by the light reflecting from the marble of the Stradun, the main pedestrian street that runs the length of the Old Town from west to east. The smooth and glowing surface makes me feel like a winter Olympian wanting to skate its length.

Walking down this promenade, you undoubtedly will be lured into one of its narrow alleys by music, banter or the clinking of glasses. I turn up one to enjoy a drink and some people-watching. It doesn’t take long in Dubrovnik before you start looking around for cameramen filming the next J.Lo video. Bars would be wise to sell hair gel on their top shelves, and women probably do step aerobics in stiletto heels. I get the feeling that my running shoes and jeans are strictly taboo and make an early exit.

In the morning, I explore Dubrovnik the best way I know how, by walking the walls that enclose it. Perched above the town on the west end, you can see the town’s distinguishing landmarks, primarily its monasteries and churches.

Old Town Dubrovnik is home to Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit monasteries; the beautiful Italian baroque St. Blaise’s Church and the Dubrovnik Cathedral. Other prominent fixtures in the town are the 15th-century clock tower and the Gothic-Renaissance Rector’s Palace.

I later visit the Dominican monastery, which is so pristine and tranquil that I think I could take up the cloth. The memory of a few of the stiletto-heeled revelers from the night before easily disabuses me of this conviction.

From the eastern side of the walls, you can see the port, which gave the town its purpose and importance throughout its history. On the rocks at the base of the wall, sunbathers find their own “private beaches” on mammoth rocks that jut out into the water.

Within viewing distance is Lokrum Island, which houses the ruins of a Benedictine monastery and a nudist beach. (In Croatia, the combination is not as rare as it sounds.)

The irony of these protective walls, built between the 13th and 16th centuries, is that Dubrovnik enjoyed a peaceful independence as the free Dubrovnik Republic for most of its thousand-year history. Most of this was because of its shrewd diplomacy and maritime importance. Many people, however, do remember Dubrovnik suffering under severe attack in 1991 and 1992 during the disbanding of old Yugoslavia.

Perhaps this recent history is one reason why the town, which now lives off tourism, sees relatively few Americans. Susan Foley Martin, who was visiting from Seattle with her husband and father, was equally surprised by the dearth of American tourists.

“I think the secret to finding great places like this is not to watch American television,” she says. “I think there is definitely a fear factor.”

Ante Elasic, co-owner of a trendy bar and nightclub in Dubrovnik, La Boheme, agrees. “The war was a huge disaster [for tourism],” he says. As an example of its effect, he says that the city’s hotels, which formerly held more than 20,000 beds, now hold just 8,000. I nod my head in astonishment. He is, however, optimistic that tourism will continue its resurgence.

“We have it all,” he says. I nod my head in agreement.

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