I usually do my Croatia guidebook updating rounds in shoulder season — May, June, and September — which works great, since that’s when most of our readers are traveling. July and August tend to have the hottest temperatures and the worst crowds (mostly Europeans enjoying their summer vacations). But this year, due to some scheduling peculiarities, I did my Dalmatian swing the last week of August. And boy, did I see a difference.
The island of Hvar — an easy one-hour boat ride from Split — used to be a sleepy fishing village. But over the last decade, it’s been discovered by affluent jet-setters looking to party under the Mediterranean sun. Celebrities have started showing up on their yachts, making the circuit of posh nightclubs. Comparisons to Ibiza or Mykonos used to feel like a stretch. But on this visit, I could really see it. The place is changing…and, for my tastes, not for the better. Late one evening, walking along the cocktail bar-lined harbor of the main town, dodging drunk and rowdy American bros, I came this close to just giving up on the place and taking it out of my book. But then Siniša saved the day.
Siniša runs Secret Hvar, which specializes in off-road tours to the untouristed corners of Hvar. A few years back, he took me on a fascinating loop around the island, greatly enhancing my appreciation of Hvar beyond its showcase town.
On this visit, I met up with Siniša late one afternoon. We groused at each other for a few minutes, a pair of budding curmudgeons: “Would you believe they’ve had to put up big signs that prohibit picnicking on the main square?” he ranted. “People were getting a takeout pizza and a three-liter bottle of the cheapest beer they could find, and then just lying around all night, getting drunk in front of the cathedral!” “I KNOW!” I agreed vigorously, shaking my head. “Kids today! I just dunno…”
With that out of our system, Siniša gently reminded me that there’s more to Hvar than the few crowded blocks around its main square. To prove his point, he drove me deep into the countryside, past rustic stone igloos, scrubby lavender bushes, and distant sea views over hardscrabble vineyards.
As we drove, Siniša — who’s extremely politically active, having held public office here — filled me in on the struggles of an emerging destination that’s becoming too successful for its own good. There’s a tug-of-war going on between Hvarins who are just trying to grab whatever passing tourist dollars they can, and a vocal minority (Siniša among them) who preach sustainable tourism.
For example, the plucky new mayor of Dubrovnik — just down the coast — recently introduced a no-tolerance ban on loud music late at night. If authorities hear even a peep after midnight, they pull your permit for outdoor tables. And virtually overnight, the Old Town was tamed. Of course, this irritates bar owners, and scares away people who are there only to party, which hurts a bit in the short term. But the status quo was scaring off a more thoughtful (and, frankly, wealthier) breed of traveler, which may be worse in the long term.
Another controversial strategy is to extend the tourist season. Currently the town shuts up tight in mid-October, going into hibernation until mid-May. But winters here can be balmy. And Siniša has unearthed some old postcards, from many decades ago, written by tourists enjoying Hvar well into the winter months. So, how can Hvar balance its residents’ need for a break against the prospect of more income and the benefits of spreading the intensity of the crowds over a longer period of time?
Hvar is at an interesting crossroads. Once a place reaches a certain threshold of success, it can actively decide what kind of destination its going to become. What policies can Hvar pursue today that will shape its reputation — and its long-term viability — tomorrow?
Finally Siniša turned down a rustic driveway barely wider than his car. We stepped out into the cool twilight air and felt a gentle sea breeze — a world away from the intense, glaring heat of Hvar’s marbled main square. Walking down a gravel path to a rustic restaurant, we heard only crickets.
This was Knoboa Kokot, in the village of Dol. “You know about ‘zero-kilometer’ and ‘locally sourced,’ and all that foodie stuff?” Siniša said. “Well, this is as locally sourced as it gets. But that’s just how they’ve always done it…they have no idea they’re perfectly on-trend.”
Konoba Kokot is run by the Pavičić clan, who source virtually everything they serve right on the premises: They raise lambs, have a prolific produce garden, cure their own prosciutto, make and age sheep’s-milk cheeses, and hunt wild boar in the surrounding countryside. The short and remarkably inexpensive menu include the classic peka meal — that’s slow-roasted veal and potatoes, prepared under a copper baking lid covered with glowing coals. But they also have something unique.
“Do you like wild boar?” Siniša asked. “Don’t laugh, but the specialty here is what they call ‘boar burgers.'” We passed the grilling time with some farm-made prosciutto and an array of pungent sheep’s-milk cheeses. And before long, a big platter hit our table, piled high with grilled vegetables, fries, and steaming patties of perfectly seasoned boar meat.
Biting into the most flavorful chunk of meat I’ve ever been lucky enough to enjoy, I pictured all the travelers jammed into the crowded, steamy town center, eating overpriced and overcooked pasta, not even aware that this alternative exists. And I thought to myself how Siniša — and people like him, who respect and care for the delicate traditions of their home turf, and want to share it responsibly and engagingly with visitors — give me hope for the future of Hvar. I think this little island is going to be OK.
…but just in case, from now on, I’m going to stay away in July and August.