There’s nothing wrong with letting your imagination run wild, especially when you find yourself on an island as evocative as Hvar.
As I board the custom-built Maslina motorboat that takes me from Split to this fabulous little island – about the same size as Malta – I feel the spirit of Jackie Kennedy. She traveled there with her sister in 1964, nearly a year after her husband’s assassination shook the world. She used his visit to “reset” her troubled life.
Hvar, the sunniest Mediterranean island, has long been known for its transformative powers and has attracted all manner of foreigners. Although it has been inhabited by humans for over 6,000 years, it was properly settled by the ancient Greeks with their settlement of Pharos, on the site of one of the oldest villages in Europe, Stari Grad.
Stay local: Jo Knowsley explores the Croatian island of Hvar – ‘the sunniest Mediterranean island’. Pictured is the town of Hvar
Then came the Romans, Venetians, Ottoman Turks, Italians and, in more modern times, Communism.
Finally, after the breakup of Yugoslavia and its violent civil war, Hvar became part of the new country of Croatia.
None of that hustle and bustle is in the air today as we hit the water for our hour-long boat trip to the new five-star eco-friendly Maslina Resort, which blends seamlessly into the hill covered with pine trees. The hotel has 50 rooms, three villas, a spa, and a private beach, and bills itself as a place of “conscious luxury.”
Jo takes a 1-hour boat trip from Split to the new five-star eco-friendly Maslina Resort (above) in Hvar
Jo notes that Maslina Resort, pictured above, markets itself as a place of ‘mindful luxury’
Above, one of the 50 rooms at the Maslina Resort, which also includes three villas, a spa and a private beach
The Maslina Resort blends seamlessly into the pine-covered hillside, according to Jo
The town of Hvar, with its castle on the top of a hill and its many clubs and bars around the old stone port, has a certain reputation as a “center of the party”.
But away from the harbor there is an air of sleepy relaxation and an irresistible scent of lavender. (Hvar once produced some of the largest amounts of lavender in the world, and it’s still nicknamed the Lavender Island.)
Hvar doesn’t have many long white sand beaches – in fact most of them consist of large stone coves. The compensation for this is the clearest blue water and a green, fragrant environment. To the north, beyond Stari Grad, Vrboska and Jelsa, you will find private coves overlooking the even quieter island of Brac. There are also the beautiful Pakleni Islands just a short boat ride away.
“The town of Hvar, with its hilltop castle and numerous clubs and bars around the old stone harbour, has had a certain reputation as ‘party central'”, writes Jo
To the north, beyond the town of Jelsa (pictured), you’ll find private coves overlooking the peaceful island of Brac
The charming Pakleni Islands, pictured above, are just a short boat ride from Hvar
Jo meets Grgo Lucio, a former fisherman who produces most of Hvar’s lavender and sells his wares at a shop near his home in Zastrazisce. Above is the church of Zastrazisce, ‘Crkva sv Nikola’
Hvar once produced some of the largest quantities of lavender in the world, and it is still nicknamed the Lavender Island.
One morning, I meet Grgo Lucio, 58, a former fisherman who produces most of Hvar’s lavender. He sells his wares in a shop near his home in Zastrazisce, in the countryside.
He fought in the Civil War and was shipwrecked on his boat before finding an easier life on land – so ‘easy’ can be defined working seven days a week in this lush but mountainous and harsh countryside.
Most of the inhabitants have avoided fishing and agriculture to work in tourism. There are emerging local wines and quirky family restaurants such as the Konoba Maslina (no connection to the resort) which sits atop one of the highest hills.
The people are friendly, but their manners hint at their past. In St. Stephen’s Square in Hvar Town, a ticket agent at the Hvar Public Theater – one of the oldest theaters in Europe, built in 1612 – barks: “Cash only. You cannot visit with a card: cash only.’
It was an irony that I encountered time and time again. The people are warm and welcoming (the youngsters at the box office had the face of an angel) but underneath they have thorns of steel. I thought of Napoleon’s famous phrase: “If I only had 100,000 Croats (soldiers), I would conquer the whole world.
Hvar certainly won me over. I particularly lost my heart in Stari Grad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Archaeologists were working the day of my visit. “We didn’t have to dig very deep before the bones started to appear,” says archaeologist Sara Popovic, who works near St. John’s Church.
Jo takes a ticket for the public theater in Hvar, which is one of the oldest theaters in Europe, built in 1612
Jo loses her heart to Stari Grad (pictured). On the day of his visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, archaeologists were working near the town’s Church of St. John.
“The ancient civilizations are all there, in 14 layers, under the stones. We found buried children’s clothing buttons that date back to the 13th century.
A small museum houses the island’s oldest artifacts, including small glass bottles in which, according to folklore, the wives of fishermen at sea kept their tears.
There is a poignant statue of St Rocco, the patron saint of contagious diseases, who claimed to have recovered from the plague because a street dog brought him food when he was abandoned and left to starve by fearful residents.
There is no chance of tourists starving here now. Stari Grad is full of restaurants serving seafood. The alleys are teeming with life.
On the main square, the old washhouse is now a wishing well filled with coins. The theory is that by tossing a coin you are guaranteed to return to the island. I didn’t hesitate to throw mine away.