Spectacular Croatia; Thousands of Miles of Coast, 1,185 Islands Sparkle along Crystal Blue of Adriatic Sea

Article excerpt

Byline: Sean Green, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …