The Cream of Croatia
Byline: By Emma Pomfret
This Adriatic idyll easily matches anything the rest of Europe has to offer, finds Emma Pomfret - who urges a visit there before everyone else realises what they're missing
IT was our first night in Croatia, and in the perfect setting of a waterfront restaurant, I was lucky enough to discover the delights of Dentex. Although it sounds like a mouthwash, Dentex is actually a famously tasty fish caught in shoals in the deep-blue waters off Dubrovnik. Croatians call it the Zubatec, or "King of the Adriatic", and now it stared at me from a colourful plate in all its razor-fanged glory.
Although the locals had been singing its praises since we arrived, nothing quite prepared me for the distinctive meaty yet delicate lemony taste. At barely pounds 7 for a huge portion, we ate it almost every night!
To be perfectly honest, before I set foot on Croatian soil, I had no idea what the local cuisine would be like but, luckily, the sheer variety of eclectic European dishes, ranging from fresh fish to Buzara - boiled scampi in a rich wine sauce - turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
Like most sunny European countries, late lunch washed down with the excellent local red wine is the most important meal of the day for Croatians.
But the multitude of ocean-front restaurants and traditional old tavernas are completely accustomed to tourists who tend to eat lightly at lunchtime and more heartily during the long, balmy evenings.
Being so close to the eastern coast of Italy, wood-fired pizzerias are very common in most Croatian towns and they serve cheap but delicious thin-crust pizzas and crispy green salads, although it's worth looking out for the most popular dish throughout the Dalmatia region called Peka, a delicious meat or fish stew cooked with potatoes in a large, sealed circular pan in a clay oven and then heated by the smouldering embers.
Of course, it's not only the fantastic food and typically Mediterranean summer lifestyle that make Croatia the tourist destination of the moment.
With Spain's coastline often over-crowded, Italy's verging on extortionate, and the French Med more than a little cliquey, it's little wonder this tiny crescent-shaped country is fast becoming Europe's most coveted holiday hotspot.
With miles of pristine beaches framed by dramatic mountains and impossibly clear Adriatic waters, more than 1,000 picturesque islands ripe for hopping, and town upon ancient town bursting with faded Habsburg grandeur and dazzling Byzantine churches, Croatia provides a fascinating experience for any visitor.
It's often said the sparkling coastline is so unspoilt that the stunning ocean scenery from any beachside bar is almost exactly the same view that the Franciscan monks, Roman emperors, Venetian navy and Napoleon himself would have seen when they scanned the horizon for enemies in days long ago.
Croatia's current success marks a dramatic revival from the grim days of the early 1990s and the former Yugoslavia's civil war. For the more observant traveller, scattered remnants of the war in the shape of derelict, burnt-out villages can still be spotted in remote inland parts of northern Dalmatia but, for the most part, there is no tangible reminder of the conflict, and Croatia is back on the holiday map.
We had landed in Croatia's second city, Split, on the southern coast, and made a quick pit-stop to visit the stunning third-century Diocletian Palace in the old town, before heading off for a two-hour drive through the picturesque Makarska Riviera and then on towards the pretty resort of Tucepi.
In the heart of historic Dalmatia, the Tucepi coastline is an unbroken series of beautiful clean beaches, bordered on one side by the transparent turquoise sea and on the other by a green necklace of pine forests, olive groves, blossoming vineyards and cool glades. …