Croatia is rapidly becoming the flavour of the month across Europe, with islands like Hvar drawing the discerning visitor and a more than few celebs in search of a more tranquil, exclusive escape from the maddening crowds of St-Tropez, Ibiza and the like. It’s not hard to see why – much more than just a magnate for sun and sand worshippers, Croatia seduces first-timers with its (as of yet) unspoiled scenery, a well-developed infrastructure – especially in the south – an enticing climate, friendly people and a burgeoning and exciting food and drink culture. In fact, on first glance it seems like there is nothing to dislike!
That said there is a danger that Croatia may become a victim of its own success – the vast majority of visitors stamped toward the popular southern region of Dalmatia and the tourist traps of Split and Dubrovnik; both are becoming very, very crowded in the summer months. Luxury yachts fight for space in Hvar’s old town and the parties are getting louder and longer, the clientele younger. This had led some visitor to explore a quieter side of Croatia, one with the beauty but without the crowds.
Enter Rovinj. This idyllic, coastal town is the pride and joy of the Istrian peninsula, found in the northern tip of the country. It is a truly unique, beautiful region, as I discovered during my visit this summer. Between the endless rows of olive trees, bucolic bliss and vineyards, Istria exudes more than a whiff of Tuscany. Interestingly, Italian is spoken almost as widely as Croatian and the two languages have equal recognition. However, unlike that venerable Italian region or Dalmatia, Istria has not yet become an overcrowded tourist destination, making it an extremely attractive place to visit. Locals proudly state that the best olive oil comes from Istria, which I can vouch for. They also never tire of saying that the best cuisine, wine and seafood emanates from these parts. And who was I to argue?
My Istrian journey started one early Saturday morning in May, I flew into Pula, one of the main hubs in the region and was promptly whisked away by my hotel’s driver to my destination: Hotel Monte Mulini, Rovinj’s first 5-star boutique hotel overlooking a private cove in the Istrian coastline. This was to be my base for the next couple of days and the hotel, still in its infancy were keen to attract journalists to sample the delights of their pool, restaurant and spa. My weekend certainly started on a high note, after a smooth check-in I checked out the extremely inviting poor area, a mere stone’s throw away from a delightful cove and tiny beach. The hotel is clearly geared up for summer tourism, they offer free bike rental to explore the peninsula and nothing seemed too much trouble from the outset.
Going back to ‘basics’ for a second; Hotel Monte Mulini has 99 rooms and 14 suites, all designed in an extremely modern, comfortable way. My double room had a lovely, small terrace overlooking the surrounding forest and bay, the quality of the interior furnishing was high and my bathroom was particular spacious. The overall feel of the hotel is warm simplicity, everything is designed to be extremely functional but not coldly so: they create an inviting atmosphere with the vibrant Mediterranean colours and openness of the hotel, the reception area overlooks the bar area and the lounge overlooks the pool and gardens. It does not have an historical pedigree, having been opened in the last 5 years but it does have enthusiasm and customer service by the bucket-load.
Monte Mulini’s other big calling card is its very new and plush spa. Bells and whistles does not do it justice, the spa offers guests a state of the art gym, a sauna, Jacuzzi, hydrotherapy pools and 12 private rooms for face and body treatments. Needless to say, I took advantage of the hotel’s kind offer of a full body massage, performed by a lovely, chatty Istrian lady. Who says this sort of thing is just for women?
As you might expect, I spent the lazy day by the pool, content to leave my exploration of Rovinj until the following Monday afternoon. I had my first experience of Istrian haute-cuisine that evening at Hotel Lone, a neighbour hotel to Monte Mulini that offers guests and visitors a delightful outdoor terrace for summer dining. I ate a veritable feast of Porcini mushroom soup followed by lightly seared Tuna steaks. Too full for dessert, I nevertheless sampled the excellent sweet Malvasia wines; Malvasia is a key grape in white wine production in Istria. Everything was fresh, intensely flavoured but not remotely heavy or overbearing – the epitome of fine Istrian cuisine I was reliably informed by the hotel’s sommerlier.
I also dined at the Monte Mulini’s restaurant – The Wine Vault – the following evening. A similar fine-dining experience ensured, the restaurant’s chef used to work in France so all his Istrian dishes have been given a Gallic makeover. Seared Scallops were marinated in a typical Istrian sauce of sweet onions, garlic, olive oil and wine. The Turbot was served on a bed of Blitva, which is apparently a cousin of spinach and prepared with potatoes, garlic and yes, you guessed it – olive oil.
My final day and evening was spent in Rovinj, a charming and historic port that offers incredible views of the coastline from the church courtyard at the top of the town. A popular tourist destination and fishing port, Rovinj nevertheless feels like a million miles away from Dubrovnik and Hvar. Local says that early summer was the best time to visit and I could see why, the town was humming, the weather pleasantly warm and the number of other tourists manageable, in fact negligible. It won’t take you long to explore and the center is only a 10-15 minute walk away from the hotel. If you have time, take on of the many boat trips that leave daily and explore the Peninsula’s many delightful, human free islands!
Or, make the effort to visit for no other reason that in the old part of Rovinj cafes and wine bars abound – we had dinner at La Puntulina, a great romantic spot that serves Istrian classics overlooking the Adriatic. Delightful little bars and cafes hide away on the steps up through the old part of Rovinj, find your favourite and spend a dreamy evening sipping Malvasia, overlooking the Adriatic.
I must admit though, for all Rovinj’s and Istria’s attractions I spent a great deal of time in the hotel, which cocoons you in relaxed tranquility and luxury. If you want an Ibiza vibe and expect every night to be a bass-thumping, all night disco, then save your money. But if you want to chill out, then welcome to paradise!
So I’d just get here quick, before the hordes of tourists arrive. For once ‘discovered’, never the same!
I flew with Ryanair from London Stanstead to Pula (Summer schedule)
In winter you can either fly to Trieste (Italy) or fly to the capital Zagreb and then take a connecting flight to Pula. Trieste is approximately 65Km from Rovinj.
Holiday Extras provided overnight accomodation at Stanstead Airport.
Hotel Monte Mulini
A. Smareglia bb, HR – 52210
Rovinj, Croatia T +385(0)52 636 000
Current room rates at Hotel Monte Mulini start from €276 including breakfast and VAT for a Premium double room. Also included in the rate are free WiFi, complimentary parking, use of the spa facilities, and complimentary refreshments upon arrival.