Image: Hvar, Croatia
Sheila Norman-culp  /  AP
A scenic view of the Croatian town of Hvar, located east of Italy across the Adriatic Sea. Croatia expects over 200,000 American visitors this year — nearly double the number that arrived in 2005.
updated 8/8/2007 2:16:37 PM ET 2007-08-08T18:16:37

Up and down the stone piers of Split's raucous port we walked, past a melange of ferries, yachts, tugboats and fishing vessels. Up and down.

Past double-decker sailing yachts with racks of bikes onboard. Past fishermen on low-slung dinghies, squinting at the clouds. Past hobbyists racing 4-foot-long remote sailboats like it was Croatia's own America's Cup.

But nowhere, nowhere was the catamaran that was supposed to whisk us out to Croatia's sun-drenched coastal islands.

"I think it's called the 'Navratilova,'" my husband said.

Thirty minutes later, when we did find the Novalja, we had to laugh. It was a catamaran ferry, not a sailboat. A speedy, muscular workhorse that links Split, the main port along Croatia's upper Dalmatian coast, to the islands of Brac, Hvar, Solta and beyond.

Our Croatian adventure had begun.

Spanish beaches too overbuilt for you? Italy and Greece too crowded? French Riviera sound too expensive? Maybe it's time to go island-hopping in Croatia.

Located east of Italy across the Adriatic Sea, Croatia expects over 200,000 American visitors this year — nearly double the number that arrived in 2005. It also tied for the No. 2 hot destination this year in a survey by the U.S. Tour Operators.

And no wonder. The water is clean and clear, the sun constant, the crowds easy to ditch (except in Dubrovnik), the Croatian kuna a mere 5.33 to the dollar. I usually snort at tourist-advertising slogans, but Croatia's new one — "The Mediterranean as it once was" — is right on the money.

It's been quite the turnaround from the four-year war that engulfed the country in the mid-1990s as Yugoslavia disintegrated. Croatia emerged with a 1,100-mile coast coast; the crown jewel, the walled city of Dubrovnik — a UNESCO heritage site — and enough islands (1,185) to make Greek tourism officials sweat.

Plus, unlike other European destinations (anyone been to London lately?) Americans can afford the trip.

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The hour-long ferry ride from Split to Bol was $4. Our 45-minute bus trip from Split's airport to the port was $5.50. Renting a bike for the day was $13. A made-for-two fresh seafood platter was $46. An all-day (14-hour) ferry excursion from the island of Hvar to Dubrovnik and back, complete with meals, was $128.

You get the picture.

Any visit starts with a flight into Split and ebbs and flows with the ferries, whose summer schedules run June through September. In May and October, the weather is still lovely but the ferries are more limited. Our trip ended with an overnight stay in Trogir, just north of Split, whose UNESCO-designated port was overflowing with 100-foot yachts (we counted 24) gearing up for a week of island-hopping with European tourists.

A warning — don't be horrified by Split. Yes, its outskirts are a testament to the very worst of Cold War architecture, with rows upon rows of crumbling cement towers. But the center of town holds Diocletian's Palace, built in A.D. 293 for the Roman emperor, a must-see stone-walled maze of narrow streets, tiny shops, bars and restaurants.

From Split, we headed out to Brac, Croatia's largest island, and the timeless, charming town of Bol. Croatia's most popular beach, Zlatni Rat, lies less than a mile to the west, an undulating collection of smooth pebbles that sticks straight out into the sea and shifts daily.

Seas are quiet in the morning, building to a hearty afternoon breeze that draws kite sailors like bees to honey. It's free entertainment: An experienced kite sailor can leave you mesmerized with their graceful flips; a novice can leave you in hysterics as his kite plunges repeatedly into the sea.

On rented bikes over a rutted road, we explored the coast to the west. My husband, born and raised in California, said Brac's undulating mountain ridges reminded him of Route 1 — without the traffic. At Murvica, a 15-minute hike down from the road brings you to your own private cove, nude sunbathing optional. More swimming sites lay to the east of Bol.

Over to Hvar island by ferry, we were the only tourists at Jelsa's grubby bus station, yet a meandering trip to Stari Grad with chattering local teens proved a delightful surprise. Winding through four inland towns, our driver squeaked his aging bus over a hilly obstacle course that only optimists would call a one-lane road. Teens were dropped off at immaculately kept houses, next to fields bounded by stone walls straight out of the Roman era.

Another bus took us from Stari Grad — a lovely natural port close to where the massive, ambling car ferry from Split docks — over the hill to the yachting mecca of Hvar.

Hvar's hip crowd favors the pricey drinks and fabulous views of Carpe Diem, the restaurant-club at the end of its pier. We dined across the harbor at Gostionica Kod Kapetana, along with two dozen overall-clad construction workers working late on the Hotel Amfora reconstruction next door.

Despite the lack of fancy clothes, we feasted like royalty. After we ordered, the busboy walked 30 feet to the Hvar pier, hauled up a rope bag and brought in our mussels. On Brac, a young fisherman in oilskins returned to port about 9 p.m., piled a box of squid and fish onto his moped and made emergency deliveries to Bol's seafront restaurants.

From Hvar, boat and ferry trips go daily to a half a dozen islands: Vis, a hotspot for food and celebrities; Korcula, which our hotel manager insisted even put the darling Hvar to shame; Bisevo and the Blue Grotto, a popular snorkeling and diving spot; Brac and the beach at Zlatni Rat; even Dubrovnik, 3 1/2 hours away, whose ancient walls are so beloved they can become unbearably crowded with summer cruise ship tourists.

Alas, we visited Hvar in late May, when the less-frequent boat trips clashed with our return ferry to Split. We did take a $9 trip to Palmizana on the nearby Pakleni Islands — only to find that its touted "sand" beach was barely 20 feet wide. Feel free to skip it.

But a long walk from Hvar to the east brought spectacular sea views and a protected, blindingly white pebble beach, perfect for a relaxing afternoon.

We stayed at Hotel Croatia, a former hangout for top Serbian officials and the late Yugoslav dictator Josef Tito. If only I had an extra $5 million, I'm sure I could resurrect its lovely bones — 14-foot ceilings, private balconies — from underneath a garish '70s orange-and-green decor. But the front desk dashed my dreams, noting this was last main hotel on Hvar still Croatian-owned and saying it planned to keep it that way.

No matter. I still have islands to visit, seafood to sample. I know the Internet sites for renting out Croatian yachts. I might even try kite-boarding — if no one's looking.

My Dalmatian explorations have just begun.

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