Travel: Croatia - the Dalmatian Coast and Garden Festival
As European events such as Benicassim, Isle Of MTV and Exit become more popular with UK visitors, a trend for 'festival-cations' is emerging, and tourists are planning their summer holidays around seeing their favourite band or DJ.
With this in mind, I decided to visit Croatia for a multi-purpose holiday, spending the week touring the Dalmatian Coast and islands with my boyfriend before joining friends in Petrcane for the Garden Festival and a weekend of partying in flip-flops, not wellies.
First stop was Zadar, a small port city that is becoming popular as a destination in itself thanks to its Venetian and Roman architecture, recent leisure developments and regular budget flights from the UK to its tiny airport. We hired a car from the super-friendly Zeljko at Uni-Rent, who suggested a route that took in the best sights along the Sibenik region of the Adriatic coast. We left Zadar heading towards Split, taking the toll motorway through the Krka National Park with its beautiful river and spectacular waterfalls. The scenery around this area is breathtaking — deep blue lakes and secluded coves glistened in the sun as we crossed the mountains.
On the coast road, we passed quaint fishing villages and small tourist resorts and the sides of the narrow roads became cluttered with "Apartman" signs. Most hotels in this area are overpriced and outdated, so I would recommend giving the apartmans a try as these self-contained rooms or granny flat-style extensions are affordable, clean and well located.
Halfway between Zadar and Split is Primosten, a pretty town famous for its vineyards and, randomly, an annual donkey race. After wandering around the medieval walled town, we sat down at a beachside restaurant called Marina for a lunch of lobster, which was hauled alive and kicking from a huge cage dangled in the sea before being freshly cooked.
Back on the road, winding round fire-scorched hillsides and cheerful fishing harbours, it was only another hour or so before we approached the bustling city of Split to catch one of Croatia's clean, super-efficient and surprisingly cheap ferries to Bra, a mere 45-minute ride away.
Bra is famous for its beautiful greenery, towering mountains and Zlatni Rat beach — a postcard favourite.
After finding an apartment in the main resort, Bol, we wandered to the waterfront and bagged a prime table for people-watching at the Kastil restaurant, where we spent a gloriously chilled-out evening gorging on fresh seafood, local wine and a heavenly dessert made from figs, grappa and walnuts that was served with local sheeps' cheese.
The next day, after a morning trek to Bra's fascinating Blaca Hermitage - a 14th-century Glagolite monastery that's well worth the aching legs - the rest of the day was spent lolling on the beach, enjoying lunch at Plaza Borak restaurant then taking a dip in the clear waters while dodging sharp rocks underfoot.
Our next destination was the island of Hvar, but as we had the car, we had to go via Split. For foot passengers, however, island-hopping is easy. Small taxi boats travel between islands for minimal cost and it is well worth paying a local fishing boat to take a group of you for a day trip.
One of Croatia's most popular destinations, Hvar is a lavender-scented, jet-setter's paradise - an appealing alternative to St Tropez or Cannes. And it's easy to see why. Walking into Hvar town is like strolling on to a film set, complete with palm trees, bustling medieval piazzas and super-yachts. A bit more expensive than Croatia's other islands, Hvar does offer a great range of accommodation and restaurants, meaning you can do it on the cheap with a local 'apartman' or splash out and make like the Pitt-Jolies by checking into the five-star Hotel Amfora under a false name.
We went for something in between, and stayed at the Quaich Experience in the village of Vrbanj — a boutique complex of 300-year-old villas and farmhouses set up by Scottish couple Chris and Mick Connor — and explored the island before hooking up with our festival-going friends in Hvar town.
We met in Carpe Diem, a cocktail bar teeming with the young and impossibly good-looking, all sporting a 'just stepped off daddy's Sunseeker' tan. Good music and strong cocktails make this the hippest hangout on the island and the perfect pre-club destination. Come midnight, the crowds cross the harbour and climb steep steps to V528, a brand new open-air club perched on top of a cliff overlooking the sea.
Featuring its own 15th-century chapel turned meditation room complete with oxygen bar, V528 is the place for dancing the night away under the stars. For the more adventurous, a boat leaves Carpe Diem every Friday at closing time for a huge all-night beach party on a nearby island.
Driving back to Zadar on the Friday, we made our way further west to Petrcane, the sleepy fishing village that hosts the Garden Festival, just in time to see things heating up. With only around 2,000 punters each weekend, the festival is small and perfectly formed.
The main activities are set around two stages — one in a wooded area and the other right on the beach — where we heard a cracking line up including Mr Scruff, Hercules and Love Affair and Rob Da Bank. By day, we went on the legendary Argonaughty boat parties. By night, we sipped bubbly at the festival's champagne bar and danced into the wee hours at the on-site nightclub, Barbarella's.
What strikes one immediately at the Garden Festival is the friendliness of both the locals and other festival-goers. Mostly Croatians and Britons, including a sizeable Scottish contingent, the crowd is older than the likes of T in the Park or Rock Ness, and you will be hard pushed to find any trouble-makers or teeny-boppers on site. Forget big corporate festivals and stadium concerts, this is the best way to listen to your favourite music - in the sunshine, surrounded by cool, like-minded people.
For the chill out/recovery segment of our trip, we booked into the nearby four-star Falkensteiner Hotel in nearby Punta Skala. Hugely popular in Croatia, Falkensteiner is an Austrian hotel group geared towards families. Offering all-inclusive packages and family rooms that are ingeniously designed, modern and comfortable, the hotels are perfect for trips with the kids. We spent two days by the hotel's pool and private jetty, enjoying the orderly calm and sleeping off the hangover.
My verdict? For those who like to party and travel and relax, the festival-cation is the way forward. For those who don't - well, I've heard ponchos are totally in this season.
Flights to Zadar from Edinburgh (www.ryanair.com) cost from 21.99.
Uni Rent car hire, Poljana N Nodila 6, 23 000 Zadar (+385 (0) 254 162, www.uni-rent.hr). Cost about 50 a day.
Primošten: Marina Restaurant, Podakraje 28A, 22202 (+385 (0) 22/570-197); Bra: Kastil, 1 Riva Frane Radica, Bol 21420; Plaža Borak, Bracka Cesta 11, Bol, 21420, (+385 (0) 21 306 223); Hvar, The Quaich Experience, 21462 Vrbanj (+385 (0)21 768214, www.quaichexperience.co.uk), prices from 400 a week off peak and 640 in high season for a double room; Carpe Diem, Riva Center, Hvar, 21450 (+ 385 (0) 21 742369); V528 (www.v-528.com); Hotel Amfora, Majerovica bb, 21450 Hvar (+385(0)21750300, www.suncanihvar.com), double rooms from 135 per night.
The Garden Festival (www.thegardenfestival.eu) 6-13th July 2011.
The Falkensteiner Family Hotel Diadora, 23231 Petrcane, Zadar (+385 23 555 911, www.falkensteiner.com), from around 60 pppn, full board. The five-star Falkensteiner Hotel and Spa Ladera, in Punta Skala opens this autumn.
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, 22 August, 2010