Hvar, an island in the Adriatic Sea off Croatia's Dalmatian coast, is in many ways a contradiction. As a visitor, you might wake up and hike across brambly hillsides to a medieval ghost town, and by sundown be drinking infused cocktails while dancing to techno music. It's an island where opulent hotels continue to sprout up across the coastline, but the equivalent of $30 can still get you a room in the house of a local grandmother.
When I was there last August, I watched as a barefoot boy, about 10, ran into a restaurant with two huge fish he'd just caught being greeted with shouts of "Opa!" (Croatian for "Wow!") from the staff and diners. I saw three British girls in designer turbans, dark lipstick and gladiator sandals dancing on a bar ringed in flames. I visited a secluded artists' colony and ate lobster behind a velvet rope.
Perhaps most paradoxically, Hvar (pronounced hwahr) has been a popular resort destination for over a century, and yet it seems permanently perched on the cusp of the-next-big-thing status. Beyoncé, Prince Harry and Tom Cruise have been among its recent visitors, and last year Time Out Croatia ran a cover article headlined "The Rise of Hvar." Now that Croatia is a member of the European Union, Hvar is poised to gain even greater popularity.
Part of the appeal is environmental: Hvar has a mild Mediterranean climate and excellent beaches of pebble, smooth sun-bleached stone or white sand. The island is certainly one of the sunniest spots in Europe, with more than 2,720 hours of sunlight in an average year (Paris, by comparison, gets about 1,800).
Central to the Adriatic sailing routes, Hvar became a Venetian fortress island in the 16th century, and its largest town, also called Hvar, has pearly white limestone porticos to prove it. It's there, in the marble marina, that yachts converge, pulling in at high tide and unloading their tipsy, suntanned cargo, who saunter across the main piazza and disappear into cobblestone alleyways.
On my first night on the island, I made my way down one of these alleyways to Konoba Luviji, a two-story tavern and winery tucked behind the Renaissance-style St. Stephen's Cathedral at the east end of the main square. Luviji is owned by the Bracanovic family, which has been making wine for generations, and its posip (a crisp white, native to Dalmatia) is considered one of the country's best. The upper terrace looks across the piazza at the hilltop Spanish Fortress and offers stunning views to the sea.
After finishing my meal, a satisfying dish of baked eggplant stuffed with fresh octopus, I decamped with my posip to the stone steps next to the entrance, where I met a group of Slovene artists who have been coming to Hvar every summer since the Yugoslav era, when the free-spirited younger generation helped give the island the cultural life that still thrives in its many galleries, artist colonies and musical associations.
The next day the Slovenes picked me up at the harbor, and we drove north across the island, past rolling, pine-ridged hillsides covered in olive groves, vineyards and silvery-purple lavender fields that have long been the country's main source for the flowering herb. At the edge of Stari Grad, the island's older, northern town, we crossed an ancient agricultural plain that received Unesco status in 2008. Founded by the Greeks in the fourth century B.C., Stari Grad is one of the oldest settlements in Europe and, with its simple stone houses and pleasantly yacht-free waterfront, offers a quietly timeworn counterpoint to the hubbub of Hvar Town.
We stopped in at the Dominican Monastery to see its stunning Tintoretto Pietà before heading to Tvrdalj Castle, the 16th-century summer residence of Petar Hektorovic, a local noble and poet. This well-preserved structure, which includes a vaulted seawater fish pool and a courtyard, still bears the lyrical mark of its Renaissance-era proprietor with carved Latin inscriptions like "Alas the days flow by like waves and do not return" and aptly, just above the lavatory, "Know what thou art, then why art thy proud?"
The next day, my American friend Rachel arrived on the island, and we decided to set out for one of Hvar's many secluded coves, Mekicevica, which is better known by the name of the konoba, or tavern, that is its sole occupant: Robinson.
You can get there by only foot or sea -- either the water taxi that makes stops along the shore or with a rental. We opted for the latter and, though neither of us had ever operated a watercraft bigger than an inner tube, we flashed an American driver's license, handed over 500 kuna (about $85, at 5.8 kuna to the dollar) to a local boy no older than 11 and watched as he fueled up our own personal speedboat. He spoke to us just once: after inadvertently dousing the entire hull with gasoline, he looked up and said, "No smoking."
Once we'd made our way to Robinson, a sun-swept hideaway overlooking the cove, we placed our order and, in true Dalmatian style, took a swim while our food cooked. Fifteen minutes later we were digging into Crusoe's Pot, the konoba's version of a Hvarska classic, the gregada, a garlicky white wine stew of fresh seafood (usually some mix of cod, sea bass, shrimp, mullet and scorpion fish) and potatoes.
We made it back to the harbor just as the sun began to set. The sky bloomed orange and magenta, and competing techno beats from idling yachts mingled into a constant soupy pulse as Hvar transformed into its other incarnation as a glitzed-out sundowner bacchanalia.
The heart of the party is usually Carpe Diem, a decadent open-air club that started the recent V.I.P. surge when it opened in 1999 on the east end of the marina. There, flashy couples luxuriate on low wicker sofas sipping kir royals, while louche debutantes in Missoni bikinis dance on the marble ledges of the raised Venetian loggia to a garrulous mix of pop and Euro house. The air is tinged with salt, sage and lavender -- and not even a whiff of austerity.
Farther west up the coast, Hula-Hula Hvar takes a more laid-back (as well as knees-up) approach. More Ibiza than St.-Tropez, it's the sundowner spot of choice for members of the easyJet set, who grind spring-break style to minimal techno on the shorefront dance floor and make out on sea-facing teakwood sun beds scattered across the rocks. We found an empty sun bed and spent the evening watching the euphorically Facebook-documented beginnings of more than a few one-night stands.
I had several great meals in Hvar, but I didn't want to leave without visiting Stori Komin, a konoba in the abandoned medieval village Malo Grablje, surrounded by rugged cliffs about two miles inland from the town Milna.
Once I had been convinced that the way was unbikeable and extremely difficult to hike, we hired a taxi. Any suspicions I had that the driver was ripping us off with his $25 fare were put quickly to rest once we were off-roading through thick brush in near-pitch blackness. Before we could protest, he had pulled off, and we stood surrounded by crumbling stone ruins and darkened forest. We could hear the flutter of large birds and something not dissimilar to howling. Noticing a pale artificial light around a corner, we followed it, up a flight of stone steps and through the hollowed foundations of a long-ruined house, until we heard voices and finally reached the hilltop terrace of Stori Komin.
The owner, a wiry middle-aged man named Berti Tudor, explained that there was no menu. We'll eat what he brings us, he said. And if we want fresh fish, he added, grinning roguishly, we're out of luck: "For fish, you have to call me in the morning." Instead, we got a huge platter of lamb, steak and potatoes, sardines in homemade oil and vinegar and a perfect salad of arugula, tomatoes, cucumber and peppers -- all picked fresh that day and brought to our table by Berti's two young daughters.
We stayed late drinking wine and trading stories. Berti told us that Malo Grablje dates to the 15th century. The village was abandoned in the 1950s when a pest called phylloxera devastated the vineyards and other agriculture of the area, driving the residents, Berti's family included, to Milna in search of work. Berti returned seven years ago to open Stori Komin in his family's old house. "Everyone thought I was crazy when I came back here," he said, before taking us into the kitchen to try his family's special homemade dessert wine.
When we tried to call a taxi, Berti insisted on driving us back to Hvar Town himself. We trekked through woods to his jeep, and he drove us back toward the sea. The only sound was the wind in the trees and, barely discernible, the far-off throb of a dance floor.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
The Suncani hotel group is by far the biggest player in Hvar's luxury market. The newest of the group's eight properties across the island is the Amfora Hvar Grand Beach Resort (Ulica biskupa Jurja Dubokovica 5, Hvar; 385-21-750-750), which includes the Bonj les Bains beach club, a 1930s white stone colonnade that is easily the island's most glamorous bathing spot. Doubles in June start at $250 a night.
It's increasingly difficult to find low-budget accommodation in Hvar Town, but there is still a handful of places like Masa Guesthouse (Ive Roica 73; 385-21-741-731; no Web site), which offers modest but comfortable rooms with sea-view balconies from $40 a night.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Konoba Luviji, Jurja Novaka 6; (385-91) 3741-646.
Robinson, Mekicevica; (385-91) 3835-160.
Carpe Diem, Riva; (385-21) 742-369.
Hula-Hula Hvar, (385-92) 123-8730.
Stori Komin, Malo Grablje; (385-91) 527-6408.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.