Stylist visits an off-radar Adriatic peninsula.
World-renowned olive oil. A thriving wine culture dating back to Ancient Greece. Liberal use of truffles on homemade pasta. No, not Italy, although if you paddled hard enough across the Mediterranean in a north-easterly direction from San Marino, you’d get to my current location: the pebbled coast of Croatia’s Istrian peninsula.
I’ll confess, despite vague intentions of visiting the country, my brain only sputters up three places – Hvar, Split, Dubrovnik – when pressed. So pitching up at the new Arena One 99 Glamping, a luxury site from the Park Plaza Hotels group, I had no idea what to expect.
Turns out, Arena One 99 has the holy trinity for travellers in 2018: sun, sea(food) and spa. My ‘tent’ – more akin to a sturdy cabin – is capable of housing four holidaymakers, and comes complete with kitchen, bathroom and attic room in case you’re bringing mini-humans along for the ride. It’s one of 199 tents (the clue’s in the name) set on a hillside above a private beach, on which I enjoy several afternoons soaking up the 29°C sun; Istrian temperatures, I’m reliably told, only start to dip below 18°C in November.
There are 33 couples-only boltholes, two beachfront eateries and a restaurant that serves up delicacies ranging from antipasti boards to tuna steak with all the trimmings, which only costs around £7.
But even the most pampered of feet can get itchy. The site’s a 15-minute drive from Pula, Istria’s largest city (still only home to 60,000 people) and a former Roman port with a beautiful amphitheatre that hosts events, including an annual film festival in July. We stroll around the city, taking in ancient marvels such as the towering monument, Arch of the Sergii.
Pula has surprises around every corner. Ducking behind an unassuming dentist’s office, we’re confronted by an impeccably preserved third-century mosaic depicting the Punishment of Dirce as we scale the Kaštel – the 17th century Venetian fortress offering 360-degree views across the city. The appetites we work up during the climb are satiated by several heaped plates of assorted ravioli at the charming Bistro Alighieri.
If your tastes run towards the luxe, the other must-see destination is the Brijuni archipelago, accessed via ferry from nearby Farzana. Visitors can travel to the largest island, Veliki Brijun, once the summer residence of Croatia’s (then-Yugoslavia) President Tito and still bearing the faded glamour of the statesman and his famous friends (including Elizabeth Taylor) who spent time there. Now a more unassuming resort and national park, the island is best explored leisurely in a day: there’s everything from a safari park to a 13th-century Knights Templar church to see.
If Istria’s not at the top of your Croatia must-visit list, it’s time to make a new one. Sorry, Hvar, there’s a rival Adriatic hotspot in town.
Images: Arena Glamping