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Side trips to savor

Riviera ambience drawing the crowds

By Megan Lisagor
Globe Correspondent / November 20, 2011
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DUBROVNIK, Croatia - I eased my way across slippery rocks into the sea and floated on my back, pregnant belly bobbing like an apple on Halloween. How French, I thought, to have traded the Paris pavement for pebble-strewn shores on summer holiday - only this wasn’t the Côte d’Azur or the Amalfi Coast. The tranquil scene was in Dubrovnik, on the underrated Croatian Riviera.

About two hours from Paris and Rome by plane, the city is worth the additional airport hassle as a quick side trip. It far outshines such regular stopovers as Nice (not that nice except for the Chagall museum) and Positano (better to be in mountainous Ravello). For a beach town, Dubrovnik can claim that special mix of natural beauty and historic interest; it’s as lovely to hike along the Adriatic Sea as it is to climb the medieval town’s 14th-century ramparts. The tanned 20-somethings hawking fliers for kayak excursions are only one sign that the tourism industry has rebounded from the siege in the early ’90s, when Croatia declared its independence from a faltering Yugoslavia. My best meal was at a restaurant too new to make the guidebooks.

Of course, more infrastructure means more crowds. The sudden appearance of a mammoth cruise ship - its top-deck, twisty slide a blight on the surrounding splendor - was a reminder that peace can be fleeting. Good to have visited Dubrovnik now, I concluded on my paddle to land, before it’s totally mainstream.

4 p.m.: STROLL THE STRADUN

As far as European cities go, Dubrovnik is that rare supermodel that looks as good in person as it does in glossy photos. It must be the light bouncing off the limestone streets. Start at the Stradun, the pedestrian-only Old Town’s main drag running between two gates that would make a killer set for Dungeons & Dragons. Baroque buildings, erected after a 1667 earthquake destroyed much of the Gothic and Renaissance architecture, house cafes, boutiques, and tourist traps selling such loot as butterfly-bejeweled sunglasses. Escape the modern, mundane spots with visits to the cathedral and the Rector’s Palace, then walk the walls or wander the narrow side streets. The cruisers should have swarmed back to their boats by this time of day.

6 p.m.: SEAFOOD BY STARLIGHT

Friends steered us toward Proto (Siroka 1; 011-385-20-323-234; www.esculaprestaurants.com), a popular restaurant steps from the Stradun. Despite the busy location, it maintains a romantic vibe, particularly on the upstairs terrace. The seafood-focused menu specializes in dishes like grilled scampi ($31) and whatever is fresh off the boat (market price). Craving greens, I devoured the roasted-vegetable platter ($16) but would have been as happy with a pile of the addictive potatoes. My husband equally enjoyed his lamb osso buco ($36) -no small feat for a guy with a shellfish allergy dining in a kitchen aquarium. That was thanks largely to our attentive waiter whose smile could have won a Croatian beauty pageant.

10 a.m.: AN ISLAND AWAY

After breakfast in the hotel (it’s not worth going elsewhere), catch the 15-minute boat ride ($9 round trip) from Dubrovnik’s old port to Lokrum. Despite the short distance, the woodsy island offers a complete contrast to the city. Rocks jutting into the Adriatic serve as makeshift bathing platforms, allowing swimmers to jump right in the water. We chose one with a ladder affixed (away from the nudist beach) and later hiked along dirt paths to the Dead-Sea-like lake. A bar-shack complete with outdoor lounges that would look at home in Vegas sidetracked us with cold drinks. Wandering peacocks added to the pleasantly surreal feel.

1 p.m.: LAP OF LUXURY

After returning from Lokrum by boat, forgo the convenience of the port’s mediocre lunch spots in favor of Prora at the upscale Excelsior Hotel & Spa (Frana Supila 12; 011-385-20-353-353; www.hotel-excelsior.hr). Seated on a small terrace flanked by stone-white walls, diners eat simple fare - perhaps a prosciutto sandwich , or a seafood salad (each $17) - while gazing at the water from their prime positions in wicker chairs. Maybe it was the heat, but the sparkling sea put me in a trance broken only by the arrival of our food. Bronzing nearby, bathing beauties, whose swimwear likely cost triple our meal, offered another distraction. All that was missing was a celebrity sighting on a dockside yacht.

3 p.m.: HOUSE BEAUTIFUL

I would revisit the Museum of Modern Art Dubrovnik (Put Frana Supila 23; 011-385-20-426-590; www.ugdubrovnik.hr; $5) even if the permanent collection - about 2,500 pieces, mostly with Croatian ties - went on loan. Built as a ship owner’s mansion, the museum is a study in airiness, with its courtyard entrance, terrace overlooking the sea, and gallery floors connected by wide staircases. It’s the ideal setting for the art, which similarly impresses. Even my young son sat through a seven-minute video installation. Personally, I take it as a good sign when a work leads me to the Internet for further research (check out Antun Motika). Plus, it was refreshing to tour a European museum without an exhibit on the French masters.

5 p.m.: WORTH THE TRIP

On the scenic ride from the airport to Dubrovnik - the kind of ride that affirms your choice of destination rather than casts doubt on it (see: some Caribbean spots) - our driver offered one suggestion: That we ride the cable car (www.dubrovnikcablecar.com; $15 round trip) to the top of Srd Hill for an even better view, including the Elafiti Islands. It proved good advice, although complete enjoyment of the experience might depend on the number of people sandwiched together. Luckily, we scored a space on the cabin’s outer edges during our ascent, and the panorama - 1,328 feet above sea level - more than made up for any discomfort.

7 p.m.: WARM ALL OVER

We discovered Oliva Gourmet (Cvijete Zuzoric 2; 011-385-20-324-076; www.pizza-oliva.com/gourmet) after fleeing the restaurant recommended repeatedly by our hotel staff. The menu at the latter screamed wedding food - a feeling admittedly enhanced by a gaggle of passing bridesmaids in Croatia’s answer to Lilly Pulitzer. It was a jarring sight. Far more appealing, Oliva occupies a cozy room - stone walls, colorful chairs, vintage knickknacks - off an alleyway in the Old Town. While its sister spot focuses on pizza, this new incarnation serves Italian-Mediterranean dishes like tagliatelle with zucchini, olives, and local goat cheese ($14). The service was as warm as the space, even when my son’s sticker book capsized a glass of wine.

9 p.m.: PERFORMANCE ART

Dubrovnik has no shortage of wannabe Bob Dylans, b-boys, and human statues (Simon Cowell, take note). Luckily, the city also hosts cultural events in the Old Town: for example, a chamber music festival with violinist-violist Julian Rachlin at the Rector’s Palace and a string quartet at St. Saviour’s Church during my visit. It isn’t all highfalutin, though. After dinner, we watched in awe and slight confusion as dancers dressed in lederhosen jigged in a nearby square. Stumbling upon such shows depends on the time of year; settle for people-watching from a Stradun cafe in the off-season. It’s often just as entertaining.

10 a.m.: STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Spend your last morning at St. Jakob beach, a bit of a hidden treasure and a trek. Past its namesake church, we found the staircase that marks the long, steep descent to the shore. Having reached the bottom, I would have sunk on my knees in the sand but for one problem: There’s no real sand, only pebbles. Exhausted, we rented plastic chaises with umbrellas and tried to catch our breaths. Naked babies splashed in the warmish water, their bikini-clad moms balancing them on rocks like little seagulls. Soon we joined them, and there came the payoff: swimming in the bright-blue Adriatic, the walled city and its orange rooftops in the distance. Like a mirage, a mountainside cafe offered sodas and snacks. It’s a pretty perfect spot.

Megan Lisagor can be reached at mlisagor@yahoo.com.

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If You Go

Where to stay
Excelsior Hotel & Spa
Frana Supila 12
011-385-20-353-353
www.hotel-excelsior.hr
This is the place for luxury and Adriatic access, not to mention fine dining, shopping, and spa services. Doubles from $294.
Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik
Marijana Blazica 2
011-385-20-320-320
www.dubrovnik.hilton.com
This modern, sophisticated hotel, with a winning restaurant and an indoor pool, sits within easy walking distance of the Old Town. Doubles from $209.
Information
Dubrovnik Tourist Board
Brsalje 5
011-385-20-323-887
www.tzdubrovnik.hr