Hvar Island has always attracted a cosmopolitan mix. Its position on the Adriatic made it a coveted staging post for trade, and its bright blue coves and hills carpeted with pine, sage and lavender made it an easy place to stay. It's been fought over by the Greeks (as early as 300 BC), Illyrians, Romans, Venetians and Ottoman Turks.
It's still a melting pot. Over an early morning cappuccino at Loco cafe in Hvar Town's main square, I do some people-watching, noticing plum-accented British yachties, Dutch, Russians and slick Italians who look as if they've been spray-tanned and stepped straight from a cologne advert. Even the Serbs have started to return.
I feel a little under-dressed - this is undoubtedly fashionista territory. But behind the glitzy sheen of yachts and flashy restaurants there's still a local culture - rugged fishermen singing love songs over their seafood, old timers selling crochet wares, sombrely dressed nuns with wise faces trudging up and down hillside steps from the Benedictine monastery.
Not so long ago, in the early 90s, Croatia was a war-torn country, and places as close as Dubrovnik were no-go areas. Even before that, the Communist tendrils of the UDBA (Secret Police) reached as far as Hvar and locals were wary of chatting about politics to outsiders for fear of reprisals. So what I first think is guardedness I gradually understand to be a by-product of the past. Look behind the initial reserve and you'll find a truly Croatian warmth and cheekiness.
A short walk to the outskirts of town, past the 15th-century Franciscan Monastery, brings me to a little beach: the jetting-off point for Hvar Adventure, who take me on a day's easy kayaking around the neighbouring Pakleni Islands. Patcho, our group leader, and his assistant Sylvia are charming, easy-going types who set a relaxed pace (our group ranges from 20 to 60 years old). We glide across the bay and find a quiet spot on wooded Jerolim to swim under the scrutiny of some die-hard nudists. By midday we're on another island: Stipanska, where we stop for a lunch of spaghetti bolognaise and light white wine.
But the real highlight is our final stop, the tiny island of Galisnik. Just a stone's throw from Hvar town harbour, it's the perfect place to slake our salt-caked thirst. A restaurant on the summit of the island is home to strutting roosters, two randy dogs and a donkey called Mercedes who's been called as witness at a number of hush-hush weddings. Strangely, nobody seems to know about Galisnik. Apart from you, me and the donkey.
By around 7pm the dusk is closing in and the town square becomes a sunset-lit runway for the evening parade. At busy Restaurant Posteni, over delicious fried bass, I resume the people-watching.
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