You’ll need more than one trip to discover the 101 delights of Dalmatia – the rugged central coastline of Croatia, protected by a gorgeous Adriatic archipelago and backed by the dramatic Velebit mountain range.
Head out from the beautiful and vibrant 3,000-year-old town of Zadar and you’ll find a destination that has plenty to Cro about.
Relatively undiscovered by Brits, expect spectacular scenery, a fascinating heritage and an unrivalled array of activities that will suit both the sporty and the sedate.
We stayed at the lovely four-star boutique Hotel Bastion at the head of the small peninsula on which the old walled town stands.
GettyMystery hut for competitionIdyllic: Sunset in Zadar
It’s ideally placed overlooking the busy harbour and, behind it are the narrow streets and alleys running down to the ancient town gates, which were laid out by the Romans.
The Roman forum is well preserved as are the medieval and Renaissance buildings. The church of St Donatus dates from the 9th century, while St Anastasia’s Cathedral goes back to the 12th. The Franciscan monastery is still inhabited and it has a superb 16th century cloister.
Zadar has a excellent restaurants to suit all pockets and some lively bars. And your money really does go a long way in Croatia – beer costs just £2 for half a litre and we had excellent freshly-made pizzas and wine for £15.
GettyKolovare Beach in Zadar, CroatiaSun worship: Kolovare Beach in Zadar
Oh, and none other than movie legend Alfred Hitchcock proclaimed the sunset at Zadar to be the best he’d ever seen.
If you just want a typical beach holiday you can find superb family accommodation such as the Zaton Holiday Resort, near Nin, or the Solaris resort in Sibenik, but the area is really geared up for independently minded travellers who want to explore. And, boy, is there plenty to see.
Nin is the perfect place to start. The first capital of the Croats, it has an unexpected link with Tenby in South Wales through the European Walled Towns Association.
It has the largest area of sandy beaches in Croatia including the rather special Queen’s Beach, hailed by some as one of the most beautiful in the world.
Robert Harding World ImageryZadar, Dalmatia region, CroatiaMarina: The harbour in Zadar
Next to it you’ll find an area of medicinal mud where all manner of health treatments are available. And across the lagoon are the salt works at Nin. Started by the Romans, they are still harvesting one of the world’s finest salts purely from sun, sea and wind.
The area is also a haven for birdwatchers and there are the remains of Croatia’s largest 1st century temple, a lovely museum and several excellent restaurants.
Across the sea from Nin is the island of Pag, which since 1980 has been accessible over a magnificent bridge thanks to the late Yugoslav President Tito, who ordered its construction after it took him more than 10 hours to get there by boat.
Sailing in DamatiaWind pwer: Sailing in Dalmatia
Driving across the bridge is a real wow moment.
Pag is well known to the young festival crowd for its summer beach bashes and is popular with cyclists and tourers too.But go in June or September and you will have more than 30 beaches almost to yourself.
Pag town is a historical gem and the island – which gets covered in salt when the winter Bora wind blows – is famous for both its lamb and sheep’s cheese.
It’s an insult in the region not to provide your guests with a Pag lamb at a celebration or to forget a gift of Paski Sir, the most popular sheep’s cheese.
At the Na Tale restaurant I tucked into a plateful of Pag lamb, followed by Paski Strukli Od Skute – a sweet and savoury dessert made from Pag’s own type of cottage cheese.
Turn away from the coast and you’ll find even more spectacular sights at the Paklenica National Park and in the Zrmanja canyon.
GettyKrka Falls National Park, Dalmatia, CroatiaSpectacular: Krka Falls
The amazing gorge at Paklenica attracts climbers, mountain bikers and people who just want to walk beside the tumbling river.
Over lunch at the Rajna Hotel in Starigrad, our host Marin Marasovic explained how the national park and the canyon were used in the 1960s as the location for a series of 11 Western movies based on German language novels about a hero called Winnetou.
So while we had the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns with Lee Van Cleef, these were what I’ll call the Sauerkraut Westerns and they are an institution in Germany.
Marin took us on his Velebit Foto Safari to see the wonderful locations. The most spectacular is the Zrmanja Gorge – it’s like a mini Grand Canyon and it can only be seen from above by taking a trip in an off-road 4×4.
GettyCroatia, Northern Dalmatia, Adriatic Sea, Nin fortified town, 9th century statue of BranimirHeritage: The statue of Branimir in the fortified city of Nin
Our tour then climbed high up into the mountains, where we encountered a crew preparing to film scenes for the next Game of Thrones series (they were training horses for filming the next day).
Next we drove to the small town of Obrovac for another wow moment on a delightful boat ride before travelling further up the Zrmanja river, famous for its waterfalls, kayaking and whitewater rafting.
No stay in Zadar would be complete without venturing out to sea to discover some of the islands that make up the Telascica nature reserve.
We joined a Sailing Croatia yacht just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Hotel Bastion and skipper Petr Ivanov soon had us helping out at the helm as we threaded our way between the jewels of the Adriatic.
GettyZadar’s Stari Grad, CroatiaView: Zadar’s Stari Grad, Croatia
The return trip was made under full sail with the wind pushing us along nicely back towards Zadar.
For our final night, we drove an hour south – all the roads are fantastic – to the lovely town of Sibenik to stay at the Solaris Resort’s Hotel Ivan, a stylish property on a large family complex a few minutes from the town.
Sibenik, dominated by four huge fortresses, is in a bay where the River Krka meets the Adriatic. The stone-built Cathedral of St James, in both Gothic and Renaissance styles, is on a Unesco world heritage list.
Overall, there’s both a familiar feeling of Italy in much of the region, coupled with an unfamiliar feeling of Eastern Europe in the language and in some of the more modern architecture which is reminder of its Eastern Bloc era.
The people are friendly and proud of their own locality and traditions. And though there are not so many English-speaking visitors, the language is spoken everywhere.
The food is excellent with an emphasis on fresh fish and simply grilled meats, pasta and pizza.
Dalmatia was a real eye-opener – in fact it knocks spots off everywhere else I’ve been.