The Dalmatian Coast remains under most American travelers' radar – a destination more likely to conjure visions of spotted dogs than sunny beaches – but the region has been long established as the seaside playground of choice for Central Europeans. This places the craggy, 1,000-mile Croatian coastline, often touted as Europe's most beautiful, in an uneasy limbo: Dalmatia is at risk of being overexposed before being fully "discovered" by western tourists.
For travelers who aren't part of the luxury-yachting class or eager to join one of the package tours that jam Dubrovnik, charting a middle path is as simple – and as uncomplicated – as getting out of town. The countryside is accessible by rental car and, better yet, by foot. The excellent outfitter Classic Journeys offers weeklong walking tours that favor full-on cultural immersion over the usual medieval attractions. This strategy, spotlighting the diverse group of artists, chefs, and winemakers scattered up and down the coast, seems natural. Dalmatians are a singular sort.
Dalmatia has been yanked back and forth by Romans, Ottomans, Slavs, and Venetians for much of its history, and it shows: The coast is cosmopolitan and tolerant, with a Mediterranean flair. Visitors are more likely to be offered risotto, gnocchi, or prosciutto (called "pršut" here) than the heavier cuisine favored inland. At first, the vegetation that lines the freakishly blue Adriatic waters looks like scrub, but as you draw closer, the plums, grapes, mulberries, rosemary, sage, and olives come into focus. Lunch may be an elaborate occasion, but an afternoon snack can just be plucked from the trees.
The Peljesac peninsula – billed as Croatia's Napa Valley – is particularly fecund and delightfully laid-back. The monks and nuns who live in the 15th-century Franciscan Monastery in Orebic are happy to show off their chapel's vast collection of hammered-tin charms shaped like arms, legs, and hearts, offered up in prayer by seekers of medical miracles. They also provide directions: Pointing out the roads through olive groves that lead to a vineyard belonging to Maro, an eighth-generation winemaker who lives in a tiny village (population: 19) overlooking the sea. He explains how his wines are made and invites visitors in for a lunch of local meats, cheeses, and roasted vegetables – washed down with pitchers of his red, white, and rosé.
Other hikes take tourists through the hills high above Hvar, where lavender has been farmed for centuries, and around Lokrum, a jewel-like island off the coast of Dubrovnik that boasts a nature preserve where dozens of peacocks, imported in the 19th century by Archduke Maximilian Ferdinand of Habsburg, roam free. Outside of Dubrovnik, which is quite lovely itself (if a bit crowded in summer), foreigners are treated to incredible hospitality and a staggering amount of cured meat and octopus salad.
Despite this seeming abundance, what Rebecca West described as "the terrible naked stone of Dalmatia" in her famous pre-World War II travelogue of Yugoslavia, makes for an intimidating setting. Mild as the climate here is, the terrain is so brutally dry and rocky that the ancient Illyrians and Greeks spent centuries carrying stones into piles, trying to clear enough land for farming. They left in their wake acres of labyrinthine stone formations that still stretch across the landscape like veins.
"This coast feeds people with other things than food," West concluded. Luckily for modern-day travelers, the food is pretty good, too.
More information: Classic Journey's Dalmatian Coast Walking Tours, led by highly competent and friendly guides who introduce their clients to their friends and generally preside over a wandering block party, cost $4,200 per person (depending on the season).