Lusting after a weekend getaway to chase away the winter blues? Head to Dubrovnik, famously eulogised by Lord Byron as “the pearl of the Adriatic”, with good reason. The Unesco-protected Croatian hot-spot is one of the most magnificent walled cities in the world.
With a rich history, stunning Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture at every turn, outstanding food, and crystalline blue waters, Dalmatia’s jewel won’t disappoint. “Pomalo” is a phrase you’ll overhear in conversation here, which loosely translates to “take it easy”. In Dubrovnik, it’s almost impossible not to live entirely in the moment and practice the art of pomalo.
Where to stay: Hotel Excelsior
Boasting one of the most enviable locations in the city, you can’t go wrong with the five-star Hotel Excelsior, a striking landmark hotel enjoying a Bond-esque position, perched along the curve of the coast. The hotel is an easy 30-minute ride from Dubrovnik Airport, so an early morning flight is entirely doable, especially as British Airways has resumed its winter service to Dubrovnik from London Heathrow until the end of March 2023.
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Built in 1913, Hotel Excelsior has remained a timeless and dramatic piece of the city’s history and oozes old-world glamour, combined with modern luxury. You’ll be in good company – the iconic seaside villa has hosted various famous faces over the years, from British royalty (King Edward VIII, Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret) to celebrities (Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Onassis), alike. Most of the 158 guest rooms on the property have dazzling views overlooking the pine-clad islet of Lokrum and the ancient Old Town.
Hotel Excelsior also has a to-die-for spa, with multiple treatment rooms, Jacuzzis, a steam bath, Roman bath and Finnish sauna. Slip into the indoor pool for some leisurely lengths before kicking back and relaxing on the heated deckchairs. Walk through the spa for direct, stepped access to the best giant saltwater swimming pool going – the Adriatic.
No one’s going to judge you if you spend your entire stay at Hotel Excelsior, kick back in the spa, dive directly into the ocean, sample some of the finest seafood in the city and gaze out through the floor-to-ceiling windows all weekend.
Eating and drinking
There are three restaurants to choose from at the hotel. Salin is the main restaurant with a decadent international breakfast buffet (plus bottomless mimosas), and a knockout al fresco terrace.
Sensus is the fine-dining option, with an open kitchen where you can watch talented chefs at play. Unconventional and creative dishes are whipped up with local organic ingredients by the gifted head chef, Petar Obad, hailing from nearby Konavle. The tasting menu is particularly impressive and each course is matched with a wine from Sensus’ superbly-curated cellar of local and international bottles. For a top-notch local white, try the the Grgić Posip – with notes of apples, vanilla spice and lemon, it goes exceptionally well with seafood.
Finally, there’s Prora, a Mediterranean a la carte beachside restaurant. After supper, head down the black spiral staircase in reception and unwind at the decadent yet chilled out Abakus Piano Bar on the ground floor. The walls are lined with stunning black and white photos of some of the hotel’s famous guests and there’s often live music on too.
Thanks to its enviable location, there’s also plenty to places to eat and drink at Hotel Excelsior’s nearby sister properties. Vapor (recognised by The Michelin Guide) at Hotel Bellevue in Dubrovnik, and The Restaurant at Hotel Supetar in Cavtat, are both worth visiting for lunch or supper.
The Old Town
The City Walls envelope the Old Town for 1.2 miles and run an uninterrupted course of approximately 2,000m – it takes around an hour to walk the entire length. A labyrinth of cobbled back streets, Gothic fortresses and vine-filled alleyways, it’s definitely best to go with a local guide, who will not only impart their fascinating history, but also take you to the best spots for food, drinks and photographs.
Start your day watching the sun rise over the Adriatic from your luxurious balcony, head downstairs for breakfast and then, prepare for time travel. A five-minute stroll from Hotel Excelsior’s doors will shoot you directly into the 15th century. Wander along the 25m medieval fortress walls and sink into the secrets and stories hovering at every turn.
Tucked away in a far corner of the Old Town is a simple doorway leading to Cafe Buža, a bar with one of the best views in the world. Buža translates to “a hole-in-the-wall”, which is exactly what it is, albeit one that leads to a cliffside ledge with a bar, rather than your standard ATM. Climb the Grand Baroque staircase, pass the Jesuit church, cross Gundulić Square, follow a wooden “cold drinks” sign and then…walk through the wall. Best seen at sunset, chairs and tables are positioned on a series of levels on the rocks overlooking the sea – perfect for views of the island of Lokrum (home to some Game of Thrones scenes) and the Dalmatian coastline. If you’re feeling brave, you can also leap from the cliffs into the crystal clear Adriatic below, although this is probably best saved for the warmer months.
If you like seafood, you can’t miss a day trip to the bay of Mali Ston, a village on the Pelješac peninsula and home to Croatia’s finest oysters. We set out in the morning and drove for an hour north along the D8. The winding road runs 643kms along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, from Rijeka in the north to the Montenegro border in the south. We hopped on a wooden boat with Bota Šare and motored out to a nearby floating platoon. Here, we learned the intricacies of traditional mollusc farming, over steaming bowls of fresh-from-the-waves mussels and piquant oysters, expertly shucked by a local fisherman alongside crisp white wine and fat lemon wedges.
For an authentic, home-cooked Dalmatian meal and a hands-on cooking class, Kameni Dvori is the place to go. The Mujo family will welcome you with open arms at their historic restaurant and hill-side farm. You’ll find Kameni Dvori in the nearby Konavle Valley, about a 30-minute drive away. The journey itself is stunning, ribboning through soaring pine and cypress trees and valleys filled with vineyards and olive groves.
We wandered together through the Mujo’s organic garden, plucking fresh fruit and vegetables for our lunch before heading back inside to make bread and pasta from scratch, as well as a traditional Croatian casserole and plum pudding. The Mujo family tree goes all the way back to the 16th century, and we listened to their captivating history as we dipped, dunked and shared bread and stories over steaming bowls of mouthwatering stew. Perhaps it was the company, perhaps it was the home-grown ingredients, or the time and care that had gone into the preparation, but this was hands-down the best stew I’ve eaten in my life.
Winter events in Dubrovnik
After a two-year hiatus, the iconic Dubrovnik Winter Festival is back for the ninth time until 6 January. A range of festive treats are on offer, from gastronomic feasts to music concerts, dazzling fireworks and a sparking Christmas market. Amusingly named “Cod Days” will also be taking place in local restaurants from 16-19 December. You’ll be warmly welcomed by locals serving “bakalar” (dried cod). A simple and delicious part of Dubrovnik’s gastronomic heritage, it’s usually served during the whole of advent in Dalmatia, but traditionally enjoyed on Christmas Eve.
How to book
For an unforgettable winter getaway with a tapestried history, iconic views, exquisite regional food plus a fascinating cuisine that melds Italian, Balkan and other influences, Dubrovnik has it all. Rates at Hotel Excelsior start from €279 (£240) per night. The hotel is part of the Adriatic Luxury Hotels group. Activities are all arrangeable through the hotel concierge (including tours and oyster tasting). See more at adriaticluxuryhotels.com
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