by Sarah Naimark

I might as well be driving the tiny motorboat through the tangerine sunset itself, the way the water reflects the vibrant sky. I stick my hand into the warm sea to reassure my senses that I am not, in fact, putt-putting in heaven, but rather into the island of Hvar. The ripples that spring from my fingers dragging through the soft water murmur, What’s the difference?

Obeying our hearts—and not the harbor rules—my sister and I lingered too long on the small, nameless islet beach and were forced to navigate through the small port in the dimming light. The yachts scattered throughout are required by nautical law—or perhaps by pure aesthetics—to put lanterns at the top of their masts, making the dusky harbor look like a forest of bobbing stars. With a few guiding shouts and insincere apologies, we return the rented boat to its owner and let our stomachs dictate the way back to our apartment.

Hvar (like heaven, I imagine) is blanketed in lavender, and every step is an occasion to pick the fragrant flower and crush it between your fingers. It was not this divine scent that has brought us to this small island off the coast of Croatia, however. We left our itinerary in the hands of Fate—as manifested in the Jadrolinjia Ferry schedule—taking the first ferryboat that departed shore after we stumbled off the night train from Zagreb. Hours later, we still felt the glow of the unexpected as we walked away from the small harbor to prepare our dinner.

There is no hunger quite like one brought on by a day of salt-water swimming and baking in the sun, and no meal quite as satisfying as the one that quenches that hunger. Sated with a feast of grilled fish, red peppers, eggplant, and inappropriate amounts of local wine, I sprinkled some of the lavender blossoms I’d picked earlier onto the smoldering charcoals. The small patio attached to the apartment we were renting filled momentarily with smoky incense, and a warm summer breeze blew the aroma into the clear night. Someone somewhere below us was singing opera off-key and at full volume—a perfect cue to head to the town and let the night begin!

Hvar is famed among Croatians for attracting the beautiful people. The palm-lined crescent that hugs the harbor glistens with the glitterati, and bars and restaurants vie to attract the bronzed crowds. The dining hour stretches long into the night, and people glide easily from meals of black risotto, mussels, octopus salad, and Dalmatian fig torte to the bars and clubs next door. The thump of the bass from music at the waterside club Carpe Diem can be felt in your chest well before the attractive throngs of writhing dancers come into view.

The wanderer is rewarded with many levels of restaurants and charming bars in the stone-paved back alleys of the tiny island town. Don’t expect much guidance from street signs—there are none. Locals and fellow travelers are more than willing to give directions to their favorite spots, however.

We were sent to Veneranda, a spot-lit medieval castle at the northern tip of the harbor atop a cypress-covered hill. We paid our small entrance fee at the gatekeeper’s window and entered the castle, which had been converted to an indoor/outdoor discotheque, complete with a neon-colored swimming pool and a hotdog stand.

The rocky beaches punctuating the island’s perimeter provided enough motivation to get out of bed the next morning. The main harbor lead to small beaches in both directions, where there are more people wearing designer sunglasses than tops to their bikinis. In our American modesty, we remained decidedly (albeit scantily) clad, stretching and basking in the Adriatic sun like happy lizards.

After reaching prime temperature, we submerged in the brisk and stunningly clear water. Snorkel masks protected our eyes from the salt that stung our mouths, and permitted an unclouded view of the sea floor, where ambitious divers had spelled out messages in white stones over the darker sand. Like love notes from mermaids, the words rippled and swayed with the turquoise water.

Flips flops in hand, meandering back up to the apartment to rinse off the fine film of salt baked onto my skin, I mumbled a quiet thanks to the ferry scheduler who had unwittingly sent me here. The sun was setting on another fragrant day, and I jotted the latest truism in my mental travel journal: Sometimes you find heaven by accident.

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Carpe Diem

Riva Center, Hvar 21450, Croatia

t 385.21742.369

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Sarah Naimark lives in San Francisco (at least for the moment) and
willingly follows the smell of good coffee wherever it takes her.