Details: Vis, Croatia
Lying 30 miles off the Croatian mainland, Vis is the remotest of the populated Dalmatians, the archipelago of 1,185 islands that pepper the eastern Adriatic like seeds scattered by the sirocco wind. Like many of its neighbors, it has always boasted the raw materials necessary to become a quintessential Mediterranean bolt-hole: miles of pebbled beaches, grape-and-olive agriculture and seafood by the netful. But it was a unique quirk of history that set it on course to fulfill the slogan’s halcyon promise. On the Mediterranean authenticity scale, Vis strikes an exquisite old-school note, the perfect balance between amenity and low-key local charm.
“Now being discovered by intrepid travelers,” one guidebook declares of the island, although “intrepid” seems a rather generous epithet when you consider that, having spent two hours sunbathing on the deck of the Hektorovic, the daily car ferry that connects mainland Split with Vis Town, the island’s main harbor, my girlfriend and I haven’t exactly hacked through virgin rain forest to get here.
On our first afternoon, we do what any intrepid travelers worth their salt would do when embarking on an expedition to Vis: We grab an ice cream and stroll to the beach. Hidden among the pine stands on the bay’s eastern rim, Grandovac beach is an archetypal stretch of the Vis seashore — a crescent of polished white pebbles overhung by pine trees thrumming with cicada song. On an overlooking embankment, a discreet bar purveys cold beer and soporific tunes. The water, this far from the mainland, is cool and clean.
But more, this beach provides a clue as to why we’re not battling for a space for our towels. Behind it is a military cemetery, the soldiers entombed beneath its baked earth hailing from another island, far away. During World War II, when Vis was the only island in the Dalmatians unoccupied by Axis powers, the arrival of the British forces remembered in this poignant graveyard ushered in a period of militarization that was to last for 50 years.
By 1944, the British had been joined by 2,000 partisans fighting for independence under the leadership of Marshal Tito, the “benign dictator” who would go on to dominate three decades of politics in communist Yugoslavia. Under Tito, the island was annexed as a naval outpost because of its strategic position. Military tunnels and installations were dug into the hillsides. Locals lived under a veil of secrecy. Visitors, foreign or domestic, were forbidden.
That era ended in 1989, and since then tourism has alighted on Vis’s rocky shore. The battleships have been replaced by pleasure yachts, while in St. George’s Bay, the more dauntless visitors now dare to dive into the sea from the concrete lintel of what used to be a submarine depot.