Croatia lays claim to over 1,200 of these outposts, scattered like emerald specks in the sapphire blue of the Adriatic. Some are tourist traps, famous for their food, wine or hedonism, but there are many more that have stayed true to themselves, their history and their people. Brač is one such island.
Among Croatians and geologists Brač is renowned for one thing: stone. The light-reflecting, purest-of-white limestone, which has been quarried here since Roman times, is viewed as the jewel of the island, an inseparable part of its cultural identity, its wealth and its legacy. Great buildings all over the world have been built with Brač stone, from the New Palace in Vienna to the hall of the UN building in New York, and, if rumours are to be believed, parts of the White House. It is certainly worth winding your way along the hilltop road, itself lined with hand-crafted dry-stone walls, to the quarry in Pučišća to pay homage to this most ancient of raw commodities. On the island, stone is not only a commodity but a craft, stone masons hold legendary status, and Brač boasts one of only three stonemasonry schools in Europe, Klesarska Škola –visit-worthy simply to see the phenomenal work that the master craftsmen of the future are creating here.
For a perfect island base, stay at the Hotel Lemongarden, an adults-only, bougainvillea-scented, dreamy spot in the stunning port town of Sutivan. Forget the ferry, the hotel offers a private speedboat directly from Split, far more in keeping with the luxurious tranquillity that oozes from every ancient stone of this wonderful building. The heady fragrance of the lemon garden, sun-warmed white stone walls, gently swaying palms and the background lapping of the Adriatic lead to an all-pervading sense of brazen escapism.
Brač has a way of working magic on its visitors. Once calmed, they are ready to be uplifted. Snaking your way along the coastal road of the island offers teasing glimpses of sea idylls. Rocky, coral crescent bays surround translucent waters, umbrella pines form a shady, scented backdrop, small rustic beach bars are refreshingly open and empty.
At sea level, Brač’s most famous landmark is the Zlatni Rat – hooking into the turquoise waters, this beach of white pebbles adorns almost every Croatian tourism poster and is famed for changing shape and colour depending on the wind. It is beautiful and, during summer swarms, best viewed from the sea; handy therefore that Brač is a windsurfing mecca, praised for its advantageous mistral winds. Boards and lessons are available from the fantastic Big Blue Sport in Bol. For a fabulous lunch afterwards, take your sandy toes to Taverna Riva. The island’s seafood specialities here are perfection; think salt-baked fish, crisp local white and harbour-gazing views.
Inland, the villages are rustic, unspoilt, beautiful. Dol is a prime example, seemingly untouched by modern life and a wonderfully rare insight into the true lives of the native islanders. Social life centres around food and drink, and traditional meals on these islands revolve around the peka – a unique slow cooking method where meat or fish is baked for the whole day in clay pots with iron-domed lids, buried under the embers of an open wood fire oven. Brač is peppered with and scented by these traditional fire ovens, usually also hosting a spit roast for the other staple here – spit roast lamb, slowly turned for hours on end above the peka fire. To try both at their absolute best, head to the wonderful Kaštil Gospodnetić in Dol, a true living piece of history both gastronomically and architecturally.
There are other things to do in Brač: wine tasting at the island’s Stina Winery in Bol and a breathtaking trek to a mystical dragon’s cave in Murvica. But the island is more than the sum of its tourist checklist parts and the best tip is to discover it gently yourself. Lose yourself in the sense of space, the scent of thyme on the air, the gentle tinkling of the bells around the necks of the goats. Brač sits waiting nonchalantly to be explored, a true island retreat that is firmly rooted in its wonderful heritage.
Written by Melanie O’Shea, a freelance writer and editor