Focus On Travel: Back To The Balkans

The Balkan beaches are back, hotter than ever. Ten years after the wars began and five years since combat raged along the coastline, Western tourists are venturing back to the sublime eastern reaches of the Adriatic Sea. From Croatia's Istrian Peninsula, down the 400-mile Dalmatian coast to Kotor and along the ruggedly beautiful shores of Montenegro, there is hardly a hotel room to be found this August. And if you find one, it probably won't be air-conditioned.

Marie Lafayette, a physical therapist from Venice Beach, Calif., found herself part of the rush. She stepped off the ferry last Tuesday on the island of Hvar, famous for its all-night beach discos, to discover with sweaty horror that there was no room at the inns. What to do except flash off an e-mail to friends from the nearest Internet cafe? "All of Italy is here," she typed. "I don't know where I'm going to sleep!" Eventually a local family gave her a bed in a room shared with five others, for $12.50 per person. "There wasn't even a fan," she reported.

For the moment, at least, the only Balkan war going on is in Macedonia, well out of artillery range from the coast. The Adriatic scenery is spectacular, with the Dinaric Alps plummeting into seas that are often exquisitely clear and possibly even clean. Greener by far than Greece, the thousand-plus offshore islands are often lushly forested. On the 66 of them that are inhabited, rows of pencil cypresses separate vineyards from olive groves, and ancient towns exude culture from their days as Venetian colonies. Where else would you find a Tintoretto triptych in its original home above the altar of a village church, way out at sea? Everywhere there is fresh seafood, artisan cheeses--and the Dalmatian tradition of minimalist meals with only fresh ingredients and strange but eminently drinkable wines, some of which actually have names that contain vowels (unlike, say, the sweet, white Grk). "There really are a lot of foreigners this year," says Renato Jurievic, maitre d'hotel of the Hotel Korcula. "The Adriatic coast, it's in."

If war jitters no longer stop the tourists, they still keep real-estate prices down. On the tony island of Korcula, with a walled 13th-century town surrounded by the sea, local properties steeped in history have reportedly been snapped up by assorted Microsoft executives and foreign journalists. A German-TV freelancer bought a four-bedroom villa, converted from a five-century-old olive-oil mill located on one of the region's few sandy beaches. It is said to have cost only $50,000; the house had belonged to a Serb, and Croatian neighbors looted it.

Places like Korcula have returned to the jet set's must-visit list. This year royalty was much in evidence, including Princess Caroline of Monaco and the Belgian crown couple. Even the best hotels are shabby and lack air conditioning, but most celebrities don't actually sleep in hotels. They stay aboard yachts, such as the vessel equipped with a helipad and swimming pool that brought Steven Spielberg to Dubrovnik and Korcula this year. Ordinary visitors put up with stifling hotel rooms and state-owned ferries, which ply their routes in Stalinist squalor.

The warm weather lasts for months, and savvy travelers from America and Britain are coming in May, June and September. They're finding great deals. Consider famous Sveti Stefan, a medieval fishing village on an islet off the Montenegrin coast. Once an exclusive preserve of the rich, the Sveti Stefan Hotel now offers rooms in an ancient stone cottage for as little as $65 a night. And a plate of grilled calamari or a bucket of mussels steamed in white wine and garlic might set you back $3, or even less served at one of the innumerable food stands and kiosks along the beaches.

Even more memorable experiences are still waiting for you. Parasail in front of the ancient battlements of Dubrovnik, battered but far from destroyed by Serb artillerymen a few years ago. Go to the open-air cinema inside the walls of Trogir's Kamerlengo Castle (75 cents) and catch recent Hollywood movies while munching barbecued corn on the cob. Rave on a raft in the still waters of Kotor Bay, a semitropical fjord bordered by mountains of heart-stopping beauty. This summer some of Kotor's beaches tested positive for fecal bacteria. Who says paradise has to be perfect? Did we mention there's no air conditioning?