04 June 2009

Dalmatia - Pelješac peninsula

The Pelješac peninsula (polotok, or half-island) is located about 45 minutes north of Dubrovnik, and it takes just under an hour to drive (meander) from the mainland to the far tip. It is known locally for the seafood in the village of Mali Ston, as well as for the many vineyards along the southern coast facing the Adriatic, with the most famous varieties being the almost omnipresent (in Croatia anyhow) Dingać as well as the Plavac Mali.  Add to that two sand beaches, at Prapratno and Trstenica bay in the town of Orebić, and the peninsula makes a great addition to a trip to either Dubrovnik or Korčula, or as a segway between the two.

Your first stop should be Mali Ston, which for a village of its size has incredible name recognition thanks to its oyster beds and the restaurant Kapetanova Kuća.  Consistently listed as one of the top ten restaurants in Croatia, the "Captain's House" and chef Lidja Kralj have made quite the name for themselves, and the same family runs the Hotel Astrea next door, a charming 13 room hotel which makes a great base for exploring the peninsula. And yes, the place is small enough that you don't need an address.

Just next door, the competition is good as well: Restoran Bota (tel: +385 (20) 754 482) is another old standby set in the family “castle” (which to us looks more like a fort, but quaint nonetheless) - we live in hope that the huge group of Dalmatian boys will be there again. We’ll just gorge ourselves on steamed shells and the house white as we wait. They have also been expanding - they have another location in Split and two in Zagreb.

If Hotel Astrea is booked, Mali Ston also has the even smaller Hotel Vila Koruna, with only six rooms, and although not as plush as Astrea it is also less expensive. We can't vouch for its restaurant, however.

After gorging yourself on shells and spectacularly fresh fish, your next activity should be to visit the walls of Ston and Mali Ston. Built by the Dubrovnik Republic in the 1300s to protect the salt pans here (which you will see to your left as you drive past the walled village of Ston), the walls are reputedly the second longest series in the world (second - a FAR second - to the Great Wall of China, or so they claim). Hyperbole or not, they make a great walk, with a beautiful view. That, and a quick stroll through Ston (Mali - or little - Ston's bigger sibling) make for a good post-binge penance. Don't forget to stop by the Ston Tourist Board (Pelješki Put 1, +385(20) 754 442) to pick up information on the vineyards along the peninsula.

Next as you meander the main road of the peninsula you will encounter Prapratno, which is one of those rare finds in Croatia – a sand beach. Of course, in the move to modernize, there is now a ferry ‘trajekt’ for Mljet – significantly reducing the attractiveness of the beach. On the upside, you can stop for a swim while waiting for your boat to come in. And Mljet is stunning - but very quiet.

After Prapratno you start to enter a perhaps unexpected seaside phenomenon: vineyards. The peninsula is crawling with them (as is Hvar). A few interesting ones include -

Vinifera / Frano Miloš vineyards
Ponikve 15
+385 (20) 753 098
As you head along the main road heading from Ston towards Orebić, this vineyard run by the Miloš family will be on your right as you drive through the village of Ponikve. The basic mali plavac is great to keep on hand, especially for the price (~40 HRK). The upper end wines also quite good - do pick up a bottle (or 5) of one of Croatia's better wines, the Miloš Stagnum - it would run you around 500HRK in a restaurant.

Matuško
Potomje
+385 (20)742 393
One of the many wineries on Pelješac, in the Dingač region (i.e. past Vinifera). Open every day. Produce a variety of wines from Plavac Mali, Dingač, Rukatac, etc. Call ahead to arrange a full tasting.

The Vinarija Bartulović in the village of Prizdrina is another vineyard that caters to tourists, as is the Grgić vineyard overlooking quaint Trstenik, which is tied to Grgich Hills in Napa Valley. Not the editor's favorite, but believed by many in Croatia to be one of their best vineyards.

An exceedingly worthwhile detour (albeit unnerving for most North American drivers - get an Italian friend to drive) is the wine road (vinska cesta) running between Trstenik and Potomje. The road runs through the vineyards plunging down to the sea on the Adriatic side of the peninsula, giving you a stunning view over small villages such as Borak and bringing you (unscathed of course) to the 400m long Dingać tunnel connecting the villagers of Potomje to their vineyards on the other side of the hill. The easiest way to find it is to go to Potomje, go through the tunnel and turn left, coming out at the end of Trstenik further east. Alternately, you can go the other way, but it is a bit of trick to find the road the first time.

Orebić
With over 2500 people according to their tourist information (where? is our question), Orebić is the main town on the western end of the peninsula, facing Korcula across the 2.5 km channel that separates the mainland from the island. It is not a must see by any stretch of the imagination, but is a nice place to wait to catch a boat across the channel, or if you want to go for a swim, Trstenica bay offers a sandy pebble beach lined with pine trees. Not our favorite, but many disagree with us. Nonetheless, if you are going to be in Korcula at all, there is a very good chance you will pass through here. Grab a coffee, take a stroll up Kneza Domogoja to Trstenica beach and admire the not-as-grandiose-as-Opatija-but-still-charming villas lining the shore.

Orebić Tourist Board
Trg Mimbeli bb (near the port)
+385 (20) 713 718

Jadrolinija
+385 (20) 710 475
Not really an office, but a kiosk that opens before the ferries go. It takes about 15 minutes to get across the channel - definitely worth it, either to see Korčula's old town up close if you are staying on the peninsula, or to see the stunning view of the old town from across the water in either Orebić or Viganj.

Just 8 km past Orebić lies the village of Viganj, whose 300-odd residents have beautiful views looking towards the old town of Korčula. More importantly for most visitors though is that it is second only to Bol for windsurfing and kite-surfing. If you aren't that athletically talented, you can always grab a drink at Cafe Karmela and admire the graceful swirling of others harnessing the wind for their pleasure.

The Captain's House is a renovated 300 year old villa outside Viganj with private pool, great terraces and views that accomodates up to 8 people in four double rooms that, although booked out through mid-September 2010, could be the thing for your (late) fall trip, or possibly for 2011. Rates run 1,200 to 3,000 euros/week depending on the season.

What locations pair nicely with Pelješac?The peninsula pairs nicely with a trip centered on Dubrovnik, as much of it can even be done in a day trip - including a short trip across to Korčula. I think it may actually be against Croatian law to stay in Dubrovnik and NOT eat in Mali Ston at least once - if it is not, the Sabor should consider such legislation. At the same time, Sarajevo is about 3 1/2 hours from Ston, and Mostar 1 1/2 hours.

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