"THE Dalmatia Coast has so much to offer. Do not rush," advised our Croatian friend when he realised we were visiting his birthplace.
With those words resounding in our heads and a rough itinerary in mind, my wife and I travelled unhurriedly down the coast and had an amazing time, especially in the special region of Central Dalmatia.
Our first stop in the region was Sibenik and the famous Cathedral of St James. Recognised as a heritage site by Unesco, the cathedral is an engineering marvel.
Designed and constructed by three architects over more than a century starting from the 1400s, the cathedral is built entirely from stone quarried from nearby Brac island.
Stepping inside, we were awed by the cavernous space, grand marble columns, and the beautiful art work.
While the interior was conventional and impressive, the exterior facade adorned with Gothic and early Renaissance sculptures had some whimsical touches.
There are 71 unidentified sculptured faces outside the apse. One humorous interpretation is that these are faces of local people whose donations financed the construction of the cathedral, and their appearance is commensurate with the amount contributed.
Some of these faces were truly unflattering and the key message we took away was: "Please donate generously."
The Cathedral of St James in Sibenik is built entirely from local stone. Photo: Tan Yew Kiat
Lose yourself in Split
An hour's drive from Sibenik, Split is the second-largest city in Croatia. The main attraction in Split is the Diocletian Palace. Diocletian, the only Roman emperor who willingly abdicated his throne, retired here.
Far from being a single building, the site is actually a large historic complex with fortified walls. We spent some time visiting the underground chambers, checked out the Temple of Jupiter with its headless sphinx from Egypt, climbed the bell tower at the Cathedral of St Domnius for a great view of the town and checked out the priceless exhibits in the treasury.
Even if you are not into history, there is still so much to like about Split. We love the chilled-out vibe this city exudes. Explore the labyrinth of streets and you will find cafes where locals linger for hours. We found our spot at Figa where the squid ink risotto and tuna steak pasta were right on the money.
However, the best place to unwind had to be at Lvxor, a cafe beside the peristyle in front of the Cathedral of St Domnius. In the evenings, local musicians performed and cushions were laid out on the steps for patrons.
An elderly couple stood up, hand in hand and started dancing in the middle of the square. Friends chattered and lovers smooched. A toddler, watched adoringly by her mum, swayed playfully to the tune.
Despite the crowd, young and old, everyone seemed to "find their own space" on this thousand-year-old Roman porch.
Unwind at Lvxor Cafe next to the Cathedral of St Domnius in Split. Photo: Tan Yew Kiat
Only man with the keys
The following day, we took the ferry to Hvar. Instead of spending all our time in the town or the beaches, we signed up for the private Hvar off-road tour, which promised to take us to spots that even locals might not know about.
We met our guide Belmin and were soon travelling on gravel tracks up the mountains behind Hvar town.
At the peak, the view of the town and the beautiful Pakleni islands was simply spectacular.
We next reached Malo Grablje, an abandoned village in the valley. Furniture, utensils and even a primitive olive crusher found in the houses gave a glimpse of what life must have been like.
Further up the valley, Velo Grablje - with its stone mansions - looked like a town that must have been affluent in its time.
Belmin explained that the valley was once famous for its production of lavender. In fact, Hvar was such a major player that the plantation owners from Velo Grablje were some of the wealthiest men in Europe.
Forest fires and Hvar's depopulation unfortunately took its toll over the centuries and, today, only the neat stone terraces and huts used by farmers survive as reminders of its glorious past.
Our next stop was the highest point in Hvar. We found ourselves at a locked gate and , just as I thought it was going to be a slog up the summit, Belmin took out a bunch of keys and we were at the top in a breeze.
At the summit, we could see Brac Island with its "V-shaped" beach, Makarska on the mainland and other towns on the island.
Belmin said: "I'm the only one with the keys. You can forget every problem when you sit here." And no wonder, because the scenery in all directions was breathtaking.
We paused for a late lunch at a local konoba (tavern), where peka octopus - pre-ordered two hours earlier - was served. Peka is a traditional way of Dalmatian cooking where proteins and vegetables are slow cooked under a bell in a fire pit.
The octopus was really tender and the savoury potatoes were soft and delicious.
After lunch, we made quick visits to the picturesque residential towns of Jelsa and Vrboska before returning to Hvar town in the early evening.
With its beautiful scenery and casual, relaxed atmosphere, it is almost impossible not to be seduced by Central Dalmatia.
We could not get enough of this region - it was good enough for an emperor, after all. More than 1,000 years on, it still looks great to me.
We flew from Singapore to Zagreb on Air France, with a stop in Paris. From Zagreb, Sibenik is 3.5 hours away by car.
S$1 = HRK 4.74. The local currency is the Croatian Kuna.
Seafood dishes are generally good in this region. Also, do not miss the braised beef cheeks at Pelegrini right beside the Cathedral of St James. The food alone is worth the trip to Sibenik.
We booked the Hvar off-road tour at www.secrethvar.com with the Secret Hvar Travel Agency.
This article was first published on December 29, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.