On paper and in postcards, Dubrovnik appears to be a European destination travel dreams are made of. An incredibly picturesque old town dripping with history and cradled by impressive stone fortifications that poke out into the azures of the Adriatic Sea.
In reality though (at least in mine and many who like to breathe when they travel), Dubrovnik has come to represent an unfortunate casualty of mass tourism that has even UNESCO trying to put it in check recently recommending a cap of 8,000 tourists per day. This in contrast with the city’s latest “milestone” of selling 9,078 entrance tickets just for climbing the walls alone which only a fraction of the visitors do and you can start to imagine why it has become so challenging to find the awe amongst the legions of tour groups that have come to occupy it all summer long. On any given day during peak season, you can see the town’s population increase tenfold depending on how many cruise ships have decided to coordinate their drop-offs (pretty much none) and literal human traffic jams on the brink of stampedes mainly in and around Pile Gate, the most popular entry point.
WARNING: You may find some of the images below disturbing
Not one for human traffic jams nor death by flying selfie sticks and tourist stampedes, I was delighted to be invited to discover the alternative side of the Pearl of the Adriatic with the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera immediately proceeding my 48-hour jaunt around Zagreb with the Westin.
Recently opened in 2015, the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel and a few other of its nearby sister properties are some of the leaders in an ongoing movement that will hopefully make Dubrovnik great again: steering visitors away from the Old Town and towards its riviera. Unbeknownst to many, there is a whole plethora of things to see and do around Župa Dubrovačka which extends from Dubrovnik to Cavtat. One can easily spend a week, but this is what we got up to in just a couple of days.
A sunrise surprise at the Sheraton
Located in Srebreno – literally a 5 minute drive or 15 minute boat journey to the Old Town – the Sheraton offers a perfect sanctuary for those wanting to experience the best this world famous destination has to offer, not the busyness, at their contemporary compound overlooking a quiet bay six kilometers south of Dubrovnik.
Having arrived late in the evening the night before and promptly passing out in darkness, I had no idea what my eyes were in for once I woke up in the morning and opened the curtains of my slick palace of a room. Like opening the curtains to paradise – this was definitely my kind of “Dubrovnik experience” and I immediately regretted my plans to only stay two days and two nights.
Truth be told, I could have spent all of my time in Dubrovnik at the hotel alternating between one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever had the pleasure to take a slumber in, the breakfast buffet in Leut, drinking on the patio of the Piano Bar or Pool Bar Pinija, dips in the indoor pool and outdoor pool, sweating it out at the fitness center, and of course some pampering at the Shine Spa. Since gypsies like to wander though, in the end I only gave myself a half day to completely indulge and the rest of the time we were off exploring.
Wandering around Srebreno and Mlini
Srebreno (which means “silver”) is connected to another quaint village called Mlini and wandering between the two can be quite the pleasant affair. Right behind the Sheraton is a nice strip of public beach that I never saw very crowded so great place to enjoy some tranquil swims in the Adriatic.
Mlini (which means “mills”) itself is adorable and has more history to it than first meets the eye. A mill town, back in the day it used to supply Dubrovnik with water and you can still see the mills which intercepted the streams leading down to the sea from the mountains. The mix of mountain water in the sea creates much cooler swimming conditions, but in the heat of summer, it will refresh you like no other.
One of the most atmospheric restaurants in the area is also found here along the promenade – Konoba Astarea – where you can taste a bunch of local delicacies like šporki makaruli (dirty macaroni), riba u soli (fish baked in salt) and stonska torta (typical cake from Ston which contains pasta – seriously).
Dipping into Dubrovnik
Never would I advocate missing Dubrovnik’s old town completely – the key is to dip in at just the right time. Super early morning (like between 5am and 7am) is best for empty streets and magic hour photo sessions like my friend Sean Byrne experienced below.
If you’re not an early bird, after 4pm you’re generally in the clear when it comes to encounters with the massive tour groups from the cruise ships as most will have gone by then. I don’t believe there exists a time during normal waking hours when you’ll ever have the place all to yourself, but this is just a fact of travel life and as long as you come mentally prepared, you can still have a really nice experience. I mean, how can you not fall in love with the beauty of this place?
Pretty sure there is more information out there than the internet knows what to do with on what you should see in the Old Town so not going to add to the noise. My best recommendation is always to just get lost. It can be a lot more fun stumbling upon the attractions rather than having them all pre-mapped out.
Visit to the Trsteno Arboretum
Just north from Srebreno and Dubrovnik is Trsteno Arboretum, the oldest arboretum in the world and one of the riviera’s best kept secrets in terms of where to go when all the heat and the herds get to be too much. Like stepping back in time, the gardens date back to end of the 15th century when nobleman Ivan Marinov Gučetić first built his villa there and made it somewhat of a mission to have the dopest garden of them all surrounding it.
Local seamen would bring him back seeds and plants from all over the world creating quite the eclectic mix: bamboo, pines, palms, eucalyptus, etc. Strolling around the grounds for an hour or so will leave you completely relaxed, refreshed, and ready to rock once again in and around Dubrovnik.
Lunch with the Dubelj family
I have never been overly impressed with the restaurant scene in Dubrovnik (but if you do have any good recommendations, let me know for next time). While there are a couple of interesting offerings I’ve come across, mostly you just find the same menu everywhere and same sky high prices for nothing that incredible leaving much to be desired. Enter agrotourism.
The agrotourism scene has been developing quite a bit around Dubrovnik over the past few years and as a special treat on our way back to Srebreno, we were taken to Rural Household Dubelj in the hills to first learn a little about olive oil production and then indulge in a legit farm–to–table lunch experience.
Homemade wine, Mama Dubelj’s risotto, fresh salad straight from the garden, divine prosciutto and cheese, and the grand finale of local dessert specialty, rozata. Seriously nothing better than some real Croatian down-home cooking and hospitality.
Sunset sessions on Mt. Srđ
Going to the top of Mt. Srđ is a MUST so on our last evening we hit it up around sunset to try and get some money shots as it is probably one of the best places for photos of Dubrovnik from above. Unfortunately there was a crazy wind situation going on and the weather a bit too moody to capture much of the setting sun, but it was absolutely beautiful and due to the cable car being suspended, just a perfect scenario for us as hardly anyone else was up there.
Photo cred: Mr. Sean Byrne
The summit reaches 412 meters and as mentioned before, is accessible by a cable car that leaves from Petra Kresimira Street just outside the Old Town. Another option is to drive up (which is what we did) or get rugged and hike it. The later option takes approximately 1.5 hours and there is a well-marked path providing excellent views nearly the entire way up.
Ultimate pampering at the Sheraton Shine Spa
Going out with a
bang shine, I decided to spend my last few hours on the Dubrovnik Riviera getting completely pampered at the Sheraton’s Shine Spa before heading back to the thick of the Balkans (Prishtina, Kosovo) where you’re lucky if you can find 1) licensed estheticians and 2) massage facilities without happy endings on offer.
After de-robing in the changing room, I headed to the treatment rooms to begin my journey through relaxationtown. First up was a Sea Salt Glow body treatment where I was all scrubbed up with Adriatic sea salt and then greased with some nourishing body cream. I had never had anything like this before but it seemed like the thing to do since we were sitting in a region with such a strong history of salt production – and indeed it was as I finished with every inch of my skin feeling like a baby’s bottom.
Next came their signature treatment, a Shine Facial, which lasted 90 minutes and included a hand massage, foot massage, and facial massage with Germaine de Capuccini products. This thing was pure ecstasy, I never knew a facial could feel so good or that my skin could feel so drastically refreshed. I’m really a huge proponent of beauty tourism and Dubrovnik/Shine Spa proved to be another fantastic location to take advantage of non-Western European spa prices.
Two days and two nights just wasn’t enough time, but we certainly made the most of it and more importantly – my faith in Dubrovnik has been completely restored. Like a lot of spaces that get too crowded, sometimes all you have to do is take a step back and admire them from a different perspective so I’m very thankful for the invitation from the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera hotel and its amazing team to show me the alternative side of Ragusa better than I could have ever discovered it on my own.
Has anyone else explored the Dubrovnik Riviera and care to share more off-the-path tips? Also, shout out to the famous Croatian singer Josipa Lisac (inside joke I may decide to explain someday)