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Emerging Destinations in Europe, Part TwoSeptember 27, 2011 By: Mary Winston Nicklin
These days, travelers are searching for unspoiled places with the ring of authenticity. In the always-hot market of Europe, what places are emerging as the “it” spots of the moment?
Croatia: The “New Tuscany”
The secret’s out about Croatia’s spectacular Dalmatian coastline, but Istria—the peninsula bordering Slovenia and a quick hop from Italy’s Trieste—is starting to lure American travelers to its Adriatic beaches and verdant interior that’s been christened the “new Tuscany.” The vibe here is decidedly Italian. You’ll find lots of prosciutto and local wines on the menu, and Italian is the second language. In fact, the ancient Romans were so besotted with Istria that they called it the “terra magica.” But a big difference from the Italian boot: the tourist crowds and prices. Hilltop villages are yours for the strolling, truffles, yours for the foraging.
For tours to Croatia, consider booking an itinerary with Kompas US. Since the 1980s when Kompas was the official tour operator to the former Yugoslavia, the company has evolved into a multi-country supplier of escorted tours and group tours to Central and Southern Europe. Its core business is selling Croatia to U.S. tour operators and travel agencies.
Nick Jaksic, vice president sales and marketing at Kompas in Fort Lauderdale, says that Kompas “offers a number of impressive four- and five-star hotels for its groups in Istria like the Kempinski Umag, Sole Garden Istria in Umag, Monte Mulini Rovinj, and the Molindrio Laguna Hotel Porec.” Tiana Maretic, an Istria native who works with Kompas France, likes the Valsabbion Hotel in Pula “because of its high quality food—the best-rated restaurant in Croatia according to GaultMillau.” She lists three “must-visit” places in central Istria, where wine routes and olive oil factories delight foodies: “Hum, the smallest town in the world, Motovun famous for its film festival, and Roc for its music festival.”
Montenegro was once a magnet for Hollywood stars like Sophia Loren and Richard Burton who found a hedonist’s playground on the mountain-backed Riviera. Wedged between Bosnia and Albania on the Balkan Peninsula, the small country fell off the tourism map during decades of Communist rule and the Balkan wars. Now Montenegro is moving back into the spotlight, thanks in large part to Amanresorts, which has pumped millions into the restoration of a private island resort called Sveti Stefan. This four-year project was the biggest in Amanresorts’ history.
Connected to the mainland by a tiny isthmus, the fortified island was converted from a fishing village into a luxury hotel complex in the 1960s, but then fell into decline in the 1990s. The UNESCO heritage listed island is dotted with olive and pomegranate trees, fragrant with oleander. Unlike some of the large-scale real estate developments on the coast, Amanresorts has painstakingly preserved the island’s 15th century houses and cobblestone streets. Surrounded by crescent shaped beaches, the 50 guest accommodations—housed in former fishermen’s cottages—are finished with local materials and decked out with custom-designed furnishings to reflect the island’s natural aesthetic.
Across the bay, the Villa Miločer offers an additional eight suites. Once the summer residence of Queen Marija Karađorđević, the villa debuted in December 2008 as stage one of Aman Sveti Stefan, with the rest of the resort opening earlier this year. Amanjunkies who have come to expect top-notch service and amenities at Amanresorts worldwide won’t be disappointed with this beautiful Montenegro property.
Eye on Iceland
Back in 2008—when Iceland’s economy tanked and the Icelandic krona dropped dramatically against the U.S. dollar—the country once known for exorbitant prices became a top bargain destination for travelers. Suddenly, Iceland’s geyser-pocked wilderness and Reykjavik’s red-hot party scene were within easy reach. Icelandair promoted cheap airfares and packages to visit the Blue Lagoon, bubbling with natural hot springs right next to the airport. Ultimately, Iceland turned an economic downturn into a tourism boom.
Today, Iceland has earned a spot on the average traveler’s bucket list, and travel agencies are taking advantage of continued deals with Icelandair. The airline often beats competitors on prices to Europe with three-day stopovers included for no additional cost. Though a quick five-hour flight means that many East Coasters are just jetting to Iceland and skipping a jaunt to the Continent… despite a certain (unruly) volcano. Tip: The light-filled days of June (20 hours of daylight!) could be the best time to visit, when the Reykjavik Arts Festival takes center stage.
Georgia on My Mind
No, not the Peach State. After a trip to the Republic of Georgia, we say that Tbilisi—the country’s atmospheric capital—is the “next Prague.” When the country was part of the Soviet Union, Georgia hosted countless Soviet leaders who were lured by the Black Sea beaches, brick-domed baths fed by underground hot springs, and prized bottles of Borjomi mineral water. (Not to mention the wine. Georgia is the fabled birthplace of viticulture!) Today the country is an exciting and largely undiscovered destination at the crossroads of east and west.
In Tbilisi’s Old Town, pedestrian streets are lined with chic bars, boutiques, and frescoed orthodox churches. Crumbling pastel houses tilt at odd angles, like the lines in a cubist painting, and colorful Kazak rugs are draped across wooden balconies, elaborately carved in the Georgian tradition. With the arrival of international hotel brands—the Radisson Blu Iveria Hotel opened on famous Rustaveli Avenue in 2009—Tbilisi is a destination to watch.
Georgia is legendary for its hospitality and lavish feasts. This land in the Caucasus once wooed antiquity’s Jason (who sailed across the Black Sea to Georgia in search of the Golden Fleece) and will soon begin seducing American travelers in a big way. It won’t be too long before the cat’s out of the bag about Georgia’s inspired cuisine and genuine joie de vivre.