I walked in to the cafe and Rob greeted me like any other customer, and then did a half double-take. I confirmed his look of maybe-recognition and reintroduced myself – I had stayed in his hostel on Hvar five years earlier and had sought him out again, only to find he now had two cafes with Geoff the chef, his business partner at the hostel. One of his staff brought over an unbelievable pear, blue cheese, walnut, and spinach bruschetta and a few beers and we sat down to catch up.
Rob is a young Croatian-Australian, who grew up in the latter and moved back to the former, and it's not hard to see why. An seaside destination heavy hitter, what Croatia loses in beaches and coconuts to the Maldives or south pacific, it more than makes up for in beauty, diversity, and history. The sun-soaked days revolving around the sea – renting dinghies, sailing trips, hunting for mussels or trying to catch fish – are occasionally juxtaposed with a day hiking or looking at some of the most magnificent waterfalls this side of Victoria, the towns and cities are stunning examples of incorporating modernity into a 2000 year old palace, and the easily accessible when-you-want-it hedonism, dark Croatian sense of humour, and huge range of freshly caught seafood all combine to make Croatia quite possibly my favourite country on earth. I'd probably move there too.
Hvar is a place that I love despite the hype, the hypermegasuperyachts and the houses Beyonce stays in and the private island nightclub parties. I like it because its the one place in the world that anyone has ever handed me the keys to a boat, a chilly bin full of beers and a map and set me loose on the high seas. I like it because of the people I met, and the stories we've made there.
The first time I visited was in 2014, when I was a fresh-faced young backpacker with an oversized bag and the world at my feet. I had spent the summer trecking through the museums and galleries of central Europe, and it had been a long time since I had seen the sea; 52 days to be exact. I grew up on, in, or generally around the sea and this was the longest I had ever gone without seeing it. My first glimpse of the water, peeking between two hills, while on the bus to the port at Split suddenly scratched an itch I hadn't been aware was there; the familiar scent of the sea breeze and the sound of the waves immediately put me at ease. Hvar was my first real island holiday, and I felt after my time in the old-world cities of Europe I had earned some time in the sun.
Rob arrived at the port to pick me up in the hostel van (which I managed to only break a little bit) and took me up to my new home. I expected Hvar to be like Split but a little less Roman and a little more beach, but I wasn't prepared for how relaxed the island paradise vibe would be. Walking in to the hostel, I was immediately introduced to the chilled Hvar lifestyle. Greeted by two of Rob's compatriots playing basketball in the backyard and Geoff the chef hanging around at the ping pong table, it felt more like walking into a mate's shack than a corporate enterprise; the other guests lounging around in hammocks or soaking up the sun on deck chairs only confirmed the feeling.
After waking up the next morning to Rob shaking my ankle asking if I wanted some pancakes, mate, I rounded up a motley crew of British backpackers and we made our way to the port to rent a boat and reintroduce myself to the sea. And what a reintroduction. Sharing a few dinghies with other backpackers, with no restrictions or guides but instead simply being set free on the glorious Croatian coast with nothing but a few beers and a map - to have my reunion with the sea in such a manner was one of the most joyous experiences of my life. This was how I spent my days, in a state of sublime relaxation. Leaving the hostel every morning, renting a boat with anyone I could find or conscript, and then leaving the land behind. We would revisit to it only to refuel the boat or the cooler, and every time we stopped it was a different, heartachingly beautiful place, spectacular in its own way. We pulled in to tiny beaches where we could pretend we were alone in the world, and we docked at private jetties to visit seaside bars. We swam ashore to restaurants that had entire tiny islands to themselves, and once even gatecrashed a wedding. Slow-cooked to a deep brown by the Croatian sun, setting out in the morning with a vague picture of a beautiful spot painted in broken English by an ancient Croatian man, sunbathing on the deck, flinging myself from cliffs, swimming through caves or floating in the clear, warm waters of the Adriatic, my days on Hvar remain among the highlights of my travels.
Having found the perfect way to spend my days, I put myself in the hands of the two basketballing Autralians to fill my nights. As it turned out they - along with another Australian or two - ran the local pub crawl, so they soon had me getting belted on the head for boom boom shots at Kiva bar and dancing away at Nautica. The bars are crammed into tiny old buildings in an alleyway so the night spills out into the streets, a mingling of music and people and dancing. A pro tip here; the very expensive bars are right next to a couple of tobacconists who sell cheap cans and stay open until 4am.
One particular night stands out in my memory, the season closing party of Carpe Diem. A beach-club-cum-nightclub situated on a private island, it boasted beaches, pools, dance floors and bars galore, as well as a bar on the mainland from which the shuttle ferry service left. While I am normally far more excited about sitting on the beach with cheap tins, bad music, and good people, the chance to experience of one of these super-clubs, a world-famous party, was far too tempting.
The night began at the hostel, with a buffet barbecue cooked by Geoff and a full cocktail service provided by Rob. The entire hostel turned out for the occasion, camaraderie built up during days on the boats, and everyone ate and drank their fill before heading down into the town. Hvar's streets were full of travellers and backpackers spilling out of the tiny kiosk-like bars, and the high spirits generated by the sun-kissed, blissful days lead perfectly into an atmosphere of good natured fun. Ferries to Carpe Diem's island began at eleven, so the entire tourist population of the island congregated around the mainland bar waiting for their arrival, music and cheap drinks and revelry flooding the streets. The stream of ferries leaving the beautiful town out into the dark of the harbour, carrying laughing, dancing party-goers to their private hedonistic paradise is a nightlife experience not to be passed up. The luxurious island party epitomises the Hvar hype, partying like, and alongside, the rich and famous on an island dedicated entirely to pleasure.
Hvar, for me, is the pinnacle of pure enjoyment; a window to Valhalla in the breathtaking Adriatic.
Which is why I went back, and found myself sitting in a cafe, reminiscing with Rob.