We are driving through fields of green rolling hills, winding left and then right past vineyards and olive groves along skinny cypress-lined roads. Still in a food coma from yet another pasta-heavy lunch, I check on my two year old son in the rear view mirror who is napping peacefully in the backseat.
No, we are not in Italy. You’re close though, both geographically and colonially speaking. Just a two hour boat ride from Venice in a region that was under Italian rule until WW2 — we are in Istria, with gorgeous scenery, charming hilltop villages and fabulous food. A fantastic place to spend a few days, a few weeks or even a lifetime. On our second trip to Croatia but our first introduction to Istria, we went out in search of the best that this region had to offer:
Hotel Lone: An incredibly chic design-forward dream, Hotel Lone is a great place to rest your head while visiting Istria. It’s all in the details here, where minimalist touches mix with a mid-century modern twist. We stayed in a “Jazz Room” – stylish, spacious and complete with a private infinity pool on our terrace. Kids will love the hotel’s Mini Club and the enormous multi-hexagonal shaped pool set amidst the Zlatni Rat forest. Another plus — the big buffet breakfast offered every morning, perfect for fueling up before heading out. Would I return to Hotel Lone? In a heartbeat. Would I return to Istria for the sole purpose of staying at Hotel Lone again? Possibly. For me, the only accommodation choice. But if you need others:
High rollers can try the Hotel Monte Mulini, for over-the-top luxury and panoramic sea views.
Foodies and oenophiles will feel at home at San Rocco — an award winning family-run hotel in Brtonigla with a gourmet restaurant on site.
Low-key travelers in search of a charming boutique hotel should check out La Grisa, a new property built from 7 old homes in the old medieval town of Bale.
Go Truffle Hunting: One of the absolute highlights of our time in Istria was going out into the Buzet forest on a truffle hunt followed by a tasting at Natura Tartufi. Our lovely host Daniela Puh was born into the family business and knows a thing or two about unearthing these mysterious mushrooms. It’s difficult to say which part of the experience was more fun — running through the forest with the dogs or sampling all of the truffle spreads, oils, honeys, chocolates, brandy and for the grand finale, shaved whole black and white truffles.
Hit the Beach: Blessed with a beautiful coastline, Istria’s beaches are reason enough to plan a visit here — you’ll find hidden coves and inlets, larger bays and rocky reefs, all with sparkling clear blue water. We liked Red Beach on St. Andrew’s Island best — a 10 minute boat ride from Rovinj, there are good facilities and plenty of secluded spots to lay down your beach towel. Don’t forget to buy your tickets at the hotel reception when you get to the island (which isn’t made incredibly clear,) or you’ll get stuck for an hour until the next boat arrives like we did on the way back.
Hit the Road:
Istria is a region best explored by car, so buckle up and spend some time exploring all the charming villages, hilltop towns and port cities spread across the peninsula. These spots are worth a stop on your Istrian road trip:
Rovinj: Known as the “Blue Pearl of the Adriatic,” Rovinj is one of the most picturesque towns in the Mediterranean. We loved wandering through the tiny shop-filled alleyways and grabbing a seat at one of the lively cafes along the harbor for a sunset sip. Skip the mostly tourist-trap waterfront restaurants and head to Monte for a special dinner.
Buje: One of the most famous wine roads in Croatia runs though Buje — home to 23 famous wine-makers and numerous olive oil producers. This is a place to do some serious tasting.
Grožnjan: Musicians and artists from all over the world flock to artsy Grožnjan, known for its annual jazz festival, famed summertime music school and many galleries and studios. A tiny and charming hilltop town.
Hum: But not as tiny as Hum — population 23, touted as “the smallest town in the world.” (A claim substantiated by the Guinness Book of Records. No, really.)
Motovun: Perched on the very top of a mountain with views for days, this town gets a bad rap as of late — but there’s more to Motovun than truffle trinkets and tourist shops. For one, there’s lunch at Mondo (see below.)
Buzet: Buzet is known as the “City of Truffles.” Visit in September for their giant truffle omlette celebration. 2,000 eggs + over 20 pounds of truffles. Sign me up.
Novigrad: Once a sleepy fishing town, Novigrad is becoming somewhat of a foodie hot spot. Marina, a 30-seat seafood restaurant run by chef Marina Gaši and her husband Davor Buršić, is one of the best with beautifully presented, elevated cuisine.
Bale: Another medieval hilltop town with narrow streets and crumbling stone houses. We have some unfinished business in this town — a visit to Kamene Price. A jazz club and restaurant with a sense of humor, though unfortunately no tolerance for children (a sign outside warns: No Kids After 7:15 pm.) Message received, maybe next time.
There are many fabulous restaurants throughout Istria and we would have loved to try them all. These are a few that stood out:
Mondo: The New York Times beat us here in 2009 so we can’t take full credit for the discovery, but we can confirm that Mondo’s truffle-heavy menu is worth the hike up to the top of the hill. The “Penne Mondo” is a must-order and ravioli with black truffles was divine.
Kantinon: A sign outside reads “Fishermen Eat Here.” Good enough for me. Though Kantinon seemed to be out of everything by the time we sat down at 9:30pm (which I suppose is a testament to freshness of their fish,) the dishes we did end up ordering were fantastic. The restaurant got a full makeover last winter, from the space to the menu to the wine list which now features over 50 labels of local wines and a large selection of grappas.
Stari Podrum: Red and pink flowers are sprayed from wooden wheelbarrows and ripe fallen figs are scattered on the ground at rustic family-run konoba Stari Podrum, located in the tiny town of Momjan just over the Slovenian border. Everything here is locally produced and homemade, and many of their dishes feature the region’s most celebrated ingredient – truffles. Their cold charcuterie plate of pršut, sausage, grilled mushrooms and cheese is a perfect start to a meal here. Don’t miss the creamy garlic and potato soup.
La Grisa: There is some magic happening over in the kitchen at La Grisa. Excellent food, excellent service, and as is the case in most places in Istria, relatively inexpensive. Our server took time to explain the dishes on the menu and made careful recommendations on local wines. We loved the hand rolled pasta with thin cut ribbons of steak and arugula and Istrian shortrib slow-cooked and served over polenta.Visit Istria (Official Tourism Site)
Closest airport that serves the region is in Pula
Address: Luje Adamovica 31, Rovinj
Phone: +385 52 800 250
Hotel Monte Mulini
Address: A Smareglia bb, Rovinj
Phone: +385 52 800 250
Address: Srednja ulica 2 – Via Media 2, Brtonigla
Phone: +385 52 725 000
Address: La Grisa 23, Bale
Phone: +385 52 824 501
Address:Srnegla 21 Mala Huba
Phone: +385 52 662975
Address: Barbacan 1, Motovun
Phone: +385 52 681 791
Address: Sv. Antona 38, Novigrad
Phone: +385 99 8121 267
Address: Castel 57, Bale
Phone: +385 528 24235
Konoba Stari Podrum
Address: Most 52, Momjan, Buje
Phone: +385 52 779152
Address: Obala Alzo Rismondo 18, Rovinj
Phone: +385 52 816 075