Getting around Hvar

Getting Around Hvar

By 2 February 2018

Looking to drive on the island? Here are some tips and tricks we think you might find helpful. 

Driving on Hvar 

Looking to avoid the driving stress of speed cameras, traffic lights, and roundabouts? Step back in time and head to the island of Hvar, where such things have yet to be introduced. And while this may be a welcome respite from the daily commute to London, there are regional challenges to be encountered on Hvar that do not exist on the North Circular, such as roaming wild boar.

For comprehensive road travel information throughout Croatia, look up HAK (Hrvatski Autoklub = Croatian Car 'Club'), which has a useful App.

The Roads on Hvar

The island's road system was not built for heavy traffic and peak season can be a source of frustration for drivers keen to get to the beach. 

While the roads are largely empty out of season with the most regular journey being to the family field, the roads are much busier in season, with a combination of tourists on scooters, holidaymakers with large caravans and impatient drivers providing a recipe for potential problems. Nothing happens quickly in Dalmatia, and visitors who accept that this also applies to driving tend to endure less stress while on Hvar.

Many visitors arriving in large vehicles are daunted by the narrow roads, although in practice they are less dangerous than they look, so long as you take care, and are prepared to give way in the right places. Most drivers slow down for oncoming vehicles so that everyone has time to move into a safe position. Make sure that your wing mirrors are adjusted so that you can see the edge of the road, as this allows you to squeeze over to the limit when necessary. 

Alcohol and Driving in Croatia

After a period of zero tolerance in Croatia (during which one of the more interesting national debates in this predominantly Catholic country concerned the status of priests taking altar wine), the limit is now 0.5%. Police can - and do - stop cars for spot checks and a failed breathalyser can result in an instant fine or something more serious. There is, however, zero tolerance for drivers under 24.

Seat belts, Headlights, and Other Requirements

Always have your ID (identity card or passport) driving license and car documents with you, in case of a random spot check. Seat belts must be worn at all times, and the fine for non-compliance is 500 kuna. It should be noted that tourists renting scooters are required to wear a helmet. Headlights must be on for the entire journey in winter (last Sunday in October to the last Sunday in March) at the risk of a 300 kuna fine, but the mainland requirement for winter tires does not apply. This is an island where snowfall is national news.

How to Upset a Local: Parking Spots

If there is one issue likely to upset a Dalmatian in season, it is parking. Tourists looking to avoid car parking charges sometimes park up on private property, leave the car and head to the beach. It is a source of more than mild annoyance, and easily avoided.

In Case of Accident

Whether it be swerving to avoid a strolling donkey, a nocturnal head-on with a wild boar (more common than one would imagine, especially on eastern Hvar) or a collision with another car, accidents do happen. Accidents must be reported to the police (dial 112 or 00 385 192), who must then fill out a police report. This can take a while and requires photographs and measurements - much better not to have the accident in the first place. The number for an ambulance (hitna pomoć) is 00 385 194, and for the fire brigade (Vatrogasci) 00 385 193.

Emergency road assistance is 987 from local fixed phones, 00 385 1 987 from mobiles.

Speed limits are 90 km/h on the open road, 50 km/h in built-up areas and best adhered to, not only to avoid police attention, but also because cars are sometimes parked at the side of the main road near the family fields, and a speeding car coming round the corner has caught a slow-moving car leaving the field on more than one occasion. Remember that a speed limit remains in force until the sign cancelling it.

Petrol Stations on Hvar

Motorists arriving via Sućuraj are advised to tank up before they arrive, as the nearest petrol station is more than 50km away in Jelsa. There are three stations on Hvar, one in Jelsa town, one on the main road to Stari Grad just outside Jelsa, and one in Hvar Town, while the marina filling station in Vrboska will sometimes provide fuel to motorists.

In general, driving on Hvar is problem-free, assuming one has adapted to the Dalmatian mentality.

New Road from Hvar to Stari Grad 

While Hvar Town remains the focus of tourism on the island of Hvar, attracting the rich and famous and often referred to as the new St. Tropez, there is much more to this magical island that the glitz of its main town. Other tourist towns such as Stari Grad, Vrboska, and Jelsa all merit a visit, while there are lots of hidden gems elsewhere, several of which can be accessed from the new road from Hvar Town to Stari Grad.

Milna, Malo Grablje and Henry VIII

With the opening of the new tunnel in 2000, the connection between Hvar Town and the car ferry terminal near Stari Grad became quicker, more convenient – and safer. A trip on the old road between Hvar Town and Stari Grad is, therefore, an altogether more pleasant experience these days than it used to be.

There is a steep ascent on the road out of Hvar, affording excellent views of the fortress and bay, before it winds along the southern coast. About 4km from the town, a right turn takes tourists into Milna, a delightful village popular for its excellent, child-friendly beaches and range of fine restaurants. The setting is idyllic and the various fish dishes do not disappoint.

Milna is a relatively new settlement, however, populated by previous inhabitants of the nearby abandoned stone village of Malo Grablje, where the most prominent surname is Tudor, giving rise to the local legend that there are descendants of Henry VIII in Croatia.

Beaches in Croatia: Dubovica and the Stone Village of Zaraće

The road continues and straightens, passing the seemingly abandoned village of Zaraće on the left. There are in fact signs of life, including the loving restoration of the first house in the village, which has been well renovated by its foreign owners, this after it had been on the market for years and was one of the most notorious properties on local agents' books. There is a restaurant in a quiet bay of the same name below the village.

Further on and just before the tunnel is one of the nicest bays on Hvar, the tiny hamlet of Dubovica, with its delightful beach. Access to the bay is on foot only, with parking on the main road by the telephone box, and is a fairly demanding walk down.

The Road to Sveta Nedjelja

A long-planned access road from Hvar Town to the south side of the island and the resorts of Sveta Nedelja, Ivan Dolac, and Zavala has recently opened, thereby reducing traffic and pressure on one of the great road experiences in Europe, the Pitve - Zavala tunnel, although the road is not paved and is not wide in parts. Proceed with caution, but try and enjoy the views.

Through the Tunnel to the Stari Grad Ferry Terminal

In stark contrast, the new tunnel is fast, modern and well lit. Emerging through the other side, the island of Brač and the Rudine Peninsula come into view, and it is a short descent to the ferry terminal at Stari Grad, which handles most of the car and passenger traffic to Split. The terminal was enlarged in 2012, with cafes and eateries at ground level, while the first floor houses a nightclub.

Opposite the ferry terminal is a large shopping complex. On the first floor is Robot, selling electrical gadgets, household appliances and kitchenware. KiK is another shop, where you can buy clothing, some household goods, kid's toys and other seasonal low budget products. On the ground floor, DM sells food, including some organic products, dog and cat food, household cleaning products and cosmetics. The supermarket Tommy occupies most of the ground floor space, having replaced Kerum in 2012. Also on the ground floor, DOTA sells a good range of household textiles, including sheets, curtains and cushions. There are a couple of clothing outlets, and to the rear of the lobby, away from the main entrance there is a very large shoe shop which also sells useful sundries like shoelaces.

Old Road from Hvar to Stari Grad 

One of the best road trips in Europe, combining stunning nature and sea views, history and a challenging drive that is not for the fainthearted, is the old road from Hvar Town to Stari Grad on Dalmatia's best-known island, Hvar.

It is an absorbing twenty-five-kilometre drive, taking in near-abandoned stone villages, which house, among other things, the oldest island library (allegedly) in Dalmatia, a lavender festival and the scars of the devastating European forest fires of 2003.

Throw into the mix a restaurant with a north and south-facing sea view, the path to the island's panoramic views from its highest point, an intricate stone terracing in the surrounding fields, and some of the scariest driving conditions in Europe, with unprotected sheer drops the norm, and all the ingredients are there for an unmissable adventure.

Brusje: Oldest Island Library in Dalmatia

Driving out of Hvar past the main town car park, ignore the left turn to the town and take a right instead, along a road signposted for Brusje and Selca. The road is winding and climbs steadily, offering excellent sea views towards Split, before reaching the first village on the road, Brusje, a stunning example of a Dalmatian stone village, where even the ruins seem exotic.

A combination of the spectacular sea views, proximity to Hvar Town and authentic Dalmatian surroundings made Brusje one of the most sought-after villages during the Croatian property boom in 2004, as foreign buyers sought their piece of Adriatic tranquility in the sun. Although very quiet and partially abandoned, this belies the village's reputation as an intellectual centre, boasting (it is said) the first library on a Dalmatian island, as well as a literary pedigree which can be further investigated on the village website. Mains water was added to the village in 2008.

Velo Grablje: Home of the Lavender Festival

The road straightens after Brusje, and drivers can relax a little and enjoy the scenery, in particular, the spectacular stonewalling that crisscrosses the fields at every turn, resembling a chessboard at times, as islanders throughout the ages have cleared the stony land to make it more fertile.

A right turn to Velo Grablje takes one to the village of the same name, a sparsely populated community, with excellent southern sea views. A rough road continues to the abandoned village of Malo Grablje, which some claim to be a village founded by descendants of Henry VIII. An interesting annual event hosted by Velo Grablje is the lavender festival, which takes place every year in June, and is one of many initiatives for revitalizing the area organized by local group 'Pjover'. 

Restaurants on Hvar: Konoba Vidikovac and Two Sea Views

The road is much quieter since the new Hvar - Stari Grad road was opened via a straight and well-lit tunnel several years ago. Prior to that, German tourists, Italian caravans, and Zagreb holidaymakers competed with local drivers to get to their destination on a hopelessly inadequate road - overtaking on blind corners, never advisable, took on a new meaning with the sheer unprotected drops into the patchwork stone walls below.

The only place of refreshment along the way is the ideally located Konoba Vidikovac, a charming restaurant offering traditional Dalmatian fare. The location is perhaps most memorable for its choice of excellent sea views - north-facing from some tables, south-facing from others.

Selca: Forest Fire Survivor

The road continues past a cemetery with excellent views again (a feature of cemeteries in Dalmatia, prime real estate in every place) and a sign for a bicycle route to the right leads to a rough road and access to the highest peak of the island, Sveti Nikola, with outstanding panoramic views.

The main road continues to another semi-abandoned stone village, Selca, whose outer buildings still bear the scars of the savage forest fires of 2003, severe enough to feature by name in a report on European forest fires in this correspondent's edition of the International Herald Tribune on a flight back from Japan.

The views from Selca take in the Rudine Peninsula and the neighbouring island of Brač, as well as the incoming ferries to Stari Grad, with which Selca is twinned. The winding road only takes a few minutes, but can seem a lifetime to motorists less than comfortable with the challenging conditions it offers. And then, as quickly as it started, one of the best road trips around is over, as a T-junction brings the car to the main Stari Grad ferry terminal.

Sućuraj to Jelsa

Tourists arriving on Hvar by ferry at the eastern port of Sućuraj are often surprised at what they find. Far from 'the new St. Tropez', as Hvar Town has been labelled, they descend from a tiny ferry into a quaint sleepy Dalmatian village, with the next significant civilisation 60km away.

An Overview of the Sućuraj – Jelsa Route

Tourists sometimes make the mistake of thinking that, having arrived on the island, they have almost arrived at their destination. While there are distinct benefits using the Drvenik ferry for travellers from Dubrovnik, the main destinations are still some distance away – Hvar Town (80km), Stari Grad (65km) and Jelsa (56km).

Journey times to the nearest main town, Jelsa, are at least an hour, with another 20-25 minutes if Hvar Town is the destination. It should be noted that there are no petrol stations on the road before Jelsa, so it is advisable to fill up before catching the ferry.

Leaving the Ferry and Driving Styles

The small ferry carrying car passengers from the mainland to Sućuraj can hold a maximum of 32 cars. If you are not in a hurry, it is perhaps best to have a coffee in Sućuraj and allow the rest of the ferry traffic to proceed. Impatient tourists and locals who know the road can make driving a less than pleasant experience, as they are in a hurry to get to their destination. While many cars and caravans may turn off at Camp Mlaska, 2km out of Sućuraj, the majority continue to Jelsa and beyond.

Breaking the Journey: Humac

The road passes through some pretty stone villages – Bogomolje, Gdinj, Zastražišće and Poljica – all without running water and very depopulated, but steeped in their own histories and traditions. If you are not intending to spend time on this side of the island, one place which is worth seeing is the abandoned stone shepherd's village of Humac, about three-quarters of the way to Jelsa. It is a magical place to walk around. Some restoration has been happening in this protected village, and there is an excellent restaurant, Konoba Humac, at the entrance, which is well worth a visit, although you have to book ahead (00 385 98 229415, or 00 385 91 523 9463).

Night Driving: Beware the Wild Boar

Driving this road at night brings its own sense of fun. Apart from being dimly lit, there are other factors you must beware of, such as roaming wild boar, who tend not to look for the zebra crossings when moving around. If there is no rush, then the drive can be a pleasant one and the views of the Adriatic and neighbouring islands are breathtaking. 

Through the Pitve Tunnel 

For an island that has been voted among the top ten most beautiful by Condé Nast readers, and whose glitzy main town has been dubbed the new St. Tropez, visitors to Hvar could be forgiven for expecting a well-developed, highly sophisticated tourism offer.

A-list celebrities are regular visitors in the waterfront cafés in Hvar Town, but there are other, less developed tourist attractions, which linger long in the memory. On an island with a permanent population of 11,500, which functions well without roundabouts or permanent traffic lights, some of the best holiday memories are of places far from the bright lights of Hvar Town, such as the Pitve - Zavala tunnel, one of the great road trips in Europe. The tunnel is the only link between Stari Grad and Jelsa on the north side of the island and the villages on the south side from Gromin Dolac to Sveta Nedjelja. 

History of the Pitve - Zavala Tunnel

Work on the tunnel began in 1962 by local authorities, as a means of passing water pipes to the south of the island. Never intended to be a passenger tunnel, the drilling of the rock was crude and practical. The result, a 1.4km tunnel approximately 2.30m across, has been a lifeline connecting the southern settlements of Zavala, Ivan Dolac and Sveta Nedelja to Pitve, Jelsa and beyond, but the tunnel is definitely a case of practicality over comfort; there are no lights inside, water seeps through the rock overhead, causing minor flooding problems, and passing options for two cars are extremely limited.

Getting to the tunnel

The only road to the tunnel from the north side of the island passes through Lower (Donje) and Upper (Gornje) Pitve. The road is narrow in parts, especially where it passes through Gornje Pitve, where space for the road was created by shaving off parts of people's houses - but not quite enough for two cars to pass each other. There are local conventions about how opposing lines of traffic can pass each other, but tempers fray when drivers try to rush through the village at speed or refuse to give way. Residents often have to referee in situations which threaten to become a pitched battle. One tip: in high season (July-August) avoid using the road, if at all possible, in the peak time of the late morning, when traffic is coming in from or heading towards the Stari Grad ferry. 

Tunnel Etiquette: The Occasional Traffic Lights

The tunnel has two distinct seasons, local and tourist. As the tunnel is not wide enough for two cars to pass, the tourist season has recently brought about the introduction of the first seasonal traffic lights on Hvar, an upgrade from a previous system operated by walkie-talkies.

Timing is everything. The lights are controlled by a sensor, and the first car in the queue when the light is red has to be at exactly the right distance from the line: too far forward and the system breaks down; too far back and the lights will never turn green. There is a countdown timer which shows when the lights are about to change, and it is vital to wait until the light is green.

Previously, each light remained green for sixty seconds only, followed by six minutes of red. In the sixty seconds, motorists were expected to navigate their way through the tunnel, and this often caused problems for tourists unnerved by the sudden darkness and primitive conditions. The new system allows plenty of time for the queue to pass through safely before those on the other side are allowed through.

Before the introduction of the relatively sophisticated traffic lights, each end of the tunnel was manned, and the lights were changed according to walkie-talkie consultations. That system had the advantage that it could not suffer breakdown due to electricity or computer failures, or people jumping the lights.

Tunnel conditions

The road surface in the tunnel is very poor, although it is patched up each year. The roughness, damp and poor visibility combine to make conditions especially dangerous for bicycles, scooters and motorbikes, which in principle are not supposed to go through the tunnel. In practice, many cyclists and bikers tuck in between two vehicles to take advantage of their lights, but accidents are not unknown.

While the sudden plunge into darkness and wading through surface water can be disorientating, it is nothing compared to the effects on the eyes when one emerges into the bright sunshine after 1.4km. Judge for yourselves with a virtual Pitve - Zavala Tunnel Tour in the short video below.

Tunnel Etiquette: Passing Places and Waiting Times

The lights come into operation for the tourist season, after which the real fun begins in the tunnel. The local rules are simple: upon entering the tunnel, if there are no headlights coming the opposite way, one may progress; approaching headlights require drivers to wait. Drivers from the Zavala entrance have priority, but the safest bet is to wait if you don't know where the passing points are, or you're not sure you can reach them before meeting the oncoming car(s).

The passing points are two roughly dug-out spaces marked by reflective strips as you come upon them, so they are not immediately obvious to newcomers. Regular users who are confident in their abilities and feel able to judge the distance of the approaching car(s), make snap judgments as to whether they can make it to the first passing place on time. They do not always get it right. Throw a nervous tourist, unsure of the rules, into the mix, and the prospect of reversing back half a kilometre in claustrophobic darkness can cause chaos.

New Roads to Zavala and Sveta Nedelja

Fortunately for all, the opening of two new roads in recent years has helped to relieve the pressure on the tunnel, as well as alleviating some of the traffic congestion through the historic village of Pitve. A fire road over the top of the hill is passable for more vehicles, while the long-awaited road from Dubovica to Sveta Nedelja has made the south side not only more accessible to and from Hvar Town but has also reduced the need to use the tunnel. However, these roads are suitable for four-wheel-drive vehicles rather than normal cars.

Car Hire: Mainland or Island?

One of the key considerations when renting a car in Croatia is where to start your rental. If you are visiting the islands, there are pros and cons of a mainland rental versus an island vehicle. On paper, the convenience (and lower price) of picking up a car at the airport would seem to be the sensible option, but there are several reasons why a more expensive island rental might be preferable.

Car Hire and Ferries in Croatia

The main issues surround the ferries, an integral part of any island hopping trip. For such a sophisticated ferry network, there are surprisingly few connections between islands, with car transfers between Hvar, Vis or Brač, for example, all requiring a return trip to Split.

Another major consideration in high season with renting a car from the mainland is ferry waiting times. Even at the major ports such as Stari Grad on Hvar, the peak demand in late July and August can mean a long wait for cars, while there is never any delay for foot passengers on the ferries. Add to that the relatively high cost of putting a car on the ferry, and island rental becomes a more interesting proposition.

Rent a Car or Rent a Scooter?

An additional benefit of renting on an island is the flexibility that it affords. Many tourists base themselves in the tourist towns, where all the amenities, including the beach, are easily accessible on foot. It is not uncommon for tourists to rent a car for one or two days of a week-long holiday, to explore the island in more detail. While the daily rate is higher, it can work out as a more cost-effective alternative than having a mainland rental idly parked for most of the stay.

A very popular alternative to renting a car while on holiday in Croatia is to rent a scooter. This is a fun way for couples to explore, and scooters are widely available in the main towns. Helmets must be worn at all times when driving and make sure you are given the appropriate documents, including insurance. Be warned that, strictly speaking, you are not allowed to ride a scooter through the old tunnel between Pitve and Zavala, as visibility is poor with scooter lights. (When you see people riding through, they usually wedge themselves between two cars to take advantage of their stronger lights, but it is relatively risky.)

Car Rental on Croatian Islands and the August Shortage

For all the benefits of renting on the islands, the quality of the car rental offer can be variable, with various novelty cars available for hire. While undoubtedly cooler, they are not always as modern or reliable as their mainland cousins. Whatever choice you make, it is advised that you book in advance where possible, particularly in peak season. Apart from the possibility of a better price for booking online, there tends to be a shortage of quality rental vehicles between mid-July and late August.

Ultimately, the decision of island versus mainland rental is a personal choice and comes down to individual circumstances. It would be a shame not to try out the scooter, however - they are fun. Enjoy!

Hvar Bus Timetable 2018

Looking for a bus ride on the island? Have a look at the Hvar bus timetable for 2018 below. 

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