Travel

The Rise of the Quality Hotel Scene in Stari Grad on Hvar

By 21 November 2020
The Rise of the Quality Hotel Scene in Stari Grad on Hvar
Photo credit - Maslina Resort Facebook

November 21, 2020 - Often overlooked by its more fashionable neighbour on the western tip of the island, the luxury hotel story in Stari Grad on Hvar is developing nicely, with or without Four Seasons. 

When I bought my house in Jelsa back in 2002, the island of Hvar was very different. It was only seven years after the Homeland War had finished, and tourism was only just beginning to recover. Nowhere was this more true than in the hotel industry. With almost no tourists during the war, some of the hotels were used to house refugees and internally displaced people from parts of Croatia and Bosnia which were badly affected by the fighting. Some of those hotels have never recovered. 

Back then, some 18 years ago, there were very few truly luxury places to stay on Hvar, despite its elite island reputation. It would be four more years until ORCO Group took over Suncani Hvar Hotels in Hvar Town and began to add the four and five-star luxury that one can enjoy today. 

The hotels in central Hvar were not so fortunate with post-war investment. Soon after I moved to Jelsa, the town's hotels were sold to a Hungarian investor. At the time, there was much excitement about a new era for Jelsa tourism, with investments promised. Back in the 1980s, Jelsa was THE place to go on Hvar, with no less than four nightclubs, so I am told. It was named the best destination in former Yugoslavia in 1983 (from memory), and its hotels very popular. 

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Sadly, the expected investment did not materialise, the oldest hotel on Hvar, Jadran (which opened in 2011) closed, and the town has been stuck in tourism limbo every since with its 2 and 3-star hotels. 

It was a similar story initially in both Vrboska and Stari Grad, both of which have moved onto a path of better fortune. 

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In Vrboska, the old two-star Hotel Adriatic was not even available for tourist rental for many years, as the hotel had a contract with the Czech government to host its sick children, who enjoyed the healthy Hvar climate and pristine Adriatic waters. That all changed back in 2016 with a 30 million euro investment, as Hotel Adriatic was transformed into the 4-star standard Senses Resort

But by far the most interesting story has been taking place in Stari Grad over the last decade. A story which continues to write new chapters and is quietly becoming a quality destination which offers significant competition to Hvar Town. I wasn't in the least surprised, for example, to learn that the first Michelin-recommended restaurant on the island (Apolon) was in Stari Grad, not Hvar Town. 

And it is with Apolon where  - at least from my perspective - the rise of the hotel scene in Stari Grad began. 

Back in 2013, as Croatia prepared to join the EU, I took a journalist from The Independent to meet Jelsa winemaker Andro Tomic. Tomic at the time was the poster child of EU accession, due to the Italian objections in the 'prosek v prosecco' debate. After the interview and accompanying wine tasting, Tomic suggested we go for lunch at a great new place that had just opened in Stari Grad. As the island blogger, I was intrigued as I had never heard of it. 

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(Apolon in 2013)

Restaurant Apolon and the 7 luxury rooms in a historic building at the top of the expanded Stari Grad riva were a statement of intent from owner Tonci Tadic, with no expense spared to open the first four-star luxury accommodation in Stari Grad. It was an instant success, with many higher-paying guests choosing the peace and quiet of the Stari Grad waterfront, as Hvar Town went through its experiment with party tourism. Stari Grad finally had an alternative for those looking for a great place to stay and eat in the oldest settlement on the island. 

Stari Grad's main hotels, the Helios Group, were in a similar situation as Jelsa. Two and three-star, trying to recover from the war, and deprived of investment and with significant ownership issues. The lack of quality hotels was holding the destination back from development.  

And then, slowly, things changed for the better. 

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(Brizenica Bay, Four Seasons Hvar plan back in 2016)

Ironically, the biggest move towards luxury hotel tourism in Stari Grad on Hvar is the one which is looking increasingly less likely ot happen - the Four Seasons Resort at Brizenica Bay a short walk north of the town. If the 140 million euro investment were to go ahead, it would be one of the most luxurious hotel resorts on the entire Adriatic coast. Despite former Minister of Tourism Gari Cappelli announcing that the resort would be expecting guests for the 2019 season, the project is still waiting for its building permit. But while the Four Seasons may be on hold, there is plenty of other tourism good news for the hotel industry in Stari Grad. 

Perhaps the most significant in the long term is the new ownership of the flagship hotels from Helios Group. They have been taken over by Valamar Hotels, the first investment on Hvar from the influential Croatian company which is a dominant player in the hotel industry here. The plans are in place, and the news is good - a complete overhaul of the existing hotels towards a four-star offer more in keeping with the quality of the destination. The renovations will take a couple of years, but once completed, the spectacular position of Hotel Arkada in particular should be a very popular spot for those wanting to combine a beach holiday with a relaxed setting. 

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(Photo credit - Hotel Antica)

But there is more happening in the higher quality hotel story in Stari Grad. With a much lower profile, another 4-star hotel opened back in 2018, close to the ferry, as we reported at the time - Hotel Antica

And 2020 took the Stari Grad hotel offer to new heights, despite the attentions of the pandemic. While the Four Seasons project was arguing building permits with the town council, across the harbour on the other side of the ferry, one project was doing everything right - Maslina Resort in Maslinica Bay, the first five-star hotel for Stari Grad. Indeed, it is only the fourth 5-star hotel on a Croatian island (excluding the very small boutigue hotels), the others being on Losinj, and Palace Elisabeth heritage hvar hotel, which was the first 5-star hotel to open on Hvar last year. 

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(Photo credit - Maslina Resort)

With its signature motto, Mindful Luxury, Maslina will be looking to set the standards of hotel luxury not only on Hvar, but also the Adriatic, when it opens for its first full season next year. You can check it out here

It is just 7 years since Apolon opened in Stari Grad, bringing four-star excellence to the town. Valamar, Antica, Maslina, as well as a host of higher-quality private accommodation options in the historic old town and villas overlooking the sea, are helping to life the tourism offer of what was once the capital of this beautiful island. 

I predict good things for Stari Grad's future - a safe, authentic lifestyle destination which is developing tourism as it should be. 

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