What could be more spectacular than a sunset boat trip on the Adriatic Sea, just off the coast of Croatia, on a ‘pirate ship’ – actually a Trabakul Laus built in Ankaran, Slovenia, in 1930 – complete with working sails and 30-foot mast? Well, I soon found out: dolphins ducking and diving amid the waves alongside the boat. Judging by the reactions of the seasoned crew – the captain even sported a ‘Captain Bird’s Eye’ white beard – this wasn’t a normal night. Sightings of a pod of 15 dolphins chasing their supper through the Mediterranean this far north are reserved for only two or three nights of the summer season. We had been very lucky.
Excursions on the Trabakul Laus are just one of the many activities offered to guests staying at the Hotel Monte Mulini, which is part of the portfolio of Maistra Inc, the largest investor in hotels and resorts on Croatia’s Istrian Riviera. Hotel Monte Mulini is located just 15 minutes walk from Rovinj – often referred to as ‘the Blue Pearl of the Adriatic’ and certainly one of the most picturesque towns on the Mediterranean.
In marked contrast to the old town’s ancient architecture, the dramatic, contemporary Hotel Monte Mulini is set into the hillside of the Golden Cape, a protected nature reserve. Passing through the entrance, guests are met with a three-storey-high glass wall allowing spectacular views of the bay, complete with bobbing fishing boats, and a dramatic neighbouring coastline. It’s breathtaking. (And a relief, for the driveway is a little too reminiscent of an airport terminal, complete with an ‘in and out’ drop-off point and trickling water features.) Looking at my fellow guests as they wandered around the hotel, I determined to become just as relaxed by the time I left, 72 hours later.
Part of the Venetian Empire for 500 years, Rovinj is just three hours by boat from Venice. On a walking tour of the city, we were told that the Italian influence is much stronger here than elsewhere in Croatia, and this much was clear – an historic old town that compels visitors to wander its ancient cobbled alleys, packed with cozy tavernas and art galleries. Perched on a peninsula high on a hill, it is crammed with terracotta roofed houses and adorned by the imposing bell tower of the eighteenth-century church of St Euphemia. Legend has it that in 1800 a marble coffin mysteriously floated towards the Rovinj shoreline, bearing the body of St Euphemia. Since then, Rovinj has been inextricably linked with this early Christian martyr; indeed, the town’s skyline is difficult to imagine without her floodlit statue atop the church tower, guarding the roofs below.
Rovinj is also the heart of gastronomic Croatia. White truffles and Istrian prosciutto are abundant, and are ideally washed down with local wine varieties such as Teran (red) and Malvazija (white). Although not for the faint-hearted (the food is seriously rich!), an evening in the hotel’s Wine Vault restaurant is highly recommended. There, Chef Tomislav Gretic serves up a French menu with strong local influences. The fresh local seafood is the best thing to order, although my companion was equally impressed by his foie gras and a chestnut soup covered in shaved white truffles. Meanwhile, sommelier Emil Perdec recommended the best Istrian wines to accompany our meals. (For more low-key dinners, the hotel’s Mediterraneo restaurant serves lighter Mediterranean fare, and has a wonderful terrace overlooking the sea.)
The morning after, a bike ride through the national park seemed the perfect remedy for a full stomach. The trail winds along the stunning coastline, past pebble-beach coves with crystal clear water twinkling in the sunlight, with views across to pretty Red Island. (But be warned – travel too far and you’ll end up on a naturist beach!) Rock climbing, Nordic walking, boat trips along the nearby Lim Fjord and scuba diving can also be arranged through the hotel. During autumn, the hotel also offers truffle hunting excursions at €120 per hour or €350 per half day – not cheap, but participants do get to keep whatever they find!
For those feeling a little less hearty, days are best spent sun-bed-bound on one of the cleverly designed terraces overlooking the sea. There are three large pools, plus a Jacuzzi and plenty of waiting staff to ferry your drinks, lunch and towels. For those of you who like to multi-task, a barman will happily make you a drink while you’re perched on one of the in-pool bar stools. And if you feel like a change of scene, you can walk to the end of the garden for a dip in the sea. Finally, to really max out your relaxation levels, there is also a Wellness Centre – cleverly designed like a gold cave – offering a range of pampering treatments including facials and massages.
As for the rooms, the emphasis is on comfort, contemporary design and functionality. The bathrooms are where the hotel really excels itself – baths big enough for two, plus separate loo and shower rooms, all made from local marble. Each room comes with a terrace seating two, making it an ideal spot to be at sunset – every evening we enjoyed a cocktail on ours, as we waited for the pinky-orange ball of fire to hit the water. The only exception was our final night, when we pushed off by boat next to the hotel, meandered gently among the surrounding islands and eventually completed our journey in Rovinj harbour, dodging torch-lit fishing boats on their nightly quest to catch squid.
Whether it’s the food, outdoor activities or just lying by the pool, Hotel Monte Mulini and Rovinj really offers something for everyone. For us, those dolphins at sunset were just the icing on the cake.