Located across the Adriatic from northern Italy, Istria is everything you want in a European vacation.
View of Rovinj—at the center of it all lies Cathedral of St. Euphemi
The cuisine in Istria (the peninsula in the northwest of Croatia) is so similar to Italian, you may forget that you’re not actually in Italy. With each course of every meal, you’ll be handed a glass of wine, most often made from Malvasia grapes, a lovely white perfect for sipping, but sometimes a dessert wine. Black and white truffles make their way into every meal, turning something like homemade pasta in a simple cream sauce into an elegant dish. Take a drive to Zigante, where the world’s largest truffle was found (it was 1.31 kg—almost 3 pounds), for a lesson in truffle hunting. Wearing borrowed rain boots, I followed two truffle-sniffing dogs into the muddy forest and watched with delight as they sniffed out, and sometimes snacked on, the tasty fungus. While you can’t keep what you find in the woods, there are enough truffles to last you a few years in the gift shop.
Home base for your gastronomic travels will be Rovinj, a quaint city on the water, either at the luxurious (and dog-friendly) Hotel Monte Mulini or the designer hotel next door, Hotel Lone. Both hotels overlook the Adriatic, but it feels more like a combination of beachside resort with woodsy lakeside views. Lay by one of the pools or the man-made beach, which opens this month. I ventured out for a few early-morning runs along the trails that line the hilly coast. Watching the sun rise over the Adriatic is mesmerizing to say the least. Monte Mulini is geared toward relaxation and pampering, while Lone is aimed at younger patrons, with a small nightclub open during the summer season.
Plan on eating a few of your meals at the hotels. Monte Mulini’s Wine Vault serves modernized Istrian fare. Get a seat at the Chef’s Table, where culinary greats like Anthony Bourdain and anyone else who dines in the private room have signed the walls, and watch the chef prepare your meal. Restaurant On in Hotel Lone offers adventurous menus using local produce, with a whimsical plating style that often tells a story throughout the meal.
After a few days in Rovinj, stay for a night or two at Villa Meneghetti, member of Relais & Châteaux, to relax by the pool or wander around the vineyard, but mostly to get a table at the on-premise restaurant. It has the comfort level of a grandparent’s home, with the culinary genius of a four-star restaurant. If you let it, dinner can go on for hours, an uninterrupted flow of refilling of wine glasses and endless courses of the freshest food, like tuna tartare or handmade ravioli—topped with shaved truffles, of course. I dined with the charming owner, a former businessman with an obvious bursting love for his vineyard, who is more than happy to explain the history of the land.
After a week traveling around Istria, your belly will be full of truffles and wine, and you’ll notice that you’ve settled in nicely to the slower lifestyle, making the return home a bit painful. But you will be sure to come back again.
The spas at Hotel Monte Mulini is below.
Details: For a double room with breakfast, the starting rate for Hotel Lone (www.lonehotel.com/croatia) is $153 per night; and Hotel Monte Mulini (www.montemulinihotel.com) rates start at $395 per night. At Villa Meneghetti (www.meneghetti.info), villas start at $240 per night, standard rooms at $220.