In the summer of 2022, Croatia’s first fully open high season since 2019, tourism returned in force in many and manifold forms. There was a full complement of music festivals. Airlines increased their schedules significantly, from budget to Boeing 767-300 planes zooming in direct from New York to Dubrovnik. And, in that tell-tale tick of approval, celebs came back.
All within the space of a single fortnight, David Beckham brought his family to a luxury retreat on the island of Lopud near Dubrovnik, tennis star Venus Williams was spotted dining on the waterfront of Zadar, and Hollywood stars Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson and Chris Rock were joined by Sacha Baron Cohen and rapper Sean Combs on a luxury yacht in the Adriatic.
Days after his victory at Wimbledon, tennis superstar Novak Djokovic was also happy to pose with fans and restaurant staff for selfies as he relaxed around the Old Town of Dubrovnik.
Apart from the distant presence of the odd snapper’s lens from shore, celebrities can come to Croatia knowing they will be spending time in a safe, enjoyable environment for themselves and their family. Without having to be surrounded by huge security detail, they can savor the same things that any visitor to Croatia does, the clear, clean sea, the gorgeous scenery, the top-quality local cuisine, the fine wine. And, if they feel like letting loose, they have a whole yacht to party on with their friends – or, better yet, bring the party to a VIP-friendly spot like Hvar.
Coming in by boat or private plane, there’s no airport hassle, no packs of journalists, no motorcades or outriders for any journey through town.
Then again, Croatia has a long history of welcoming celebrities. The first resort to attract famous names was the grand Habsburg one of Opatija in the Kvarner Bay. Back in the early 1900s, renowned guests were not movie stars or rappers but authors and composers, most notably Chekhov, Puccini and Mahler. Opatija’s stately hotels and picturesque seafront were discovered by the film world much later, as any visit to Angiolina Park should prove. A mural there depicts the leading figures to have graced the town, including Robert De Niro and Kirk Douglas.
Opened opposite Zagreb main station in 1925 to cater to high-paying passengers on the Orient Express, the Esplanade Hotel has also seen its fair share of celebrities over the years. During this golden age of rail, Josephine Baker and Charles Lindbergh both stayed here, although no-one is quite sure if Agatha Christie herself was a guest. What we do know is that after her wedding to her second husband, the Max Mallowan in 1930, the noted archaeologist then planned out their entire honeymoon as a surprise for his new bride, an inveterate traveller. On the itinerary, after Venice, of course, were Split and Dubrovnik, which the crime writer mentions in her autobiography.
Seclusion was the main reason Edward VIII, who had not long ascended to the throne, and his married lover Wallis Simpson chose to steer their chartered yacht towards Rab island in August 1936. Touring the Mediterranean in the Nahlin, they had hoped to avoid the attention of the press by docking at Rab. A plaque marks the occasion on the main square, near which the carefree couple enjoyed the spacious comforts of the Grand Imperial Hotel. The press had a field day, however, when the pair swam naked in nearby Kandarola Bay, unwittingly instigating a local trend for naturism. No pictures could be seen in the UK, which was operating a press blackout of the scandalous adventure – papers in the United States, however, were more than happy to run the story.
The creation of major international cultural events, such as the Dubrovnik Summer Festival and Pula Film Festival, brought stars of stage and screen over to Croatia with more frequency from the 1950s onwards. Orson Welles was a regular visitor, along with a steady string of Sixties’ A-listers. It was Oscar winner Cliff Robertson who suggested to Alfred Hitchcock that he set a film in Zadar, known for its incredible sunset. The famous director duly came in 1964, staying in room 204 of the former Hotel Zagreb to observe the natural phenomenon as it colored the sky blood orange. Sadly, he only stayed for one day, and never made his film, but his visit made the local papers and gave rise to a large commemorative billboard on the seafront.
The next great wave of celebs came just before the big tourism boom of the 2000s. Croatia became a cool name to drop in certain circles, the epicentre of this chic revival being Hvar. Yachts would anchor far enough away so as not to attract attention while the celebs in question, having booked a table in the VIP section of the Carpe Diem club, would simply zip in later on that evening by dinghy to live it up in relative anonymity, and nobody but the bartender would be any the wiser. Within a couple of summers, Prince Harry would be jumping fully clothed into the pool at the Veneranda club.
By then, film stars such as John Malkovich, whose grandparents came from Croatia, were venturing further afield, enjoying lobster on Vis and redirecting attention away from the busier hubs of Dalmatia to return to the classy spa retreat of Opatija. Surrounded by the ghosts of Puccini and Mahler, when questioned, Malkovich waxed lyrical about the grand dame of Croatian resort. “I have come to relax, for a holiday. This is my heaven on Earth”.
This article is sponsored by The Croatian National Tourism Board: ‘Croatia Full of Life’.