It’s a late-summer afternoon in the Croatian city of Split as I make my way across a café-jammed promenade that skirts a glinting harbor. Everywhere, tourists swarm to take photographs, often alongside tall, leather-booted Roman soldiers. (Split was once ruled by the emperor Diocletian; his fourth-century palace still looms over the city center.) I push through the throng, afraid that no matter where I turn it’ll be impossible to escape these crowds. But the moment I step onto the ferry to Vis, a hulking, worn-out monster with a grim lounge in its belly, my fears recede. I am one of three tourists; the rest are commuters.
We slip through the narrow passage between Brač and Šolta, then past the long knife of Hvar—three islands among the thousand-plus that make up the Dalmatians. The wind picks up and the waves rise. To the north, more islands are silhouetted against the sky in shifting shades of purple and gray.
A lifelong compulsion to discover empty and unscathed places has diverted my trip from the clogged villages of southern France to Vis, a small mountainous island 30 miles from Split that a friend described to me as “the last unspoiled place in the Adriatic.” By contrast, in the 20 years since the Croatian War of Independence, Split and its nearby islands have rebounded and—like so much of the Mediterranean coast—transformed into one big summer-long party. But because of its far-flung location and a twist of historical circumstance (during World War II, Yugoslav resistance leader and future dictator Josip Broz Tito made Vis his stronghold against German forces), the island has managed to keep out invaders of all kinds—soldiers and tourists alike.
As the ferry heaves open nearly three hours later in Vis Town, there’s none of the bustling enthusiasm I’ve come to associate with these arrivals—no hooting backpackers charging out into the night, no touts selling rooms or restaurants. There is, however, Tomislav Mikasinovic—general manager of the Hotel San Giorgio in Kut, a quiet enclave on the eastern edge of town—whose manner is both stern and friendly. He takes me to my simple room and out to its iron balcony, which overlooks cobblestone streets, sloping vineyards (it’s believed that the first vines in the Adriatic were planted in Vis by the ancient Greeks), and, beyond the ubiquitous red-tile rooftops, the gleaming blue sea. After the chaos of Split and the groaning ferry, the stillness and quiet of this place are palpable, as if held in a liquid thickness.
Before dinner, I walk out to Kut’s small harbor. From here I can see the entire bay, anchored on one end by a sixteenth-century Franciscan church and monastery, twinned in the still water. The bay is like two fingers closing to pinch, and along its perimeter lights sparkle from anchored yachts, shops, and restaurants. Three fishermen with weathered faces are drinking in a small bar behind me. A black cat prowls around my ankles. There’s a couple sharing a bottle of wine on the rear deck of their sailboat, a lit candle between them. Two girls fish without poles, line wound around their fists.
I walk the immaculate white marble bricked streets, burnished smooth after thousands of years. People have been wandering this island since the fourth century b.c.—Greeks, Venetians, Italians, Austrians, French, British, Yugoslavs, Croatians—but for the moment, I am entirely alone. Cars are prohibited in Kut during high season, a fact that contributes to that lovely stillness.
Up a few steps and through a courtyard, I come upon the intimate and leafy restaurant Pojoda. A family of Italians are eating beneath an olive tree strung with lights. Some loud Austrians are at another table, Swedes at a third. I’m grumpily accepted as a latecomer and seated near the Italians. My waiter presents me with a tray of fresh fish and recommends the bocca d’oro, a whitefish. I take his word for it, and after a salad of marinated cuttlefish, the bocca d’oro returns from the grill. My waiter, who is warmer now, expertly fillets it and leaves me to eat. It’s superb in its simplicity: salt, pepper, a bit of garlic, and fragrant local olive oil. As I walk home, the sound of bells from the monastery fills the dark. In ten rings I’m back in my room, and soon fast asleep.
The next morning, Tomislav tells me to take the “serpentine” road out of Kut, best navigated by scooter. Before I go, he buys me a coffee and tells me how, because of Tito—for better and worse—Vis has maintained its character. Throughout those years, a lack of opportunity and infrastructure drove natives away—to the mainland, to Italy, to the United States. “The young people leave, the old stay. It’s difficult to make a year’s salary in a single season,” he says. Then he looks out at the flawless harbor and shrugs as if to say, But this is what you get in return.
I ride the steep switchbacks that twist out of Kut and head to the eastern peninsula, which extends like a seven-toed paw into the sea—each toe offering promises of idyllic coves and silver beaches. I fly along the asphalt, which rises and curves and falls through empty vineyards and groves of almond and olive trees. The air is cool, scented with sage and lavender and above all rosemary, which is everywhere. Ten minutes pass and I’ve not encountered a single person.
The beauty of Vis is inextricable from its tranquillity, the occasional eerie sense, particularly in the interior, that everyone has vanished. I am exhilarated sailing along these roads, and when I see a man with a sturdy cane walking along the shoulder, I smile and wave. He narrows his eyes at me, more curious than hostile, and turns his head as I pass.
I cut down a dirt road, leave the scooter, and walk a path to the narrow Bay of Stončica. There’s a family spread out on the fine white sand. A few women float on their backs in the shallow water, one of whom calls in Russian to a restless Labrador tied to a red umbrella. After a swim, I walk over to Konoba Stončica, a restaurant set amid pine trees and fat palms, where a man works a wood-burning grill. I sit in the shade and, after I’ve ordered, watch a group of local men arrive and take a long table beneath a palm. They’re all wearing boots and identical blue T-shirts. As soon as they sit, enormous platters of grilled lamb are delivered to them, along with big bowls of bright-yellow potatoes and tall carafes of red wine. They’re here, my waiter tells me, to rescue a beached yacht that snapped its moorings in a storm a few days before. “Tourists,” he says, smiling at me, “often know nothing about what they’re doing.”
Soon, he brings me anchovies that have been marinated and grilled, their flavor somehow incorporating all the flavors of this island—rosemary, olives, thyme, lavender, sea, grapes, lemons. When the waiter sees me mopping the plate with a piece of bread, he smiles and nods. “Good,” he says. It is not a question. I ask how they’re made, but he won’t tell me. “It’s a secret and very complicated,” he says, and gives me a smile that I have now come to see as particular to this island—begrudging, seductive, secretive. Welcome and wary. It’s the age-old problem every small and extraordinary place struggles with: We want your money, your admiration, but not necessarily you.
He returns with a small platter of squid that’s been grilled in its own ink and caramelized. They are tender and rich, and again he refuses to tell me how they’re made. All of this makes me happy—the pride this man takes in his food, his secrets, the setting.
One afternoon, I ride a spectacular road through vineyards punctuated by an occasional sign for a nude beach to the island’s southwest. I bump along a dirt road until the scooter can go no farther, and walk 20 minutes through a pine grove to find myself entirely alone on a massive slab of limestone. The water against the white rock is a shocking iridescent green, and there, a few miles off, is the tiny island of Biševo, where the next day I’ll take a boat to visit the Blue Grotto, a sea cave famous throughout the Adriatic for its radiant blue light.
Later, I stop in at Komiža, a picturesque fishing town of sloping red roofs and whitewashed walls nestled at the base of Hum, the island’s tallest mountain and home to caves where Tito is said to have hidden from the Germans. I sit in a café and watch a group of drunken young Brits in bikinis come barreling off a tour boat, screaming for pizza. Fortunately for them, there is no shortage of it here, but I take their arrival as my cue to leave. I climb Komiža’s steep serpentine, but at the summit, I look back and I feel regret. All that blue pressed up against the red-and-white town. I know that by leaving, there’s much I won’t see—the evening passeggiata, the softening light, the fishermen returning home. But there is solace in racing back on the fast road bisecting the island—a new sharpness to the air, the vineyards going orange, and then the revelation of Kut and its perfect bay.
Ten minutes pass and I’ve not encountered a single person.
The same evening, I walk into Vis Town. The air has turned cold. From here I can look back at the harbor and the storm clouds coming in over hills. It strikes me that there are no buildings above the town—not a single obscene villa, no glittering resort. That there are so few hotels on the island is due, in part, to its popularity with yachters. They come, eat at the restaurants, drink at the bars, and sail away. There seems to be an ethic of preservation at work here: Keep the majority of the tourists tied to the harbors and bays, take their money, and wait for them to leave. But it makes me wonder how long Vis will remain so pristine, how long it can resist the fate of its neighboring islands.
I go for an early dinner at Kantun, a cozy restaurant on the far end of town, where a fire is burning inside. Everything is cooked on that fire, including the lamb, which I’ve been craving since I watched the men eat theirs at Stončica. Before it comes, I eat thick slices of bread brushed with olive oil and grilled on the fire. They taste of wood smoke, just as the restaurant smells. The rain is drumming against the windows; it’s clear that tomorrow I won’t get to Biševo’s famous grotto. I’m disappointed, but I’m also glad to see this island in the rain, to have a sense of what it might be like to stay into the winter. The restaurant’s owner, Ivan Bakulič, stops by my table to chat and I have a flash of a life here, stopping in at Kantun in the evenings, reading by the fire. Ivan recommends a bottle of Plavac Mali made by his friend Antonio Lipanovič, whose wines are cellared in one of Tito’s bunkers. Plavac Mali—“Little Blue,” named for the small blue grapes—is a descendant of Dobričič, a red Croatian grape, and zinfandel, so pervasive in California. The Lipanovič iteration is full, hearty, and a nice accompaniment to the pile of lamb that arrives on a hot metal platter along with sautéed local chard and more of that fire-grilled bread.
After dinner I step out into the pouring rain and begin to run. The water has made the marble streets so slippery I can barely stay upright. I stop, take off my shoes, and go the rest of the way barefoot. I seem to be the only one out, the only idiot in the streets. And then I pass a woman dressed in black, holding the hand of a little girl. They’re walking slowly beneath a massive pink umbrella, and I’m laughing—because I see myself through their eyes, because I’m drenched and barefoot, because of this sudden shock of color in the gray night, because I’m half-drunk, because I’ve fallen in love with this place. The girl watches me with mouth agape, while the woman smiles that begrudging smile.
I race on out of Vis Town toward Kut, past a small beach where a poorly moored yacht has washed ashore, and back to the Hotel San Giorgio, where I stand in the foyer dripping wet. Tomislav and his wife, Anna, are laughing at me from behind the front desk. “We’ve lost power,” she says, handing me a candle, a towel, and a book of matches. “It will take some time. We have called a guy, but here on Vis, I’m afraid, there is only one guy.”
Vitals on Vis
When To Go
Like the rest of the Mediterranean, Vis is busiest (relatively speaking) in July and August, making May, June, and September ideal times to visit.
Lots of carriers fly into Split’s international airport. From there you can get a shuttle to the ferry port; Jadrolinija runs car ferries twice a day in high season—budget three hours ($8). Or book a private yacht transfer through travel specialist Wanda Radetti at Visit Croatia (from about $650 one way). Once on Vis, you can hire a car or taxi, but scooters are your best bet.