Hotel Review, reading, Uncategorized, weekend break

Book & hotel pairings: Top 5 reads and where to stay for a UK weekend away

With the world in lockdown, I thought I would write something a little different. I am hoping this post will inspire you to take seek out some UK weekend adventures when all this passes, and we are free to venture past our own front door. I also hope to steer you in the direction of some fabulous books, because in the words of Mason Cooley “Reading gives us someplace to go, when we have to stay where we are.”

We’ve all heard of wine pairings to accompany your food, so why not the perfect book to bury your nose in during your travels.

One of the most thrilling parts of travel in my mind is the opportunity to get lost in a good book. Life is so busy and despite my worthiest efforts to read every night, sometimes, I just need my bed. However, with all this working from home malarkey, I have to say I am finding more time to read which is a lovely thing. But, in the confines of normality I approach every travel experience as an opportunity to raid the Kindle store, delve into my paperback stocks and consult my personal librarian; otherwise known as my mum.

I am a firm believer that some books better suit certain types of travel or experience. If you are staring down the barrel of a long-haul flight then I’m game for settling down with a good series. Alternatively, a cosy weekend holed up in a country pub definitely calls for an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery.

With that in mind, I thought I would share a few of my favourite titles with you. Books which I feel are perfect for a weekend tucked away at an English country pub; I’ll also throw in a few choice recommendations for fabulously snug country pubs.

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson & The Devonshire Arms

After being a devout kindle reader for many years it was this book that brought me back to the joy of reading a real-life paperback. Something about the feel of a real book in your hand is, I think, rather lovely.

IMG_1142A Death at Fountains Abbey is the third instalment from Antonia Hodgson. However, not having read the previous two it didn’t matter or have any disastrous effect on the plot or my understanding. My only caveat to that would be I might have liked a deeper understanding of the protagonist’s backstory. However, understanding and storyline hinge on this knowledge.

The story is set in 1728; John Aislabie is the victim of a malicious campaign to terrorise him and his family. Amidst the murderous threats, Thomas Hawkins and his ward Sam Fleet join the fray. Thomas is led into a lethal game of revenge in a fast-paced page-turner which definitely had me hooked and holding my breath from chapter sixteen.

But where to stay if this delightful thriller is in your bag? I would recommend The Devonshire Arms in Wharfdale. With luxury rooms, spa facilities, exquisitely cooked food and locally sourced produce, this country hotel on the Bolton Abbey Estate has a lot to offer.

The location of the hotel means that it is perfectly placed to offer a range of country pursuits. Activities include a 10-day luxury walking break following The Dales Way to tracing the path of the Tour De Yorkshire. Alternatively, if you want to take things a little easier you can relax on the Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway.

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The Devonshire Arms is only a thirty-minute drive from Fountains Abbey where the story is set. I took a wander around the abbey and the gorgeous water gardens at Studley Royal this Christmas. My little jaunt gave me a whole new perspective on the story. It was particularly thrilling to envisage the characters holding whispered conversations in the dark shadowed corners of the ruins. I found myself seeking out narrow paths in the woods trying to find a secluded glade where private conversations might be overheard. In fact, I was absolutely lost in my surroundings and imagination.

The Muse by Jessie Burton & The Methuen Arms

Jessie Burton produces beautiful books. We all know the saying don’t judge a book by its cover. But when it comes Jessie Burton novels the façade is as beautifully intricate and well crafted as the writing. A visual delight for your bookshelves.

The Muse is the second offering from Jessie Burton. The story centres on the hidden tale the museand history of a painting by the Spanish artist Isaac Robles. Isaacs’ work and mysterious death have left the art world mystified for decades. The narrative is split between 1967 where a young typist, Odelle Bastien, who has struggled to find her place and purpose since moving to London from Trinidad has been recruited by the mysterious and enigmatic Marjorie Quick.

The parallel narrative is set in 1936 in a substantial manor house in rural Spain where the truth of the painting is concealed. Olive Schloss, the daughter of famed art dealer harbours secrets, ambition and consummate artist talent. Olive befriends the family housekeeper, Teresa and her revolutionary brother Isaac. As tensions build and the country on the brink of civil war the relationship and secrets between Olive, Teresa and Isaac come to a heart-wrenching climax.

This story entranced me and truly felt as though I was a fly on the wall of this grand Spanish house. My hotel choice for this novel isn’t quite a palatial Spanish manor but a beautiful Georgian coaching inn, The Methuen Arms, Corsham. Don’t be fooled by the cosy country exterior as inside you are in for a luxurious treat. The hotel has 16 luxurious and recently renovated rooms. There is even accommodation for mans best furry friend. One of the main attractions in my view of the Methuen Arms is the food. Home grown and locally sourced produce which is creatively cooked and well presented, it’s hard to go wrong. My top recommendation is the breakfast omelette, with all the added extras. Brunch perfection.

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Image from Trip Advisor

The hotel is situated in Corsham in the heart of the Wiltshire countryside but only a stone’s throw from the Roman city of Bath. With undulating hills and sun-bathed sandstone, it’s not a million miles from rural Spain.

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver & The Blakeney Hotel

Yes, it’s another manor house thriller, except Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver is much more subtle than a classic thriller. The story is as much about the protagonist, Maud as it is about the wild and eerie fens where the house ‘Wake’s End’ is located.

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After Maud’s mother dies in childbirth, she is left to the care of her father, Edmund, a strict and tyrannical disciplinarian.

The story tracks the isolation of Maud and the unravelling of her father. Maud gains an wakenhyrstinsight into his rapidly deteriorating mind through stolen moments with his diary. Edmund is stalked by scratching noises. Unseen eyes in the darkness and a religious and significant depiction of hell that draws the iridescent stench of the fen into every orifice of his being. Michelle Paver beautifully blurs the boundaries between reality and the ghostly. This story leaves you hung somewhere adrift with little pieces of the narrative returning to you every so often. I found myself turning those little pieces over and over. The sign of a good story in my view is one that doesn’t leave you after you finish the final page

I took my hotel inspiration here from The Blakeney Hotel. The hotel sits on the edge of the salt marshes and estuary of the North Norfolk coast. The hotel is comfortably and stylishly decorated, very Farrow and Ball chic. Situated right on the coastal path, the views are wild and expansive. On a squally day, you can well imagine you are looking out of the study windows at Wake’s End. The hotel has 60 rooms catering to couples, families and solo travellers. Many of the rooms have picturesque views over the estuary and salt marshes. One very welcome addition to the hotel’s facilities is a spa and swimming pool. I can thoroughly recommend positioning yourself on the sun terrace post-swim, book in hand and a cold beverage nearby. The afternoon tea is also a real treat.

 

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Image from the Honeymoon Project

 

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver & The Rose & Crown, Romaldkirk

I first read this little ghostly delight on a late train from Edinburgh to London. The carriage was empty, rain lashed the windows, individual torrents tracing their own path as we sped through the black. Honestly, it was  ghost story perfection. It’s a story I’ve come back to many times. Each reading grips me within the first, few pages, my consciousness held captive till the last page.

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My very well loved copy…

The Arctic, an expansive tundra full of secrets and possibility. When twenty-eight-year-old Jack gets the chance to embark on an Arctic expedition, he has nothing to lose. A motley crew of five men and eight huskies head north from Norway. As they cross the vast expanse of sea, they reach the bay where they will devote the next twelve months. The land of the midnight sun is enchanting and dangerous. Light fades and darkness reclaims the land. Restlessness, unease and a sense of foreboding grow whilst the escape route of the sea freezes over, something is out in the dark and the crew are not alone. Even revisiting the first pages of this gorgeous thriller gives me goosebumps. Michelle Paver successfully manages to hook you instantaneously all the while reeling you in page by page as the tension builds.

Failing a long winter train journey or a trip to Norway, I would recommend the Rose and Crown at Romaldkirk to hunker down in and bury yourself in Dark Matter. I have chosen the Rose and Crown as a bedfellow for Dark Matter as I remember so clearly driving up to the hotel in the dark and the rain through twisty, turning, lanes. Trees creeping over stone walls and vast expanses of nothing. It’s quite the dramatic drive in the dark. Something about the feel of the place links quite nicely to the book.

Set on the edge of the North Pennines the Rose and Crown is a coaching inn not far from Barnard Castle. The Inn is a family-owned and runs a business with a real focus on being eco- friendly, sustainable and sourcing locally for supplies. The Rose and Crown’s remote location makes it an excellent spot for hiking, biking, sailing, fishing. Classic car hire is even an option for pootling down those country lanes and taking in the view.

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Image from Country Hotel Breaks

Choosing to stay at the Rose and Crown presents you with a range of room options. You can opt for rooms in the Main Inn, The Courtyard or the Monk’s Cottage. All the rooms are well styled with a contemporary take on rustic country charm. With Molton Brown toiletries and good linen, you are guaranteed a relaxing stay and a good nights’ sleep. I also reckon the incredible food, and modern takes on the classics will have you staggering into a food coma.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield & The Old Bell, Malmesbury

My mum is a literary hero and my go-to girl when it comes to reading material. Every Christmas she carefully picks out something she thinks I’ll love. Christmas 2007 was no exception when I tore the wrapping from The Thirteenth Tale.

The story is a rich tapestry of mystery set again a backdrop of Vida Winter’s literary 13thimaginings. Now at the end of her life, Vida wants to expose the truth of her extraordinary life. After hiring a biographer with her own shadowed past the story takes on a gothic peculiarity where the reader is introduced to the Angelfield family, their governess and the devastating fire that altered everything.

The threads of the story flow seamlessly, characters lives intersect and the dialogue cuts from the past to the present. It is a masterclass in evocative storytelling. Now with the setting of a once spectacular house, I would recommend the Old Bell, Malmesbury for a spring week away.

The Old Bell is England’s oldest hotel. Set in the quaint Wiltshire market town of Malmesbury you cannot miss its historic wisteria clad façade on the main thoroughfare. The hotel is a luxurious escape with modern, stylish rooms, well-appointed bar area and exceptional Sunday roasts. The roaring log fire in the sitting room is the ideal place to cosy up with The Thirteenth Tale. Also if you fancy a weekend break with your four-legged friend then the Old Bell is dog friendly.

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The Old Bell – England’s Oldest Hotel

With a 12th Century Abbey next door to the hotel and the world-famous Abbey House Gardens, this place is laced with history and mystery. A faultless match for ‘The Thirteenth Tale.’ Looking around the hotel there are snippets of times long since passed. The hooded stone fireplace in the brasserie dates to 1220 definitely makes me think of the centuries of stories that have been told around its hearth.

Stay safe, keep well.

Happy reading & happy travels

Jess

Dubrovnik, mini break, Mostar, top tips, Uncategorized

Dubrovnik: How to devote 4 days to adventure on the Croatian coast

Getting to Dubrovnik

Flights to Dubrovnik operate daily from London Gatwick with British Airways. Flight time to Dubrovnik is around two hours and thirty minutes, making it a perfectly suitable option for a short break. We took an early morning flight and had landed and checked into the hotel by 9.30 am.

Thanks to our hotel, the Scalini Palace, transfers to the city were provided for a small fee. Being greeted at the airport by our own driver made the beginning of our trip wonderfully easy. Transfer from the airport to Dubrovnik Old Town took around thirty minutes.

Where to stay

Before arranging our trip to Dubrovnik, I’d heard how difficult it was to find good accommodation in the old town. Friends had advised me to find somewhere cheap outside of the city walls. Absolutely, accommodation in the old town is limited but, it can be discovered! I stumbled on the absolute gem that is the Scalini Palace. Located on just down a narrow snicket from the Buža Gate you find the Scalini palace. It’s nestled amongst shops, bars and restaurants so, you’ll need your eyes peeled, it’s easy to stroll past. Trying to find the entrance to the correct street after dinner on our first night was like trying to find the entrance to Diagon Alley. IMG_0016

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Despite our early arrival, the hotel was extremely happy to hold onto our bags allowing us to pootle off and check in later. The hotel is quirky in that it provides lovely self-contained rooms with the option to self-cater. There is no restaurant but the Scalini Palace does provide breakfast each morning, delivered to your room.

Our room was well appointed with a double bed, sitting room area, kitchen facilities and a bright clean bathroom. One of the loveliest parts was our little balcony, equipped with table and chairs. There is something quite soothing about sitting contentedly with the morning sun on your face with a peppermint brew.

Where to eat

The Croatian culinary landscape is a real mish-mash of tastes, flavours and traditions from its neighbouring countries. Traditional Croatian cuisine has also been shaped by the varied nations and empires that have ruled the Dalmatian coastline.

With such a broad and varied selection of food on offer, we were definitely spoilt for choice.

We arrived in the city mid-morning, so we quickly located a lovely bar area looking out to the sea where we indulged in a beer and a coffee. The bar was just a short walk downhill from the Revelin Fortress and the Ploče gate.

Gradska Kavana Arsenal

We ended up returning to this prominent restaurant in the old town. The imposing façade of the historic arsenal makes it hard to miss coupled with a long dark stone passage I was utterly beguiled and hungry in comparable measure.

The passage spits you out at the dining area but if you walk through you encounter the IMG_0018loveliest outdoor courtyard area overlooking the old city port. This idyllic vista made for the perfect lunch spot. The food was reasonably priced and the service efficient. Whilst this isn’t the spot for you if you’re after an authentic Croatian restaurant, the one where the locals eat, as it is particularly popular with tourists. That being said when you’ve left freezing cold blighty that morning it’s hard to turn down a seafront table with old city port and fortress views.

At the front of the restaurant is a terrace on the main square. The terrace proved to be the ideal spot on our final evening for a few glasses of Croatian wine.

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Proto

IMG_0076The most beautiful mash potato I have ever seen. Potato wizardry aside, Proto was a slightly more luxurious choice for dinner. However, it was our first night and the food and service were excellent. We were positioned at a beautiful table on the upper terrace overlooking the streets below. I imagine this place is heaving during the summer months. I would absolutely recommend prior booking if you are visiting during this time.

It goes without saying, but the menu was heavily devoted to fish and the bounty of the sea. We both ordered different fish dishes and both were perfectly cooked and beautifully presented.

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If you are looking for a dinner reservation that’s a little bit special then I would absolutely recommend Proto, the mango mojito is rather good too.

Bota Sushi and Oyster Bar

After a long day’s excursion to Mostar, we arrived back in the Old town around 8 pm. We wanted to something quick, easy and tasty. After significantly indulging in the delight that is Ćevapi in Mostar we didn’t require anything too substantial. So, when the Bota Sushi bar fell into tracks just around the corner from the cathedral it was an inspired choice. The sushi was spectacular, locally caught gorgeously presented and I could easily have ordered our entire meal twice. Whilst we bagged a table, no problem, again I feel that booking would be recommended if you are visiting during the summer months. Top tip – the salmon skin roll and the tiger roll were sushi perfection.

Taj Mahal

Meat. Meat. Meat. The Taj Mahal isn’t one for you if you’re a veggie. This quaint little backstreet eatery offers up a selection of beautifully cooked Bosnian dishes. With five or six tables inside and another eights or side on the cobbled street, our meal felt casual and intimate.

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We were left invigorated after our trip to Mostar that we thought we’d give it a try. And I’m sure glad we did. I went for a kebab and flatbread number whilst my husband opted for a no-nonsense lamb kebab and baked potato. Both were delicious and the service was so friendly and efficient.

What to do

The City Walls

Dubrovnik old town is surrounded by 1940 metres of the historic city wall and punctuated by six spectacular fortresses (Revelin, St John, St Lucas, Bokar, Minčeta, Lovrijenac). The views from the city walls are just fabulous, and I thoroughly recommend this being at the top of your list for your first day.

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Entry to the walls cost 200kn; your ticket should last all day, so you’re free to go up and come down as much as you like. I would, however, recommend doing the full circuit at once. I found that taking our time to walk the whole walls gave us a much more coherent sense of the city and helped with orientation.

Just a few things to note, if you are visiting between April and October it’s going to be hot, particularly throughout July and August. Take plenty of water with you. There isn’t any place to stop for refreshments whilst you are on the walls so, be prepared and stay hydrated.

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Finally, footwear, I’m an avid fan of flip flops being the ultimate footwear choice for most activities however the walls are old and uneven. If I was being clever, I might have donned my trainers rather than flip flops.

Day trip to Mostar

After seeing that a day trip to the historic city of Mostar was an option, I set about IMG_0120booking an excursion for our second day. Mostar is located around fifty miles from Dubrovnik and is a two-and-a-half-hour direct drive. Bosnia and Herzegovina is not currently in the European Union, as such your passport is essential on this trip.

I discovered the perfect trip operated by Laus travel which included a visit to the Kravice waterfalls then, on to Mostar. To read about our day trip in more detail check out my post below.

https://takemefarandaway.com/2019/11/02/dubrovnik-to-mostar-a-1-day-itinerary-from-the-croatian-coast/

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The Blue Cave

Although we didn’t visit during the summer months the weather was still gorgeous. So, I thought nothing of booking up a days’ boat trip to the Blue Cave and Sunj Beach. The sea was a little bracing but still warm enough for a dip.

We met our little group of four others and Captain Joseph at the harbour and set sail. Our first stop was the gloriously secluded beach in Sunj Bay on the island of Lopud. Now, I am under no illusion that this slice of white sandy heaven was only deserted due to the time of year we visited. Rocking up mid-morning at the end of October guarantees you free run of the beach and bar area. I am certain this is a vastly different story in the height of summer. The beach is connected to the other side of the island via golf buggy. The buggies run regularly from the beach bar and the trip takes about 10mintues. It is a pleasant twenty-minute walk too if you don’t mind the hilly parts and slightly rough and ready terrain.

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The other side of the island is utterly charming. One long street butts up against the sea, fishing boats gently bobbing in the blue. The scene which greets you is like something out of The Durrells, there is even a 15th-century monastery at the far-right end of the main street. This first stop on our trip was so relaxing I could easily have spent all day pottering around Lopud and paddling in the tepid waters of Sunj Bay.

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Once back on the boat we headed for the main attraction…caves. As the boat skirted round the coastline, I was speechless, the towering cliffs had been carved out by the water into so many intricate and captivating formations. The uppermost parts of cliffs were covered with trees and shrubs, and the whole scene was just filled with bird song. At the first set of caves, Captain Joseph gave us a quick snorkelling what’s what then we flippered up and headed for the water. At the end of October, there is only one way to enter those crystalline waters, jump.

Once accustomed to the water we headed for the biggest of the three caves. The further in you swam the colder and darker it got. Although it was the biggest there was only Snapseed - Copy (16)room at the very back for one or two of us. If you’re feeling particularly, brave the cave at the end of the trio is for you. There is the option to swim to the back, under the rock, into an antechamber brings you out the other side of the cliff. I am unashamed to say this was one step too far for my level of bravery. The thought of having to swim, even briefly under the rock fills me with absolute dread. Also, I’ve seen the film The Decent one too many times…Who knows what’s lurking down in the belly of a cave system. However, despite my disappointing lack of courage, I thoroughly enjoyed the snorkelling at the mouth of the three caves. There were so many gorgeous, alluring fish and technicolour starfish who were totally unperturbed by my less than graceful splashing about.

Last stop was the absolute highlight of the trip, and Captain Joseph did a fabulous job of hyping it up, the blue cave. As we puttered along the coastline, we were all silently scouring the cliffs to see if we could pick out which opening would be the elusive gateway. When Captain Joseph declared that we were there it is safe to say we were all a little perplexed. The bay we had come into showed absolutely no sign of any caves and the cliff faces were unmarked and remarkably crevasse free. Or so we thought, to our untrained eyes we hadn’t spotted the tiny slither of darkness at the bottom of one of the cliffs. The Blue Cave looks like every other cave we’d swum into not fifteen minutes earlier. But its true glory came upon reaching the back wall and turning around. The entire cathedral-like space was bathed in a luminescent azure glow. This phenomenon is caused by the reflection of sunlight through the opening of the cave off the white sandy floor.

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That little gap at the bottom…yep, that’s the entrance to the Blue Cave!

The whole day was absolutely fabulous, and Captain Joseph made the trip. He was knowledgeable, well organised and had a cracking sense of humour. If you are looking to book this trip, we booked the trip through Trip Advisor, the Blue Cave by Dubrovnik Island Tours. Tours cost £51 per person, and it is worth every penny.

Srd Hill Cable Car

This is a must-do. Make a plan to head up the mountain just before sunset because the view of the sun setting over the ocean and the old town is like nothing else. Once hidden the sun burns through the cloud leaving dappled streaks of pink and orange. The multi-coloured ombre perfectly reflected in the water was the most beautiful end to our trip.

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The cable car costs 170kn for an adult round trip or 90kn for one way. There is a path which you can walk down the mountain if you would prefer stretching your legs. We went for the round trip due to timing our visit at sunset there wouldn’t have been enough daylight to take the path down. I didn’t fancy getting stuck on a dark path halfway up a mountain.

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The cable car operates eleven months of the year but is closed throughout the month of February. The last departure from the lower station is thirty minutes before closing. Closing time varies throughout the year from 4 pm during December and January to midnight in the summer months.

If you fancy taking in more than the view, I can recommend snagging a window table or table on the terrace at the Panorama Restaurant and Bar.

 

 

Franciscan Pharmacy

Just before the mighty Pile Gate is a Franciscan Monastery complete with arguable the oldest pharmacy in Europe. Initially built to serve the needs of the Friars it rapidly grew to service the needs of the town and wider population.IMG_0240

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If you have a spare half an hour then I would recommend a visit. The pretty cloistered monastery garden is wonderfully peaceful. At 9.15 am there was an all-consuming quiet which seemed to wrap around and cocoon you. The old pharmacy museum is also open every day from 9 am to 6 pm.

Red History Museum

IMG_0248On our last morning, we breakfasted early and set off for the Red History Museum. The museum presents Croatia’s modern history and what life was like for ordinary people under the Communist regime of Yugoslavia. The more we travel through countries who were occupied by the Soviet Union or experienced socialist movements and communism, the more I am fascinated by these points in history.

The Red History Museum was around a thirty-five to forty-minute walk from the old town. Entry to the museum costs 50hkr and the museum is open from 9.30 am to 10 pm from April to October. If you are travelling during the winter months opening hours do vary.

The exhibition was exceptionally well presented and really hands-on. I am a total child when it comes to museums, I love nothing more than to be able to practically engage in some way with the information being presented. The Red History Museum did not disappoint, learning about the Communist regime in Yugoslavia, its subsequent disintegration and how it affected the lives of normal people was fascinating.

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Final thoughts

Our four days in Dubrovnik was the perfect mix of adventure and time to chill. I am so pleased that we opted for the two days trips away from the city. However, I do feel as though more time is needed to really get under the surface of this magnificent city. I reckon a return visit would see Dubrovnik as a stop on a more multi-centred trip of Croatia and its fabulous islands. One of the best things about our trip was definitely our choice to visit at the end of October. The crowds were diminished, and we got into some of the best restaurants without any prior booking. The weather was still glorious, and the sea was warm enough for an invigorating swim. If you can visit outside of July and August then I would urge you to get booking.

Happy travels

Jess