It has been quite a year for Hvar heritage and the realigning of tourism on Croatia’s premier island, with the official opening of Palace Elisabeth, hvar heritage hotel on September 21, 2019 the latest jewel in its crown.
It is a very strange feeling being a tourist in the place where you live.
Of course, coming from Manchester, that feeling would be all the more strange, but after living on Hvar for 11 years, I had the opportunity to be a luxury tourist on the island back in 2014 as I joined a group of international foodie journalists from Gastronaut on a 3-day tour of the finest food and wine experiences on offer on Hvar, staying at swanky Hotel Riva on the fabled Hvar waterfront. It was quite a trip and opened my eyes to how the island was experienced by discerning guests expecting top quality.
And although I swapped the sun and charms of Hvar for gorgeous Varazdin a couple of years ago, I left my heart on that idyllic Dalmatian island and am a regular visitor. I have watched Hvar’s tourism story progress over the years, celebrating its many successes and highlighting its mistakes (at least in my opinion) and moves in the wrong direction.
A particular battleground for the future of tourism on Hvar has been the rise of party tourism on the island at the expense of a more elite tourism based on culture and heritage. Several factors have combined in the last year or so to help refocus Hvar’s tourism once more on quality and a higher-end offer.
And the first results are already in evidence.
Among the most important changes has been a stated change in direction of tourism strategy by official bodies, as well as an agreement between the nightclubs and the town on how best to co-exist to ensure the best tourism experience for all guests, as was explained earlier this year by new Hvar Tourist Board director, Petar Razovic in a TCN interview. While there is still work to be done, the results have been noticeable already in the first year.
A second key factor in Hvar’s change of direction has been the resurgence of flagship hotel group, Suncani Hvar Hotels, the biggest and most influential company on the island, whose domination of the hotel scene on Hvar makes them a key player in the town’s tourism fortunes. After the initial investment by ORCO group back in 2006 after its takeover of Suncani Hvar Hotels, the town enjoyed a return to the pre-war glory days of tourism, and Hvar was once more a chic destination frequented by the rich and famous.
(The renovated Hvar public theatre – a video tour)
Financial difficulties by the hotel group and the rise of party tourism in recent years has brought Hvar’s luxury and elite image into question, but the acquisition of, and considerable investment in Suncani’s hotels by CPI Property Group, has coincided with the new official tourism focus on quality tourism. As the town was finalising high-profile and important heritage renovations such as the Arsenal and the Hvar Public Theatre, the oldest public theatre in Europe (opened in 1612, then reopened after a 20-year renovation in May this year), so too was Suncani Hvar investing heavily in its own heritage project.
(The renovated Arsenal, one floor below the theatre)
Right across from the Arsenal and Europe’s oldest public theatre, a short walk across the largest square in all Dalmatia, lies the latest piece of outstanding heritage, fully renovated at a cost of 100 million kuna (14 million euro) on the very location where organised tourism in Europe began back in 1868 – Palace Elisabeth, hvar heritage hotel, the first 5-star hotel on this exclusive island. Last night was the official opening, and I was fortunate to be invited to be a tourist on my adopted island once more, complete with complimentary overnight stay in one of the lovingly renovated 45 rooms and suites. Palace Elisabeth had been transformed from a 3-star hotel with 78 rooms to 5 stars with 45. In an era of tourism where more is increasingly bringing less, it was refreshing to see a company investing in quality and an approach to exceed guests’ expectations.
And exceed expectations Palace Elisabeth certainly will in its first full year of operation in 2020.
Having heard about progress throughout the summer, expectations were high. Palace Elisabeth was already a member of the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World Group, only the 5th hotel in Croatia to be included in the elite list. Its outstanding architectural design and adherence to heritage had been recognised by Architectural Digest, as Palace Elisabeth was included in its feature on why the Mediterranean is the destination of the year for design lovers. Apart from Mali Losinj, this was the first 5-star hotel on a Croatian island.
And it exceeded expectation. You can take a tour above in this video which I filmed about midday the following morning, which takes you through most of the public spaces on the first three floors.
As a local being a tourist in his own home, it was a strange feeling entering the hotel. It was as though I was leaving Croatia and going back in time to an age gone by, a golden age of Hvar culture. Empress Elisabeth was everywhere. The aristocratic benefactress of the original hotel which opened after her death on the same spot back in 1899 had been honoured more than 100 years later with her name given to the new luxury hotel.
The hotel is GORGEOUS. So much attention to detail, so many tiny touches of the past, it is truly an island experience on another level, and one which is set to meet the need of the luxury Hvar tourist in search of that little extra. The hand-painted murals, the individual hand-painted room names, the tiny reminders at every turn of an era gone by, it was delightful.
Time will tell, of course, whether or not the staff of Suncani Hvar can make the transition to 5-star level, but the initial signs are encouraging. In addition to using current staff, there has been widespread recruitment of hospitality specialists from abroad with the 5-star experience necessary to deliver the quality of service that such a hotel demands. We will soon have an interview with Palace Elisabeth manager, Deni Ohlsen-Dukic, with more on the running of the hotel.
It was an honour to stay at the hotel, as well as a surprise given there were only 45 rooms in all, and while most were enjoying sea views, there was certainly nothing wrong with our fabulous view of the Spanish Fortress above the town, see above. In terms of media interest, it extended far beyond our little blog – writers for the New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler and The Daily Telegraph were either in attendance or were recent guests.
The opening party was quite an event, with a serious buffet and the wines of Zlatan Otok more than doing justice to the occasion (top tip – find out where to get the lamb chops with truffle sauce, absolutely outstanding. There were 150 guests in all, including Minister of Tourism Gari Cappelli, State Secretary for Tourism Tonci Glavina and Central Dalmatia Tourist Board Director, Josko Stella.
A lovely evening on the Palace Elisabeth hotel terrace overlooking the harbour and the oldest public theatre in Europe. A truly gorgeous hotel, I concluded over the breakfast view above, and a VERY bright future for the direction of Hvar luxury tourism.
To learn more about Palace Elisabeth, visit the Suncani Hvar dedicated page.
To learn more about the island of Hvar, check out the Total Croatia Hvar in a Page guide.