Ah, Istria. Hailed as a quainter and less dolled-up Tuscany, this magical peninsula on the eastern side of the Adriatic is a charming swirl of centuries-old hilltop towns, gleaming new wineries, exceptional olive groves, and of course truffles. Here's what you need to know.
October and November are the best time to go. You can taste the first olive oil of the harvest, white truffle season is starting up, and there are fewer tour buses.
Fly into Venice or Zagreb, rent a car and designate a driver. The good stuff is in the interior and, trust us, you don’t want to deal with public transport.
Roxanich Wine & Heritage Hotel
A historic getaway at ground zero of Istrian truffle country, the town of Motovun. Lovingly renovated and managed by Mladen Rožanić and his daughters, this 100-year old communal winery now sports chic rooms with surprisingly tasteful ceiling mirrors and a cellar full of natural wines. Get a valley-facing room to see the real star of the show, the morning fog forming above the truffle forest.
Kanal 30, 52424 Motovun, Croatia
+385 52 205 700
A dirt road about half-way between Rovinj and Pula brings you to the 25-room Stancija Meneghetti. Built 200 years ago as a working farm to feed a nearby army garrison, the estate has been brought up to date without losing its remote feel. It’s the type of place you might seclude yourself in to write a book, if it wasn’t for the temptation of the winery, restaurant and exceptional olive oil treatments at the spa. Bliss.
Stancija Menegeti 1, 52211 Bale, Croatia
+385 52 528 800
About as unpretentious as it gets, this tavern is the only restaurant in the hamlet of Vrh, population 124. It took us three trips to finally find it open, but once we did we were hooked on the local appetizers and ridiculous portions of truffle pastas. Get a bottle or two of Piquentum Refošk grown on the other side of the road to complete the experience.
Vrh 1, 52420 Vrh, Croatia
+385 52 667 123
On your way in or out of Istria, the consistently reliable hospitality of sommelier-owner Daniela Kramarić makes Plavi Podrum a must-stop. The cuisine is contemporary, but based on fresh ingredients she picks out every morning, especially the famous Kvarner scampi which Belle says are the best she's ever had. Also check out the impressive olive oil selection and linger a while to take in the view of the picturesque Volosko harbor.
Obala Frana Supila 6, 51410 Opatija, Croatia
+385 51 701 223
Dimitri Brečević is the real deal. The half-French half-Croatian winemaker started Piquentum with the idea to get the best out of local grapes with minimal intervention, and has not wavered since. His winery, a long bunker dug underneath the hamlet town of Buzet, is normally closed to the public, but try giving him a call and see if you can arrange a tasting. There are no infinity pools here, just great, honest wine.
Sv. Ivan 3/3, 52420 Buzet, Croatia
+385 91 5776 364 (Dimitri), +385 95 513 5542 (Selena)
A former restaurateur, Giorgio Clai moved back to his native Istria and put his energies to work in 8ha vineyard next to the village of Krasica. Here he pioneered natural, minimal-intervention winemaking and became known as "The Godfather" of macerated Malvazija. If you time your visit right, you will catch the release of his iconic Sv. Jakov, also make sure to try the aged grappa distilled from grape pomace.
Brajki 105, Krasica, 52460 Buje, Croatia
+ 385 52 776 175
Besides grape juice, the other thing to drink (yes, drink) in Istria is of course olive oil. And there's no better place to do it than with the Belić family. It takes a certain kind of madness to grow, harvest, press, and bottle over a dozen separate monovarietal oils. But Duilio and his wife Bosiljka do just that. This is where we discovered the range olive oil could have, and new world opened up. Just go and check it out for yourself.
Creska 34, 52221 Rabac, Hrvatska
+385 52 872 189
If truffle hunting is on your bucket list, a good place to cross it off is the village of Paladini where you can find the Karlić family. They've been hunting truffles for three generations, so know a thing or two about the fancy fungus. After the hunt, they will feed you well in their newly-renovated tasting room. If you run into Ivan, ask him about the time he wanted to parachute onto the MBS infinity pool shaving truffles on the way down.
Paladini 14, 52420 Buzet, Croatia
+385 52 667 304
Učka Nature Park
So now that you've put on a couple of kilos from all the eating and drinking, it's time work them off. The best place to do so in Istria is to hike up to the 1400m peak of Mt. Učka. While most tourists just zoom through the tunnel at the base of the mountain, you should drive up to Poklon Pass, park, and take a 4-hour break from civilization. Once at the peak, walk down the ridge past the viewing platform, and come down the back side of the mountain to spice things up a bit.
Vela Učka bb, 51415 Dobreć, Croatia
+385 51 299 643
Poreč and Rovinj town centers in July and August, beaches with a sign that says FKK (you can thank us later), and anywhere with a tour bus in front of it. Don't say we didn't warn you.