Shellfish, suckling pig and that day’s catch, the seven-course menu at recently Michelin-starred Monte takes in the bounty of Istria on land and sea. Closer to home, Dutch-Croatian restaurateurs Tjitske and Danijel Đekić raid nearby Rovinj market on a daily basis for the finest, freshest produce to supply the most versatile kitchen in town. There’s a five-course menu, too, and carefully conceived main-course options. There’s a choice from more than 100 wines to accompany. Set on a steep cobbled slope in Rovinj’s historic centre, considering the quality of fare on offer, Monte could be starched and stuffy but it’s anything but – all feels funky and informal, just the right combination for a relaxed, top-class dining experience.
For serious, pine-forested beaches, head south of Rovinj, past the marina, to the wooded peninsula of Zlatni Rt, or Golden Cape. The stroll along the waterfront is a little more than a kilometre from town. There’s also a cluster of resorts around here, but they’re uphill, so the beaches are mostly undisturbed nature. Here shade-providing pine forests grow right up to the shore, ending in rocky beaches. You’ll need sandals to wade on the jagged shore, but the lack of sand means the sea is incredibly clear, great for snorkelling or diving. Walking further round, past Kurent Bay, with its public changing cabins, smaller coves have shallow, calm waters ideally suited to paddling toddlers.
Known as the Adriatic Titanic, the Baron Guatsch was a Habsburg passenger ship that hit a mine laid by the Austro-Hungarian navy off the coast of Istria at the start of World War I. Nearly 150 passengers and crew lost their lives and the ship sank to a depth of 35 metres. The wreck, discovered in 1958, now provides divers with one of Europe’s most fascinating sites, and a popular for trips from Rovinj. Based at the Hotel Istra on Crveni otok, the Puffer dive centre offers escorted dives to the old ship, as well as courses for children and beginners.
The closest island to Rovinj harbour, Sveta Katarina was the playground of various counts and dukes in the Habsburg days, the forerunners of today’s pleasure seekers. The photos you may have seen of foolhardy tourists leaping from high rocks into the sea were taken here. More sedate holidaymakers make do with catching the frequent ferry over, wandering around the verdant pathways, past vineyards and ancient olive trees, to find their own spot at a deserted and invariably rocky part of the coast. If you haven’t brought any refreshments, you’ll find the bar and restaurant open at the island’s namesake hotel, a family-focused resort complex with tennis courts, swimming pools and water sports.
Surrounded by unspoilt greenery just outside Rovinj, Macerlongo Ranch is an open-air stable that lays on trekking tours and horse-riding lessons for all ages and abilities. Tours last for up to three hours and taking in the natural beauty surrounding Rovinj, dotted with archaeological sites whose history and significance will be explained by your guide. Back at the ranch, qualified instructors provide tuition from basic level upwards.
Named after a friendly giant in a popular tale set in Istria, Veli Jože (‘Big Joe’) is an Istarska konoba, a typical local tavern. Istrian dishes flavour the menu of this quaint spot near the harbour that has a high-ceilinged interior crammed with antiques and seagoing kitsch, as well as seating for 50 on the pavement terrace. Specialities include lasagne with fruits de mer, crab with truffles, cod in white wine and pasta with goulash. The seafood won’t be cheap but it’ll be fresh, authentically prepared and caught close to where you’re eating it.
Tucked down hidden-away Veli trg amid Rovinj’s winding historic quarter, Piassa Granda is a formidably well-stocked wine bar established by two smiling sisters, still in charge today. More than 200 labels, the majority of them Istrian, pay tribute to the successful revival of the industry around this Italianate peninsula, Helena and Dragana also keen to promote fine domestic prosciutto, salamis and cheeses, tastefully presented as accompanying platters. Most varieties are available by the glass and a friendly waitstaff is happy to recommend. Alfresco seating is another plus.
This part of Istria is said to contain the ill-gotten gains of legendary pirate Captain Morgan, a strange fable that may help explain why Mrgani is both the name of a local village and a seemingly unusual surname. Whatever the case, a cycling trail that sets off from close to Rovinj allows you to follow Morgan’s trail, taking in panoramic views of the Limski Canal where is treasure is allegedly buried, a Bronze Age site, a solar observatory and an ornithological reserve. Cycle tours, running for 60km in total and taking about four hours, are laid on by Istra Bike and also include lunch at a typical Istrian farmhouse on the way.
Sea kayaking is the perfect way to discover the unspoiled, mainly uninhabited islands that dot the waters around Rovinj. Half-day tours start out at Punta Corrente park just outside town and take in nearby Crveni otok and the Sv Ivan islands before rounding the lighthouse at Sv Ivan na Pucini and heading for home. Kayakers also stop for an island picnic and swim. No previous experience is required, beginners are given a quick lesson in the easily steered kayak beforehand. Children above the age of five may take part, with adult supervision. Tours are organised by Adistra.