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Travel The Croatian island you need to visit and haven’t heard of

The Croatian island of Vis once served as a base for the Yugoslav army and has remained largely unchanged for more than 50 years as a result.


“I first came to Vis 52 years ago to play with my band,” says Boris Drazic, a Croatian-Canadian I get to chatting with at a waterfront café in Komiza, a small fishing village on Croatia’s most remote inhabited island in the Adriatic. He and his wife, Jane, return to Vis from Vancouver to visit friends every summer. “It hasn’t changed a bit,” says Boris, smiling.

It’s my first visit to Komiza, but it’s easy to take him at his word. Standing sentinel over the town is a small, late 16th-century stone fortress. The narrow streets are made of dangerously slippery cobblestone, and the old three- and four-storey buildings on either side are squeezed together cheek by jowl, with most of the homes in various states of disrepair. Meanwhile, the L-shaped esplanade fits seamlessly into the medieval Venetian townscape and verdant mountain scenery. It’s lined with simple restaurants and rustic konobas (tavernas) that serve Dalmatian and Italian cuisine, as well as a few coffee bars, gelato kiosks and tiny grocery stores. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy a glass of local wine and watch the world go by.

That Vis has hardly been altered in more than 50 years is the result of military might – the island served as a base for the Yugoslav army, which closed it to tourism and foreigners after the Second World War – and the demise of the fishing, canning and wine industries that forced many young people to emigrate.

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It’s a curious thing, but in some ways the lengthy political and geographical isolation has worked to Vis’s advantage. Its lack of development and underpopulation means the island – particularly Komiza – has managed to preserve its traditional character and somewhat mysterious feel, its “magic,” as Jane calls it. The island’s vintage vibe is also what allowed it to be a stand in for a mythical 1970s-era Greek island in Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again.

Vis is the opposite of Croatia’s increasingly glamorous and popular party islands, making it all the more endearing. By the end of June, the terraces are humming with tanned, happy couples and families enjoying seafood, pizza and Aperol Spritzes, but the only club in Komiza is the Lunatic Club at Kamenica Beach, and a lack of beds here (the only available accommodations are rental apartments and studios) and in the larger town of Vis means you never feel suffocated by crowds. Quite frankly, there is little to see or do besides exploring military attractions, boating out to caves, visiting magnificent churches (open only during mass, unfortunately) or swimming and lounging at the beach. But, then again, that’s the beauty of a little island locked in a time capsule.

In 1989, Vis was reopened to foreigners and the military finally decamped in 1992. All the naval and military structures were thus abandoned, but many, such as the submarine tunnel, the missile base and part of the bunker system, have become tourist draws. One of the most intriguing sites – and one of the few on my must-see list – is Tito’s Cave. Here, Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav Communist leader, hid in the mountains below Mount Hum, the island’s highest peak, for two months during the Second World War while he planned partisan strategy. Slaven, my guide from local operator Alternatura Tours, drives us in his battered jeep high into the mountains. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, we park. “Now we take the stairs,” he says.

“These were built by Tito’s soldiers,” Slaven explains, as I huff and puff my way up. Eventually, we come to a massive slab of rock and we pause. We’ve entered Tito territory. “This is a good piece of propaganda,” Slaven says, pointing out hard-carved marks on the boulder. It’s difficult to translate, he says, because it’s from an old language that’s no longer used, but it says something like: “Nation, Tito Party. Ideas, action and pride are the wings of our country’s growth."

The island’s vintage vibe allowed it to be a stand in for a mythical 1970s-era Greek island in Mamma Mia 2.

SimonSkafar/Getty Images/iStockphoto

We keep climbing, and at the top of the stairs Slaven takes a path going left. “There are two caves,” he says. “One where he held strategy meetings and one where he slept.” We visit the one for meetings first. An official plaque states that members of the Central Committee of the Party of Yugoslavia and other leaders who fought in the war of liberation met here between June and October of 1944. We pause for a while, taking in the weight of it all, before heading up more stone steps to a long, narrow cave measuring perhaps 25 by 10 feet. “There used to be a camp bed and other items Tito kept here to show how he lived,” Slaven says, but they’ve been removed. Neither cave is especially large or impressive but the locale is gorgeous, dense with greenery and wild flowers and fragrant with the perfume of wild marjoram, thyme and sage.

A few days later, I’m scheduled to take a tour of three caves (Blue Cave, Green Cave, Monk Seal Cave) and Stiniva Bay – said to be the most unusual in the Adriatic because of its narrow rock opening. When the outing is cancelled owing to rough waters, I’m offered the single Blue Cave tour instead. “I have to warn you, though,” says Tamara, one of the reps from Alternatura, “the boat ride will be really bumpy. Do you still want to go?” Of course I do. Or at least, I thought I did, until the boat is speeding along and crashing down onto the water so hard it’s as if the waves are made of iron. I worry the woman across from me, who is holding her baby, is going to collapse in tears and I’m going to topple overboard and ruin my $6,000 camera.

About 45 minutes later, the thrill ride is over. The Blue Cave, located on neighbouring Bisevo island, is a protected area that might soon become part of UNESCO’s Global Geopark Network. Here, tourists are plentiful, and after a long wait to enter, it’s finally our turn. Our guides have timed the visit well, the optimal viewing window being between 11 a.m. and noon when the cave is as its most beautiful. The otherworldly blue glow effect, we learn, is created when the sunlight filters through the vault opening. The rays illuminate the water, along with the cave’s white limestone floor, and reflect back onto the walls, bathing it in a surreal Gatorade blue. It’s difficult to take photos on a moving boat in the darkness and I realize I shouldn’t have bothered with my camera. It would have been wiser to simply sit and absorb the ethereal wonder of the moment.

On my second to last evening, I head to Vis town, the island’s capital and main port. With its expansive waterfront promenade, lovely parks and stately villas with gardens, the Venetian influence is even more pronounced here. Vis town is larger, prettier and wealthier than Komiza, with more shops and restaurants to choose from, but with those come more tourists and yachters. For the most part, these outsiders behave well, but tribes of young men in soccer shirts carouse the streets, caught up in FIFA fever.

I head back to Komiza just after sunset, and while I’m happy with my brief visit to Vis town, I’m happier still to be back in my sleepy little fishing village. Sometimes it’s good when time stands still.

Your turn

How to get there

Fly to Split from Zagreb with Croatia Airlines. Boats (either ferries or catamarans) leave from Split three times a day. The catamaran takes one-and-a-half hours, while the ferry ride is two hours and 50 minutes. Give yourself a good three hours between flight arrival and boat departure as the airport is half an hour outside the city, and flights and luggage are often late.

Where to stay

You’ll be hard put to find luxury or boutique hotels – or any hotels – on Vis. Most people rent apartments via Airbnb or, but if you want to stay in Vis town, where there is more choice, there is Hotel San Giorgio, a small, family-run boutique hotel in the old town with 10 rooms, a restaurant, and a lovely garden/courtyard. Doubles starting at €185 ($275) in high season.

What to do

Winner of the Best Beach in Europe, Stiniva Beach is almost completely closed in, except for an approximately four-metre wide cleft between two cliffs. It’s not so easy to get to but is worth the extra effort. It’s easiest to take a taxi boat from Rukavac, but if you’re feeling brave, you can also go by road and climb down a steep, rocky cliff. There’s a small pebble beach and a cafe in the corner.

Kamenica Beach, the most remote of Komiza’s beaches, is also the most beautiful. It lies about a 20-minute walk from the old town and is popular with the young, fashionable crowd as it’s got comfy furniture, music, the Lunatic café/bar and daybeds for rent. At night it morphs into a rave site.

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For a sandy beach, head to Stoncica, just outside Vis town. It’s perfect for families since the water is shallow for at least the first 30 metres from the shore. Thanks to the vegetation, there’s lots of shade. There’s also beach volleyball and a snack bar. Zaglav, another sandy beauty, is a 15-minute walk from Milna and very tranquil.

There are several companies on the island, but I travelled with and can recommend Alternatura Tours.

Where to eat

Open since 1978, Ribilji Restoran Komiza (Komiza Fish Restaurant) serves Mediterranean cuisine and, as you can imagine, seafood. However, they also prepare beautiful vegetable side dishes and clearly label their vegan and vegetarian plates in the menu.

Vogue bistro Fabrika boasts an extensive breakfast menu and very comfortable couches facing the water. For lunch and dinner, it’s mostly high-end burgers, pastas and salads as well as well as appetizers such as bruschetta and avocado toast. Portions tend to be small for the price.

For pizza, try the ever-popular Pizzeria Charly.

Konoba Jastozera prides itself on preparing live lobsters plucked straight from the sea beneath its floorboards, underneath which small boats and rubber dinghies can dock. The atmospheric lobster pot house restaurant is famous for its unique decor and its festive ambiance, which is probably why a big scene from Mamma Mia 2 was filmed here.

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For a unique experience, dine at the super popular Roki’s Konoba, a rustic family-run vineyard restaurant with stone walls – in summer you can also sit outside in the courtyard. It’s located inland next to the old Second World War airstrip (now the Vis cricket field), so if you don’t have a car they can organize a transfer or you can grab a taxi. They’ll show you how they cook the fish, lamb and veggies under and above charcoal and will also give you a tour of their wine cellar. Cash only.

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