HVAR, Croatia -- At full throttle, the five-horsepower engine of the boat strained, making slow progress out of the marina as we maneuvered through sleek yachts and sailboats.
We glided slowly along the clear, calm, aqua waters of the Adriatic Sea toward a chain of islands off the Croatian island of Hvar, with only a map the size of a business card to guide us.
"What if we get lost?" I had asked the boat operator before we took off, looking skeptically at the squiggly line she had drawn on the map showing us where to go.
"No way you'll get lost. No way," she assured me.
Once on the water, it's safe to say we didn't care if we got lost. In the 25-minute ride to our destination -- she was right, you can't get
"Can you believe how amazing this water is?"
"The water's so warm!"
"The Adriatic puts the Caribbean to shame."
Then we came upon it: the quiet and private Palmizana cove in the Pakleni islands that only a handful of people had discovered as the perfect place to spend a lazy day in the waters off Croatia.
We dropped anchor -- noting to each other that we could clearly see it nestled in the sand 25 feet below -- and pulled out the bottle of chilled white wine and the food we had bought at the outdoor market in the morning: sweet plums, nectarines, homemade goat cheese, prosciutto and freshly
With the iPod nestled in the portable speakers and the July sun beating down on us, we hunkered down for hours of tanning, swimming and taking in the sheer beauty of the Adriatic.
After one week of driving along the Dalmatian Coast it had become clear what a trip to Croatia meant: amazing wine, tasty food, unbelievable natural beauty, quaint and impossibly charming towns with narrow walkways and cobblestone streets, and abundant warmth and hospitality from the locals.
Prior to the trip, I had read that Croatia was called the "Jewel of the Adriatic," to which I had rolled my eyes thinking it another trite and exaggerated description.
But it had become clear from the moment we got in our rental car in the marble streets of Zadar to begin our drive south that the description was in fact quite modest.
Formerly part of the republic of Yugoslavia, Croatia remains refreshingly authentic in spite of its growing popularity as a tourist destination. We reached one unmistakable conclusion: Go before it gets spoiled.
Located across the water from the heel of Italy, Croatia is already a hot destination for Europeans. I came across one American in a week spent driving up and down the coast, but locals said they've seen more Americans visiting over the past eight years -- especially as they discover that the devalued U.S. dollar goes further here than countries to the west.
Croatia, with its 22,000 square miles and a population of 5million, is a clear blend of Italian, Greek and Slavic cultures -- the legacy of countries that have at one time or another had a prominent role in its history.
There still remain psychological and physical remnants of the four-year war with the Serbs that began when Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. But you have to look hard and pry deep or you'll miss it in the peaceful surroundings.
In Croatia's largest city, Dubrovnik, a walk along the fortress wall will reveal plots of rubble-strewn land where a building used to be.
Much to the disbelief of Croatians, Serbs shelled the UNESCO World Heritage site with its medieval and Renaissance buildings. In fact, most of the red-tile roofs for which Dubrovnik is famous are new, replaced after the war.
Even though Croatians shifted their attention to the future, waiting to become members of the European Union and bracing for an onslaught of tourism, the recent past has not been forgotten.
The owner of our apartment near Old Town Dubrovnik talked about her plans for improving her building, knowing that the country has just hit the tip of the tourism iceberg. But a bitter resentment surfaced when she talked of how Serbian soldiers in the Yugoslav army had forced her out of her home -- the apartment building in which we were staying -- and stayed there for nearly a year.
But the undeniable attitude among Croatians is a sense of embracing an economic future full of possibilities, reflected in their welcoming smiles.
Old ladies sit on the narrow steps of walkways in Old Town Dubrovnik's walkways, crocheting lace tablecloths and doilies, which they display to tourists. (I don't know anything about lace, but I bought a handmade tablecloth for my grandmother, who does, and she was stunned by how inexpensive it was.)
Construction is booming in Croatia, and nowhere is it more active than in Hvar, the lavendar-laced island that's become a hot spot and the stomping grounds of the young, rich and famous.
Behemoth resorts are going up on the island, making you grateful that you visited before their completion.
Toni Domancic, an 18-year-old waiter at one of Hvar's best restaurants, Macondo, said everyone is a bit overwhelmed by the big changes and not sure what the future will hold. "We are very traditional and do our business with emotion and love," said Domancic, an island native, "so this change is going in a direction we find difficult to follow. But who knows?"
While we spent three days each in Dubrovnik and Hvar, the best way to see Croatia is to drive along the coast.
The experience was oddly similar to driving up the California coast on Highway 1. On one side were sweeping views of the Adriatic, on the other towering mountains and plush greenery, with unbelievably pungent pine trees.
Without a car, it would have been difficult to travel 60 miles south along the coast to Montenegro, a small gem of a country with a population of 620,000.
Called the next French Riviera, Montenegro boasts beautiful beaches and wonderful restaurants that are even less expensive than in Croatia.
It's also where "Casino Royale," the last James Bond movie, was filmed. Montenegro is bracing for mass tourism, and the country has already switched to the euro in anticipation of joining the European Union. (Croatia is also in line for the EU, but still uses the kuna as its currency.)
Another memorable side trip was to breathtakingly beautiful Slovenia to the north -- also formerly part of Yugoslavia until it gained independence in 1991.
Ljubljana, its capital, is a charming college town, and is clearly more advanced than Croatia, with popular chain stores such as Zara and H&M. Its people are welcoming and exceedingly warm. Slovenia entered the European Union in 2004, years ahead of its neighbors to the south.
Back in Croatia, we made a half-day stop in Split, Croatia's second-largest city, which boasts Diocletian's Palace -- the massive retirement home the Roman emperor built for himself.
A stone-walled maze of narrow streets, the palace resembled a bazaar, with an endless row of stands selling clothes and souvenirs, which detracted from the beauty of the complex.
Just a tip: If you've seen one jewelry store or soccer jersey stand, you've seen them all. And you're probably going to find it cheaper in the states.
As we got closer to Dubrovnik, fruit stands lined the side of the road near vineyards. The stands carried some of the sweetest fruit I've ever tasted -- apricots, peaches, plums and pears as well as sweet homemade wines. We bought enough fruit to last us a week, as well as a pear liquer and some wine, all for about $18.
Katarina Wagner, 35, who lives in Slovenia, has been spending her summer vacations along Croatia's coast since she was a child and has seen the changes as the country creeps toward capitalism.
"There is a little bit of the Dalmatian way, like, 'No problem, go easy,' but slowly this capitalistic spirit is making its way here," she said on the ferry to Hvar with her husband and 21/2-year-old son. "It still has its magic because it still has its nature. The nature is what makes Croatia so special."
That would be the lush forests and the distinct, pungent smell of the pines.
"It's unspoiled yet and it's going to change because they want to make big bucks quickly," Wagner added.
"I think that's the destiny of Croatia in 14 years, and that's a shame, because it's really beautiful. It's better to keep this nature intact."
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: You may be able to shave about $500 off thecost of a ticket from Los Angeles to Dubrovnik, Croatia, by flying to London and taking one of Europe's many budget carriers -- Ryanair, Easy Jet -- to one of the smaller airports in Croatia.
TRANSPORTATION: To really experience the Croatian coast at your leisure, a car rental is best. A one-week rental through croatia.rentalcargroup.com costs about $400, and we didn't have any problems dropping the car off at a different location.
The Jadrolinija ferry ride from Split to Hvar costs about $50 one way for a car and about $7 per person.
There are a handful of boat-rental stands at the Hvar dock for the trip over to the Pakleni islands.
LODGING: Hostelworld.com helped us find great, centrally located and very clean apartments in Croatia that could easily accommodate four people for between $90 to $200 a night. In Zagreb, most of what you'll want to see is in the center of town, so try to stay at a hotel located there.
A NIGHT OUT: Restaurants and bars we liked:
In Zadar: Konoba Skoblar, Trg Petra Zoranica b.b.
In Dubrovnik: Buza bar, an outdoor bar built into the rocks on a cliff just outside the fortress walls. Great for catching the sunset or a midnight concert.
In Hvar: Macondo Restaurant, 21450 Hvar Hrvatska.
The club in which to see and be seen is Carpe Diem -- snooty, pricey drinks, great location, good music. For a more down-to-earth vibe, go to Kiva. Ask anyone and they'll tell you where the two bars are.
In Slovenia: Abecedarium, and the Italian restaurant right across from it.
RESOURCES: Helpful guidebooks included "Lonely Planet Croatia, 2007," by Jeanne Oliver ($23.99); "Rick Steves' Croatia & Slovenia 2007" ($19.95); Eyewitness Travel Guides' "Top 10 Dubrovnik and Dalmatian Coast" ($12).