European Rivieras

Have you always dreamed of the French Riviera? Portugal, Croatia, Malta, Turkey and Cyprus offer sun-drenched beaches at a fraction of the price.
By: 
Jill Fergus

The word “riviera” usually conjures images of exclusive European hideaways—posh coastal villages fronted by dazzling beaches, yachtlined harbors and open-air waterfront restaurants, where jet-setters sip champagne and nibble on caviar and lobster salad. Of course, the most famous of these is the French Riviera, dotted with glitzy and glamorous towns like St. Tropez, Cannes and Monaco’s Monte Carlo, and the Italian Riviera, with magical places like Portofino, which has long attracted bold-faced names. And while those resorts come with over-the-top price tags, a new crop of more affordable European coastal resorts is emerging—places where the beaches are just as beautiful, the water just as sparkling and the restaurants just as divine. Here are five rockin’ rivieras.

Croatia

Croatia, war-torn in the 1990s, is once again on leisure travelers’ radar. A stunningly beautiful country on the Adriatic Sea (across from Italy), Croatia has fabulous beaches, especially along the Dalmatian Coast. Its most popular city, Dubrovnik, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose charming walled section dates from the 12th century, has lured romantics, including the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, for centuries.

Dubrovnik
The streets of Dubrovnik, Croatia,
are lined with sidewalk cafés.

Enjoy a sunset dinner in Croatia.

By Day: The city’s premier strand, Banje Beach, located just outside the Old Town’s stone walls, is always a hub of activity (there are lounge chairs for rent, a restaurant and watersports concessions). Within the town walls, you can walk the mile-long rampart for a bird’s-eye view of terra-cotta-tiled roofs and Renaissance churches. Stroll along tiny twisting streets and stop to buy artwork and embroidery in small boutiques, tucked into refashioned stone buildings. Then stop at a café and enjoy a typical snack of paprenjack, a honeyflavored biscuit with walnuts. A short taxi ride will take you to Gruz harbor, the starting-off point for Dalmatian Coast cruises. Recently spotted: Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones island-hopping on a megayacht.

By Night: At night, Dubrovnik’s Banje neighborhood becomes a clublike scene, with techno music and dancing right on the sand. You can also enjoy some great people-watching along the Stradun, the Old Town’s main street. Hit jazz bars like the famous Trubadur, where you can catch live music and sip a local Ozujsko beer.

Where to Eat: Enjoy swordfish carpaccio and grilled sea bass with a chilled bottle of rosé on the terrace of Restaurant Nautika, overlooking an old fortress (dinner for two about $100). And due to Croatia’s proximity to Italy, you can expect delicious pizza—try the gorgonzola and bacon version at Mea Culpa, which has a shaded sidewalk patio made of stone (dinner for two about $45).

Where to Stay: Argosy Hotel is located on the Babin Kuk peninsula, a ten-minute drive from the Old Town (buses and taxis are readily available). There’s a pool on-site, and the shimmering sands of Cava beach are just minutes away (valamar.com; room rates start at about $200 a night and include breakfast). If you want to stay within the old city walls, consider the splurge-worthy Pucic Palace, an 18th-century palazzo that’s been transformed into a 19-room luxury hotel, complete with Italian mosaic tiles, parquet floors, brocade curtains, Bulgari amenities and a private beach (thepucicpalace.com; room rates start at about $325 a night).

Photography: Croatian National Tourist Board

Turkey

Turkey is one of the most picturesque and affordable beach destinations in Europe. And the seaside town of Bodrum, on the southwest coast of the Aegean Sea (an hour’s flight from the cosmopolitan city of Istanbul), is the glittering gem of the region known as the Turquoise Coast. This whitewashed fishing village, set on a boat-dotted harbor, is ever popular with English and Germans and, increasingly, with Americans.

By Day: Sip Turkish wine while relaxing on Gumbet beach, just minutes from town, where you’ll find plenty of charming cafés serving overflowing platters of fresh seafood. You can take a taxi to other beaches, such as the always bustling Ortakent and the quaint seaside town of Gumusluk. When you need a break from the beach, visit attractions like the 600- year-old, harborside St. Peter’s Castle, with its museum collection of gold coins and jewelry salvaged from shipwrecks, and the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, which dates back to 50 B.C. and is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

By Night: The town of Bodrum really comes alive at night. Start out bar-hopping along Cumhuriyet Caddesi, a.k.a. Bar Street, where you can have a few glasses of raki (an aniseflavored aperitif). Then follow the crowds to Halikarnas, a massive 80s-style disco that’s open until 5 a.m.

Where to Eat: A great spot for lunch is La Jolla Bistro, which sports a menu of Mediterranean dishes, Californiastyle salads and delectable fresh sushi (lunch for two about $60). Sample traditional Turkish cuisine, including shish kebobs, tulum (a local cheese), lentil pilaf and stuffed eggplant at the family-owned Denizhan (dinner for two about $85).

Where to Stay: One of the town’s most romantic hotels, the 96-room Marmara Bodrum, is a hilltop hideaway with spectacular views of the castle and harbor. It features several stylish restaurants and bars, as well as an outdoor pool, fitness center and a traditional Turkish spa bath, called hammam (themarmarahotels.com; room rates start at about $275 a night). Another spot with stellar harbor views is the Movenpick Bodrum, a chic whitewashed hideaway on Gumbet Bay. The hip hotel’s guest rooms have a soothing white-andblue theme, and the poolside bar is the perfect perch to sip a raki and watch the sunset (movenpick-hotels.com; room rates start at about $260 a night).

Photography: Turkish Culture and Tourist Office

Malta

Although this tiny sun-drenched island nation in the Mediterranean is remote, it still boasts fabulous beaches and exciting nightlife. In the historic capital of Valletta, you’ll marvel at the architecture, treasure-filled museums and the island’s Hollywood connection: Gladiator, with Russell Crowe, and Troy, with Brad Pitt, were both filmed here.

Malta beach
A golden sand crescent beach in Malta.

Valletta, Malta, in silhouette.

By Day: The beaches on the north coast are the island’s best. There’s Paradise Bay, a small, beautiful beach in a cove; Mellieha Bay, known for its terrific snorkeling; and Ghajn Tuffieha, one of the island’s gorgeous expanses of golden sand edged with azure waters. You can also take a ferry excursion to the sleepy island of Gozo, home of the Azure Window, an amazing natural rock formation that towers over a crescentshaped beach. Back in Valletta, tour the gilded altars, marble columns and frescoes of St. John’s Cathedral. In the Grandmaster’s Palace, check out the centuries-old suits of armor, swords and shields once worn by the Knights of Malta, a religious military order that dates back to the Crusades.

By Night: St. Julians, a former fishing village that’s now the center of Malta’s nightlife, offers open-air cafés, seafood restaurants, cocktail lounges and trendy clubs, where you can dance until the wee hours and imbibe the local Cisk beer.

Where to Eat: Try pastizzi—bite-size puffed pastries filled with ricotta cheese—and other local specialties at Caffe Cordina, a Valletta institution on Republic Square, which dates back to 1837 (lunch for two about $25). For one of the most elegant meals on the island, book a table at Barracuda, located in a restored townhouse overlooking the bay in St. Julians. The seafood-rich menu includes dishes like octopus carpaccio, local sea urchin served over linguine and gnocchi with prawns (dinner for two about $100).

Where to Stay: Le Méridien St. Julians Hotel & Spa, on shimmering Balluta Bay, is a luxury resort with 276 rooms (ask for one with a balcony), several restaurants, including Villa Brasserie for modern French cuisine, and the luxurious Myoka Lotus Spa (starwoodhotels.com; room rates start at about $250 a night). Just outside Valletta’s city walls is the colonial-style Hotel Phoenicia, overlooking Marsamxetto Harbour. Take a romantic dip in a heated outdoor pool that lies in the shadow of 16th-century bastions, or stroll through the fragrant gardens (phoeniciamalta.com; room rates start at about $290 a night).

Photography: Visitmalta.com

Cyprus

A pretty Cypriot street.

Amathus Beach Hotel
Testing the waters at Amathus Beach Hotel.

Paphos
Perched above the sea near Paphos, Cyprus.

This Mediterranean island is celebrated for its glorious weather, rich archeological sites, pristine coastline, wine-making traditions and fabulous cuisine. One of the island’s most fashionable resort areas is Paphos, on the west coast. Legend has it that Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, emerged from the surf here—so honeymooners should feel right at home!

By Day: Soak up some rays at Coral Bay, one of Paphos’ most popular beaches, but there’s also pretty Lara Bay, famous for its loggerhead turtle sanctuary, and the more secluded Latchi Beach. Be sure to visit the many impressive archeological sites, including the medieval Paphos Fort (climb to the top for great harbor views) and the House of Dionysius, Theseus and Aion, a restored Roman villa with stunning mosaic-tiled floors depicting scenes from Greek mythology. And don’t miss the Tombs of the Kings, a series of underground tombs carved from solid rock that date from when the Egyptians inhabited the island in the 3rd century B.C. (Site excavations are ongoing.)

By Night: You’ll find a wide range of late-night activities here, from waterfront cafés where you can sample a bottle of local wine (try the sweet dessert commandaria wine, said to be the world’s oldest variety), to late-night discos. And due to the fact that Cyprus was once part of the British Commonwealth, there are still plenty of English-style pubs offering pints and friendly games of pool and darts.

Where to Eat: Romantic tavernas, like Mandra Tavern, feature Greek and Cypriot specialties like stuffed grape leaves, smoked pork, clay-oven-baked lamb and salted Haloumi cheese served family-style (dinner for two about $60). The Seagull Restaurant, a rustic familyowned spot with blue-and-white-striped tablecloths and blue-painted wooden beams, specializes in just-caught seafood. Try the grilled sea bass, the fried calamari and the swordfi sh with tomatoes, onions and peppers (dinner for two about $80).

Where to Stay: Try Almyra, a sleek 189-room beachfront hotel in the shadow of Paphos Fort, where you can enjoy a martini in the Helios Lounge and unwind with a couple’s massage in the spa. Stay in one of the redesigned Kyma Suites and you’ll have a private rooftop terrace with unbeatable views (thanoshotels.com; room rates start at about $270 a night and include breakfast). The elegant Amathus Beach Hotel, a mile outside of the bustling Paphos harbor, features 257 luxurious rooms, a lagoon-style swimming pool, tennis courts and a spa with a hydrotherapy center (amathus-hotels.com; room rates start at about $260 a night and include breakfast).

Photography: Cyprus Tourism Organization; Genius Loci designers

Portugal

Though Portugal tends to get overshadowed by Spain, its larger Iberian neighbor, those in the know head to the Estoril Coast, 10 miles west of the capital, Lisbon, on the Atlantic Ocean. Once upon a time, the Portuguese royalty and aristocracy spent their summers here in lavish villas. Today, fashionable people from Lisbon still congregate on the golden beaches.

By Day: At Praia do Tamariz, the top see-and-be-seen beach, you can sip sparkling wine at terraced cafés along the promenade or rent lounge chairs with thatched umbrellas. In nearby Cascais, once a small fi shing village but now a trendy resort town, you’ll fi nd more great beaches—Praia de Rainha, Praia de Ribeira and Carcavelos, which is quite popular with surfers. The Robert Trent Jones-designed Club de Golfe Quinta a Marinha is one of many spectacular golf courses in the area.

By Night: Check out the coast’s sizzling nightlife at traditional fado houses, where you can catch performances of soulful traditional music. Or try your luck at the glamorous Estoril Casino, which has all manner of table games like roulette and craps; if that isn’t your style, check out the concerts, dance clubs and art exhibitions.

Where to Eat: Near the casino, Costa do Estoril offers a hearty seafood menu—try the house specialty, the arroz de mariscos (rice with seafood, cooked and served in a large terra-cotta dish; dinner for two about $100.) At the seaside Beira Mar, in Cascais, feast on sopa de marsico (shellfi sh soup), shrimp omelettes and baked sea bass in a salt crust (dinner for two about $90).

Where to Stay: Everyone from the Rolling Stones to King Juan Carlos of Spain has stayed at the ultraglamorous 1930s-era Palacio Estoril Hotel & Golf. Wander amid the gorgeous landscaped gardens, take a dip in the outdoor swimming pool and have a glass of port wine in the elegant, woodpaneled bar that was a favorite haunt of spies during World War II. The hotel also boasts access to a dazzling whitesand beach and a private golf course (palacioestorilhotel.com; room rates start at about $300 a night and include breakfast). In Cascais, the oceanfront Pestana Cascais Hotel, a 116-room resort, stands just a few minutes from the historic village, and affords sweeping water views from the guest rooms. Hotel amenities include tennis courts, a large fitness center, numerous pools and nightly entertainment (pestana.com; room rates start at about $190 a night and include breakfast).

Photography: Junta de Turismo da Costa do Estoril; Palacio Estoril Hotel & Golf