In 2013, Croatia will be the second former Yugoslavian country to join the EU (after Slovenia), becoming the 28th member state. But the nation has already turned its face to the future, ever since the wars of the 1990s ended and it became an emerging tourist destination for Westerners.

Miles of sparkling Adriatic coast, plus national forests and lakes in its interior have drawn travellers and second-home buyers from around the world.

What is it known for?
A nation often caught between ruling empires (Ottoman, Hapsburg, Nazi, Socialist), Croatia uniquely combines a Slavic heart with a Mediterranean soul. The Adriatic coastline is 1,778km long and has more than a thousand islands, most with more than 300 sunny days a year. The emerald waters are crystal clear and yield fresh octopus, fish and other fruits of the sea.

While the interior has karst mountains, stunning lakes and waterfalls, and Zagreb has rich cultural and nightlife options, the hottest tourist and vacation-home locales have always been along the coast. Visitors and expats flock to the pebble beaches and rolling hills of the Istrian peninsula, the maquis-scented islands set in a bottle-green sea, the cities of Split and Dubrovnik and the posh party island of Hvar. The local olive oil and wines testify to its Mediterranean roots, and while not all the wines are of top quality, a chilled bottle of grk as the sun sets over the sea is a perfect moment. A long, but doable drive from Italy, Austria, Hungary and even Germany, and an easy flight from the UK and Ireland, Croatia was on the hot property map until the economic downturn.

Where do you want to live?
The Istrian peninsula, with its miles of beautiful coastline and proximity to Austria and Italy, is popular with buyers from northern Europe and Italy. The town of Opatija was the seaside resort of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its architecture and well-satisfied air reflect its Mitteleuropa past. “It is a very genteel spot that attracts high-end buyers,” said Jelena Cvjetkovic of Savills International estate agents. Inland, the fertile Istrian hills have become the new Tuscany for some, with attractive old farmhouses to renovate and a countryside that produces a wealth of delicious dishes (and even white truffles).

Further down the coast there has been quite a bit of development around Split and Trogir, where complexes of three-story buildings and shared pools are common. Also popular are the islands, from Rab in the north to Hvar, Brac, Korcula, even Vis, although it is more remote. The archipelago of the Elafati islands are the closest to Dubrovnik; Kolocep, Lopud and Cipan are all easily accessed by ferry and taxi boat. Lopud is car-free and has beautiful sandy beaches.

The shining jewel of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik, is for many reasons one of the most popular destinations: its gorgeous cliff-top setting, its history as a rival city-state to Venice and its honey-coloured roofs (or what was left after shelling in the Bosnian War). “There have been many developments along the coast. A lot of apartment complexes contain two or three-bed apartments,” said Cvjetkovic.

One city that many foreigners do not consider is Makarska, roughly half-way between Split and Dubrovnik. “It is considered too far from the Split or Dubrovnik airports, so people have not checked it out,” said Cvjetkovic. “Many Bosnians owned vacation homes here before the war.” But a waterfront property here can be had for 500,000 euros, whereas a villa on the coast near Dubrovnik can cost in the millions.

Side trips
Many people are content to stay put or island-hop along the Adriatic, but driving inland to Bosnia and the cities of Mostar and Sarajevo leads you closer to the Muslim regions and the vertiginous green mountains of the interior. Just down the coast is Montenegro and the Bay of Kotor, a destination in its own right where an Aman resort recently opened on ancient Sveti Stefan. Also, the brand-new Porto Montenegro, a full-service marina in Tivat, is set to attract the posh yachting types.

Jadrolinija ferries traverse the Adriatic, from Split and Dubrovnik to Italian cities like Venice and Bari. The international airport at Dubrovnik is expanding and is currently serviced by a number of European airlines, as is the one in Split. The main train station in Zagreb has connections across Europe, but has limited lines to the coast.

Practical info
While the economic downturn sent many buyers back to tried and true places like France and Italy, the stability of Croatia’s entry into the EU and its seductive charms are turning things around in the property market.  “It has been rather quiet for the past couple of years when Croatia went out of focus,” said Cvjetkovic. “But now there are a lot of attractive properties on the market.”

For a two-bedroom apartment in a complex, buyers should be prepared to spend around 250,000 euros, but inland in Istria you can get a villa with a swimming pool for 350,000 euros or less.

Buyers should have their own solicitor to go through all the documents. Now that EU citizens can make purchases the way a Croatian can, it is relatively straight-forward, but may still be difficult for other foreigners.

Be aware that a property may have many, many owners, as they tend to get passed down to all descendents. Cvjetkovic’s family once sold their home in Dubrovnik’s Old Town. “We had to track down family in America and Australia who owned a tiny fraction,” she said. Today, most properties have only one owner only or it is a new build.

Croatia has tried to avoid overdevelopment with varying degrees of success, but their building laws are more conservative than neighbouring Montenegro. The goal is that Croatia will retain the special quality that attracts so many to her in the first place.

Further information
Croatian Times: the English-language newspaper
Dubrovnik Tourist Board: all of the goings-on about town, restaurant and wine information, and the Welcome to Dubrovnik magazine for visitors