Istria – Croatia’s trillion-cut peninsula with its distinct identity – doesn’t so much stir the senses as whip them into a frenzy. And San Canzian Hotel & Residences, a mediaeval hamlet turned luxurious hideaway, is nature’s grandstand; from each stone balcony, you feel as if you could reach out and ruffle the green, lilac and rust foliage; guests are encouraged to pluck pomegranates, citrus fruits, olives and grapes from its fulsome groves; and come evening, sun-released lavender oils settle to fragrance local-wine-soaked evenings on the terraces. Rooms, suites and a pool-toting villa have 21st-century style within, but otherwise, this is a microcosm of the region’s pride and joys: earthy gastronomic excellence and bygone beauty for the history books.
25, including two suites, a villa and a standalone residence in Grožnjan.
12 noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £226.69 (€261), including tax at 13 per cent.
Rates usually include an à la carte breakfast with a few local delicacies and a welcome drink served on a terrace with sweeping verdant views.
Ask nicely and you can buy the beeswax-based works by artist Duje Botteri that hang throughout – most are reasonably priced, but his favourite piece, hanging by the bar, has the inhibitive tag of €64,000 to ensure it stays put.
The property opens annually from March to December.
At the hotel
Spa with a treatment room, sauna and Jacuzzi; open-air lounging terraces; gardens; orangery; small boutique; charged laundry service; free WiFi. In rooms: Flatscreen TV, Smeg minibar, Nespresso machine, TWG teas and a kettle, free bottled water, desk, pool towels. The San Canzian villa has its own private pool too.
Our favourite rooms
Executive Rooms 23 and 24 are in the main building, so you’re close to the action – or more accurately the inaction of lazing by the pool, lollygagging by the bar and taking your sweet time over dinner in the restaurant – but, facing out over the farmland, they also offer a great sense of peace and ‘oh my’ views. And, the prospect of a private pool makes the villa all the more desirable. But, we also love the hotel’s residence in ‘town of artists’ Grožnjan, where the expansive terrace is fairy lit and flowery and there’s three floors of old-new elegance. Oh, and the Romantic Suite lives up to its name, with a balcony worthy of a Romeo and Juliet rapport.
The heated infinity pool (open 7am to 9pm depending on the season) acts as a social hub and scenic viewpoint, with its parasol- and sunlounger-topped terraces, drinks service and views of olive groves and vineyards. There are romantic double day-beds secluded among the trees, a bar for sun-baked breaks in between dips, and after dark the water is softly sub-lit to add an air of romance for those lingering.
Treatments here harness tha goodness of the fertile Istrian countryside, whether your skin is being sloughed with olive pomace, you’re being rubbed down with aromatic Mediterranean herbs, or wine is helping to melt the tension away – but, by being slathered on your skin rather than imbibed. A range of rituals using all-natural Alqvimia products have some especially flowery names (Queen of the Adriatic, Garden of Delights – for him or her), but at heart they offer simple that’s-the-spot pampering. This organic focus fits in well with the boho-rustic space, which has bulbous blue-glass bottles, votive candles and wine vats on display, and there’s a Finnish sauna, Jacuzzi and ice-cold foot bath to provide sensory relief.
Istria has more cobbled alleys and hilly hike trails than you can shake a fractured femur at – flats are your friend here.
Krasica, the hotel’s municipality, is famed for its olive oil, and those trees onsite aren’t just decorative – the hotel produces its own in stylish bottles, alongside a tasty fig jam.
The Deluxe and Executive rooms with terraces and the villa with a private pool are best suited to pets for their sizeable terraces. Furry friends can stay for €30 a pet, each day. See more pet-friendly hotels in Buje.
The hotel doesn’t provide much distraction for smalls, but there’s a dedicated Family Suite which sleeps up to four, a pool to splash about in and acres of grounds to run amok in.
Here you’re fed by what grows in the grounds and provisions from the local farms, fishers and growers. And the four families that own the hotel gave Mužolini Donji village new life by buying and renovating it.
Dine under the stars at a table for two set up in the olive groves, where you’ll be served a five-course wine-paired feast with champagne and canapés.
Take notes from nature: forest greens, spring lavender, topsoil madder, creamy karsk…
Hotel restaurant Luciano is so concerned with the provenance of its ingredients, it’s named after one of their top suppliers. But they’ve many more on their roster, from heritage cheese makers, cattle farms, oyster harvesters, fishermen and butchers. Plus windfalls from their fruitful groves. The chef has taken inspiration from the land and Istrian tradition, using liberal amounts of local olive oil and serving hearty homey dishes such as warming bowls of corn-based maneštra stew (a Croatian take on minestrone) or hand-rolled pljukanci pasta with fresh truffle. Or more experimental cuisine: scampi with citrus, cereal tuile and quail-egg mayonnaise; cappalletti stuffed with pheasant, hazelnut and plums; or porcini mushroom mousse with sweet Prošek wine and figs. The restaurant has similarly modern furnishings in leather and wicker and abstract art on the walls, plus ‘bringing the outdoors in’ touches, with plentiful plants and a fireplace for cooler nights, but sommelier picks from the walk-in wine cellar will likely have a similarly warming effect.
The sultry main bar is in the entrance, which designer Boris Ružić has painted in black and dove grey – keeping the open fireplace and flagstone flooring – given some sparkle with chandeliers, is where mixologists concoct tasty drinks with house liquors, bitters and syrups. But, if you want a taste of Croatia’s viticulture, then there are more than 600 bottles snug in cubbies in the walk-in wine cellar. Many are local, but there are sommelier selections from Tuscany, Bordeaux and beyond too.
Breakfast is from 7am to 11am, lunch from 1pm till 4pm and dinner from 6pm till 11pm. And, the bar runs dry at midnight.
A dedicated room service menu is available round the clock.
San Canzian Hotel & Residences has moved lock-stock into dinky mediaeval hamlet Mužolini Donji on a winding road in the Istrian countryside of north-west Croatia. Historic Buje is its closest town, and capital Zagreb is a three-hour drive away.
Pula Airport in Croatia and Trieste in northern Italy are the closest hubs, both are just over an hour’s drive away and serve pan-European flights. Venice and Ljubljana airports are both a two-hour drive away, but the drive from wherever you land provides scenic distractions: rounding the dazzling Gulf of Trieste or traversing Slovenia’s story-book hinterland. Zagreb’s Franjo Tuđman airport is a three-hour drive away, but has some further-flung direct – if a touch disparate – flight paths from South Korea, Canada and the UAE. Staff can arrange transfers in their very comfy Mercedes V-Class for up to six guests on request (prices vary by pick-up point).
Slovenia’s Koper train station is the closest, a 35-minute drive away, which has good interrail connections throughout Europe with routes to most major Italian cities, Budapest, Vienna, Berlin and beyond.
There’s a definite time-standing-still feel to Istria, which is perhaps most keenly felt when it comes to public transport, which is practically non-existent this far out in the countryside. You’ll need wheels to rove around the vineyards, groves and hilltop hamlets. The hotel has free parking about 200 metres from the main property, with valet parking available too.
It’s possible to catch a ferry from Venice to the port in Pula, a trip that takes three to four hours with Venezia Lines or Kompas. Once you arrive, the hotel is an hour’s drive north.
Worth getting out of bed for
A growth area in all senses – in fact, Istria’s been touted as ‘under the radar’ for so long it’s surely due for discovery – this beguiling peninsula works all kinds of magic: stitched-in-time settlements with huge personalities, persevering folk tales of vampires and giants, the distant wink of the Adriatic’s blue… The hotel’s home village of Mužolini Donji may only have three permanent residents and be but a Dalmatian dot of loveliness; however, it’s within reach of Michelin-starred eateries, art havens, distilleries and wine cellars, and truffle-treasure-hunt woods. To start, you needn’t venture far from your room – acquaint yourself with Istria’s liquid gold on an olive-oil tasting in the restaurant, accompanied by bread, cheeses and prosciutto plus a flight of three brandies (pace yourself, it’s potent stuff) and a glass of local wine. Or, when in season, join an Istrian family and their pack of dogs with finely honed noses to hunt down truffles. You’ll sit down to lunch with your finds (or ones they snuffled out earlier) before a tour of a distillery for tots of potent biska (a fruit brandy), mistletoe brandy, teranino brandy (derived from a sweet red wine) and samplings of dandelion, fig and blueberry jams. If your sight’s not swimming in a brandy-induced stupor, then feast your eyes on former Roman colony Poreč, famous for its Euphrasian basilica, followed by a jaunt to fishing port Rovinj and gastronomic Bale Village on a private tour. There’s also an exploration of Istria’s mediaeval marvels: tripping along the cobblestone streets of hilltop Motovun, and musing over the galleries and studios of ‘town of artists’ Grožnjan, or revel in Pula’s glorious Roman amphitheatre, and pootle about Brijuni National Park on a golf cart, making stops for dinosaur footprints, wild-animal sightings and a photo exhibition dedicated to former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito. If that ride isn’t sweet enough for you, hotel staff can hire you a much sexier Porsche 911 Carrera 4 Cabrio II for the day. Cyclists can follow the famed Parenzana trail, which runs along a disused railway line connecting Poreč, Koper and Trieste; over four hours a guide will navigate as you pedal past dollhouse villages and unspoilt greenery and through the Mirna Valley, pausing for lunch at a cosy tavern.
Istria is in the Goldilocks zone when it comes to dining, with its proximity to the sea for flavourful crustacea and ropes of oysters, terrain where ingredients from olives to oranges grow abundantly, and farms that have been honing their skills for generations. But, that porridge-stealing wench wishes she could eat this well – folded into foothills and presiding over picturesque coastal stretches are restaurants with phenomenal reputations and the accolades to back it up. In Rovinj, Monte’s all-white dining room is a blank canvas for its three tasting menus dubbed ‘red’, ‘blue’ and ‘green’. Red delves into tradition, with suckling pig, Boškarin beef and apple with rose ice-cream; Green is vegetarian with a spinach, pumpkin and goat’s cheese strudel and chicory tatin; and Blue switches focus to fish, with Kvarner Gulf scampi dumplings and mango-spiked scallops. More traditional Puntulina is practically next door, serving truffle ravioli, grilled shrimp with olive oil and lemon, and olive-crusted catch of the day. Set in a liqueur factory, much-loved Stari Podrum has stone walls and a heavy hand with the truffle shaver. The menu changes seasonally but expect game, comforting pastas and tiramisu with locally picked strawberries – washed down with a sweet silky muscat.
Rovinj’s Buffet Trevisol is set in a charming old-school building and has a small patio with chintzy sofas – it serves top coffee, but also wine and mojitos, which you can pair with lashings of cheese and prosciutto.
For some reason, the Istrians of yore didn’t think to sprinkle a few banging clubs throughout the woods. The absence is kind of the point, but if you’re desperate, then Pula’s hard-rocking ‘disco and burger club’ Uljanik or Porec’s sleeker and sexier Byblos have got you covered.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this hospitable hamlet on the perfectly preserved Istrian peninsula and unpacked their bottle of peppery olive oil and downed a few smarting slugs of mistletoe brandy, a full account of the history, scenery and culinary delights they devoured will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside San Canzian Hotel & Residences?in Croatia…
Truffled this, truffled that: the lah-di-dah fungi seems to have umami-punched its way into every conceivable flavour conduit; but in Istria, Croatian’s wild and wayward eastern peninsula, it’s infused into the residents’ very lives, especially from September to February when the jackpot white truffles bloom. It’s rare to come back from a hunting trip empty-handed or find a menu free of them, and we’re talking about heaped pungent slivers of earthy goodness, the sort you wouldn’t mind getting your hands dirty for. It’s this kind of head-first dive into nature’s bounty that San Canzian Hotel & Residences? offers guests. They encourage you to get up close and personal with the landscape: breathe in those botanicals; pluck the grounds’ fat pomegranates, oranges and grapes; gorge yourself on cheeses so fresh there’s still a whiff of pasture to them, rugged charcuterie and homegrown olive oil that sings like a cricket. Stays here are awash with excellent Croatian wines and formidably strong herbal brandies and steeped in a landscape whose hues morph like a mood ring. The mediaeval village turned lavish family holiday home turned romantic rural hideaway has also clung to the time-worn indigenous architecture (and upcycled heirloom furnishings) that makes Istria’s fortified towns and hilltop villages swooningly beautiful, but with designer Boris Ruzic and contemporary artist Duje Botteri (whose brightly coloured beeswax works hang throughout), they’ve turned the clock forward when it comes to sleek stylish decor and mod-cons. And, whether they’re sending you out to quite literally chew (or sip) the scenery on tasting tours or step back in time village hopping, the warm attentive staff are the liberal sprinkling of truffle on top of this very tasteful dish.
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