The skinny strip of land stretching north to south between Bosnia-Herzegovina and the sea presents one breathtaking moment after another. It’s almost impossible to zip through lower Dalmatia on a scattershot tour, even though driving from Zagreb to just outside Ploče (21km/13 miles south of Split) is now a high-speed breeze on the country’s new toll road. However, once you run out of divided highway, traffic—and life—slows to a languid tempo. Visitors to this rat-race-free zone are forced to go with the flow. The Dalmatian coastal region from Split to Dubrovnik is the inspiration for Croatia tourism’s “The Mediterranean as It Once Was” slogan with good reason.

Split is Croatia’s second-largest city and home to some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the world, as well as the main port of departure for ferries to the islands. Hvar surrounds visitors in a cloud of glamour and herbal fragrance while Brač puts wind in the sails of board bums off its Golden Cape. Korčula draws people through Marco Polo lore, its endless vineyards, and the white stone of its medieval walls. Farther out on the Adriatic, Vis and Biševo islet beckon travelers to bask in the blue glow of an underwater cave and to explore what was Tito’s war room. In between, multiple towns, islands, and beaches; historic sites, architectural gems, natural wonders, and age-old traditions are the keys that unlock the doors to treasures waiting for anyone savvy enough to seek out this stretch of the Dalmatian coast.