It's easy to see why Valsabbion, a boutique hotel just outside the Croatian port city of Pula, has become a favorite of visiting VIPs Sting, for one, held a party here after performing in Pula's amphitheater. Discreet, quirky and filled with friendly staff, the hotel, wellness center and restaurant started life back in 1993 as a humble B&B. Then along came siblings Sonja and Sandra Peric, accidental hoteliers who were once a psychologist and a dermatologist. Now three of Valsabbion's 10 rooms are romantic suites with sea views and king-sized beds. The sisters' magpie instincts mean fixtures like a towering Snow White mirror (a family heirloom) and an authentic Roman amphora are one-of-a-kind. And while the spa may be Thumbelina-sized, the list of treatments isn't. As you'd expect when one of the co-owners is a former skin specialist, the emphasis is on the clinical, although wanton pampering (chocolate-honey massage, anyone?) and activity-filled weight-loss programmes can be arranged too.
But the ace up Valsabbion's sleeve is its award-winning restaurant, with a 10 course tasting menu that feels more like 20 and showcases the kitchen's penchant for unusual marriages of fresh, local ingredients served up in flamboyant fashion. A few years ago, Sonja did a brief stint in the kitchen of Ferran Adrià's renowned El Bulli restaurant. The sisters cite the inventive Spanish chef as an influence, and it shows: a single clam lies embalmed in a brick of jet black salt; a "sea symphony" made up of a mussel, a clam, a sea urchin and a frond of seaweed is laid out like a delicate watercolor on a mirrored plate; a Christmas cracker of waxy kitchen paper pulls apart to reveal sauerkraut and sausage; and dessert is a bizarre but addictive dish of fennel ice cream, chocolate soufflé, salt and olive oil. After a few glasses of wine, the orange portholes in the ceiling (the décor is as arresting as the food) take on an otherworldly glow one that's entirely fitting when you're ensconced in hostelry heaven. www.valsabbion.hr
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