Simon Wittenberg heads to Istria, Croatia’s answer to Tuscany, to enjoy the hospitality of Grand Hotel Brioni Pula, a Radisson Collection Hotel, and some of the attractions and gastronomy this picturesque area offers.
Located about 20 minutes away from Pula airport and a short drive away from Pula’s historic city centre, Grand Hotel Brioni Pula, which takes its name from the adjacent Brijuni National Park – a group of 14 picturesque islands popular with visitors, started its journey in 1972 in the era of the former Yugoslavia when Josip Broz Tito governed.
It was the brainchild of Bosnian architect Milan Kušan, and the concept was to have all the social areas with their outdoor spaces facing the crystal-clear waters of the Adriatic, as the building cascades down its cliff-side location across six different levels towards the turquoise sea.
Over the years, this property has attracted the great and the good and, in its heyday, hosted the likes of Boney M and Abba. In fact, it remains the accommodation of choice for Hollywood actors and music stars alike, with Simply Red staying the day before we arrived.
The modernised and luxurious hotel that welcomes guests from around the world today is the result of an extensive €34 million (about £30 million) renovation completed before its re-opening in May 2022 – a bill footed by the PPHE Hotel Group, the Radisson Hotel Group’s partner, and its Croatian subsidiary, Arena Hospitality Group.
The extensive scope of work was undertaken during the pandemic, giving more time to refine the design, inside and out. This has seen some of the original features, such as the small glass windows being retained, as well as the metal staircase bannisters leading up to the bedrooms, which hark back to the era of yesteryear.
The beautiful re-styled interior of the hotel, where materials have been meticulously selected, such as Botticino Bianco stone for the floor in the Lobby Bar imported from Italy – the same that was used in the country’s historical monuments, and bespoke furniture created across the board, has been conceived by the local Studio 92 outfit from Labin (just to the north of Pula). Art also plays a significant role at Grand Hotel Brioni, as the typical user of Radisson Collection properties are themselves art collectors.
In fact, the unveiling of the 20,000 square-metre Grand Hotel Brioni Pula last year marked the debut of the high-end Radisson Collection brand in Croatia, and joined a very select portfolio of more than 20 properties across the globe, spanning the UK to Saudi Arabia. Surprisingly, there are none in the USA despite Radisson being an American-headquartered company.
To be part of this exclusive Radisson Collection club, where the tagline is “Welcome to the Exceptional”, hotels are closely audited against the standards that must be delivered, and the stakes are high to be able to join this higher echelon of classification in the first place.
At the helm of Grand Hotel Brioni Pula is the charismatic German General Manager Alex Živković, who is a proud and loyal purveyor of Radisson’s brand values that lie at the heart of this property. Bringing an impressive 17 years of experience and being his eighth project in the role of GM, he is undoubtedly a safe pair of hands.
Fast forward a year, and after one full season under its belt, this hotel has established itself as the place to stay when visiting Pula, illustrated by the plethora of positive online reviews singing its praises.
The hotel currently employs around 240 people, so there’s a ratio of 1.1 staff members to each of the rooms, and it is a sizeable operation behind the scenes that brings the guest experiences to life.
With that being said, at the first point of contact, checking in at reception, unfortunately, lacked any sign of emotion and warmth, and where luggage taken by the concierge went missing within minutes – not the sort of start you would expect from a Radisson Collection property.
Therefore, there is still work to be done, in order to create a pitch-perfect journey for guests at every touchpoint.
Sleep and Dream
Grand Hotel Brioni houses a total of 227 rooms, where around 110 face the sea. The remainder looks out onto the “garden”, tall pine trees which surround the other facets of the hotel. To generalise, there are essentially two room types here – Collection and Suites, and the blue and white hues (to represent the sea and sky) are seen throughout the hotel, the furnishings, and the wide array of artworks, are carried through to the bedrooms, which sit on the upper two floors of the hotel.
A total of 12 beautifully-appointed suites are located on the corners of the building, which are 52 to 60 square metres in size, are designed for up to three people, and command upwards of €2,500 a night, including the option of having a cabana-style living room for the day on the beach.
This is not a kids-centric hotel, so there are no family rooms or any children’s entertainment on offer here.
We stayed in a Collection Room overlooking the sea, and in the summer season, you can expect to pay around €500 a night in peak months.
Small details incorporated into the furnishings justify this price tag, according to Živković, such as the nicely-scented Acqua Di Parma toiletries in the ensuite bathroom that has a walk-in shower, as well as the chrome and futuristic-looking £150 X7.1 Iperespresso Illy coffee machine, which uses the finest coffee from neighbouring Italy thanks to the hotel’s long-standing relationship with the brand.
Even the coffee cups are unique to an artist for each calendar year.
The king-sized bed, which sits opposite a large flatscreen TV, was relatively firm, so it may not appear immediately comfortable for all sleepers, but a plethora of pillows, coupled with Egyptian cotton bedding, provides an adequate level of comfort. There are no outdoor balconies to essentially add four to five more square metres as part of each of the 23 square metre rooms.
However, the large French doors slide open to replicate sitting al fresco, and to reveal the sea breeze and spectacular panoramic view of the calm waters below. It’s a vista that stretches as far as the horizon (hence the line running through Brioni’s logo), where dolphins can sometimes be spotted, and where magical sunsets treat visitors.
Wine and Dine
Four different restaurants can be found within the hotel, each offering different settings and types of cuisine, such as Mediterranean and Pan-Asian.
On the lower ground floor, Brioni Forum (which takes its name from Forum Square in Pula) can accommodate up to 280 people at any one time (equating to around 70% of guests in one sitting), as it’s a buffet-style format with table service for drinks.
The choice is relatively extensive at dinner (which costs €50-a-head), and we enjoyed ravioli filled with salmon and capers, risotto with ricotta, tuna steak, boiled potato with spinach, salad, and some bread and cheese to round off the mains.
What we had was tasty and nicely prepared, but the food disappears at 9 pm, so it is a bit of a sprint to get to your table on the terrace and back again if you want to try the starters and desserts before it shuts.
The buffet breakfast at Brioni Forum was equally sizeable, offering a range of cooked elements, pastries, cheeses, cakes, cereals, and even a large slab of honeycomb.
However, overall, it just seemed a little underwhelming and lacked the “wow factor” – usually one of the highlights of staying in a luxury hotel.
With so many tables on offer inside and out, meaning it was a hive of activity with guests, it felt a bit too canteen-like in our opinion, and even the freshly-made omelette had cubes of half-melted cheese with the rind still on it, and some raw egg mixture sitting on the surface, meaning it did little to impress if you’re in search of a heartier start to the morning.
Adjacent to Brioni Forum on the same floor is the Lobby Bar, which has an extensive indoor area and outdoor terrace. Serving a wide array of cocktails and 30 different types of gin, as well as whisky, we tried an ice-cold Piña Colada cocktail – the perfect accompaniment to watch the unfolding of a sunset over the ocean and to digest and discuss the day’s events.
During the early evening, when it’s quiet, the service is relatively efficient, but it was clearly understaffed during peak hours later into the night, meaning getting any kind of beverage was frustratingly slow, and took away from the enjoyment of reclining and relaxing in what is a spectacular location.
The pinnacle of the gastronomy offered by Grand Hotel Brioni’s dining repertoire is undoubtedly the Sophia fine dining restaurant, named after the Hollywood actress Sophia Loren who visited ex-President Tito several times.
This eatery prides itself on its josper grill and steak cuts emanating from different parts of the world, such as France and the USA. The décor promotes a high-end feel, thanks to its immaculate wooden floors, the lavish and weighty tables made from Indian stone (the same material as that which has been employed for the signage at the entrance to the hotel), and soft brown leather seating.
There’s also an outdoor terrace area facing the calm waters, and as the sun sets at Sophia, rays of light sweep into the restaurant and gradually give way to subtle lighting, delivering a more romantic and intimate ambience.
The kitchen area in the far corner of the restaurant is open, meaning you can watch the chefs at work, whilst at the other end, there’s a rather large wine fridge, where we tried a smooth Medea Punta Greca red Merlot wine from 2019, which is hard to get your hands on, although a few bottles were spotted at Pula airport prior to our departure.
This restaurant is centred around all things carnivorous, so there’s not a whole lot of choice for vegetarians, but there is a fish of the day (€50) for those who enjoy anything marine-related.
After sampling the delicious amuse bouche of vermicelli-like potato crisps, and homemade focaccia accompanied by a sprinkling of gin and whisky-infused salt, we tried the vegetarian alternative to the beef tartare starter, which took the form of a generous and flavoursome Caesar salad and was undoubtedly one of the best we had ever tried. The dressing and crunchy croutons were simply divine.
Whilst others were enjoying three different types of steak, chunky potato chips, and potato mille-feuille, we tucked into some flavoursome and filling homemade tagliatelle with pesto, zucchini and mint.
To finish, we enjoyed an interpretation of a crème brûlée, as it was missing the typically thin sugar crust, but what it did have instead was a gold leaf garnish and small butter biscuits, which rounded off this dish with a touch of elegance.
Brioni Lungo Mare
The final level of Grand Hotel Brioni is dedicated to all things beach, and the €100-a-day outdoor cabana-facing restaurant named Brioni Lungo Mare, is the ideal spot for a light lunch.
We sampled a delicious couscous salad, followed by a generous and moist fillet of sea bass on a bed of rice, before finishing with a large vanilla cream dessert with pieces of biscuit and summer fruits – a generous portion that was sizeable enough to defeat the best of appetites.
Relax and Recline
Spread over 1,300 square metres and across two floors, the Gemma di Brioni Wellness Centre is the hub of relaxation and pampering and is undoubtedly one of the stand-out features of this property.
It extends over two floors, with a 25-metre indoor pool and cold-water whirlpool, three saunas, a steam room, four different types of rain showers and six treatment rooms for couples and solo travellers, that use a range of Thalgo skincare products.
In addition, as an alternative to swimming in the Adriatic below, there is a 60-metre-long outdoor infinity pool filled with seawater that grants spectacular ocean views – we dipped our toe in, but it was a tad chilly for our liking. In the fitness area and gym, guests who like to work out when away from home, can enjoy the availability of top-of-the-range Technogym equipment.
Alex Živković has created a well-oiled machine at Grand Hotel Brioni Pula, and it’s impressive to see what this hotel has achieved after just one full season of welcoming guests in the new Radisson Collection era. If we were to rate our experience, it would be close to a perfect ten, a score that is certainly achievable once the very minor foibles have been addressed.
However, these do not take away from what is a fantastic five-star hotel with excellent on-site amenities. What’s more, at only two hours away by plane from the UK, Grand Hotel Brioni Pula – a jewel of Istria, is the perfect destination to get away from it all and to rest and relax in luxurious surroundings.
We wouldn’t hesitate to return, and as the seasons roll on, it’s a property that will undoubtedly only get better and better. Hvala!
Pula in Croatia: Places to Go and People to See
As well as visiting the iconic amphitheatre, which dates back to Roman times and is one of the six best preserved in the world, we enjoyed a walking tour of Pula, which is one for when the weather is warm and sunny, and when this area comes alive thanks to the influx of visitors.
There are plenty of historical monuments and relics to see, such as Hercules Gate, Forum Square, and the Arch of the Sergii. Pula itself had a real Italian feel to it, and you could almost imagine that you were in Rome, as it gave off that kind of vibe. Even the road signs are in Croatian and Italian by law.
We also had the opportunity to experience lunch at Hotel Amfiteatar next to its namesake, with the kitchen run by the rather amusingly-eccentric but hugely-talented chef Deniz Zembo who we had the pleasure of meeting. He cooked up a highly-original marinated courgette starter with chlorophyll, vegetarian meatballs, and a delicious chocolate brownie-type dessert.
Chiavalon olive oil tasting
Another benefit of visiting this part of the world is that you can enjoy some of the best olive oil in the world. A 20-minute drive from the hotel, you arrive at the family-owned Chiavalon extra virgin olive oil producer (products are stocked in Borough Market as a tip).
Their harvest, which focuses on quality, not quantity, is in the autumn, so outside of this time, expect a tour of the modern and clinically-clean manufacturing facility followed by a tasting of five different varieties of oil, from the mild “Roman” to a real spicy kick in the form of “Atilio”.
The Medea winery
The Medea winery, located on the outskirts of Pula, was founded in 1956 and produces a crisp red, white and rosé, plus an annual edition of the highly-prized Punta Greca merlot, which we tried at Sophia.
Accompanied by thinly sliced cheese and cold meats, we sampled different wines interspersed by prolonged pauses so that the owner could serve what was a steady flow of customers coming into the shop, highlighting the popularity of their portfolio.
Despite not being the most choreographed of tastings, it was an enjoyable and interesting visit with a rather rustic feel.
Medea’s tasting experience and shop are situated at Željeznička ul. 15, 52215, Vodnjan, Croatia. To find out more, visit www.medea.hr.
Grand Hotel Brioni Pula in Croatia – Where and How?
Grand Hotel Brioni Pula is located at Verudela 16, 52100, Pula, Croatia. For more information or to make a reservation, visit www.radissonhotels.com/en-us/hotels/radisson-collection-grand-hotel-brioni-pula.
See pictures from our visit on the Luxurious Magazine Instagram page.
Photo credits: Grand Hotel Brioni Pula / The Tourist Board of Pula / Simon Wittenberg.
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