THE REALIZATION OF OUR MOTHER’S DREAM:
HOW A SMART BELGIAN BUILT A TOURISTIC PARADISE ON THE ISLAND OF HVAR WITH DONATIONS AND HELP OF VOLUNTEERS.
In 1966, 21-year-old Robert Van Bellinghen and his parents set off for Greece on an epic family road trip that would prove to set the course of his life. Their Belgian village of Peutie now over 1500 km behind them, the Van Bellinghens stopped in the city Sarajevo for a much-needed rest. As they exited the car, they were met by a friendly man, Zvonko, who asked them if they needed accommodation. Appreciating the local’s hospitality, the family stayed the night at his home and relaxed before the next leg of their journey.
During their short stay, Robert fell for the eldest of Zvonko’s four daughters, the beautiful Ljiljana. During the next four years, Robert and Ljiljana were pen pals, sending letters between Peutie and Sarajevo, always staying close despite their distance. For two weeks a year, Robert returned to Sarajevo to reunite with her, and finally in 1970, they married. Starting their life together, they moved to the village Perk, just east of Peutie, where they bought land, built a home, and had two children… daughter Jelena and son, Didier who will take by the end of this article the lead role and share the rest of the story which turns out to be a bittersweet life story.
The search on the Croatian islands
In 1977, the family journeyed to the Adriatic Coast to fulfil Ljiljana’s lifelong dream of a B&B by the sea. The search was on for the perfect location on one of Croatia’s many islands. Robert and Ljiljana were captivated by Hvar, but with the island’s many treasures came a great deal of difficulties. At first, a man assured them that he had the perfect land in the small village of Gromin Dolac but, in the absence of a road, it was inaccessible.
A year later a road had been built, and the couple eagerly returned to survey the area. Unable to find the land themselves, Dider tells us how his parents sought help from Ivo Ostojic, a worker in a nearby vineyard. Eventually arriving and feeling underwhelmed, they realized that the first man’s property wasn’t their ideal site. On a whim, they asked Ivo if he had any land of his own to sell to them. By fate, he introduced them to a breathtaking and remote seaside paradise in Gromin Dolac, stealing their hearts. Their quest was complete and in 1978, Robert and Ljiljana bought the land and, with the help of friends and family, began building their dream B&B in 1982.
A lost struggle
Four years later in the summer of 1986, Ljiljana had a pain in her abdomen that she dismissed as just a stomach ache, and devotedly resumed working on the B&B project. However, her symptoms worsened and she soon visited the doctor. Tragically, the doctor diagnosed her with cancer and called for immediate surgery. ‘I remember that we rushed to Belgium for her operation, but the doctor told my father that it was too late and that the cancer had fatally spread throughout her body. Determined to fight for her life, mum underwent chemotherapy and other difficult treatments. One morning while we had at breakfast, dad received a call and rushed to the hospital, sending my sister and me off to school. A few hours later, dad arrived to the school’.
When Didier saw his father at the door, he immediately knew what had happened. Saying goodbye to her 10-year old son, Didier, her 9-year old daughter, Jelena, and the love of her life, Robert, beloved Ljiljana lost the toughest battle and passed away on December 12th, 1986.
Devastated by the loss of his wife and left with two children, Robert fell into hard times and ended the construction of their dream B&B. Still in love with their beautiful land and cherishing the memory of Ljiljana, the family continued to visit the unfinished home over the following years for their summer holiday. As time passed, the family invited more people to their secluded, beach-side paradise; Didier and Jelena bringing their friends and loved ones, and Robert bringing his new wife, Napha, whom he met in 1997. To accommodate the growing family, Robert built a second floor according to the B&B’s original plan, the first addition to the home in 15 years since Ljiljana’s passing.
New times, new traditions… Instead of inviting people from the street into his home, as Zvonko did in Sarajevo, Didier discovers a new website in 2010 – CouchSurfing, an online platform that connects travelers with local hosts around the world.
The intimidating jungle of paperwork
‘A great thing about CouchSurfing is that you are constantly surrounded by like-minded travelers’. As the first active member of Hvar, Didier shared his family’s cherished summer home with Couchsurfers, allowing people to camp on their breathtaking seaside property and taking travellers on unforgettable excursions. Didier became widely known as a trailblazer for introducing travellers to a hidden side of Hvar. Travellers adored the highly secluded, nature-immersed gem, which has no running water, no wifi, no electricity, and no distractions from the outside world. Among travellers, the paradise earned its name, “Cast Away”.
Didier was overwhelmed by the incredibly positive reactions friends, family, and travellers had to Cast Away. After telling many people the story about the land and his parent’s vision, countless friends encouraged Didier and his sister, Jelena, to finish the plans for a B&B. However, the siblings were focused on their lives and jobs in Belgium and were deterred by the complex paperwork and laws associated with the project. Additionally, they both believed that the location was too remote and that the project would ultimately fail. But one life-changing trip changed his perspective…
‘After working for 15 years for the Belgian television, I took a gap year in 2013 and went on an amazing trip around the world. I got lost in jungles, wandered in deserts and met amazing people through staying in numerous hostels and with Couchsurfing hosts’ When I came back home after 10-months of adventures around the world, I felt that I couldn’t fit into normal society anymore’ says Didier and the decision was made to share his passion for travel. Didier ultimately sold his car, sold his house, quit his job and decided to fulfill his parent’s lifelong dream to create a small paradise on the south of the island of Hvar.
With the help of a few local friends, Didier managed to navigate through the jungle of paperwork and pursue funding for the project. By 2015, Didier utilized the crowdfunding platform known as “TravelStarter,” to reach out to traveler’s inspired by his story to fulfill his parent’s dreams. Supporters’ generous donations catalyzed the project’s development, helping Didier build the foundation of the B&B and purchase crucial tools and supplies such as a power generator, furniture, and many other critical items. Using the website, “Workaway.info,” which pairs volunteers looking for free accommodation with hosts who need a few hours of help per day, Didier successfully cleaned up the property and granted numerous volunteers the opportunity to experience Cast Away’s beauty. With their precious help and to comply with all requirements, 10 wooden bungalows were built in the summer of 2016, each specifically named after members of Didier’s family. By September 2016, Cast Away earned a license for “Robinson Tourism”– the first of its kind on the island Hvar and one of the few in whole Croatia.
One-of-a-kind eco camp
Cast Away’s unique “off-the-grid” eco-camping experience has quickly earned the love and admiration of travellers. The remote, self-sustainable village offers 10 spacious wooden tents in the middle of nature, just a stone’s throw away from 2 beautiful private beaches and multiple walking and biking trails. Each tent looks out to a tranquil sea view, allowing guests to escape the touristic hustle, relax and recharge. A variety of lounges and sunbeds are available for people to either soak up the sun or relax under millions of stars accompanied by the sound of the waves. Guests can immerse themselves in Dalmatian culture at the local village or immerse themselves in the crystal clear water along the coast. Those who stay are moved by the story behind it, the sense of community and develop a deep connection with their neighbors, becoming a part of the authentic and intimate Castaway family.
‘By the summer 2018, we hope to finish our parent’s original B&B plans and add 7 additional rooms on the existing property’, says Didier who is also developing his travel agency “Castaway,” to offer adventure seekers a wide range of activities and excursions around the island.
Robert and Ljiljana’s story began because of the hospitality of others, and now their legacy has continued through their children, offering their small slice of paradise to the world. Thanks to their efforts, Cast Away is the ultimate place to escape the busy, chaotic tourist crowds and to reinvigorate in a natural environment, with gorgeous views and the sound of the waves, sea birds and an orchestra of crickets at twilight.
Amazing sunsets, stargazing, nights out to town, some windsurfing or snorkeling, hiking, off-road tours, wine tours, mountainbiking or simply some yoga and relaxation. Just chill, enjoy and create your own perfect stay.
Written by Ivan Kaštelan
Adapted in English by Maya Bovshow, Kevin Lambert
& Bridget McLemore
Photography by Didier Van Bellinghen