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As the sun rises, Dixon is only two hours into a six-hour performance. The temperature on the dancefloor in the middle of a two-story open-air club is rising, but no one seems to mind; those that are overheating can take a quick dip in the pool behind the bar. The crowd has been dancing to pounding beats since the sun set last night, but there is no end to the party in sight. As the tired grab a bottle of water or a local Croatian beer, they can walk several hundred feet beyond the club and dip their toes into the crystal clear Adriatic Sea. This is Sonus Festival, but its name is quite misleading; it is less of a festival than an all-encompassing musical vacation experience.
At the end of August each year, thousands of house and techno fans from across the glove descend upon Zrcé (pronounced “Zur-chay”) Beach in Northern Croatia for a five-day techno marathon. From the late hours on Sunday, August 19 to an open-end closing party on Friday, August 24, the flavor of techno invaded Pag Island. From the areas of Mandre to Novalja, it seemed that nearly everyone in the area was there to experience some sort of deep musical paradise.
The magic in the Sonus formula is not just in its location, nor is it solely the weather or the music. The three disparate elements create a non-traditional music festival – one of the biggest must-attend events worldwide for fans of any type of electronic music. The best way to understand why this event is so special is to experience just one day in the life of a Sonus attendee.
Rise and Shine
Unlike many music festivals in the middle of cities or in the countryside of rural areas, there really is no accommodation that is more popular than the next. Sonus’ central location on Pag allows people to truly customize their lodging experience without being too far away from Zrcé’s beach clubs. One might find himself in his hotel, hostel, AirBnB, or camped out on a world-class beach come time to rise. At Sonus Festival, though, the mantra is certainly “I’ll sleep when I go home.” One would be hard pressed to find an hour when the pre-beach music wasn’t already playing in a next-door apartment or hotel.
The festival doesn’t pick up again until late evening, so most opt to head to the beach and go boating, jet skiing, parasailing or scuba diving. Pag Island is quite literally littered with places to lounge and take a quick dive into the ocean.
Or, taking an adventurous day trip is also an easy opportunity. Split, Zagreb, and Zadar, three of Croatia’s most popular cities, can all be seen in a single excursion – albeit a lengthy one. The most daring, but perhaps the most rewarding Croatian day trip would be a nearly five-hour journey to Dubrovnik to check out one of the most popular sites for Game of Thrones filming.
The Music Begins
For those who opt to splurge just a little bit more, by 5pm they can head over to Novalja Harbor to attend Sonus’ official boat party. Each day during the festival, one DJ will join a few hundred attendees on an expansive boat for four hours of quality music, easing fans into the night.
The production value is exactly what one would expect from a techno boat party – there are no extravagant lighting setups or pyrotechnics here. For the next four hours, it’s all about the Croatian sun and the sounds of the likes of Peggy Gou, Konstantin, or a back-to-back set from Valentino Kanzyani and Ian F.
Like any good boat party, the drinks are reasonably priced and the music is thumping. To the left are a couple of guys from Sweden, and to the right are two girls telling their new friends about the best music spots in Brooklyn. But don’t forget to take a few minutes on the lower deck to take in the view, and maybe even come within splashing distance of a few dolphins looking to dance to the most recent D’Julz selection.
While the boat parties hosted by the festival organizers are not included in the price of a ticket, it would be quite the mistake to miss out on the parties on the water. Each forms an essential element of the Sonus experience.
By the time the boat docks at the harbor, Zrcé Beach is already alive with early Sonus Festival sets. Within just a five minute walk are the festival’s designated shuttles, which provide take guests to festival grounds in just under 15 minutes.
Zrcé Beach: Ibiza, improved
Finally, at night, the island of Pag practically pours onto one of the world’s best spots for electronic music, seated in quite the unassuming location. People often say that Zrcé Beach is like a small slice of Ibiza, but that isn’t exactly the case. Comparing it to Playa d’en Bossa would be foolish, as Zrcé is more concentrated than the luxurious and sandy home to the infamous Bora Bora and Hï Ibiza. Comparing Zrcé to San Antonio would be a disservice to uniformly well-kept bars and clubs that line the Croatian strip.
Zrcé Beach takes what modern-day Ibiza should be, and places it over 1000 miles to the northeast of the famed Spanish island. In an era when DJs continue to come out and claim that Ibiza isn’t what is used to be, and they look for a new home not controlled by the super-clubs in Las Vegas, they could eventually find themselves looking square at Papaya, Kalypso, Aquarius, and Noa as viable replacements for their beloved Ibiza beach clubs. The clubs all exist along the same strip, and walking between any of them takes no more than a quick two minutes.
Sonus has an open format, allowing attendees to come and leave each club, and the area, as they please. Unlike more traditional festivals, re-entry isn’t just allowed, it’s essentially necessary. With plenty of dining and drinking options available along the beach, the benefits of this policy become increasingly apparent as the festival goes on. Better yet, napping between those 10pm and 6am sets is a completely easy feat.
The festival’s opening party takes place at the picturesque Noa Beach Club, which juts out onto the water and serves as somewhat of a centerpiece for the entire beach. The club is usually the host of DJs that appeal to the more mainstream ear, but hard-hitting techno wins out the night during Sonus. Eight hours of music, with a six hour B2B set from Enzo Siragusa, Archie Hamilton, and Rossko sets the stage for the next few nights, but Noa takes a back seat from there. For the rest of the festival, attendees will bounce between Kalypso, Aquarius, and Papaya.
Of the three, Papaya is the most visible club from any angle. The stage, reminiscent of the production at Ushuaia in Ibiza, rises high above the rest of the set-ups at the beach. Papaya does a service to the average attendee by putting those in General Admission in front of the VIP section, giving all Sonus-goers great viewing opportunities. The VIP area takes on staggered stadium standing form, with a shallow pool at the very rear of the club. Jackmaster, the Martinez Brothers, Jamie Jones, Maceo Plex, and many others grace this club’s decks during Sonus festivities.
Directly adjacent to Papaya is Aquarius, where Sven Vath, Kolsch, Joseph Capriati, Richie Hawtin, and Tale of Us each played. The club is set up with the dancefloor cutting through the middle and elevated risen platforms on both sides, one of which houses the VIP area. Due to the structure of Aquarius’ high walls, the experience feels less “open air” than that of Papaya, though it provides a pleasant middle ground between a closed club and an amphitheater-like experience. The shape of the dancefloor allows everyone in the club to have the perfect viewing angle, regardless of whether fans want to be in the front, where people pack in tightly, or towards the back, where dancers have more room for their listening and moving pleasure.
Finally, Kalypso is the most intimate experience on Zrcé Beach. With the floor belonging to general admission and a second level dedicated to VIP on all sides, the Kalypso experience is the least grandiose, but also the least ostentatious. The club puts all else to the wayside and focuses on the music, with a smaller capacity within viewing range of the performer and a smaller stage to boot. Due to late cancelations, Kalypso was also the only club to host an after-hours party on the beach with Richie Hawtin and Dixon playing from 6am to 11am on day two, and the festival’s closing party not finishing until 8pm the day after it began. Stephan Bodzin, Pan-Pot, Adam Beyer, and Cezar performed notable sets at Kalypso.
During Sonus, none of the clubs served as the “mainstage” or “mainstream stage”. Rather, on each night, the clubs boasted individual themes. One night, Aquarius could have been the spot to go to for more synth-heavy material, while Papaya hosted performers that preferred deeper, darker stylings. The next night, these very roles may have reversed. This is all part of Sonus’ masterful planning; whether attendees were more prone to one type of music or preferred to stage-hop, most people likely didn’t have to put in a deliberate effort to experience the three major clubs that hosted Sonus. Thankfully, attending any of these clubs couldn’t be easier. Across the entire festival’s five-day run, there was barely an entrance line in sight.
Going home, or to the after party
For five power-packed days, electronic music fans’ ears were treated to the crème de la crème of house and techno’s finest. Come sunrise, most departed Zrcé Beach in search of their beds while others heard of exclusive afterparties through the grapevine, silently slipping out of the club to their next destination. Wherever the journey’s end, attendees could rest easy knowing that the music, at the very least, would be top-notch – an ode to Sonus’ superlative 2018 roster. It’s this personality that Sonus adopts beyond the festival – at the beach, on a boat, or even at a villa residing on the tip of Pag Island – that makes it a top contender among music festivals around the globe. Each day, tens of thousands of fans take a small piece of the festival with them, embracing its culture and values, and bringing it to their home countries as far as India, Australia or even the United States. And now, the rest of the world wants in, too.