Croatia is easily one of my favorite places on Earth, and I write that with a measure of restraint. It is really hard (moot) to determine a “favorite place” in this enormous world, as there is depth and distinct personality found in all places. Similarly, “best experiences” are assigned for many reasons that are often hard to pin down. So, when I say that Croatia is one of my favorite places and one of my best traveling experiences, I say that because it provides seemingly everything that I love in this life. Here is that list, ordered randomly:
- Wild nature
- Warm weather
- A perfect sea for swimming and kayaking
- Healthy, high-quality food
- Outstanding wine and climate for growing
- Beautiful language
- Handsome people
- Mediterranean culture
- Art and humanities
- Off-the-beaten-path adventure opportunities
- Close proximity to other incredible countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia)
- Incredible depth, culture, history and soul
So Croatia and the Dalmatian Coast… it has been called “the next Riviera.” The coastline is split into three regions — northern, middle and southern Dalmatia — and along it stretches 1185 islands that sprawl into the crystal clear Adriatic Sea. On the islands’ beaches, you are basically free to do as you please—picnic beneath the citrus trees, snorkel naked if you wish. I wasn’t able to get to Zagreb and a couple of other areas that I wanted to see, but I explored the country pretty well. This is my take on the coolest areas I visited in Dalmatia —
The most well known traveling destination (along with Split) is the port city of Dubrovnik. It is fashionable and charming and has been so since the 7th century — hard to bend my mind around how long ago that really is. Unsurprisingly, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dripping with history spun by the Byzantines, the Venetian Empire, the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarians, and the impact of several wars after. Its marble streets are lined with 400-year-old baroque architecture, the entire city surrounded by medieval walls that enfold it. Walking atop them gave me the closest thing possible (short of booking a heli) to a birds-eye view of the vicinity. Not far from the shores of Dubrovnik, you will find Lokrum – a preserved park with peacocks, citrus trees, olive groves, and a highly salinic swimming hole that is said to cure ailments and prolong youth.
Just off the shore from Dubrovnik is the Elafiti Islands where you will find Lokrum, a place with a long history of legend and lore. I kayaked there; you can take a ferry from Dubrovnik as well… we swam in watering holes, snorkeled off the coast, had a picnic lunch and walked among peacocks and cypress trees that live within the Hapsburg-era botanical garden. At the top of the island sits 11th-century ruins of a monastery and French fort where Napoleon kept his army safe at times during the Napoleonic wars. Lokrum is only a day trip — just firemen are aloud to sleep there in order to protect the island from fire …unless you are a very pretty, convincing lady, then you have a shot.
Mljet (Mil-yet) Island
Further up the coast from Lokrum is Mljet — a rugged island said to have sheltered the Greek hero Odysseus. This is a quiet paradise with a national park, hiking trails, and saltwater lakes. From Mljet, we took a short boat ride to the Isle of St. Mary to a 12th-century Benedictine monastery and church overlooking the Adriatic Sea (but not before stopping to swim, stack stones, and snack on olives, cheese and tomatoes with rosemary on the shore of the beach.)
Another World Heritage Site, Korčula Island is probably best known as the birthplace of the greatest explorer of all time: Marco Polo. Venetians will dispute this, but I think it is a fair fight. We kayaked off the coast, walked the maze-like medieval walled town, shopped for local art, ate Mediterranean food, and drank local white wine called Pošip in the golden sun. Hanging out in Korčula was pretty well one of the best days of my life.
Koločep Island is where you will find Ston, a small village that is home to ancient salt pans and its own fortified wall that looks much like the Great Wall of China. We spent only a few hours here, then sped off to seaside Orebić (stopping on the way for famous Ston oysters and white wine.) Orebić is a favorite weekend getaway for Croats and beloved worldwide by kite surfers for its strong winds and perfect aqua-playground. One popular cultural attraction (maybe one or two hours max) is the Franciscan monastery of Our Lady of Angels.
Get high above the sea hiking the peninsula that looks across the Pelješac Channel (a view reminiscent to me of Washington State’s Puget Sound) and farther across the Adriatic. We wound down the foot trails to the most remarkable cove and swam for hours breaking only for a picnic lunch. Watch out for sea urchins, little buggers are everywhere (but no match for water shoes!) Dinner was at a konoba, or tavern, where we ate like the locals — meat and vegetables slow cooked under red-hot charcoal in an open fire, accompanied by fresh, cold salads of produce and pickled things. Capped off with local dignač red wine — amazing.
Brač (Brotch) Island/Vidova Gora
This island is best known for its white pebble beach and stone quarries used to build Diocletian’s Palace in Split. Here, the art of stone masonry thrives and is a well-developed art — the work so beautiful, in fact, that pieces were plucked and sent to Washington, DC to become part of the the United States White House. It’s a bird bonanza heading up the Vidova Gora that overlooks the Adriatic and across to Italy. The seaside trail leads to an isolated, cliff-side monastic complex where trade of honey, wine, and olive oil occurred during the Venetian Empire. The area is a renowned astronomical observatory, so I got my space fix too.
Northern Dalmatia / Istria
Plitvice (Plit-vits-se) Lakes National Park
We were road tripping between Slovenia and Bosnia, so I am not sure the best way to get to Plitvice short of renting a car… but however you get there, it is a MUST DO. Plitvice is the oldest national park in southeast Europe, and more impressively, a hidden paradise of ultramarine natural lakes, caves and waterfalls. This nature is knock your head off beautiful. The waters flowing over limestone and chalk is made explorable by a network of walking bridges; and above the waters, weaves walking trails through the surrounding forest. We were the first ones there, at sunrise, and chose to enter the gate at the top of the park and work our way down to avoid batches of tourists who typically take the opposite route. We were perfectly entertained all day – great for kids, lovers of nature, and can be as easy or difficult to explore as you make it.
Aah, Rovinj — a peninsula that used to be an island, a blend of multiple cultures and heritages. From May to September, Rovinj gets more than 10 hours of sunshine a day. It is a great place to walk, shop for art, swim, explore medieval churches, eat Gelato and walk along the edges of the maritime port. Just across the sea from Italy, you really feel the influence, and still, it is decidedly Croatian (and just 2.5 hours driving to Ljubljana.) I would stay at least two days or longer here if possible — there is so much to see and do.
This small town built on hill in Istria is an artist colony with maze-like streets (a theme…?) Artist studios and galleries, food stands, a music school, and a feeling that the small town up a broken road is being rebuilt by youth surrounds you. It is just an hour drive from Rovinj, and it is scenic the entire way.
A small sleepy village in central Istria — best known as the birthplace of twin racecar drivers Mario and Aldo Andretti; for its popular international film festival; small population (under 200) of locals who still speak the native tongue; and for its Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance style architecture. I loved it for its romantic and hidden feel and small artisan shops hosting tastings of Grappa, truffle and wine that occupied my time there.