Croatia. A country once known for it’s modern, horrific warfare, now recognised amongst the young globe-trotting community as destination “Sail Croatia.” In all honesty, I really didn’t know what to expect from our next stop (and we were spending two weeks there!). The extent of my knowledge embarrassingly revolved around fellow London mates’ stories of sunshine, sailing and booze.
I have to admit, our journey started in a similar way.
The Islands – Milner, Hvar, Palmizana, Korcula, Mjet
The islands of Croatia are a popular drawcard for tourists the world over. The incredibly clear blue waters of the Mediterranean, coupled with gorgeous old towns and amazing food was definitely something I wanted to check out! And how’s this for luck/karma/deserved fate, we had family friends sailing around the islands when we were going to be there!
So meeting in Trogir, a beautiful, white-tiled coastal town 20 minutes from Split, we hopped aboard with some of the nicest people I have ever met and began our journey! First stop was the island of Milner where we sheltered after a rather hairy sail! It was a quaint town, but the best was yet to come. My favourite was our next stop – the Stari Grad (old town) of the large island of Hvar.
Here, everything seems white – the tiled pavements, the old small buildings with wooden doors. It was how I would have pictured a Greek town would be. I would soon learn that most Croatia old towns are like this. It was made up of small alleyways where around every corner was another little boutique shop or restaurant. We had cocktails and an incredibly good dinner at Antika House of Food, where the meals were delicious and the cocktails even better.
Next stop was Palmizana – an island just off Hvar and what I can only explain as pure paradise. I’m talking the clearest water I have ever seen, white-sand beaches and a beach-front bar called Laganini, with couches in trees! Here we enjoyed a great chilled out session with…more cocktails.
Then onto Marco Polo’s birth place – the island of Korcula. Again, this island’s town was so interesting to walk around – new things to see around every corner! We came across an old watch tower which had been converted into a rooftop bar! Here we had, well, more cocktails of course.
Final island hop was to Mjet (where I sailed by myself! Nailed it too). Mjet was very different from the other places we had visited. Instead of an old town, we sailed into a cove which had a warm welcome of mooring owners waving at us! I waved back enthusiastically – little did I know they were waving for our custom. After choosing your dock, you then go and eat at their restaurant over the other side of the bay. Very cool!
After ten memory-making days upon the Med sea, it was time to come ashore and continue our adventure on land. We decided to hire a car so we could really make the most of the time we had. So it started with road tripping across the border into Bosnia.
The more we travel and the more countries we see, we have realised just how much of a peaceful, “100% Pure New Zealand” bubble we have grown up in. As embarrassing as is it is to admit, again, our naivety here was at an all time high. But, as what I like to think constitutes a “real” traveller, we did our research, read loads of articles and taught ourselves about Bosnia and it’s horrific, yet incredibly recent history.
It only took about 20 minutes to drive from the Croatian coast, inland and across the border into Bosnia – but instantly, we knew we were in a different country. The place was so barren and quite depressing, but consequently fascinating. Driving through we saw several different flags national flags as well. It wasn’t until we educated ourselves later, that we realised the country sadly still wanted to be split up with separate regions having extremely different outlooks.
We didn’t have long unfortunately so made a beeline for Mostar. As with the other cities we drove through, it was aged, grey and stuck in the 80’s. However, it’s old town was beautiful. Here we walked across the infamous Stari Most bridge which had been blown up during the interfaith war of 1993.
On our way back out the country, we also stopped at the Kravice waterfalls, which seemed to literally appear from nowhere.
Then it was time to get back to Croatia and begin adventuring along it’s coastal highways. The drives in between cities and towns were spectacular. I highly recommend hiring a car here. The roads are some of the best we have been on – well kept, easy to maneuver and the views along the coastline were out of this world. I liken it to the Pacific Coast Highway from L.A to San Francisco…could be even better actually. We we warned Croatian drivers could be crazy, and there were a couple of hairy moments, but nothing out the ordinary – every road has idiots on it.
Zadar – our first stop was the city of Zadar. While I can’t really talk about the modern part of the city, the old town where we spent most of our time was great. It had loads of restaurants and bars and had a real ‘university town’ kind of feel to the whole place. Food and drink were cheap as chips too!
Sveti Juraj – Really just a stop over coastal village, situated just off the main road. A great place to stay to break up the journey, or if you want a day or two just to chill by the seaside. Here, we were greeted by our Guesthouse owner (who couldn’t speak a word of english) with some of the most horrific Grappa I have ever tasted (a Croatian clear liquor, strong with a hint of methylated spirits).
Pula – I think a few people might disagree with me here, but I thought Pula was slightly a waste of time. There wasn’t anything there you couldn’t see elsewhere, other than the 6th largest Roman amphitheatre in the world, which, yea, I guess is cool. But once you have been to Rome, the shine rubs off a bit.
Plitvice – Our drive inland to Plitvice was one of my favourite parts of the journey. First, we stopped in the most beautiful coastal old town called Rovinj. If we had more time, I would have loved to have stayed a night or two here. Again, beautiful cream alleyways weaving through quaint, white buildings with brightly coloured doors. A rainbow coloured harbour full of fishing dinghies, framed with restaurants and bars. A must visit!
Then, within an hour, after navigating through misty forests and over rushing rivers, we were in the mountains, with the temperature changing from 24 to 13 degrees! Plitvice itself was actually a couple of farm houses in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing there, but it was a good place to make camp before venturing into the Plitvice national park to see the lakes and waterfalls.
We woke up early to see the lakes and were so disappointed as we began to navigate the wooden pathways over the water as the fog was as a thick as smoke and we couldn’t see a thing! But, as the day wore on, it started to lift, revealing some spectacular sights. Huge waterfalls gushing gallons upon gallons of water into lakes below, which in turn had their own waterfalls and so on.
The paths went down around seven levels each with a huge lakes and waterfalls. At one point, the paths were closed due to “flooding” but everyone just ignored those and carried on. Feet got wet, yes, but it was fine. The maximum amount of water also meant the waterfalls were huge!
Dubrovnik – Then it was time for the long journey to Dubrovnik (Kingslanding in Game of Thrones!). This place really was one of my favourites. After visiting, I look back and am surprised at the lack of people suggesting to go there for a weekend break from London.
To be honest, you want to stay in the old town, within the historical city walls, as that’s where all the action is. We were in a hotel right against the wall, which just happened to be next to the entrance to a secret (not secret at all, but I like to think I discovered it) bar built outside the wall on the rocks. Sheltered from any wind, you can sit here for hours, cold beer in hand, watching the boats go by and basking in the sunshine.
Obviously we did the touristy things as well as drink beer – walked the city walls, visited the harrowing, but ‘must-see’ war photo museum and dined on local delicacies. But something else I would recommend is trekking up Srđ hill. You can catch a cable car, but where’s the fun in that when you can walk up over 300 steps out of the old town, before even starting on the 1.5 hour hill climb?! Once you reach the top, you have a great view of the Mediterranean, as well as looking down onto Dubrovnik. There is also a good museum regarding the bombing of Dubrovnik by the Serbians in 1991-1992. Albeit a bit of an information overload, it was very interesting and quite scary to think that that whole war happened, and was allowed to happen, in my lifetime.
Tips for Visiting Croatia
1. Know your history
The history of this country, as well as all the others once part of Yugoslavia, is too important and too recent not to know about. Read up and watch movies about it. Here is an article I found very informative and helpful: http://bit.ly/1rJoO0t Just try and keep open minded about the whole thing. I think there were baddies and goodies in this scenario, but events that preceded merely decades before would see those roles switched. Also be mindful when talking to locals about it, no matter their nationality. The hatred still runs very deep and issues can be sensitive. Just let them talk, and ask questions methodically, rather than having too much of a personal opinion.
2. Get on land
Croatia really isn’t just all about the islands – as beautiful as they may be. Get on land and explore the towns along the coast of the mainland and further in. Croatia’s national parks and mountains really are a must-see.
3. Hire a car
Leading on from my last point, the best way (and most fun) to see the mainland is to hire a car. The drives, like I mentioned, are fantastic. You will be wanting to stop constantly for panorama shots!
4. Don’t be a vegetarian
The Croatian diet is very heavily based on meat, fish and potatoes – more often than not, grilled. Unless you are spending far too much at swanky restaurant, fresh salads, fruit and vegetables are really, really not good here.
5. Go during tourist season
Yes, you read that right. I can’t believe I’m saying this but…go during tourist season. This is merely an opinion, as I have never been during the high season, so it could be hell. For us, visiting just out of the season meant that everywhere – other than Dubrovnik – lacked an atmosphere and was pretty ‘dead’. When it’s not a relaxing, quiet holiday you’re looking for, that can really suck!
6. A must for the Arts & Crafts enthusiast
A really nice and unexpected surprise about Croatia is the awesome boutique arts and crafts available here. Every town we visited – especially on the islands – had amazing boutique studios and shops offering the coolest art I’ve seen. Really great stuff to showcase in your lounge.
So! Another country I never dreamed I’d visit, ticked off the list. I think we really saw Croatia ‘well’. By land and sea, we covered a lot of ground and I think got a real feel for the place. I regret not having more time to spend in Bosnia, but hey, got to leave something to do in the future right!
But, the road trip did not end there. Time to hop borders and venture to Montenegro and Albania!